Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ann Coulter, in her own way, holds a mirror up to Canada

Ann Coulter has apparently finished her short Canadian tour. I'm not surprised that people complained, but I'm surprised at some of the other things about our country that it brought to the surface.

The speech at the University of Western Ontario, for example -- a speech that looks to have been a very open and unguarded session, where any question was permissible. It apparently costs $10,000 to have her speak. The cost itself has been raised as an issue. But, is that expensive? Al Gore charges $250,000, you can't ask him any questions not screened in advance, and he is ostensibly doing it in order to help save the planet.

The most interesting part to me is that, if you watch the often-quoted "take a camel" segment from the Western speech, it is much longer in its unedited version and did not simply lead from "what mode of transportation should I use?" to "take a camel!". Although the student was obviously trying to provoke a response (and did not even seem to be asking her own question -- she seemed to be reading it from a cell phone, which I assume was because the one who wanted to ask the question didn't look "racial enough"), Coulter tried to reply with some background to the past comment she was being asked about. The students -- university students, remember -- would have none of it. They didn't want to hear an answer. They wanted to be audience members of "The View" and turn every single sentence into a referendum on the truth, voted on by the volume and voracity of the heckling. These are Canadian university students? Really? I had a different image in my head of what a student was meant to be.

This is the edited version that first came out:

Here is the full clip:

But where did the "flying carpet" comment originally come from? It has obviously been selected from her repertoire because it sounds so offensive. It resurrects a stereotype (that is, if you believe that some Arabs did once fly around on magic carpets and that it was erroneously applied to the entire population) that almost everyone seems to have heard of. But it originally came as a flippant response to a tendentious question asked of her some years ago in response to a broader point she made: in response to some Muslims imams threatening to boycott a particular airliner, she suggested that airline security in general would be much easier to accomplish if Muslims as a whole decided to boycott air travel. She didn't say Muslims should not fly. She said that it might be a great marketing bullet to say that your airline had been the victim of more complaints by Muslim flyers than had some other airline -- implying that they had been doing far more in the interest of airline safety than other airliners. In that earlier interview, she was asked about what form of travel Muslims should take instead of an airplane and she responded that they should take "flying carpets". The question was obviously designed to provoke a reactionary response, and was not even related to her point -- she did not say that Muslims should not be allowed to fly, but was instead arguing in favour of security profiling based on an identifiable group.

So, who is the stupid one here? Ann Coulter? Or the interviewer who pushed for a response from her to a question that was a deliberate misinterpretation of what she'd said in her earlier interview? Or the university students who took that deliberate misinterpretation and pushed for a further response (to which she got her "take a camel!") that just amplified the error of the original interviewer even more?

Remember that, when doing research, university students are meant to go to primary sources and investigate the truth of things from that point of reference. Deliberate misinterpretation of a source is not very academic, but having spent a number of years at a Canadian university it does not surprise me that Canadian university students would behave like this.

Ann Coulter's style is one of rhetoric. Rhetoric is an art form designed to make people think when their eyes would otherwise glaze during a detailed discussion that would in all likelihood end up going nowhere. It is not meant to be objective, but to be a counterpoint to other rhetoric. In the middle is where you do your own work by thinking about what has been said. I suspect most Democrats would have no problem with registered Democrat James Howard Kunstler's rhetoric, which can often be just as offensive with his talk of human "land whales" and the "NASCAR moron culture" of the southern US states. He often speaks on college campuses. I doubt he would be threatened or banned, except by anti-Semites (he is Jewish) and extremist Muslims. These groups seem to have problems with all sorts.

Ann Coulter is obviously divisive (if you look at any of her books on Amazon, most of them have a three-star rating, nearly evenly split between 5-star and 1-star ratings, with not much in the middle as you see for most products with a 3-star-or-better review). But she is nowhere near as simplistic or anti-intellectual as many of the Canadian media outlets would have you believe. Anyone who has read some of her more serious writing or listened to her talk when given room to do so could see that she's not dumb, an idiot, or a redneck. She is, though, perhaps a bit too quick to dismiss loose ends. You won't get someone who sees all sides of an issue, but you will get someone who has ideas about how to act. Few would actually act on what she says -- she's not in a role where anyone would -- but I found that listening to some of what she said cut through about 10 years of calcification of some of the pathways of my brain facilitated by Canadian media. Her style, generally, is to take an argument that has been made by someone else and apply it to another circumstance to demonstrate how questionable its logic is. That is not a useless contribution. It is thought-provoking and forces you to defend -- and maybe you won't be able to. That's when you might get angry, I suppose.

