Friday, March 20, 2015

Remembering Pete Seeger -- Part Three

One of Pete's many friends in the music business was Johnny Cash -- the fabled Man in Black. Cash himself had been a bit of an outlier in the country music establishment. No doubt, some eyebrows were probably raised  when he married June Carter, whose legendary family were country music's royalty and pioneers of recorded music for the masses. Cash had a fierce independence musically. His songs were the brooding homilies of a man who chose his own path and vision, and who wrestled with his demons.

I'm unaware if Johnny Cash ever stated publicly his views on the Vietnam War while the US was still involved, but this song provides some clues. 

Stylistically, Singing in Vietnam Talkin' Blues is pure Woody Guthrie, who, coincidentally, had taught Pete how to perform talking blues. Cash's two final verses surely are a departure from President Nixon's aspirations to "peace with honour." Certainly, nowhere in the tune does Cash invoke the necessity to fight Communism. Rather boldly, Cash muses about going back to Vietnam after the troops have come home.  
So we sadly sang for them our last song,And reluctantly we said: "So long."We did our best to let 'em know that we care,For every last one of 'em that's over there.Whether we belong over there or not.Somebody over here love's 'em, and needs 'em.
Well now that's about all that there is to tell,About that little trip into livin' hell.And if I ever go back over there any more,I hope there's none of our boys there for me to sing for;I hope that war is over with, And they all come back home,To stay.
In peace.
The song was performed on The Johnny Cash Show on March 17, 1971, late in the series' run. The program began as a summer replacement series in in June of 1969, and then was picked up for the regular fall schedule. The musical segments make for great viewing these many decades later -- Johnny trades tunes Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Lightfoot, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Arlo Guthrie, Jose Feliciano, Linda Rondstat, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and, of course, Pete Seeger. Pete and Johnny had been friends for some years.

ABC and Screen Gems Television were reluctant to have Pete on the show. At its peak, Johnny's show hit seventeenth place in the Neilson's, and executives relented. A documentary film crew followed Pete to the taping, and we see some revealing moments: Seeger is reticent to appear. Cash affirms his loyalty to Seeger and his desire to see him vindicated. It would be naive to think that Cash hadn't placed his television career in jeopardy by hosting Pete.


Cash and Seeger are shown crafting the segment from a tentative script. Giving Pete a nineteenth century fretless banjo was a master stroke -- Pete had been instrumental in preserving the five-string banjo, an obscure instrument by the time he had encountered it. His playing in the segment is old-time at its best. I would conjecture that only a handful of banjoists were really well known to TV viewers at the time -- especially viewers who weren't fans of country music: Earl Scruggs, Grandpa Jones, and Roy Clark come to mind. Though not known particularly as a bluegrass player, Pete is remembered as one of the great players of his generation, and playing that fretless re-estabilished his gravitas as folklorist, and a preservationist of American traditions.

Later in the segment Pete goes over to an old wooden chair, redolent of the sparse furnishings of the Rainbow Quest set, and begins to lead the audience in singing Worried Man Blues, a fabled old-time song recorded by The Carter Family in 1930 and Cash himself in 1969. The song's been recorded by everyone from Van Morrison to Devo!

This video shows Pete's entire performance with Johnny in greater quality.

Though its origins are unknown, I've often used the song Worried Man Blues during Black History Month as a means of explaining the transition from slavery to Jim Crowe in the USA. Progress perhaps, but not freedom -- very much Pete's message during his spoken word interlude.


I really didn't know where these three entries about Pete would take me. Chronologically, I've scratched at about fifteen years of a musical career that spanned eight decades. And it seems I've written mostly about the difficulty Pete had getting on US television. Despite the many hundreds of recordings, and thousands of performances, TV wasn't Pete's medium for the most part. His lack of a significant career in television does not diminish his extraordinary cultural and political legacy. But when he did make it onto the small screen, it was not only great television, it was history-making.

One of his final appearances on television is perhaps one of the grandest moments in folk music history. Flanked by Bruce Springsteen and his grandson, musician Tao Rodriguez Seeger, Pete performs Woody's song This Land Is Your Land at the inauguration of America's first black President. Performing at Pete's ninetieth birthday celebration -- The Clearwater Concert at Madison Square Garden -- Springsteen describes preparations for the performance:
And I asked him how he wanted to approach "This Land Is Your Land". It would be near the end of the show and all he said was, "Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, about private property and the relief office." I thought, of course, that's what Pete's done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people. At some point Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history. He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete's somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won't let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we've imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.
I'm happy to report that spirit... is with us in the flesh tonight. He'll be on this stage momentarily, he's gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He's gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.
To close, here's Tao Rodriguez Seeger, Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Remembering Pete Seeger -- Part Two

Pete Seeger's iconic long-kneck five-string
banjo with its enduring message.
Pete Seeger's defiant appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee hurt not only his prospects for appearing on television, but also prevented him from getting bookings in major concert halls in the US. Pete continued to tour and work where he could. International audiences were more obliging, as his music was known around the world. He had a unique arrangement with Folkways Records, which allowed him to record whenever inspiration struck. Many children's songs would be added to his repertoire as he even toured summer camps for kids around the world. This young audience would grow up and pay money to see him perform on college campuses.

Still, Pete was denied access to US television during the second folk boom of the early sixties.

