Sex, power, and the myth about consent

Yesterday, it was reported in the news that Jian Ghomeshi, a well-known Canadian broadcaster and radio host, is no longer employed by the CBC. The CBC has vaguely stated that the reason centres around information they received about Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi claims that he was fired because his employer was afraid that the details of his sexual life might become public and create unwanted controversy. Ghomeshi is now suing his former employer for about $50 million and wasted no time in posting his side of the story on his Facebook page, claiming that he’s a victim. Some people question why he would spill the beans on his BDSM lifestyle, but I think it makes sense if it’s all going to come out eventually anyway. Juicy details will inevitably emerge as a result of the suit, so maybe he figured he’d just get in front of it. It’s certainly one way of demonstrating that he thinks he has nothing to hide and has done nothing wrong.

Some time ago, I read an article by a woman about a bad date she allegedly had with Ghomeshi, whom she characterized as a womanizing, sexually aggressive creep. It’s true that it’s easier to make an accusation than it is to defend it and that men can be targets of false accusations by women. But it’s also true that women are objectified and abused by men on a daily basis, and much of the time they don’t report it for a variety of reasons that may not seem logical but are nevertheless compelling and reaffirmed by the reactions they’re met with when they do speak up. Just because a woman says she’s been abused by a man doesn’t mean she has, but just because she hasn’t reported it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. At this point, what we know is that a number of women allege that Ghomeshi physically attacked them.

One of the things people are arguing about is the issue of consent; it doesn’t matter so much whether Ghomeshi enjoys having kinky sex as the fact that these women are saying that he acted violently toward them, and not in a way that they had discussed or consented to. In other words, the allegation is that he didn’t just have a raunchy, rough tumble in the hay with them – he outright assaulted them. And you can’t consent to assault.

So why are we talking about consent? For one thing, it’s a touchy subject in part because a lot of people (mostly men) still don’t seem to understand what consent means. We’re also becoming more sexually liberated as a society, so in addition to talking about consent in the context of rape, we’re also becoming more knowledgeable about alternative or fringe sexual lifestyles. Books, movies, other sources of information and forms of entertainment have added to the discourse and practices such as polyamory are getting more mainstream attention. It is possible for adults to engage in genres of consensual sex that most people don’t find arousing or pleasant. Leaving aside what “most people” actually means – because we don’t really know what people do behind closed doors – what I’d like to argue here is that consent isn’t a magical ingredient that makes everything okay all the time. While unequivocal consent is critical, it doesn’t automatically cleanse any given situation of ethical questions. This is where I think discussions about BDSM can get messy, so naturally it’s at this juncture that I think we have the most to gain in terms of how we approach the topics of sex, power, and gender.

I don’t practice a BDSM lifestyle, but I’m familiar with it to a limited extent through people I know who do. I think there’s a level of comprehension about what it is and how it works that a person on the outside can’t fully grasp. It can take on an endless number of variations and involves complicated protocols. It’s not a license for random debauchery; it’s a structured way of satisfying one’s urges that’s based on trust and communication. What many people take to be kinky (e.g. hair pulling, handcuffs, spanking, etc.) doesn’t really qualify as kinky in the BDSM world. Buying a racy toy at a sex shop is a far cry from joining a leather family. One thing I can safely say is that it includes many different types of people, tastes, and practices, and it’s ultimately what the participants make it.

I don’t think it would be fair or accurate to say that BDSM is either good or bad, full stop. I believe that people should be free to explore their own sexuality in an environment that’s supportive and inclusive. But not necessarily in every and any situation – and not simply because all parties consent. I think it’s something that would need to be considered on a case by case basis. Context matters.

I’m the sort of feminist who believes that patriarchy still governs our daily lives on multiple levels and that consent does not erase this reality. I believe that like any form of oppression, sexism can be internalized and reproduced even by victims, in different ways and for different reasons. So the contention that no exploitation can possibly exist where a woman provides her consent just doesn’t fly with me.

In a recent Twitter spat, someone told me flat out: you either accept all forms of sexuality or you don’t. This was their response to my opinion that in a patriarchal society, a man who craves the sexual domination of women has issues. I know that’s a strong statement and I’ll expand on it in a bit. My opponent’s argument was that this was like stating that homosexuality is wrong because it’s underpinned by the same moralistic attitude. The thing is, the only reason anyone would be critical of homosexuality would be as a result of religious or cultural conditioning. There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong about the idea of people of the same gender acting on their attraction for one another. I agree that ignorance still factors into social norms regarding sexuality. We’re raised to think in predetermined ways about what’s acceptable and what’s not, so anything that falls outside of “respectable” or “vanilla” sexual encounters is frowned upon without much examination. But equating criticism of one person acting violently toward another to criticizing homosexuals who have consensual sex is terrible logic that not only uses homosexuals as pawns but also ignores some important considerations.

I’m loudly and proudly supportive of LGBT rights. But no, we don’t have to accept that all forms of sexuality are okay. I don’t live in binary world, and I don’t think rights work that way either. Just because something turns someone on, they shouldn’t necessarily be able to pursue it with abandon by virtue of that fact. There are people who are sexually aroused by morbidity, including things that very few people would consider acceptable. Even in cases where consent exists (I’m thinking of men who agree to allow other men to cannibalize their sexual organs), whatever the reason or cause for that type of fixation, it’s not healthy. Period. Not everything that manifests as an emotion or a preference is alright. This may be clear when we cite extreme examples, but not so much when we talk about the many things that fall under the broad BDSM umbrella. People have different limits – that’s why we have safewords. But even where these are established, it would be irresponsible to pretend that consent neutralizes the ethical questions that might surround a given sex act.

Does gender matter in BDSM, and if so, why and how? One problem is that it can be very difficult (and paternalistic) for someone on the outside to determine when exploitation exists. BDSM, when done properly, doesn’t involve coercion or deception. But is it always that simple? What if a participant is vulnerable because their personal history has predisposed them to a normalized view of sexual abuse or aggression? The fact that this can be difficult to determine doesn’t mean it’s not happening, that it’s not wrong, or that it can’t be prevented. If we consider such a relationship in a male homosexual context, it still wouldn’t be acceptable.

How is it ever okay for a person – male or female – to be gagged, made to vomit, choked or punched? Why would anyone get turned on by having those things done to them or by doing it to someone else? Analyzing what it means to want to be humiliated or to want to humiliate someone else isn’t a matter of imposing normalcy on people with freaky habits. It’s not healthy. There’s a difference between raw, even rough passionate sex, and domination. We’re strange creatures. We don’t always understand our impulses. We might want to be ravished – but that’s nothing close to, say, being tied up and having sensitive areas of the body zapped with electrical currents. Or walking on all fours with a dog collar around your neck.

Is there a substantial difference between humiliation and pain? Many people feel that there’s a physical connection between pain and pleasure because they can push us beyond our boundaries both physically and emotionally. They can be transcendent. I think that in some cases, this is all a person might crave, and someone they trust helps them to fulfill that desire. For them, gender, income, etc. don’t matter – they’re just two human beings sharing a private experience of their choosing. Why should that be our business? I get it. Still, I wonder how many aggressors hide behind the sexual freedom defense because they know that the sphere of sexual behaviour has been staked out as strictly personal territory and is thus supposedly impervious to criticism. It happens. It’s not right and we shouldn’t ignore it.

Governments shouldn’t be in the business of moralizing, but protecting – that’s a different story. It’s simply not true that everything that happens between consenting adults is between them and them only. Consider the case of a battered wife. She doesn’t consent to the battery, but if she stays in the relationship and refuses to call the police, the abuser has license to continue. Should we do nothing?