I think it reflects badly on these outlets that shut her down because it is essentially them and those who think like them who have turned her into the person they want her to be -- they ignore the gist of what she says and pore through her words for something quote-worthy that they think scores their point. This is not a healthy thing for serious news outlets to be doing.

I wonder if any of her loudest critics have ever read her books. I really doubt it. She is not extreme. She is one-sided and sometimes flippant, and sometimes what she says doesn't hit the mark and fails miserably, but she is often intelligent. Nobody can get it right all the time.

The best appearance she made while in Canada was on the Michael Coren Show. If you are really interested in hearing her speak and being given time to do it, you can see it here.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The OSAP diet: how to live on $7.50 a day without sounding like a helpless poverty activist

The Toronto Star complains that OSAP students are only given $7.50 a day from which they must find a day's worth of food.

Of course, the student they selected as the model first complains about having to give up her $4.50 London Fog tea from Starbucks and then complains that she can't afford to buy a submarine sandwich from a sandwich shop.

"The only sandwich Rachel Crane can afford is homemade," the newspaper opines. They also use another student quote to describe a larger allowance as a precondition for "healthy eating". Rachel Crane then complains again: "how many cucumber sandwiches can I eat before I wither away."

Let's get the first lie out of the way. A whole cucumber costs about $2 and a loaf of bread the same. By my estimation, there are around 20 slices of bread in a loaf of supermarket bread, 60 calories in a slice of  bread, and enough cucumber slices in a cucumber to fill 10 sandwiches. So, there's your answer: for half your budget, you could eat 10 cucumber sandwiches a day, in total containing at least 1200 calories. And you'd only have spent half your budget. And it'd cost less for all of that than it would for a single London Fog tea from Starbucks.

But why settle for cucumber sandwiches? Late last week, I bought a 10 lb. bag of red potatoes for $3 from my local supermarket. Not only is there substantial nutrition in a potato, but 10 lbs. of the things go a long way -- and a large red potato has over 200 calories. Bags of carrots and onions have similar economy. Garlic is cheap, as is salt and pepper. Vegetable stew, anyone? The remainder of my bag that shopping trip was filled with fruits and vegetables and came to just over $10.

On the weekend, I soaked just over a cup of dried chickpeas overnight and then cooked them to a state of doneness. This is sufficient for part of my lunchtime salad for an entire week. There are approximately 10 cups in a bag of dried chickpeas, and that bag cost under $4. Yes, that's under 40 cents per week.

A heavy bag of rice can be bought for well under $10 and would last for weeks if not months. An onion or two (50 cents in bulk), some curry powder (20 cents for a couple of teaspoons), a can of tomatoes ($1), a chicken breast ($2), and a few sprigs of cilantro from the pot growing on your windowsill (free -- and don't laugh -- I have been growing one all winter) and you could feasibly have 3-4 portions of a relatively exotic chicken curry made up for half of your daily food allowance.

What about rice pudding? Rice, a bit of sugar, a splash of vanilla, and maybe some nutmeg.

I buy a relatively luxurious bag of toasted porridge oats that contains a range of grains and seeds for around $6 -- regular porridge is much cheaper -- and this would probably last for two weeks. So, what's that? 40 cents per breakfast?

If you make your own, you can even afford broader luxuries -- a generous cup of organic, fair trade coffee costs perhaps $1 a cup if you make it yourself. Regular coffee is far, far cheaper.

And at no point have I contravened the idea of "healthy eating". And none of this involves the "Costco membership" that one student says he may have to avail himself of. Last time I checked, Costco was not cheap. You get large quantities but at non-sale prices, and much of the food is rubbish. If you buy fresh food in the quantities they offer, it will not keep. If you buy fresh meat, you are giving yourself a luxury because frozen is cheaper. What's the point?

What you can't afford are trendy drinks, to eat out, and to buy junk food. But, so what?

Is any of this too much to ask of an ostensibly intelligent student? It's not, but I expect the News Of The World to uncover the truth of it before the Toronto Star does.

$7.50 a day is $52.50 a week or over $200/month. As someone who has a full-time salary, doesn't always pay attention to economy, buys organic milk and eggs, Haagen Dazs ice cream and occasional luxuries like fresh salmon and tropical fruits in the winter, my food budget is about $75 a week.

And all of what I've said above also applies to those of you who say that people in poverty can't afford a healthy diet.