A touchstone moment in the sixties folk boom was the 1963-64 television show Hootenanny, which featured popular folk and pop artists of the day. The name hootenanny, referring to a gatherings of folk musicians, had been popularized in urban culture by Seeger and Woody Guthre. Pete and Toshi -- back in hungrier days past -- had participated in and organized "hoots" as rent parties. Several artists, including Joan Baez, refused to appear on the program as long as Pete was blacklisted.

But the Seegers found their own way onto the small screen, if only for a time. Pete's work ethic and popularity, combined with Toshi's frugality and industry, resulted in the low-budget but highly acclaimed Rainbow Quest television program on the New York City affiliate of PBS. Despite an astonishing lineup of artists -- Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash and June Carter,  Malvina Reynolds, and the New Lost City Ramblers -- the audience for the program was limited by technology of the day. Pre-cable public broadcast stations, like independent channels, were essentially off the dial. The could only be viewed on television sets with a second, UHF dial and a special antenna. Unable to expand the show's viewership by moving it to more markets, the project was shelved after one year in 1966, having produced thirty-nine 52-minute episodes, which are widely available today.

One of my favourite segments from Rainbow Quest features Judy Collins singing Turn, Turn, Turn, accompanied by Pete on his 12-string and filling in the harmonies. This is Pete's voice at its very best. Though listed in the closing credits as "chief cook and bottle washer," Toshi Seeger also became the de facto director of the program, instructing the camera operators. Judy Collin's face is tightly framed for much of the song, and her eyes are locked on Pete's. The language here is unmistakeable: A young emerging artist were telling Pete thank-you, and is pledging to carry his message forward to another generation.

"Gee, how proud that makes me," Pete says, as he ends the segment. 

Wikipedia: Post-war housing project in Levittown, 
Pete continued to write and perform anti-war songs. In addition to Turn, Turn, Turn, whose lyrics came from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Pete's Dangerous Songs!? album, included Len Chandler's Beans In My Ears. A central character in Beans "Alby Jay," redolent of "LBJ," the initials and nickname of President Johnson. The song was a veiled anti-war anthem. Little Boxes, another hit for Seeger, by Malvena Reynolds, satirized middle class conformity. 

Waist Deep In The Big Muddy was Seeger's own scathing indictment of Lyndon Johnson, who is represented as an incompetent army captain leading a platoon across a river on manoeuvres in 1942 Louisiana. Despite the protests of the men, the captain is determined to make the crossing, finally drowning. The sergeant takes command returns the platoon to safety. In the lyrics, Pete connects the tale to the Vietnam War in the final verse:
Every time I read the papers that old feeling comes on
We were waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.
Pete's chance to make his mark on the anti-Vietnam War movement came on September  19,1967, when he was invited to appear on the second-season premiere of the popular Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The website ChimesFreedom describes Pete's first appearance on the program and network efforts to censor him:
This video below shows the Pete Seeger segment as it was broadcast, with “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” cut out. At 1:12, after the Seeger segment opened with Seeger already singing “Wimoweh” with the audience, watch where Seeger has a banjo. Then a few seconds later after a cut, he is holding a guitar. After “Wimoweh,” he sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” during the taping. But since CBS cut out the song, we see Seeger next singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with a different instrument.

The edit was clumsy. As Tom Smothers is interviewing Pete, the folk singer is quietly playing the opening chords to Waist Deep in the Big Muddy. Tom and Dick Smothers were irate, according to the article above, and made no secret of CBS's duplicity. Pete was brought back on the February 23rd, 1968, to perform Waste Deep in the Big Muddy.

Three days later, the entry continues, Walter Cronkite, also on CBC, declared US efforts in Vietnam to be "mired in stalemate" -- a rare editorial from one of America's most-respected broadcast journalists. Within weeks, his approval ratings in free-fall and his upstart challengers Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy gaining electoral ground in the Democratic primaries, President Johnson announced he would not seek or accept the party's nomination. No one's ever suggested that Pete alone triggered the fall of Johnson, but Seeger was sure-as-Hell there when it happened. 

Continued activism against the Vietnam War would eventually get the Smothers Brothers taken off the air as well.

Next up. Pete does the Johnny Cash Show.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Remembering Pete Seeger -- Part One

A departure from my usual politically-charged fare -- sort of. I've been a guitar player and folk music lover for more than four decades. More recently, I took up the five-sting banjo. Music has been my companion in my teaching journey. And so has the wonderful spirit of Pete Seeger. 

So let's write about that.

Im sure his biographers have struggled with how to begin to tell the story of Pete Seeger. The choices are endless. He was the son and step-son of accomplished musicians -- in particular, his father, Charles Seeger, was a pioneer of ethnomusicology. Pete would follow his father's path, albeit less academically, hopping freight trains with Woody Guthrie; recording and transcribing all-but-forgotten music on the backroads and in the backwoods of America with Alan Lomax; popularizing the twelve-string guitar (introduced to him by Lead Belly) and the five-string banjo; pioneering the long-kneck banjo; singing and playing for any audience that invited him. His legendary collaborations include The Almanac Singers, The Weavers, as well as long association with Arlo Guthrie, with whom he toured for the latter decades of his life. He was married to his beloved Toshi Seeger, with whom he had four children, for seventy years before her death in 2013.