There’s a reason for the distinction between civil and criminal law. In common law, a tort is a private wrong, whereas a crime can involve something the assailant does to just one other person – and even behind closed doors, on their own property – but they can be charged with a crime by the government on behalf of society. When a harmful act is serious enough, our legal institutions say it involves all of us. That’s an important tenet. The concepts of consent and privacy in sex and relationships have legitimate bases and should be respected, but they shouldn’t be exploited by extrapolating those concepts to every private situation imaginable in order to shield individuals from accountability. You can’t draw an imaginary boundary around your bedroom and pretend that anything goes.

Furthermore, when a person who holds a position of privilege acts in a violent way toward someone who lacks that privilege, don’t we understand that as an act committed against that entire group of oppressed people? When a person hurls a racist slur at one individual, is there only one victim? The same logic applies to men who commit violent acts against women. That’s not a one-on-one situation. And why should it make any difference whether the act was of a sexual nature, or whether she begged for it?

Even if a woman is intelligent, emotionally stable with no history of abuse and fully understands the implications of a dominant sexual relationship (which I recognize is true of many women who participate in BDSM), the man isn’t home free as far as I’m concerned. What are we to make of men, all of whom possess male privilege whether they’re sexist or not, who argue that they’re not doing anything wrong as long as a woman consents to sexual aggression, torture, submission, discomfort, control, or violence? The key question is this: Why, in a patriarchal society, would a man crave the domination of women, sexual or otherwise? He already has plenty of power and privilege over women. Why the thirst for even more control? What is it about that exactly that excites him, and why? The only way this makes sense from a pathological standpoint is if a man harbours feelings of powerlessness, a fear of rejection, loss, or uncertainty. Somewhere, somehow, there’s an insecurity that gives rise to this fetish of domination. And when a person with more power than many of the people around them feels powerless, that’s dysfunctional. And potentially dangerous.

When I ask myself whether I would lose respect for a man if he was okay with indulging in rape fantasies, even if it was my idea, the answer without any doubt is yes. It’s my firm belief that a decent man would be alarmed by such a request and understand that it’s not the request or the consent that determine its ethics; it’s the question of whether it plays into the patriarchy that’s still a reality today. Any ethical person who possesses privilege should recoil from an opportunity to further entrench that privilege even if it’s sanctioned, and even if it piques their sexual interest (and arguably, especially when it piques their interest).

In the course of my discussions about the subject of BDSM and sexism, some people have asked me: What about women who want to dominate men? When we consider that women live in a world dominated by men, it’s understandable that a woman might feel empowered or aroused by the opportunity to dominate a man who agrees to submit to her. As long as gender privilege is a reality, we can never substitute a man for a woman and pretend that the situation is comparable. Personally, I don’t find the idea of dominating men appealing. Such a compulsion, however, may signal an underlying pathology that should be addressed with cognitive behavioural therapy or other forms of self-awareness that address the source of that compulsion, if it’s strong enough that a person wants to work it out (or take it out) on someone. That doesn’t solve the problem. It only provides temporary relief from some emotional discomfort. Is that wrong? Well, it’s not exactly healthy, and enabling someone to engage in unhealthy behaviour isn’t a good thing. This is something we should be able talk about without being silenced by people who would rather not recognize this reality.

Ultimately, no matter who you are, the idea of dominating another human being in whatever way is rooted in ego and the fetishism of power. I don’t know that that is something we should wholesale encourage or condone. It can be playful and reciprocal; it may not necessarily be expressed in harmful ways. So I think we can distinguish between recreational and pathological expressions. I’m just not a fan of the idea of handing anyone a blank cheque in terms of how they treat others, especially considering that certain groups are already disadvantaged as it is and that people who have been subjected to abuse are more likely to be victimized again. If we have urges involving aggression or violence either in or out of the bedroom, I think we need to examine them because even if they are natural (and I’m not convinced they are), they have the potential to cause harm. That’s not simply a private concern. It’s a social issue.

I’m all for sexual expression, but not where we use the principles of individuality and personal freedom as tools to take advantage of the willingness of others to be vessels for violence. Exploitation with consent is still exploitation.

As uncomfortable and slippery as discussing sexual appropriateness might be, I think we’ll always be debating what’s acceptable and what’s not. It seems as though some people assume that sexual liberation is a linear process, that one day there will be no laws or cultural norms. But I think that’s unrealistic. In our efforts to call out moralizing where it’s harmful and unnecessary, it’s unreasonable to gloss over everything humans do sexually just because we choose to do it or because of the nature of the activity. I hope we never get to a point where it’s acceptable to look the other way when a person agrees to be abused. It will never be okay to sit idly by while someone tries to slit their own wrists, drink themselves to death, or undertake other forms of self-harm. Why should willfulness or consent free us from responsibility?

Although we all live in a highly subjective reality, we have to be willing to acknowledge that some things just are wrong. Defining that is a messy business that will continue to evolve, but it’s precisely because it’s a controversial subject that we should seize the opportunity to establish why weird isn’t wrong, unusual isn’t wrong, and we should always be open to talking about what “wrong” actually means. The idea of wrong already rules our lives in legal and social terms, so why not bring it out into the open so we can figure out what it means for us today, rather than blindly condemning or condoning an entire subset of practices that might be quite different, one from another? We like to pretend that morality is relevant only when it concerns issues such as poverty and greed but irrelevant where it might infringe on individual and especially sexual rights. I wonder if it’s possible to find a balance because I don’t see a reasonable alternative if we’re being honest with ourselves.

It seems that the biggest challenge we face when discussing thorny issues like this is the tendency to resort to false logic and dogma on both ends of the spectrum. If I can articulate a well-researched and well-reasoned argument that reflects the principles of empathy, compassion, and justice, that will form the basis of my position on any subject. I accept that someone else can do the same and reach a different conclusion. But if you can’t explain why your actions are ethical other than to say, “It’s none of your business” or “They wanted me to do it”, that’s not good enough. We have to do better than that.

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Filed under Eastern & New Age Philosophy, Politics & Society

Gaza and schadenfreude: exploiting oppression

Rabble recently published an article entitled The Green Party wins ‘Worst Statement on Gaza’ award hands down in which the author asks, “Is there a contest going on in Ottawa about who can write the most despicable statement on Israel’s current assault on Gaza? If so, the Green Party just put this one to bed.” The question answers itself; if we didn’t already see this as a game in which opponents try to defeat or best each other, we do now. To frame the discussion of the atrocities taking place as a contest is disrespectful. There are no winners or losers in this debate. I would hazard a guess that the people hiding and running for their lives couldn’t care less who’s getting the most retweets or applause for their witty rebuttals.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t call people out. Where a group stands on this issue tells us a lot about their values and priorities and this should inform our electoral choices. We should stand in unwavering solidarity against Israel’s illegal and immoral occupation. But just as it’s critical to talk about these issues, it’s also important to talk about how we talk about them and why. Using the Israel-Palestine conflict as an opportunity to prove why your group or ideology is better than another is a shameful form of schadenfreude. We cross a dangerous line when we go beyond explaining why an opponent’s argument is wrong to pointing to someone and saying, “See, I told you those guys are assholes – look at the hatred they’re spewing!” More than exposing the mentality underpinning apartheid, this serves to validate one’s own ego and shifts the focus to the faults of one’s opponent. Suddenly, the debate transforms from being one about human rights to one about who is right. As passionate advocates of social justice, we must always remember to centre our discourse on the oppressed. This is not about us, nor is it about our enemies. It’s about finding a solution. And unless we plan to annihilate our enemies, we’re going to have to find that solution together, like it or not.

