Is missing the ‘subject’ the point in news coverage of violent suppression of strikes?

“Cambodia garment workers’ strike turns deadly after police open fire”
This story’s headline reveals a lot about the nature of power structures in society if we consider some basic facts about the nature of news headlines in terms of syntax or the arrangement of and choice of words. If you read it straight through, you will notice that this sentence is written in the passive voice.

The initial implication of the structure or syntax is that the ‘Cambodia garment workers’ strike turns deadly’ because of the workers or their strike, not because of the police open fire. In fact, when you first read it, did you think perhaps the police open fire because the Cambodia garment workers’ strike turned deadly?
Certainly, that is one implication: the police are responding to a ‘deadly turn’ in the strike, something that is/was caused by the workers themselves (i.e. the strike) rather than by the police. This in turn implies that the three workers (and other striking workers) are responsible for their own (colleagues’) deaths.

But, ask yourself, ‘why did “Cambodia garment workers’ strike turns deadly”? Is it not because ‘police open fire’? If you read further into the news story, you will know that the police were armed with the AK-47 (i.e. automatic rifle). The striking workers were not armed.
Why not write the sentence like this (using almost all the exact same words): ‘ Cambodian police open deadly fire on striking garment workers’? This sentence makes it more clear as to the ‘subject-verb-action’ of the simple sentence and gives what is surely a more direct relationship between ’cause-and-effect’ – i.e. what happened – by putting the subject (‘police’) before the verb (‘open fire’) and the ‘object’ of ‘effect’.
Would this not be the better form of journalism whereby the ‘actors’ (i.e. police) or ‘subject’ (of the sentence) engaged in the ‘action’ (verb) on the ‘object’ (i.e. workers) so that it is clear. You should compare this to other forms of news coverage to get a sense of how news works to help construct a particular view of the world.

However, I would just point out that as we become accustomed to reading news in a particular fashion, we do not think consciously about these sorts of structures – even if you are a critical thinking individual engaged in the world around us. (There are many scholarly studies  of news coverage of protests from which I have drawn.) 

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“It’s a paradox that contract profs are amongst the lowest paid…”

Paradox of CAS professors

“It’s a paradox that contract profs are amongst the lowest paid professionals and yet they work for the very institution that promotes itself on teh basis of increasing the earning power of its graduates.”

A statement in support of Contract Academic Staff (CAS) (aka adjunct professors in the USA) during Fair Employment Week organized by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, 21-25 October 2013.

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2013/10/21 · 8:18 am

A Repeat of 2008?

I just learned that nearly 300 professional, technical and trade employees in CUPE Local 1393 started on strike this morning at the University of Windsor (8 September 2013). This announcement reminds me of the year 2008 when there were four university strikes in Ontario involving faculty.

Other than one at a small religious university affiliated to Laurentian University in Sudbury, all three took place at Ontario universities with newly hired presidents: these were faculty strikes involving Mamdouh Shoukri (hired in 2007) at York University and CUPE 3903 representing non-tenure track faculty and teaching assistants; Alan Wildeman (hired in 2008) at University of Windsor and the Windsor University Faculty Association (WUFA), which includes both contract and regular faculty; and Max Blouw (hired in 2007) of Wilfrid Laurier University and the Contract Academic Staff (CAS) Bargaining Unit of the WLU Faculty Association (one of two bargaining units represented by WLUFA; the other one includes only full-time limited term appointments and tenured and tenure-track faculty).

Although the strike at University of Windsor does not involve WUFA at present, CAS at WLU are in negotiations at present and one has to ask whether there is the likelihood that a similar pattern to 2008 is being established again by university presidents for 2013-2014?

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Are these senators representative?

There are three aspects that I want to consider about the four Canadian senators who are under scrutiny at present over claims for allowances for second residences.

Do senators have any kind of ‘obligation’, ‘duty’ or ‘responsibility’ to the public?