One time of Pete's life that I find most intriguing was the blacklist era of McCarthyism, when Pete and many of his friends found themselves under the scrutiny of House Un-American Activities Committee. By this time, HUAC had already destroyed reputations and careers in Hollywood; now they were going after folk artists, the protest singers of the day.

Pete was called before the Committee, like other Americans, to testify about his affiliations. Seeger had been involved with the US branch of the Communist Party but drifted away in the late 1940s -- this is widely discussed in the second edition of an authorized biography How Can I Keep From Singing? -- The Ballad of Pete Seeger by David King Dunaway. At this time  the Democratic Party was a far more conservative -- make that, regressive -- force, with Southern Democrats clinging to racial segregation as a way of life. The CPUSA called out to young Americans interested in race relations, women's rights, unions, international understanding, and demilitarization. Pete's father had abandoned the party some years before and begged Pete to follow suit. For a time Pete assumed that human rights abuses reported in Europe were anti-Communist propaganda.

The smoking gun the Committee had was evidence of Pete's appearance at a Communist rally. Following, an excerpt from the official transcript:
Mr. TAVENNER: I have before me a photostatic copy of the April 30, 1948, issue of the Daily Worker which carries under the same title of “What’s On,” an advertisement of a “May Day Rally: For Peace, Security and Democracy.” The advertisement states: “Are you in a fighting mood? Then attend the May Day rally.” Expert speakers are stated to be slated for the program, and then follows a statement, “Entertainment by Pete Seeger.” At the bottom appears this: “Auspices Essex County Communist Party,” and at the top, “Tonight, Newark, N.J.” Did you lend your talent to the Essex County Communist Party on the occasion indicated by this article from the Daily Worker?

It was August 18th, 1955. Pete entered the hearing room with his banjo, which Toshi clutched while he testified. Going into the hearings, Pete had limited legal options. He could take refuge behind the Fifth Amendment which protects a witness against self-incrimination. He could take a soft fifth, a strategy used by other witnesses, in which he incriminates others, but not himself. 

He could also answer the questions directly.

Seeger opted for another strategy that wasn't actually on the books. He decided to use the First Amendment, guaranteeing free expression, as his defence. He felt that was improper for the state to question him on his affiliations, any more than he should be questioned on how he voted.
Mr. TAVENNER: It is a fact that he so testified. I want to know whether or not you were engaged in a similar type of service to the Communist Party in entertaining at these features.(Witness consulted with counsel.)
Mr. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line. 
Mr. SEEGER: I will tell you what my answer is. I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.
Chairman WALTER: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?
Mr. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.
Chairman WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it. 
Pete later acknowledged the recklessness of the ploy. However honourable, he had irritated some powerful men and found himself convicted of nine counts of Contempt of Congress in 1961 -- each one carrying a one-year term in prison to be carried out consecutively. Because his conviction hearing was found to be legally flawed, he escaped prosecution in 1962.

The damage was done though. The resulting blacklisting kept Pete off television, an important medium for the musician and activist, for a decade. His and Toshi's decision years before -- to move the family away from the city and build a home in the woods of Beacon, New York -- was probably wise. Pete often wondered if someone would make an attempt on his life.

Here's an amazing reel from 1951 of Pete and The Weavers performing their chart-topping songs of the day. It opens with Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, sung in English and Hebrew. At 9:13, there's a touching tribute to Lead Belly. The Weavers had recorded his song Irene Goodnight with the plan of passing royalties onto the aging folksinger who was destitute and in poor health. Lead Belly died before the song became a huge hit, and the money went to his widow.

This 1947 feature, To Hear Your Banjo Play, was filmed by Alan Lomax, who also serves as off-camera interviewer. Pete is shown with such luminaries as Woody Guthrie, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. 

Up next. Tales of Pete on the road.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Sin of Omission

A particular Catholic blog that has caught my eye over the last couple of years is Everyday for Life Canada, written by veteran educator Lou Iacobelli. There are two reasons I read it: Unlike many blogs in this arena, which simply link out other materials with a bit pithy commentary, Mr Iacobelli's entries are original essays. These range from personal reflections on faith to thoughtful explanations of the inner workings of the vast complex that is the Roman Catholic Church. The other reason I read it is that Mr Iacobelli was my eleventh-grade English teacher in 1976, just shy of forty years ago, at De La Salle College in Toronto.

Mr Iacobelli was among a handful of teachers who provided me with an arena in which I could thrive. Having little interest in hockey or football in a school that excelled in both; being among the very few non-Catholics in the all-boys collegiate; and showing absolutely no talent for maths or sciences, to which the school's curricular scales were tilted -- I was kind of a ship at sea. Mr Iacobelli was meticulous in his preparation and presentation, and the weekly cycle of classes included a menu of activities ranging from literary exploration to a firm foundation prescriptive skills that speakers and writers need. He was also a very calm, thoughtful person who seemed to enjoy working with youngsters.

Through his blog and other works, Mr Iacobelli has registered his disapproval of a number initiatives of the Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne Liberal governments in Ontario: The Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy, Bill 13 -- The Accepting School's Act, and, most recently, the updated Health and Physical Education Curriculum. That he and I should differ on these matters is not terribly surprising. As regards the overall arc of his thinking on education, if I may summarize, I would say that sees the religious autonomy Catholic schooling being encroached upon by secular values with which he takes exception. A conservative Catholic and a left-wing atheist are likely to disagree -- there's not much to say about that. 