Another problem with the Rabble article is that the analysis itself is baseless and as such doubly exploits the issue as an opportunity to smear a particular group. As a fairly new organization, Canada’s Green Party is known for being less partisan as it’s not easily categorized as either left-wing or right-wing. I’ve heard one prominent left-wing activist describe it as quasi-progressive. The article was a response to an incredibly inflammatory post that Green Party president Paul Estrin published on his blog on the party’s website. Returning to the title of Stewart’s article (The Green Party wins ‘Worst Statement on Gaza’ award hands down), it’s clear that Estrin’s personal views are being conflated with those of the party as a whole. On twitter the hashtag #OneReasonImNotAMember surfaced and some people expressed shame for their association with the party as a result of the controversy. All members of political parties carry their party’s badge and brand, especially if they’re a high-ranking member such as Estrin. So while it’s reasonable to condemn his views and question whether they represent those of his party, anyone who assumes that this is the case and for whatever reason fails to acknowledge the distinction between one member and their party is being disingenuous, and their conclusions lack legitimacy.

When the leader of a party makes statements, they carry even more currency. Here’s what’s especially troublesome about the brouhaha: Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has condemned the occupation of Gaza as illegal and a key barrier in the conflict. The party recently passed a motion in a very popular vote at their convention that reflects this position. May has also unequivocally expressed her disagreement with Estrin and it has been confirmed that Estrin’s views are hugely underrepresented among the party’s members.

A number of progressives swiftly interrogated May about Estrin’s post and attacked her for not firing him and removing his comments. Members have the ability to autonomously post on the website and May has explained that she never interferes with members’ self-expression, even when their opinions are questionable or diverge from official policy. The fact that the post remains online doesn’t amount to an endorsement, which the impossible-to-miss disclaimer embedded at the top of Estrin’s commentary qualifies. The Green Party, unlike the major parties, discourages censorship. This is a party that doesn’t try to muzzle its members or cover its tracks. That’s a good thing. And what of May’s ability to get rid of Estrin even if she wanted to?

 

One member harbours alarming views on any given controversial topic – this could happen in any party. Are we not smart enough to tell the difference between the sort of blatant pro-Israel policy of some parties and an anomaly within the Greens, whose stance is fully transparent and differs almost homogenously from this one errant individual? Even if Canada had a perfect leftist party, does anyone actually believe there couldn’t be a handful of members whose views are problematic or extreme?

The situation in Gaza is horrifying enough as it is. Why are we wasting time arguing with people who already agree with us when important work needs to be done? There’s a point at which rants about certain Canadian politicians and parties no longer serve us. Instead, it would be a lot more useful for us to investigate and explore the issues. The last thing we should be doing is increasing acrimony, sensationalizing the issue, and using it as an excuse to skewer people unjustifiably. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the war of words and identifying so much with our side or our position that we start to lose focus on what really matters. But that’s precisely what we have to do. Now more than ever we need honest, thoughtful discourse, and if we want others to respond in a measured and fair manner, we must start by setting that example ourselves.

My intention isn’t to pick on one writer, publication, or group. I believe that we should never hold back on critiques that are rooted in a spirit of sincerity and integrity. We should expect no less of our comrades. The illusion of moral and intellectual superiority prevents us from developing sustainable relationships. I’m not afraid to admit this as a socialist: I don’t believe the world would be a better place if everyone shared my ideology. The only things that will bring us peace and justice are a clear mind and an open heart. Let’s start there.

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Filed under Canada, Politics & Society

When conscious consumerism is bullshit

Blake Lively is pulling a Gwyneth Paltrow. I’m not talking about the so-called conscious uncoupling (although let’s hope that if Blake and Ryan do break up, they’ll call it what it is and spare us all the unbearable pretension). No, I’m talking about a “lifestyle” website newly launched by Lively; one she no doubt hopes will do better than the slumping goop.

Preserve is the newest digital playground designed for those who can afford to ooh and aah over things that are vintage, gourmet, rustic, artisan, repurposed, handcrafted (because ‘handmade’ isn’t authentic enough anymore), or whatever other adjective presumably justifies an exorbitant price tag. The geniuses of Portlandia do a fantastic job of parodying modern fads. Their Put a Bird on It skit reminds me of how it’s not uncommon for people to exploit trends in order to charge more for something than it’s worth.

 

 

Preserve is basically a mercantile Pinterest for affluent hipsters. Now, materialism is nothing new. We live in a capitalist system, after all. Marketing and advertizing are everywhere. They’ve colonized our culture and our minds. They follow us around in our daily lives, beaming their subliminal messages from every surface and medium possible; in captchas, on sewers, on people’s foreheads. We can’t even urinate in peace. And that snappy Michael Kors bag perched conspicuously on the lap of the woman opposite you on the subway – how many women do you figure have yearned for the privilege of being a real life mannequin so they too can feel important?

Instead of acknowledging how invasive and insidious all of this is, people frequently applaud its ingenuity. Forget about what we might be able to accomplish if such resourcefulness and creativity weren’t squandered by private interests. Money and cleverness win over ethics, hands down. The cult of consumerism brands those of us who refuse to kneel in the temple of materialism as heretics. No, this is nothing new.

What enrages me more than anything else, though, is the use of philanthropy to justify greed, which Preserve embarrassingly tries to pussyfoot around:

“Doing good” is often looked at with a cynical eye. For good reason. Much of it is a selfish act— it feels good, it sounds good, it can be quite self-congratulatory. While it is personally rewarding, there is an impact to be made when we can step back and acknowledge the truths in the motivation— not only the selfish ones, but the ones bred of a genuine desire to be there for others, others who don’t regularly have the fortunate opportunities that we do each day.

Let us be clear. We are a for-profit business.

We celebrate and indulge in the treasures both high and low that we feature on Preserve. We are aware that a lot of what we are selling is outlandish in a world where people are starving and have nowhere to sleep. This is a real problem. One that even on our high horse we can’t ignore. This is our community. Each of ours.

We have set our first goal of giving 5,000 children a meal, 2,000 children a blanket, and 2,700 children a warm hoodie, all within the U.S.

We’re a small, but growing company. Our giving reflects our age. As we mature so will our contribution both fiscally and physically.

We acknowledge that we are human and are flawed. But please accept, our intention is to do something pure. So we ask you, let this be a conversation. Help us grow. Help us give. Please critique us, teach us and be patient with us in the process, as ultimately we are all in this, this spinning sphere, together.

How douchey and patronizing is this?

Many of us are onto the ways in which businesses exploit our desire to purchase good quality, socially and environmentally sound products, only to justify doing so because they’re not 100% greedy. I’d say I’m reasonably suspicious that they’re tricking us into spending more money while they reap a fatter profit margin. Because really, how much of our money is going toward overhead, especially when it comes to web-based businesses, many of which are featured on Preserve? Consider the $70 High Tide Classic Bow Tie. Or for $132, perhaps you prefer a “hand painted” t-shirt that has been “distressed” and “destroyed” so you can walk around looking like you just fixed your Harley Davidson – without having to smell like it.

Twombly Crew

This accoutrement is the brainchild of The Squad, who design clothing that’s “comfortable for one’s own wandering” and “colored by hues from their travels and washed specifically for comfort and ease; it’s essential knitwear built for the long road ahead.” Is this what people are doing with their English degrees?

In the event that you’re into Native appropriation, they also offer a holey t-shirt with a dreamcatcher on it for $80. Is the cotton even organic? Seriously, in a recession, who has the money for this shit?

Corporations like Starbucks really love to pat themselves on the back. Take the Ethos Water Fund, for example:

So far more than $7.38 million has been granted to help support water, sanitation and hygiene education programs in water-stressed countries.