‘Should’ senators have to pay back taxpayers’ money/public funds that they obtained via claims that turn out not to be true or valid? Do those who aspire to the highest public offices in the country demonstrate any kind of ‘obligation’ to the people who pay their salaries, pensions, benefits, perks? Obligation raises related terms such as duty and responsibility. Yet, the language of obligation, duty and responsibility, the ‘should’ as it were, only appears more archaic or obsolete when mentioned in the same sentence as the present government (it is not necessarily restricted to just one party, though the Conservative government appears to be especially resistant to such arguments).

‘Should’ there be a ‘penalty’?

The second aspect is raised by the respective Conservative and Liberal party leaders in Senate, who ‘represent’ two of Canada’s three largest parties, saying in their joint statement that their peers ‘should be required to repay immediately all monies … with interest’.

Returning money that does not belong to you cannot be a ‘penalty’ (i.e. a punishment) since you end up where you started — i.e. without money you didn’t have to begin with (although, perhaps, if you hadn’t been caught…).

The only ‘penalty’ raised here is the interest to be paid on the amount claimed. Will they be charged ‘credit card’ or ‘pay-day loan’ interest rates on the sums they obtained? That would definitely be a ‘penalty’ for most Canadians, but probably not for those so well connected to the corporate and political elites, would it?

These senators, if guilty, have betrayed the public’s trust and further instilled distrust of both the politicians that appointed them as well as Senate itself — and, indeed, of many other democratic institutions, even those unconnected to Senate.

A ‘penalty’ worthy of the meaning of punishment ‘should’ at least mean that the senator is stripped of his/her position, title, salary, benefits, pensions, the way that so many working Canadians in the private sector have been stripped of their jobs, pensions, salaries, wages and benefits because of the same political parties — to which these senators are affiliated — which, when in government, passed laws that enabled corporations to ransack pension plans and let CEOs get paid bonuses, even when their companies were declaring ‘bankruptcy’ (Nortel?). Shouldn’t senators be treated the same as everyone else? Or are they ‘above’ or ‘exempt’ from the law?

The third aspect that one should think about is whether Senate or senators are ‘representative’?

Even though they are ‘unelected’, I would suggest that these senators (all senators in fact) are ‘representative’. Of course, they are not ‘representative’ in terms of being elected by citizens voting in a democratic process. But, they are very much ‘representative’ of the values, attitudes, beliefs, idea(l)s, perspectives of those who appoint them. Indeed, they are representative of the political parties of which they are members, regardless of whether the party rejects them when they are under public scrutiny.

Otherwise, you should ask: ‘Why were they appointed in the first place?’

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The Language of Austerity: ‘Working Poor’

Amidst all the debates about austerity, debt and stimulus packages, albeit rarely spoken about explicitly, lie notions of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ people, whether they be poor, unemployed or otherwise. These ‘values’ lie below the surface when such words are not actually mentioned.

Notions of deserving and undeserving poor have enabled other people, i.e. those with decent incomes, to ignore and/or complain about the ‘undeserving’ while bestowing ‘charity’ upon those deemed more ‘deserving’. The latter, in turn, who are expected to demonstrate ‘gratitude’ for whatever handouts are provided. (What is missing is the recognition of the system as having any role in all of this, which, as you know, is ridiculous.)

One term that has not received a lot of attention, at least to my own knowledge, is that of ‘working poor’. The term itself appears to reinforce the notion that the poor do not ‘work’, hence the adjective. Although redundancy in language use is rather common (i.e. adding an adjective or adverb where one is not needed), the more formal use of this phrase is not yet redundant, though perhaps becoming more so. That is, work has ceased to be a way out of poverty for an increasing number of people in most Anglophone countries (of the North Atlantic) at least (since their political parties of the centre and right (aka neoliberal and neoconservative) share similar approaches to work, austerity and welfare). Of course, many probably still believe the idea that a job — any job — will get you out of poverty. It takes time to change (so-called) ‘common sense’, but it does change.