Live and let live, as they say.

However, I take exception to two recent entries in Mr Iacobelli's blog: The bottom line in Ontario's "new" sex education: it's to promote homosexuality, published on February 8th, and his March 2nd entry, Parents beware: neither the school boards nor the government intend to respect your rights. Both essays quote at length an equity document produced by the Toronto District School Board called Challenging Homophobia Challenging Homophobia and Heterosexism, first published in 2011 and building upon anti-homophobia materials dating back several years in the board. 

For the purposes of this post, I shall focus more Mr Iacobelli's earlier writing, which discusses two pages of the document devoted to frequently asked questions. Since I will be quoting Mr Iacobelli and contents from the document, his comments have been italicized.
One of the questions in the guide says this: "Should schools send notes or permission slips home before starting any classroom work on LGBT issues?" The answer, "NO." Because if a school treats the topic of sexual orientation or anti-homophobia work differently from the range of other curriculum topics, this could be construed as discriminatory practice.
Quite so. But he left out something else the document, which reads:
Sending a school newsletter home at the beginning of each term is a best practice for keeping parents/guardians/caregivers informed of all upcoming equity topics in the classroom without having to single out one topic over the other. 
For me, like many elementary teachers, updates are more frequent once-per-term. When I have a homeroom, I tend to send home a calendar prior to the start of the month, listing major events, and also to help parents and guardians reconcile our numbered days (1 thru 5) with actual calendar dates. I also blog in greater detail about all upcoming units, classroom visits, tests, what-have-you. Consciously concealing content from parents suggests that I am either embarrassed to teach it, or I am fearful to parents being reacting aversely to it -- for me, neither is the case. (I should note that this passage is included in his later post.)

Moving on, Mr Iacobelli addresses the TDSB document's response to religious accommodation.
Here's another question: "Can a parent have their child accommodated out of human rights education based on Religious grounds?" The answer, "NO." Why? To allow parents asking for their child to be exempted from any discussions of the LGBTQQ  issues as religious accommodation would violate the Ontario Human Rights Policy.
Religious faith is not the wild card in the deck -- it doesn't trump other rights. Should the day ever come that a same-sex couple asks me not to seat their child near another who is Catholic or Muslim, I know exactly what I will say: I cannot accommodate your unease with someone who is different, regardless of what reason you give. I have taught children who have told me they've been admonished by parents not to play with a classmate because of race or religion. I simply cannot accommodate or enforce that.
And then teachers are told: "Can schools/teachers choose not to address controversial issues for fear of negative parent response?" The answer again is "NO." And to this question, "Who is responsible for addressing controversial and sensitive issues?" The answer is not parents, but "All teachers and administrators are responsible." 
This is hardly news. Controversial and sensitive issues that arise at school have to be addressed at school. When I was in high school, racial epithets flowed freely in hallways and classrooms with no intervention from staff that I ever saw -- this was common at the time, I'm sure. Even today, school boards are in tricky place. They certainly cannot dictate how discussion of any issue take place at home -- nor should they -- but neither can they assume such discussions happen at all. Here's the sum of what schools can  expect parents to do under The Education Act of Ontario:
Duty of parent, etc.(5)  The parent or guardian of a person who is required to attend school under this section shall cause the person to attend school as required by this section unless the person is at least 16 years old and has withdrawn from parental control. 2006, c. 28, s. 5 (1).
More on accommodations from Mr Iacobelli's blog: 

Lastly, "Should schools send notes or permission slips home before starting classroom work about any of these sensitive topics?" You guessed the response, "NO." Since singling out one topic/group as too controversial and relying on parents’ discretion shifts responsibility from the school to the parent and creates a poisoned environment contrary to the TDSB Human Rights Policy. Now you know why this revealing document was deleted: a school board, backed by the government, is publicly recognizing homosexuality and homosexual concerns. Parents need to pay attention to this information.
This policy applies not just to discussion of LGBTQ topics but to the full spectrum of human rights issues. This is an equity and human rights policy statement in the FAQ which clarifies that LGBTQ issues are to be covered in exactly the same manner as others -- race, religion, and so on. 

And, no, this does not tell us why the document has been deleted. It's still very much in use and is available on the internal website. If Mr Iacobelli were so inclined, he could drop a dime and contact the TDSB, to find out why. It's a public agency which he helps to fund through taxes, just as I help to pay for the TCDSB, so there is not reason for him not to. 

I actually know the stated reason, but I'm not saying because I don't like indulging conspiracy therories.