I have a better idea. How about they pay their fair share of taxes? And how about instead of charging us $2 for water, from which a measly 10¢ is devoted to these unfortunate people, they give a little more and charge us a little less for something we can get out of a tap? If these campaigns are truly a form of social responsibility in action, I’d like to see them do these good deeds without attaching their logo to them. Otherwise, the line that separates philanthropy from self-promotion becomes awfully blurry.

I do what I can. I’m the sort of shopper who keeps health food stores in business; I don’t even use normal toilet bowl cleaner, for Christ’s sake. But I saw a jar of what I’m sure are delicious pickles at my local butcher the other day that cost a cool $14.99. If anyone has any doubt that Toronto’s Roncesvalles Village has been gentrified, wonder no more. That’s the official stamp right there (yup, Portlandia did a parody of the pickling fad too!). My family had a huge garden when I was growing up and we canned pretty much everything that can be canned. Beets, mushrooms, pickles, borscht, tomatoes, sauerkraut – you name it. I can tell you it’s not that expensive to do. Look, I’ll gladly pay more for locally, naturally raised meat any day. I’ve even cut my meat consumption so I can afford it. I get why it costs so much more than the standard grocery store fare. But fucking pickles?

It’s getting hard to find businesses that don’t take advantage of their throwback appeal and ethical bent to squeeze more money out of customers. Why should I have to declare war on myself for wanting to swing by that shop that introduced me to terrine because I feel like I’ve been seduced by Satan himself? I hate who I’ve become!

So I ask you: where do we draw the line? It seems that the cheapest and most authentic way to do things ethically and naturally is to do it your damn self.

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Filed under Humour, Politics & Society

How liberal dogma is eroding the left

I’ve said it before: from a certain angle, progressives are the real  conservatives. At least, we’re supposed to be. Resource and worker exploitation, rampant consumerism, overspending by an elite bureaucracy – these practices may increase the GDP, but they’re wrong. And part of why they’re wrong is that we end up paying for them in disproportionate and messy ways. Of course, it’s never the people who make the decisions that end up dealing with the repercussions, and it’s precisely this sense of injustice, this lack of social accountability, that is supposed to propel the left.

Progressives aren’t perfect. We’re not cohesive. We don’t have a monopoly on wanting things to be better for everyone. And we’re not immune to dogma and rhetoric. I hate to say it, but in the case of Ontario, many lefties seem to be having a tough time reconciling what it means to be accountable when it comes to how governments handle public money. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath has this to say on the subject:

I believe that there is a lot of waste in government right now and I believe that the people of Ontario want to see that waste eliminated, and I don’t think we eliminate it without the hard decisions.

How many Ontarians would disagree with this statement? Does anyone really doubt that the provincial bureaucratic machine is not wasteful, after all of the scandals, and that we wouldn’t benefit by figuring out how we might do things more efficiently? If you’ve been reading the comments on Horwath’s Facebook page and other social media sites, for many self-proclaimed NDP supporters (past or current), the answer, oddly, is yes.

I’m really struggling to see the problem here. Since when is tackling waste the exclusive domain of the right?

You’d think the left, which makes a big fuss over the evils of austerity (for good reason) would be able to distinguish that from efficiency. What’s crucial here is who’s proposing the policy and why, what does it really entail, and what is its context within the overall platform? Why should talking seriously about fiscal responsibility be off limits? Is it necessarily the case that progressive candidates who do so are only trying to conquer new territory?

This knee-jerk reaction justifies and perpetuates the stereotype that progressive governments only ever pursue a ‘tax and spend’ agenda, that they’re inherently financially inept, wasteful behemoths. A lot of people who end up voting Conservative don’t do so because they like the idea of seeing social supports slashed; they do it because they’re sick of seeing their money being pissed away by people who don’t share their priorities or understand their challenges. Many on the left completely fail to understand this, to the detriment of us all.

Traditionally left-wing media purveyors such as Rabble and the Toronto Star have been steadily pumping out articles about the NDP that are both reflexive and peppered with conjecture. Case in point:

“The NDP will never win with policies that adhere to Conservative definitions of what counts as fiscal responsibility. Not ever. Fiscal responsibility is not spending your time looking under couch cushions for extra change. Fiscal responsibility is spending money on programs that help regular people and not the rich or corporations. All else is a Conservative smoke screen…”

And there you have it, folks – it’s not just a tired leftie stereotype: as per Michael Stewart, spending – and only spending – is an acceptable form of fiscal responsibility. What’s more, this lazy argument exposes an unfortunate liberal dogma. How is it that a concept as central as this can be defined in such a narrow way, without being widely challenged, and without having to demonstrate a holistic understanding of what it means to manage money? And how is it fair to declare that the NDP is adhering to Conservative ideology just because they’re pointing out a problem that pretty much every single Ontarian would admit exists? The NDP plan doesn’t come anywhere close to resembling a Mike Harris-type platform. Or a Tim Hudak platform. Or a Liberal platform, for that matter. It needs to be said that the progressive ideas put forth by the Liberals have been either borrowed (I’m being generous here) from the NDP or grudgingly adopted from them.

In The Ottawa Citizen, David Reevely criticizes this newest NDP initiative by writing that “what prevents mismanagement is competent ministers.” Sure, that’s true, but that’s not the only way a government can prevent mismanagement – not by a long shot.

A good friend of mine used to work for the Ontario Power Authority. She would go on and on about the fancy catered lunches her manager ordered. They simply had to have their San Pellegrino, and gourmet, organic selection of fine foods. The genre of requests from and accommodations for executives reflected a disturbing sense of entitlement. Does this qualify as the sort of program spending that Stewart was talking about? No, because it’s everyday practices like this that aggregately soak up revenue, in addition to other things, including truly excessive salaries and redundancies (both of which the NDP are targeting).

By pointing this out, I’m not badmouthing public workers or unions. It means I don’t think we should be spending other people’s money on things we don’t really need. There’s absolutely no reason why this isn’t or shouldn’t be a core progressive policy. Now, is this is the sort of waste that the proposed Minister of Savings and Accountability would address? Would we really save about $600 million annually? How would the NDP achieve the goal of 0.5% savings in the budget every year? That remains to be seen. But the sad fact is that many progressives don’t even want to entertain the idea that perhaps we should take a look at how we’re spending money. The claim by Reevely and others that the NDP is veering from their traditional policy of sticking up for the little guy is simply unqualified and nonsensical. Sometimes I actually get a glimmer of understanding as to why conservatives think the whole lot of us lefties are idiots.

If we’re going to question Horwath for promising too much, as Martin Regg Cohn has done (and reasonably so), we should also be ceaselessly pointing out the Liberals’ proven track record of having done so – and failed spectacularly. Cohn has inexplicably described the NDP campaign as “Ford-style populism”, but there’s a huge difference between a politician whose entire platform consists of cutting and saying no to everything and one who vows to go after waste we know exists, and as part of a broader platform that does actually include funding programs that will directly benefit the average Ontarian. While I honestly think it would be foolish to expect the NDP’s entire platform to check out economically, Cohn’s comparison of Horwath’s politics to Rob Ford’s was shamefully gratuitous. Rob Ford? Come on.

I get it – we’re sick and tired of neoliberal policies. We’re paying higher taxes and getting less in return. Services are cut while deficits grow. The solution to this, then, is to think creatively. This includes examining the budget and bureaucracy so we can make sure that where we are spending money, we’re not doing so needlessly. We literally can’t afford to pretend that raising taxes on big corporations and wealthy individuals will give us the kind of float we need to put things back into balance. This would be a good start – but not a solution. Why do so many within the left seem determined to sabotage any attempt at forming a platform that Ontarians can actually get behind?

More to the point, the question that continues to haunt me, now more than ever, is:

Can we not be progressive and responsible at the same time?