While the notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor were linguistic counterparts to the social-economic structure of 19th century society, with the arrival of the ‘working poor’ as a significant albeit still minor portion of the working population, the ‘poor house’ is no longer a necessity. Instead, of course, we have prisons to replace the 19th century ‘workhouse’ and post-secondary education increasingly becomes a ‘holding tank’ for the ‘other-wise’ unemployed and enable the building up of debt for young people to ensure they are forever ‘working poor’ (youth unemployment rates in Canada and Europe are at their highest levels in decades). (When students are working part-time or in summers during their post-secondary education, they are more hopeful that such a situation is only temporary and will be quickly rectified once they graduate — and, as such, they are also less likely to want to organize and fight back against bad employers.)

An important counterpart of ‘working poor’ is ‘being poor’ or the fact that, as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Manitoba pointed out a couple of years ago, it takes ‘all day to be poor’. That is, what people who have never been poor, or never been on welfare or unemployment benefit/employment insurance, don’t understand, is the amount of work that you have to put in to deal with just the everyday realities of living on next to nothing.

(http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/fast-facts-it-takes-all-day-be-poor)

Postscript: I forgot to add that ‘poor’ can also be read as an adverb for ‘working’ or as an adjective for ‘working’ as a noun, whereby the emphasis (in speech is on the ‘working’) also indicates a development as being poor at working or most likely working but poor. This latter emphasis is also a result,  not only of working at minimum wage or at wages below the ‘Low Income Cut-off’ or ‘poverty line’, but also when employers refuse to pay you your wages or delay your pay: i.e. ‘wage theft’. But, that is another issue for another time.

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What we might learn from Weimar….

They say that you always know when a political discussion or argument is degenerating — and quickly. It’s when your opponent (or perhaps you have done so on some occasions yourself?) sinks to invoking the name of ‘Hitler’ or ‘Nazis’ to discredit some left- or right-wing political leader, group or party (depending on your political leanings). These over-the-top comparisons are a sign that there is probably little point in continuing to engage in a debate with such an individual.

Equally, in the USA during the 1960s the hippies and anti-war protestors were apparently fond of using the term ‘fascist’ to refer to the establishment, the Democratic Party, the police and so on. Later, when people used the term to refer to leaders like Thatcher or Reagan or Mulroney, I always objected pointing out the historical meanings associated with the term that had represented a particular political movement (and moment) of the 1920s and 1930s, of which Nazi-ism was but one permutation.

(Of course, there has been a rise of neo-fascist movements and parties since the Second World War, and these have organisations have invoked or acknowledged their historical predecessors or identified with them in some way.)

Yet, there is a danger in throwing out the lessons of the Weimar Republic when we avoid mentioning Hitler’s name. It’s not that I think calling one’s opponent or their hero(es) Hitler or similar names is a useful tactic — I don’t — but that this attitude has meant that it is almost impossible to get beyond the detritus that exists about Hitler and his henchmen.

There were lessons that Weimar has for democratic societies that remain unlearnt, for the most part. First of all, there is confusion about how Hitler came to power in January 1933. The most frequent question that I remember from my undergraduate course on ‘inter-war Germany’, which frequently evolved into debates with my classmates, was whether the Nazis ‘seized’ power or used the system against itself? (I assume that it remains a question in history classes that focus on the Weimar Republic to this day.)

From what I could determine from my readings (and what I believe I argued for) was that they had used the system against itself, passing laws forbidding demonstrations, restricting rights and freedoms, establishing the first concentration camps (but for political prisoners first, before Jews and other so-called ‘sub-humans’) and so on.

That, in essence, the Nazi Party used ‘legal’ means to undermine the Weimar Republic, turning the democratic state into the authoritarian (or totalitarian) state.

I also remember being introduced to articles that argued that had the Weimar Republic had the same system of first-past-the-post governance as Canada/UK/Australia/New Zealand/USA, Hitler would have actually come to power one to two years earlier than he did. This argument clearly contrasted with the Allied re-organisation of West Germany after the war in which Parliament was restricted to political parties that obtained at least five percent of the popular vote before they would get representation. The argument by the Allies was that all those small parties, of which the Nazis (NSDAP) had been only one, had been a threat to the stability and longevity of Weimar.