Here's where the rubber meets the road. In Mr Iacobelli's own words, emphasis mine:
The big lie behind the new sex education curriculum is that its needed to address issues of cyberbullying and sexting. This is the same deceptive approach that was used by former Premier Dalton McGuinty. The political spin was all about protecting children and creating safe schools. The Liberal government gave Ontarians this biased rationale for passing the "Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy" and then Bill 13.  But one of the actual goals of the new and old sex curriculum is to promote and normalize homosexuality and "gender identity." However, the government nor the school boards will ever say so. There is no other reason when one of the largest school boards in the country releases a document and then delinks it unless the intention is to challenge society about 'heterosexism" and "homophobia." The real aim is to change the thinking of Ontarians. Our premier is a lesbian and so one should expect her to promote her sense of identity and lifestyle. And that's what she's doing, but just not saying nor admitting it. Ontarians for too long have been far too polite and understanding. It's time to question her actual motives and desires. 
Accusations of "normalizing homosexuality" in Ontario in this day and age are roughly akin to accusations of normalizing the helio-centric universe or gravity. To recap, homosexuality was dropped from the DSM by American Psychiatric Association in 1973, triggering a cascade effect through health community worldwide. This was four years after Pierre Elliot Trudeau pulled the trigger on anti-Sodomy laws that were being enforced selectively against homosexuals, not the general population. Non-discrimination based upon sexual orientation was added to the Human Rights Code of Ontario in 1986. In 1994, the rights of same sex couples were equalized with those of heterosexual couples living together common-law. Same sex marriage has been with us as a country for over a decade, with no church being compelled to perform or recognize such a union -- a respect for the separation of church and state.

The only thing that has not changed is Mr Iacobelli's right to believe, as the Catechism teaches him, that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered." However, secular institutions will not and cannot accommodate that belief because -- whether he likes it or not -- such discrimination is legally equivalent, for example, to racism. No greater, no less.

Let's talk about Mr Iacobelli's observations of our premier, Kathleen Wynne. Her government has some skeletons in the closet to be sure: ORNGE, eHealth, and the gas plant closures. I'm no apologist for that; nor did I vote for her or Mr McGuinty, despite my support for some the initiatives the two Liberal governments have produced. And yes, she is an out and proud lesbian, and it galls some to no end that despite this apparent deficit, she soundly defeated her main rival Tim Hudak. It shocks me a little though, in 2015, that a queer-identified person is still presumed to be so obsessed with their queerness that they have no other interest or agenda. The Catechism may see her sexuality as "intrinsically disordered" and her relationship with her partner as a "grave depravity;" however, the Balkanization of her identity down to a single trait displays deficits of imagination and humanity. 

But this is, without a doubt, the most gravely obscene charge levelled by Mr Iacobelli:
Thirdly, children can give consent to sexual acts even in elementary school. This is to do away with parental rights so that children can be primed and used and abused for sexual encounters, and it will all be curriculum driven and thus acceptable. 
No they can't. That's not what's being proposed, and that is not what is being taught. To suggest that thousands of educators would accede to such a proposition, or that any parent would support it, is both scandalous and a departure from reason. If there's anything that crosses the line from expressing a strongly held belief to whole-cloth fabrication, it's that statement above. If Mr Iacobelli wants to interpret a document produced by a secular school board for his readers, he's free to do so. If he chooses to accuse me and thousands of colleagues of suborning child abuse, he ought to bring some evidence to bear -- say, something more than the humanoid grunting of Joe WarmingtonEzra Levant, or Charles McVety

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"We Say No!"

This afternoon I stopped by the Thorncliffe Park community in East York to take in the latest parent protest against the Ontario Ministry of Education Heath and Physical Education curriculum.  If I had to guess, I'd put the crowd at four- to five-hundred -- gathered in front of the local public library before making their way around Thorncliffe Park Drive towards the neighbourhood elementary school. 

I grew up in that neighbourhood in the sixties and seventies, in a building not 500 yards from where the rally and march began. The cluster of high- and low-rise apartment buildings, perched above the Don Valley, is home to tens of thousands of people many of whose children attend the largest K-5 school in North America. Many locals worship at a nearby mosque nestled amongst numerous stores and restaurants that serve Halal products.

Languages most commonly spoken other than English at home are Urdu and Gurarati in the predominantly South Asian community. The neighbourhood has been at the centre of controversy over Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, back in 2012. I've blogged previously about Jawed Anwar, an area journalist and activist, who has since founded an independent masjid, an Islamic school.

One of the first things I noticed was the now-familiar messaging. At the urging of a man with a megaphone, periodic chants of "We Say No!" rose up from the crowd. This was also the refrain February 24th parent protest at Queen's Park, and at ill-fated information session held on March 14th at Agincourt Collegiate in Toronto's northeast, which was hosted by area Liberal MPPS Bas Balkissoon and Soo Wong

As I took up a position near the library and watched the crowd swell, a man approached me. "Are you here with us?" he asked. I explained that I was there to observe; whereupon he began to explain the purpose of the protest. He looked at me expectantly as he pronounced the curriculum unsuitable for children.

"I actually agree with the curriculum," I began, "but I'm here to get a sense of why some parents object to it."

Thus began the first of a few awkward silences silences between us.

He told me he believed the government was trying to legalize homosexuality and same-sex marriage, prompting me to ask the obvious: "How would they go about legalizing something that's already legal, and why?" He went on to explain that this curriculum would cause more people to act upon homosexual impulses.

He expounded upon his belief that homosexuals were "born that way" -- something I had not expected to hear. But then, he continued, because they are sick -- something I had expected -- their rights should be protected, and the government should do everything it can to cure them. He pronounced that homosexuals were born with a hormonal abnormality which they must be taught not to act upon. Thus the curriculum would prompt people to act upon an illness they cannot control.

It was my turn to stand in stunned silence as his analysis had no legitimate scientific basis and -- I'm almost certain -- no Quranic basis either.  

He asked if I had children. 

"One grown son," I answered, knowing we were warming for the big question:

"What would you think if your son told you that he liked boys?"