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Kathleen Wynne’s Trojan horse: standing up to neoliberalism

In turning her back on the Liberal Party’s proposed budget, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath has whipped up a tornado of controversy by triggering a new election to be held in less than two months’ time. Depending on who you ask, this is either the bravest or the most reckless thing she could have done.

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

One thing that’s certain is that it was a big surprise. Reactions on the left include disappointment, bewilderment, relief, and excitement.

Progressives have been forced to capitulate to centrist policy because we haven’t had much choice. A lot of lefties are asking what was so wrong with the budget that it had to come to this. We tend to be caught between two undesirable choices, and this time around was no exception:

  1. Accept the bitter pill of a flawed, bloated budget from a government that has botched things very badly even though leadership has been replaced.
  2. Turn down the budget, thus triggering an election and exposing ourselves to the possibility that we could end up with an even more damaging administration in charge.

We’ve been here before. Andrea Horwath is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. Ultimately, the fundamental challenge facing progressives isn’t the NDP’s refusal to cooperate with the Liberal government. What we really need to be concerned about is why we don’t have a bigger base of support while the conservatives do. It’s not a pleasant subject, but it has to be addressed if we’re interested in the long term well-being of all Ontarians.

The Liberals simply are not capable of delivering the kind of change that we need. Their motives are suspect, their numbers are fuzzy, their promises are lofty, and their record leaves us with not one single reason to believe that they will do what they say they will. Some have accused Horwath of playing politics, but her explanation for voting against the budget is supported by what we already know to be true:

“The same government that couldn’t fill these three promises [reduction in auto insurance rates, introduction of an accountability officer, and significant action on home care] in the last year is making more than 70 new promises this year.”

photo(1)

A budget to please or appease?

Many progressives were taken in by the promise of Wynne’s budget while failing to recognize that this is about much more than the budget itself. In addition to the question of whether it offers the right ingredients, there’s also the question of whether it’s realistic. Most importantly, would it have been implemented by the administration making these promises? The problem is that Wynne’s government has no credibility at this point. The budget may sound like a great deal (it’s not), but it never could be under the execution of an irresponsible government regardless. It’s like a big, beautifully wrapped gift that’s too heavy to carry home. The NDP is taking a huge risk by triggering a new election, but whereas its outcome is uncertain, we know exactly where that budget would lead. When we peel back the cellophane wrapper, we discover that this ‘gift’ is essentially the same one we got last time.

How long are we going to compromise our principles out of fear of the right wing? What I’m really struggling to understand is how NDP types could be suspicious of Horwath while trusting Wynne’s Trojan horse. The left has to come together on this and take a good hard look at what has worked, what hasn’t, and reconnect with the people. We know that a substantial proportion of working people act against their own best interest when they vote Conservative or Liberal. We need to start articulating that not only by criticizing those budgets and platforms, but by building a plan that actually works.

The neoliberal agenda has placed a spell on us with its enchanting incantations but it has failed to make meaningful progress. The Ontario Liberal Party is now widely reviled from all sides. They’re so deeply entrenched in a culture of incompetence, waste, and corruption that people are incensed enough to veer from their traditional voting patterns.

If Tim Hudak didn’t come off as such a mediocre-minded slimeball, the NDP probably wouldn’t have taken such drastic action. I suspect his lack of likeability isn’t helped by Stephen Harper’s reputation as a cold, calculating sociopath. Harper has done considerable damage to the Conservative brand in general, just as McGuinty and Wynne have done for the Liberals. Could this play a part in the election outcome?

Right-leaning voters who desperately want change but aren’t married to the Conservative culture are more likely to overcome their uneasiness about the NDP if they see that they aren’t acting like petulant, out of touch, impotent utopians. Add to this the extra points that Horwath wins for distancing herself from large private sector unions like Unifor and the Ontario Federation of Labour that urged her to side with the Liberals. We saw that under Jack Layton, the party articulated popular priorities very well and was able to seize on favourable conditions. If the NDP demonstrates once again that it has a renewed sense of purpose and is just as fed up as the rest of Ontarians – and serious about doing something about it – there’s a chance they might attract supporters we haven’t anticipated.

 

 

A recent EKOS poll taken right before Friday’s events shows the Liberals leading with 34.7%, the Conservatives close behind with 31.6%, and the NDP with 22.2%. Just under 19% were undecided. How will these figures change following the budget showdown? There’s enough room for swing votes that no one can be sure what will happen. I would love to talk to the people who represent the PC-NDP swing segment:

 

onpoli

 

Even for those voters who still won’t be ideologically swayed by the NDP, Horwath will have earned nods for showing some refreshing nerve and integrity – something many people have been craving badly under the Liberals. She managed to hand them a way out – something that Hudak, Wynne’s most vocal critic – could not. He’s eating his words now.

“Hudak also took a shot at Horwath for not commenting on the budget, saying she chose to ‘duck and run‘ rather than ‘stand up for taxpayers.’”

Under Horwath, the Ontario NDP is now projecting an image that says the era of centre-left patronage is over, and it’s willing to risk losing ground to the right in order to defend accountability. They’re not afraid to step into the ring alone. After all, who wants to root for a contender that doesn’t really want to fight? It’s unclear how much respect Horwath might gain or how much currency that will have, but the election is only eight weeks away. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for Hudak to shine or for Wynne to gloss over the embarrasing rejection. People are sitting up and taking notice, but the key to Horwath’s success lies not in whether the people are paying attention to her, but whether she’s paying attention to them.

If this curve ball doesn’t inspire Ontarians to decide that voting is more interesting and worthwhile than watching TV, I don’t know what will.

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Whose economy? How privilege shapes economic discourse

A man who might become Canada’s next Prime Minister was mocked last week for his reaction when confronted with the claim that the middle class is doing quite well, contrary to his assertions.

There’s no point in arguing about whether Justin Trudeau is competent when all he could squeeze out of his brain was a regurgitation of campaign talking points: “We’re talking about people here in a way that is giving them the capacity to be part of strong and vibrant communities.”

What does that even mean?

The New York Times report in question has limited value where this issue is concerned because its findings are relative, not absolute. It doesn’t actually establish that the Canadian middle class is doing well; it just says that for the first time ever, our middle class is doing better than that of our American counterparts. Which isn’t terribly exciting considering how much of a beating they’ve taken.

There are a lot of factors to take into account when judging how well a certain income group – or any group – is doing. Are they making progressively more money to compensate for inflation? Are they getting more for the taxes they pay? Are they in a better position to secure adequate housing? Are they able to save more money, or are they taking on more debt? Has the group shrunk or expanded? Do they have equitable and sufficient access to quality healthcare, or education? Are they struggling to pay utilities? Can they afford to eat healthy food? What about exposure to toxins and pollution? Crime and incarceration rates?

Most importantly, when we talk about class it’s not a simple question of economic difference; we’re talking about human beings and all the social, cultural, and political realities they face. Class isn’t just about how much money you make. In many cases, class is the colour of your skin or the neighbourhood you live in.

What we really need to consider is whether we can base our understanding of the state of our economy on the state of the middle class. Defining the middle class is no easy task to begin with (MSN Money suggests these 9 ways to tell if you’re middle class). According to the results of this Gallup poll, it appears that Americans are most likely to self-identify as middle class (Republicans even more so), although the Pew Research Center has reported that this number has dropped sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, rich people don’t even think they’re rich.

There it is again.

Middle class, middle class, MIDDLE CLASS!

It’s true that middle class incomes have stagnated. Even Statistics Canada has confirmed it. But it’s not an accident that the experiences and interests of the middle class dominate our political and economic discourse. If we ever needed proof that Canada is a stratified society shaped by the privileged, it’s made abundantly clear by the frequent mention of the middle class, especially in the run-up to elections. And Trudeau really wants us to know that he cares about the middle class:

“Liberals in Quebec and across the country are focused on jobs, the economy, and growing the middle class.”