Yet, what the Allies (and others) did not recognize, or at least did not take into account, in their reshaping of the political structure of West Germany, was that all kinds of local, regional and national elites (political, business, cultural), the judiciary (for the most part), elements of the military and police (although there were exceptions to the rule, such as Berlin, where the police force had not been supportive of the Nazis) as well as the suburban and rural middle classes had supported the Nazis. Many of those who supported the Nazis did so for reasons of ‘security': that is, they feared ‘democracy’ more than they did fascism or Nazi-ism. Indeed, it was the SPD, the German socialists, who were the only force that fought to defend the Republic from the Nazis and the German Communist Party (KPD), which attacked both the SPD and the Nazis (but that is another story).

Democracy is a ‘messy’ form of governance but the rise of forms of ‘fascism’ or authoritarianism, which exploit the ‘weaknesses’ of democracy have to be opposed. It’s not encouraging in a democracy when we are expected to bow down to ‘bureaucratic correctness’ rather than encouraged to stand up and speak for ourselves and for others who are disadvantaged under the system. See, for example, the kind of twaddle peddled by critics of Idle No More or Occupy Wall Street about the ‘correct’ way to protest or ‘register’ disagreements with the system. What I remember from my courses and from my own studies of this era, and which I think is important to be aware of, is how a democratic system was used against itself.

Are those who undermine or exploit the ‘weaknesses’ of the Parliamentary system, and/or use exploit the ‘letter of the law’ (rather than keep to its ‘spirit’), to advance their own political party and/or corporate power, against the public interest and the public generally, guilty of a form of authoritarianism? Or of usurpation of power won at the ballot box? Fascism was one historical form of authoritarian or totalitarian power, which exploited the weaknesses of representative democracy. When fascism comes again, it won’t necessarily be dressed in black or brown shirts and hob-nailed boots. It could quite easily come dressed in expensive suits, sipping Chardonnay and beaming with a big friendly smile.

Postscript: I forgot to add that we shouldn’t forget about the judiciary’s collusion with the Nazis, as well as the military’s and support from the academy.

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The Assault on Universities: A Review

Is there a worse possible fate for Canadian universities than the imminent future bearing down on universities in the UK? A 100 per cent cut to teaching grants for the humanities and social sciences; tripling of tuition fees to £9,000; up to 40,000 jobs lost and 49 universities (out of 130) at risk of closure.

These developments, set to go into effect in fall 2012, will add to the problems facing universities in light of recent cuts of £1 billion and the ongoing sector marketization and privatization via reforms first introduced by New Labour. These processes include the real or perceived corruption of the academy via the pandering to donors, such as the scandal surrounding the £1.5 million donation from a charitable foundation run by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the late Libyan leader, to the London School of Economics.

Such changes will compound the decade-plus impact of research and teaching ‘assessments’ on universities that have led to the wholesale closures of departments, including traditional academic subjects such as biology and English, because of ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ performances in research or teaching or in attracting students.

The blind faith in market fundamentalism has evolved via the last 15 years of higher education policy into a ‘logic’ that means even a top performance rating will not guarantee your survival.

No story encapsulates this disastrous logic better than the closure of Middlesex University’s philosophy department and its flagship, world renowned Centre for Research into Modern European Philosophy in 2010, despite earning the highest performance research grade (5P). Middlesex will continue to collect £175,000 per year in additional funding for quality over the next four years.2

The arts and humanities dean’s justification for the closure was “… that, it made ‘no measurable contribution’ to the university” (p. 21) or, in other words, it “brought in a lower per capita income … and therefore seemed uneconomical.” (p. 23)

This logic, which can undermine even the most successful and prestigious of programs, is reflected in the “rise of McKinseyism, the doctrine that things that cannot be measured have no value.” (p. 21)


To read more of this review of The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, edited by Michael Bailey and Des Freedman, London: Pluto Press, 2011, please go to The CAUT Bulletin, Vol.59, no.5 (May 2012): [http://www.cautbulletin.ca/en_article.asp?SectionID=1405&SectionName=Bookshelf&VolID=342&VolumeName=No%205&VolumeStartDate=5/11/2012&EditionID=36&EditionName=Vol%2059&EditionStartDate=1/19/2012&ArticleID=3484]

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