I told him I would be fine with it because I love my son. Then I explained that my late father had come out as a gay man in seventies -- this was in 2004 -- having known since he was a little boy. My then thirteen-year-old son was unaffected by his grandfather's announcement. "We both loved my father just the same. Is there something wrong with that?" 

Yes, at this point I was challenging him.

Ignoring my question, he shifted awkwardly from his "born that way" argument to talking about "choice" and the "homosexual lifestyle." I was starting to blow a little hot but kept my voice even when I said this:
My father was born in 1930 when no one even talked about homosexuals, and there was certainly no sex education, let alone gay rights. But he figured out very quickly that if anyone found he was gay, he could face violence or even death, unemployment, loss of family, criminal prosecution and forced psychiatric treatment. Who would actually choose that?

We stubbed out our cigarettes, and he strolled over to chat with an organizer who was about do a live segment with a reporter from CP24. He seemed to glower at the reporter, arms folded, as she questioned the spokesperson. The reporter Tracy Tong's report is here, with files from Joshua Freedman.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Any Port In A Storm

Ben Levin at his plea hearing.
Source: The National Post newspaper.
This past week brought news of former Deputy Education Minister Ben Levin's guilty plea in connection with a series of charges related to child pornography. The details of his case had not been known, apart from charges of making and distributing child pornography, as well as counselling an undercover officer online to perform sex acts on a child. The actual statement of facts heard in court on the day of the hearing is vile beyond description -- from the sharing of imagery depicting a child victim to the jaw-dropping revelation that Mr Levin told an undercover officer (posing as a mother seeking stories of sex with children) that he had used his own daughters for gratification with his wife's support. If there is any saving grace, police found no basis for this latter fiction; however, Levin's closest family are left to suffer in the knowledge that they were used as background characters in his play to engage with like-minded others online.

It is all very sickening. 

Right on cue, detractors of Ontario's new Health and Physical Education Curriculum have used the spectacle to press the ongoing conspiracy theory that the document itself part of a fiendish plan to groom children for sex. 

First out of the gate is Toronto Sun columnist and Councillor Rob Ford fanboy Joe Warmington, whose article Liberals can't deny Levin's role in sex-ed curriculum, published only days before the plea hearing. Mr Warmington references several memos by the disgraced former deputy education minister. There's no smoking gun here -- all the dreary government correspondence says is what everyone should already know: As Deputy Minister of Education for the Province of Ontario, Mr Levin was responsible for everything the Ministry did. That's not the same as doing everything himself. 