One question keeps popping into my mind: What’s wrong with talking about, say, the working class? What’s wrong with being working class? Believe it or not, there was a time when being a member of the proletariat was a source of pride and dignity, and still is to many Canadians – only you wouldn’t guess it by listening to the talking heads.

If we really want to know how “the economy” is doing, we have to talk about how everyone is doing. Mainstream discourse would have us believe that the middle class is the ultimate barometer of economic prosperity and stability; as long as the middle class is doing okay, apparently we have nothing to worry about.

But who’s we? And whose economy are we talking about? There can be no doubt that Canada’s income gap has been growing at an alarming rate. Wealth inequality is a serious problem here as in other so-called developed nations. It does affect the middle class, but it affects the poor and working class even more. Yet somehow, we’re not allowed to talk about this. We’re not given the license to focus our attention on the people who need it most.

There are several factors involved in this process, including disillusionment and apathy, which result in lower voter turnout and less worker organizing (is it any surprise that the Harper government targeted the perceived threat of a more motivated electorate through the Fair Elections Act?). The privileged classes, in no small part due to their control of the corporate media, have effectively brainwashed Canadians as a whole to demonize the very groups that have fought for the rights of not only working people but all Canadians. Namely, workers’ collectives, cooperatives and unions – you know, those pesky good-for-nothings who brought us better wages, higher labour standards, universal healthcare, and basically everything else that government and the private sector would never voluntarily let us have. But when it comes to the working class, the poor, and people of colour voting against their own self-interest, Ford Nation is the perfect example: this “man of the people” consistently votes against initiatives that seek to alleviate hardship experienced by children, low income earners, the homeless, the LGBT community, women, immigrants, etc.

Then of course, there’s the privileged themselves – people of means who are economically insulated from these concerns. Some seek to keep more for themselves, either consciously or subconsciously. But more than that, the simple fact is that the privileged can afford to live in blissful ignorance (or willful ignorance, depending on how you see it). That’s what it means to be privileged. Those who have the least to worry about, who shoulder the least amount of risk and impact, are narrowing the discussion so that we don’t even have to consider that perhaps we should do something about the disproportionate burden we place on the working poor, including that of taxation. We should be additionally worried that Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the only left-ish political party with opposition potential, thinks that the idea of taxing people fairly (i.e. raising tax rates on even some income brackets) is out of the question. Canada’s historically labour-aligned party, afraid to talk about progressive taxation? That’s scary.

I’m not Barack Obama’s biggest fan, but this is the kind of discourse we desperately need to encourage:

Until it becomes painfully clear that too many people are rich while too many are poor for no good reason (which I think is already the case, but obviously not enough people are willing to admit it yet), it looks like we’ll be stuck with politicians who want to keep us hooked on amorphous concepts like the economy, prosperity, and growth. Trudeau, for one, has made it clear that what he’s really worried about is the possibility that “the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda”.  Now why, one wonders, would they do that? Maybe because they’re slowly questioning neoliberal and conservative rhetoric and opening their minds to new ideas – ideas that are transparent and meaningful?

“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all… The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
― Helen Keller in Rebel Lives: Helen Keller

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Voices and choices: reflections on Ani DiFranco, feminism & racism

i’m no heroine
at least, not last time i checked

- Ani DiFranco in ‘I’m No Heroine’

A gargantuan mess has exploded over last the few weeks over a controversy surrounding American indie folk artist Ani DiFranco. Ani’s official apology Thursday set off another wave of public opinion and media response, and this circus may not yet be over. As a lifelong fan, I’ve spent a great deal of time reacting to the reactions, thinking about my own ideologies, and figuring out how I can turn this imbroglio into an opportunity to be a better feminist and human being.

Disclaimer: I am not in any way affiliated with or endorsed by Ani DiFranco or Righteous Babe Records. I ran an Ani DiFranco fan site called ani-difranco.net several years ago and eventually sold the domain and content to her record label for a modest sum when I was no longer able to maintain it. It is still being used as a redirect. I’ve seen Ani live about four times but have never met her.

Who is Ani DiFranco?

Ani DiFrancoAni DiFranco (pronounced AH-nee) grew up in Buffalo, New York to Italian American parents. Her first experience of social justice work was accompanying her mother on grassroots women’s rights campaigns. Ani took up songwriting and performing at an early age and after extensive touring, and despite multiple contract offers from record labels, she scrounged together all the money she could raise and founded her own label, Righteous Babe Records, at the age of 19 (by most accounts). She gained a huge cult following for her overtly political songs that deal with issues including domestic abuse, sexism, poverty, racism, environmental degradation, homophobia, and religion. Many LGBT fans were drawn to her for her fierce pride in her own bisexuality and her commitment to shattering stereotypes. Ani’s career has now spanned over two decades and her repertoire includes over 20 albums. Ani is much-loved for her diverse musical talents and songwriting prowess, her incisive and articulate analysis, and her open, upbeat, and compassionate manner.

Righteous Retreat

Ani was approached to lend her name to and participate in a music workshop in Louisiana, dubbed Righteous Retreat. She asked for the event to be held near New Orleans, where she lives, so she could return home every night. She learned some time later that the event had been booked at Nottoway Plantation and Resort, a former slave plantation, which has been restored and is rented out for events such as conferences and weddings. While many people expressed enthusiasm regarding the event, many also quickly pointed out that it could have the effect of excluding black women or others who did not wish to spend time in a place with such horrific history, and that this could also amount to supporting a business that is exploiting that history. Furthermore, the oversight was interpreted as yet another example of white privilege steamrolling over the goals and concerns of people of colour, particularly in the mainstream feminist movement. Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list of all of the concerns.

There can be no question that this was a serious and unfortunate miscalculation on Ani DiDranco’s part. Even though she didn’t create or organize the event, she knew where it was going to be held, and even after a great deal of uproar over the venue, a full apology and cancellation did not come nearly as quickly as many had hoped – myself included. It’s surprising that an individual who is so passionate about and well-versed in the language of social justice failed to anticipate that people might be offended by the idea of holding such an event in such a place. Though she explained that her hope was to encourage reconciliation and healing by incorporating discussions about the setting into the content of the workshop, that was not her torch to carry.

This is not one of those controversial decisions that a person can defend by explaining their intentions or their own interpretation of the issue. When people of colour tell a person of privilege that they have caused insult and hurt through their behaviour, the very existence of that hurt is reason enough to stop and apologize. Period. There should always be room for dialogue and self-expression, but at the very least, that needs to happen. And the apology needs to come from a place of respect, and not as an attempt to minimize the damage or because it’s what’s expected.

There’s a difference between identifying behaviour that is problematic, and undermining entire human beings and in turn exporting these judgements to entire groups of people. Progressives many not like to admit that many of us are privileged. Racism is one of the things that we want to eradicate, so naturally, none of us would want to believe that we too can contribute to racism. We need to challenge that reflexive denial. That tendency is ultimately a product of privilege as well as a dogmatic loyalty to ‘isms’. When we start to make this just about Ani DiFranco or just about feminism or liberalism, we fail to address the fundamental source of not only racism but prejudice in general. If in the course of identifying prejudice expressed within one group we repeat the rhetoric of prejudice against another, this perpetuates a divisiveness that insincere people are only too happy to exploit in order to fulfill their own partisan or ideological agendas.

may you never be the receptacle of blame
may you never be the scapegoat
for a whole
world full of shame

Ani DiFranco in ‘On Every Corner’

Obviously, when many people are faced with an opportunity to accept an inconvenient truth, they choose the alternative, which is to rationalize. One of the things that people need to stop doing is hiding behind straw man arguments. This topic is discussed brilliantly by Scott Woods in 5 Things No One Is Actually Saying About Ani DiFranco or Plantations.