To take another example, the publisher of The Toronto Sun newspaper is responsible for everything that appears within its pages and online. That doesn't mean that he writes stories, takes pictures, or negotiates ad buys. But let's play along with Mr Warmington for a moment. I donned a pair of gloves, got out my tongs, and extracted this bit of prose:
Memos show Levin announcing he is taking over the “renamed” Learning and Curriculum department and “will have responsibilty for curriculum.” It’s nonsensical and troubling to suggest Levin was not involved. In the interest of children, with these documents now public, members of the legislature should sanction the premier and minister for spinning attempts.
After all, inside the strategy Levin was pushing, under the heading “Curriculum and Courses,” it states revised curriculum policy documents contain a section on “antidiscrimination education that encourages teachers to recognize the diversity of students’ backgrounds, interests, and experiences, and to incorporate a variety of viewpoints and perspectives in learning activities. New courses are also being created that focus on gender studies, equity studies, and world cultures.”
Under the “Safe Schools Strategy” it says it “includes revising the curriculum to ensure that gender-based violence, homophobia, sexual harassment, and inappropriate sexual behaviour are discussed and addressed in the classroom. It also includes the use of sample school climate surveys to help principals assess perceptions of safety by students, parents, and school staff to inform prevention and intervention plans.”
Realistically, if Mr Levin wanted children vulnerable, he would scaling back on equity and gender-based violence prevention, not dialling them up. In any event, we're still back to this curious notion that a curriculum document can groom children for sex, with many co-authors, curriculum experts, parents, teachers and administrators none-the-wiser. 
On the day of the plea hearing, Faith Goldy of the moribund Sun News channel was among phalanx of journalists following Ben Levin in and out of the courthouse. As he returned to his car (shown at 3:11 on report) she begins a series of questions on the curriculum -- not the guilty pleas, the conviction, or the statement of facts. "Do you see Ontario schools as a place to groom children?" she asks. "Parents want to know."
It comes as no surprise that Mr Levin was not going to answer any questions from media that day. Even without the best lawyering money can buy, having pleaded guilty to a set of charges that most people find unforgivable, there is nothing he can say that will satisfy anyone following the story.
Also on the day of the hearing, The Toronto Sun newspaper itself published an editorial on the curriculum. The article doubles back on the allegation that Mr Levin wrote the curriculum; proudly trumpets the Joe Warmington article for revealing information that it didn't; and calls for a public hearing.
The Liberals’ claim Levin didn’t write the sex-ed curriculum is a dodge.
Of course the deputy minister of education didn’t write the sex-ed curriculum.
He presided over its first version in 2010, as Joe Warmington’s Toronto Sun column clearly revealed Tuesday — using Levin’s own words about his role in the education ministry.
As for the Liberals consulting with parents, they didn’t do it in 2010, when former premier Dalton McGuinty withdrew it citing that lack of consultation, and they haven’t done it now, even though the curriculum is substantially the same.
Indeed, it’s been presented by Wynne as a fait accompli that’s coming to schools this September come hell or high water.
Why? What’s the rush?
Why can’t a few months of public hearings be held on the sex-ed curriculum by the relevant Queen’s Park committee?
Why can’t parents have a real say on it — and by that we mean not just parents hand-picked by the government?
Given that the curriculum hasn’t been updated since 1998 what difference will a few more months make?
Why not take that time to get it right, as well as satisfy the understandable concerns many parents have that it turns out the guy who presided over its development was a pervert?
There's one other advantage to a public hearing the Sun's editorial writers neglect to mention. It keeps Ben Levin's name in the news for months on end and oxygenates the pre-election activities whoever gets to be the leader of Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. An early Christmas gift to Joe Warmington, Brian Lilley, Faith Goldy, Charles McVety, Ezra Levant, and the rest.
Speaking of Ezra Levant, the former Sun News commentator has made the Ben Levin scandal a signature story on his upstart Internet-based outlet In his quest to remain in the public eye as a self-professed freedom fighter, Mr Levant sought Ontario Government emails through a Freedom of Information request. His report appears in both Ezra-style-video-rant and print form. All of the communications he reports on take place in 2012 or later -- a rebuttal to Education Minister Liz Sandals' assurances that Ben Levin played no significant role in the Education Ministry after departing it. 
Typical of an Ezra rant, the video runs over nine minutes and provides little juice for the squeeze. His face contorts as he enunciates the words vulva and vagina, much like a child tasting broccoli for the first time. Other than that, he attempts to stitch together a series of non-sequiturs. The only eyebrow raiser I see is this item:
* October 31, 2012: Levin’s comments to (Deputy Education Minister George) Zegarac, including "safety/well-being are not aspects of individuals or things that we would teach or develop are they?”
It's a curious comment, to be sure, but it also lacks context. The remark certainly flies in the face of memoranda quoted above in Joe Warmington's article, in which Mr Levin advocates for school climate surveys (very much in use at the moment) and gender-based violence prevention initiatives, also evident in the Toronto District School Board and others. Further, and I know this from years of having taught Health and Physical Education, safety and well-being are persistent themes.
Again, no smoking gun. All that there really is in Mr Levant's report is an opportunity to shame anyone who ever had any contact with Mr Levin prior to his arrest and conviction. An inquiry of the sort advocated by the Toronto Sun's editors would enable tabloid media and far right religionists to do more of the same. 
A final thought. I mentioned Toronto City Councillor and former Mayor Rob Ford above for a reason. Mr Ford weighed in briefly on the revised curriculum by way of endorsing Provincial MPP Monte McNaughton for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Ontario. As reported in Blogwrath, Mr Ford helped organize and host an event for Mr McNaughton.
Charles McVety with Monte McNaughton.
Source: Blogwrath
The McNaughtons with Councillor Ford.
Source: Blogwrath
Mr McNaughton -- now likely an also-ran due to his competitor Patrick Brown's chart topping Tory party membership sales -- had been the preferred candidate of hardline religious conservatives, like Charles McVety. His candidacy has been promoted by other Ford allies. For instance, the  Lambton—Kent—Middlesex MPP and Mr McVety were quoted in Mr Warmington's January 27th, 2015 article Wynne's sex ed photo op raises eyebrows, along with a politcal scientist from the UofT. No one else is quoted. As I wrote at the time, "Nowhere in the article on a key change in the sex education curriculum does he attempt to quote an expert on sex or education."
There's more. Mr Warmington hosted both Mr Ford and Mr McNaughton on his Newstalk1010 radio broadcast The Late Shift. He's also quoted Charles McVety in two other articles recently: The piece I mentioned above on Ben Levin, as well as an "exclusive interview" on February 23rd of this year.
Let's get back to Faith Goldy, as quoted in an article on her website, 3 REASONS TO TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT BEN LEVIN:
I just wish pundits and politicians would emerge from their zombie refrains and realize: A child pornographer has no place in the classroom.
I quite agree. 

And neither does the ideology behind FordNation.

"Queeruption" counter protester at July 25, 2014 FordFest grabbed by neck.
Story here

Monday, March 2, 2015

"Normalizing Homosexuality"

Source: Morocco World News
Anyone who devotes time, as I do, to tracking the progress of equity, particularly as it pertains to gender and sexuality, in public education notices familiar patterns in the language of its detractors. Whether the discussion is about the Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy (2009), The Accepting Schools Act of Ontario (2012), or the 2015 updates to Ontario's Health and Physical Education Curriculum (shelved since 2010), the peculiar phrase normalizing homosexuality repeats itself.

In my secular existence, it all seems very strange to me. Talk of normalizing homosexuality -- acknowledging sexual diversity, as I would have it -- sounds like normalizing gravity.

Some examples below, emphasis mine:

Charles McVety
“This is part of a militant homosexual agenda to normalize homosexuality in everyone’s mind and thereby promote homosexuality,” he told the National Post last April. “If we teach our children these things … guess what? That’s what they’ll practise.”

Charles McVety, on the 2010 Health Curriculum updates, as quoted in the National Post newspaper, November 5, 2010.

Jack Fonseca
[Jack Fonseca] also warned that there would be a danger of “classroom indoctrination” as course material, books, and curriculum will “aim to normalize homosexual ‘marriage’ and the gay lifestyle.”