Nottoway Plantation

Since numerous articles have called attention to the details surrounding the venue itself as a basis for criticism of Ani DiFranco, I think it’s worth delving into. It’s true, as some have pointed out, that it’s nearly impossible to find soil in the South – or most of North America, for that matter – upon which atrocities have not been committed against African Americans, Native Americans or other oppressed people. Many plantations have been restored, reimagined and used for entirely new purposes. If progressive artists were to visit only venues whose history, owners, and staff were squeaky clean, they wouldn’t have many venues to choose from. But anyone whose defence of Ani’s behaviour rests entirely on this analysis is completely missing the point.

The following except from Nottoway Plantation and Resort’s website has been cited as indication that they’re whitewashing history:

“Ever the astute businessman, Randolph knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive. Every New Year’s Day, John Randolph would give the field slaves a hog to cook and the Randolph family would eat with them in The Quarters. There would be music and dancing, and the Randolphs would give the slaves gifts of clothing, small toys and fruit, as well as a sum of money for each family. In addition, the workers received an annual bonus based on their production. It is difficult to accurately assess the treatment of Randolph’s slaves; however, various records indicate that they were probably well treated for the time.”

Sure, it would be counterproductive for them to emphasize their painful and dark history, but when an establishment misrepresents or manipulates its history for any reason, and especially for the sake of profit, that legacy of racism takes on a modern manifestation. If this account of a visit to Nottoway is at all accurate, whitewashing is exactly what they’re doing. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the 102 out of 137 individuals who rated the resort as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ on TripAdvisor that they were participating in something objectionable.

Questions have come up about whether it would have been fair to expect Ani to have done her own research on this particular venue or whether she should be held personally responsible for the scripting and practices of a venue with which she was unfamiliar. An establishment whose website describes itself as offering “luxury resort amenities” clearly caters exclusively to the needs and wants of the affluent, who we can safely assume are overwhelmingly white, at best. Does that clash with the image of person who defends the poor and otherwise underprivileged? Of course it does! While I think that expecting her to know that Nottoway is owned by a corporation/individual who funds bigoted political campaigns would be going a bit far, the issue here isn’t one of a celebrity accidentally being associated with something unsavoury; it’s the fact that she entertained the idea of patronizing this establishment knowing what she already knew.

It’s certainly difficult to form a consensus on when we should be involved with a place that has a dark past and when we should not. How far should or can we go in order to avoid contributing to systems of exploitation? While these questions might comprise a valid element of the debate and can stimulate further discussion regarding the politics of space, we should never use them as an excuse to disregard the idea that we might really want to think twice about visiting former slave plantations, or more specifically what we might do when we’re there.

That being said, I noticed something interesting in some of the language used in news reports and media commentary. The Huffington Post published this headline: Ani DiFranco Is ‘Remarkably Unapologetic’ About Slave Plantation Retreat. There word former is missing. Mother Jones did it too. Huffington Post actually published another article, which they introduced on Twitter with the following blurb: “What happens when a pop star realizes hosting a retreat on a slave plantation is a bad idea”. Ani DiFranco a pop star? And again, mysteriously absent that one word. Why the repeated omission? It’s predictable that the media will latch on to a scandal and that they may not get everything right. What bothers me about this is that there’s enough contention here that we don’t need to be disingenuous or resort to semantic laziness – whichever it is.

Reflection and perception

I’ve observed claims that a person who makes the kind of errors that Ani DiFranco did is racist. The problem is that not everyone is on the same page about how to define racism or what it means to be racist or a racist. For some, it’s an absolute concept; you’re either racist or you’re not, but the criteria that qualifies you as a racist is highly subjective. For others, it’s a tendency or capacity inherent in all people, and although it may manifest at times, it’s viewed as something to work through both individually and collectively. Rather than being a source of deep shame that can further perpetuate the problem, it’s a learning process that we should take seriously (but never personally) when we’re called out.

Within the backdrop of that debate, I think it’s important to consider how Ani has approached and given voice to these issues throughout her career. Because there are simply too many songs to list which involve poverty, class, and other social issues especially relevant to people of colour, listed below are excerpts that include only songs that mention racism specifically:

i love my country
by which i mean
i am indebted joyfully
to all the people throughout its history
who have fought the government to make right
where so many cunning sons and daughters
our foremothers and forefathers
came singing through slaughter
came through hell and high water
so that we could stand here
and behold breathlessly the sight
how a raging river of tears
cut a grand canyon of light
so i lean in
breathe deeper that brutal burning smell
that surrounds the smoldering wreckage
that i’ve come to love so well
yes, color me stunned and dazzled
by all the red white and blue flashing lights
in the american intersection
where black crashed head on with white
comes a melody
comes a rhythm
a particular resonance
that is us and only us
comes a screaming ambulance
a hand that you can trust
laid steady on your chest
working for the better good
(which is good at its best)
and too, bearing witness
like a woman bears a child:
with all her might
born of the greatest pain
into a grand canyon of light
Grand Canyon in Educated Guess

they caught the last poor man on a poor man’s vacation
they cuffed him and they confiscated his stuff
and they dragged his black ass down to the station
and said “ok the streets are safe now.
all your pretty white children can come out to see spot run
and they came out of their houses and they looked around
but they didn’t see no one
‘Tis of Thee in Up Up Up Up Up Up

i know so many white people
i mean, where do i start?
the trouble with white people
is you can’t tell them apart
i’m so bad with names and dates and times
but i’m big on faces
that is, except for mine
Names and Dates and Times in Puddle Dive

you might be the wrong color
you might be too poor
justice isn’t something just anyone can afford
you might not pull the trigger
you might be out in the car
and you might get a lethal injection
’cause we take a metaphor that far
Crime for Crime in Not a Pretty Girl

they were digging a new foundation in manhattan
and they discovered a slave cemetery there
may their souls rest easy now that lynching is frowned upon
and we’ve moved on to the electric chair
am i headed for the same brick wall
is there anything i can do
about anything at all
except go back to that corner in manhattan
and dig deeper
dig deeper this time
down beneath the impossible pain of our history
beneath unknown bones
beneath the bedrock of the mystery
beneath the sewage system and the path train
beneath the cobblestones and the water main
beneath the traffic of friendships and street deals
beneath the screeching of kamikaze cab wheels
beneath everything i can think of to think about
beneath it all
beneath all get out
beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel
there’s a fire that’s just waiting for fuel
Fuel in Little Plastic Castle

so here’s a toast to all the folks who live in palestine
afghanistan
iraq
el salvador
here’s a toast to the folks living on the pine ridge reservation
under the stone cold gaze of mt. rushmore
Self Evident in Girls Singing Night (Disc 2 of So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter)

when i was four years old
they tried to test my i.q.
they showed me a picture
of 3 oranges and a pear
they said,
which one is different?
it does not belong
they taught me different is wrong
My I.Q. in Puddle Dive

teach myself to see each of us
through the lens of forgiveness
like we’re stuck with each other (god forbid!)
teach myself to smile and stop and talk
to a whole other color kid
teach myself to be new in an instant
like the truth is accessible at any time
teach myself it’s never really one or the other
there’s a paradox in every paradigm
Paradigm in Knuckle Down

too many stories
written out in black and white
come on people of privilege
it’s time to join the fight
are we living in the shadow of slavery
or are we moving on?
tell me which side are you on now
which side are you on?
Which Side Are You On? (title track)

white people are so scared of black people
they bulldoze out to the country
and put up houses on little loop-dee-loop streets
and while america gets its heart cut right out of its chest
the berlin wall still runs down main street
separating east side from west
and nothing is stirring, not even a mouse
in the boarded-up stores and the broken-down houses
so they hang colorful banners off all the street lamps
just to prove they got no manners
no mercy and no sense
and i’m wondering what it will take
for my city to rise
first we admit our mistakes
then we open our eyes
the ghosts of old buildings are haunting parking lots
in the city of good neighbors that history forgot
Subdivision in Reckoning

Lyrics to pretty much every Ani DiFranco song published can be found here.