Jack Fonseca of Campaign Life Coalition, on The Accepting Schools Act, quoted in The Interim, July 16, 2012

REAL Women of Canada
Grade 3 (age 8):  Homosexuality:  normalizing of homosexual family structures and homosexual “marriage” in the minds of 8 year-olds, without regard for the religious/moral beliefs of families.

Pauline Guzik, National President, Real Women of Canada, on the 2015 Health Curriculum, January 31, 2015.

Lou Iaccobelli
The names of the policies and curriculum sound so positive and well intentioned, but they are deceptive. These policies and legislation have been to a large part designed to promote and normalize homosexuality in Ontario.

Lou Iaccobelli, February 4, 2015, writing about The Accepting Schools Act, The Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy, and a TDSB resource on homophobia and heterosexism, in his blog Everyday For Life Canada

What is plainly obvious to me in reading this commentary is a fear that instruction which addresses same-sex attraction, equal marriage, and the like, will turn straight children gay or, at least, incite them to experiment in same-sex sex. This seems to be because many of the detractors believe  -- or simply say --  that heterosexuality is the natural order of things; that homosexuality is a choice; and that they have scripture and doctrine to prove it. Science would disagree on the matter of choice. Logic and experience tell me that few people would choose a path that risks alienation from family, community or faith.* Finally, particularly as an Atheist, far be it from me to debate scripture.

*I have a story, which I will share in a future entry, of my own father coming out as a gay man in his seventies, having known since he was six years old.

Let's get back to notion of choice for a moment. Critics of the curriculum -- as well as other outgrowths of EIES, such as Bill 13 -- ignore the extent to which they themselves have a choice. All publicly funded schools are required to allow a GSA if a student requests it. It would follow that the school would provide a space and staff member to supervise. Attending the GSA is, of course, voluntary. As with all things in a school, the principal has final approval on messaging that goes out to the school community via announcements, school newspaper, blogs, assemblies. All of this presupposes that the GSA actually gets off the ground.

While on the topic of GSAs, I want to digress to share my belief that the narrative around making them compulsary for Catholic boards and requiring that they be called GSAs took a rather ugly, anti-Catholic turn. The view from the left held that Catholic DSBs would automatically resist the legislation, which has not been the case. I've met Catholic educators, administrators and families that have taken bold, affirming steps for youth who want GSAs. Further, I know that without strong language there would be public schools, and perhaps DSBs, that would resist it. Opposition to EIES exists, but it is not exclusive to faith communities, nor do all people of faith share the belief that it must be opposed.

Of course, there will be parents who adamantly do no want their children to join a GSA --  therefore, none should exist. How interesting that people who claim the state is overstepping its boundaries by ensconcing GSAs would have the state operate as their co-parent when it suits the purpose.

I won't speculate as to all the reasoning behind this, but it raises questions. These same children sit beside each other in classrooms and assemblies; many have grown up together since Kindergarten or before; they socialize on school property and in the community; and, in some cases they worship together. 

How do they suddenly become unfit company for each other in a GSA -- under the supervision of an adult, no less? What acts will they perform in that room that could be so terrible or contrary to faith? Will not the staff member apply the same rules of equity and fairness -- that protect LGBTQ people -- to protect faith and the faithful from being denigrated?  Will not that staff member exercise their duty as an education professional to ensure the safety and well-being of all those children?

To answer my own question, I fear that it is the mere presence of LGBTQ people with their straight and cisgender allies, compounded by the acknowledgement of their collective humanity and right to co-exist, which is being contrived as a form of discrimination against the strongly held beliefs of some Ontarians.

There is no accommodating that belief; no more than a parent can insist his or her child not be seated next to a child of a particular race or religion. We have crossed that line as a civil society. Discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is, in the eyes of the law, equivalent to any other form of discrimination. The invocation of religious faith does not provide an opt-out.

I've been knocking around classrooms for over thirty years myself, having started out teaching ESL in the community college system while in university. I later taught adult literacy and organized volunteer literacy programs in workplaces and communities. Before becoming an elementary teacher at forty, I was a member of the English Department in a community college and oversaw teacher-training for new faculty in day and evening programs. Never have I let discrimination based on religion or race, sexuality or gender, or anything else, go unremarked-upon. Further, I've consciously searched it out in my teaching, right down to the materials I select.

Our public schools -- the secular and the faith-based -- can achieve this as well. Many do so admirably.

Now, back to the curriculum itself, which comes with an opt-out for parents and guardians. The opt-out isn't new. Every year teachers and schools receive requests from parents to excuse their children from health classes that might relate to sex or sexuality, including the most basic lessons on conception and birth. I've known grade one teachers -- who weren't teaching anything about sex acts under the 1998 and 2010 interim curricula, and still won't be under the 2015 update -- to be asked pointed questions regarding what they will be teaching in Health. Nothing wrong with this whatsoever -- any parent is free to ask me what I'm teaching. It's typically all on my class blog and calendar. At the beginning of each year, like teachers all over the province -- I submit my long-range-plan to my principal for review before I present the material to parents on a provincially mandated curriculum night.

So if the opt-out is available for the new curriculum, what's the problem? In a nutshell, it's not just that the most vocal opponents of the new curriculum don't want their children to learn it.

They don't want anyone''s children to learn it.