In Render – Spanning Time With Ani DiFranco, Ani has this to say about her choice to establish her record label in Buffalo, her hometown:

“The building that Righteous Babe Records is in is on Main Street, which is just a dead street in Buffalo. It’s like the spine of the corpse. Scot [Scot Fisher, Ani's manager] is walking to work and he sees these guys on the old building across the street just chipping away stonework off the front of it. ‘Cause that’s what happens to buildings in poor, evacuated cities like Buffalo, New York, where people just started moving out, white people – white flight – leave the whole urban centre… And then all these buildings get cannibalized ’cause there’s beautiful old turn of the century architecture. And they come and take out all the woodwork and all the stonework and they sell it off in New York and LA, and then they demolish buildings. It’s incredible what racism does to our society. It affects our lives in so many ways, all of us, right down to the architecture.” [repetitive words and phrases removed for readability]

There are a lot of white women such as myself whose exposure to Ani’s music was the first and/or only source of consciousness about racism and all of the issues with which it intersects. Many of us admired her and identified strongly with her. Having witnessed her passion and knowledge about these issues (whose limits we know in retrospect), we were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Now, fast forward to a world in which Ani DiFranco is being likened to Paula Deen and conservatives are defending her. I never thought I would live to see this day.

There are two key things I take away from this. First, caring about and being knowledgeable about racism does not prevent a person from engaging in behaviour that is racist. You are only as conscious as your actions. There’s no level you can pass in the game of life that places you beyond the risk of being that person you don’t want to be. Second, Ani DiFranco is not the singular voice of an entire movement. Her actions do not represent, nor do they implicate, all white feminists. The reason I reproduced some of her lyrics here is to acknowledge that a person can express all of these things and yet still get it very wrong. Many of Ani DiFranco’s white fans understood that well before she did. Why? I honestly have no idea. But I can’t speak for her and she doesn’t speak for me.

One of my initial reactions to the social media uproar was a fear that it could have the effect of discouraging white women from approaching and addressing these issues, which we obviously have to do if we’re ever going to overcome our blind spots. But when I read articles such as this one and this one, my thinking shifted from How can white feminists participate in these issues without offending others or getting flogged? to Maybe we should make sure we’re educated before we begin to proselytize on behalf of all women.

Voices and choices

Anyone questioning the validity of emotions fails to understand that they aren’t negotiable. We all have the right to feel how we feel, and feel we do, even when these feelings are in conflict with our own reason. Our reactions, however, are a matter of choice. And while anger and disappointment are justified, the way in which those emotions are expressed will determine whether the situation is made better or worse, and whether those reactions will promote the very ideals we’re seeking to uphold. Some of the responses aimed at Ani DiFranco – and anyone who dared do anything but wholesale condemn her – were vicious and hateful. Given what people of colour have had to go through, the ignorance that many people were displaying, and the fact that even white people were pissed off by Ani’s decisions and responses, however, I think this was understandable. Though we may not like the reactions of others, that’s not an excuse to ignore the message they’re trying to convey.

I have been told that I’m unqualified to comment on these types of issues because I’m white. It has been assumed that I couldn’t possibly know anything about anti-racism theory, couldn’t possibly be familiar with the work of thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Dionne Brand, Audre Lorde or Macolm X. And though I recognize my privilege and acknowledge its relevance, I don’t think we can escape the paradox of shouting down people and squeezing them out of a discussion of prejudice and social exclusion by virtue of their membership to a particular category of person.

That’s how part of me looks at this. Not everything a white person does is a product of their whiteness, just like not everything a person of colour does is a product of their ethnicity or complexion. If a white person disagrees with what a person of colour says, or how they say it, that doesn’t make them a racist by default. Statements released by other artists such as Buddy Wakefield (a white male) and Toshi Reagon (a black lesbian) who were also scheduled to participate in the Righteous Retreat address the nature of the responses as well as the complexity of the issues. As this article further demonstrates, there is in fact a diversity of people, including people of colour, who feel that the issue is neither figuratively nor literally black and white.

I think there’s value in the logic that two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s a fundamental principle of nonviolent resistance. That being said, in situations like these there is a danger that white people who feel judged, indignant, and defensive will assume that some black women can’t see past their anger, while the more salient truth is that the injustice that white people perceive is precisely the sort that has been inflicted on people of colour for a very long time, and many times over. White women may know something about feminism, but we know even less about racism.

Sometimes in heated debates, it’s hard to know if someone is throwing rhetoric at you or making a point that you just don’t grasp. Just because someone tells you that your privilege makes you ignorant – even if it’s true – that doesn’t necessarily make them right about everything. And who’s to say that they aren’t exploiting that claim of ignorance in order to discredit you? As a woman, if I tell a man that he’s being sexist, he will most certainly challenge me. I can tell him that because I’m a woman and he’s not, only I can know what’s sexist. On a certain level, there’s truth in that. But what if I’m being irrational or manipulative? The act of calling out sexism, racism or any other form of discrimination does not guarantee truth and infallibility. However we spin this, though, one thing that can’t be denied is that if people of colour tell white people that we’re wrong, it’s probably true.

It comes down to this: if I don’t know the person I’m interacting with well enough to be able to rely on their reputation, then I really only have one choice. That choice is to trust them; to let them explain their point of view and try my best to understand. Because the greater evil is not me giving in and admitting fault where there is none; the greater evil is missing a rare opportunity to learn something profound and become a better person, and to give that person (who is not in a position of privilege like I am) the courtesy of being heard.

I’m not saying that people of colour need the permission or validation of white people to be heard. Or that white people need to be beneficent, as though they’re invoking some kind of saviour complex. What I’m saying is that during the debate, I witnessed quite a few people automatically dismiss black women as hypersensitive, bitter and generally angry at the world because they personally didn’t feel offended. And if they already have this bias, then one way that I can think of getting past it is to focus on having respect for the individual. Hopefully a more nuanced understanding will develop out of that. I recognize that people of colour have their own ideas about this and can speak for themselves.

Righteous Babe and Ani DiFranco have shared an article entitled 5 Ways White Feminists Can Address Our Own Racism on their Facebook pages in order to facilitate further dialogue. It’s an instructive article that should be read by all white feminists. It can have the effect of triggering defensiveness and embarrassment, but that’s not a bad thing; it’s exactly what we need to work through. I will be the first to admit that I interpreted it and reacted to it differently the third time I read it compared to the first.

This is the difficult work of decolonization. It’s supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. It’s supposed to change us. As a Buddhist, I also view this as an opportunity to practice equanimity, which is the state of experiencing or witnessing without reacting or taking things personally. However others may deal with that same challenge, whoever they are, it’s my individual responsibility to step back, take a deep breath (especially when I remind others to), and openheartedly accept that perhaps I’m right – but maybe not.

Most importantly, it’s not about being right or wrong. It’s not about reinforcing my pride in my consciousness or benevolence. It’s about doing the right thing by others. That can only happen when I acknowledge the limitations I place on myself (and others, by virtue of my privilege) by playing to my own sense of ego. Hopefully this controversy, as painful and messy as it has been, can actually serve as a catalyst to bring more women of privilege to a better understanding of how we can be effective allies.

every tool is a weapon
if you hold it right

- Ani DiFranco in My I.Q.

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