Countries don’t have values – people do

In a CBC News article, Liberal Leader and PM hopeful Justin Trudeau had this to say about the Syrian refugee crisis:

Canadians get it. This is about doing the right thing, about living up to the values that we cherish as a country.

Do we, Justin? Are we being honest about how many Canadians habitually show little compassion toward immigrants, refugees, First Nations, indigenous females, people of colour, and other marginalized groups? And not just show a lack of compassion, but blame them for our own policy failures? Since we seem to need reminding, I happen to have some examples on hand. A small sample:

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The sort of people who hold the views expressed above are the same people who balk at alleviating poverty and uprooting oppression except when these problems can be used as excuses for inaction, xenophobia, cynicism, and various other forms of pigheadedness. Not surprisingly, these types also cling to the official narrative of the Dominion of Canada, which goes something like this:

(Don’t ask me what the hell a cactus is doing there – I’m guessing in 1993 they had an extremely limited clipart selection to draw from.)

Apparently, it could only have been European immigrants who made this land great because prior to their arrival it was terra nullius. Empty, unclaimed land, so the story goes. A blank slate much improved by people who had maybe a piece of fruit and a few bucks in their pockets, people fleeing conflict, pioneers who despite having very little were seen as possessing a vast store of potential and value. In a fantastic feat of amnesia, the Canadian imagination doesn’t seem to include the 17,000 Chinese men who built our national railroad system in this group. Also interesting is the fact that when you mention immigrants and refugees to the average Canuck today – especially if the groups being referred to aren’t white and Christian – suddenly the romantic narrative of people making something out of nothing no longer applies.

The fact that our immediate unified response to humanitarian crises isn’t to see these human beings as the assets that they are reveals a lot about our enduring colonial mindset. Those who view migrants and refugees as liabilities do not see these people as human beings. Each and every one of us has value. It isn’t determined by one’s education, religion or culture, or whether one owns property or capital. We have value because we exist. We’re all connected and we all have something to offer. People should never have to prove their worth. When your neighbours’ house is burning down, do you leave them on your doorstep while you measure the floor space and count your pillows?

The language of great nations, Canadian values, American values, etc. has no real meaning. There’s a subtext to it, though. When patriots say these sorts of things, there’s an element of: we’re going to help you because we’re such nice people. In addition to asserting that we value others – whether we do or not in practice – apparently, it’s also crucial that we appear as good, civilized people. But good, civilized people don’t have to build a cozy narrative around why they help people. They just do it.

What strikes me as most troubling is that it’s not just proud imperialists like George W. Bush who believe that countries like Canada and the United States are shining beacons of prosperity and freedom and that people in the West are inherently different from and morally superior to people in other parts of the world. By insinuating that we’re special because we want to help refugees (well, some of us), we become apologists for our own colonial institutions. Nationalism is incompatible with universal human rights. There’s nothing decent about leveraging crises as self-congratulatory exercises or as a means to rub our patronizing gratitude for being Canadian in people’s faces. Millions of people on Turtle Island are suffering, our indigenous peoples most of all. How dare we erase their struggles with such careless hyperbole? If we’re so morally astute, why are we centering our discourse around helping people on our identity and the pride it gives us rather than the people themselves? Only a self-serving, arrogant culture would turn a real-life horror story into an opportunity to feel good about itself. Why do we need to make everything about us?

Patriotism and nationalism are to countries what marketing and advertising are to corporations. People who think they live in the greatest country in the world don’t have a reason to question the history they’ve been taught. Nor do they have an incentive to fight against the inequality and injustice that privilege insulates them from.

Appealing to Canadian values, after all, is standard scripting for politicians. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who is often described as a leftist, relies on the same loaded language. Canadians are going to hear a lot of it over the next several weeks. Like this, for example:

I’m confused. What group of people is going to define themselves according to a “value” of not exporting jobs? Is there a constituency on this planet in which a critical mass of people identify nationally with the idea of committing economic suicide? It makes no sense.

There is a key difference between Mulcair and Trudeau, however. It’s hard to miss the hypocrisy in rhapsodizing about being open and compassionate while supporting a law that violates our fundamental civil rights and targets marginalized and racialized groups, with essentially no oversight or accountability. What are the Liberal Party’s real values, and whose values do they represent?

What’s lost in so much of this political discourse is the fact that we’re never going to be a country – or a world – where everyone is free and equal until we acknowledge what we have done and what we continue to do in the name of commerce, development, and growth. What do these ideas mean? What could they mean, if we had the courage to redefine them? Of course, values are everything. But countries don’t have values. People do. Assuming an ideological hegemony among 35 million people who happen to live within politically defined boundaries erases history as well as the current reality of class-based inequality. It’s likely that disenfranchised people throughout the world have more in common with each other than they do with many people who share their nationality.

This goes well beyond issues surrounding refugees and immigration. Politicians never pass up an opportunity to remind us that we’re citizens of the state first and humans second.

There it is. See that? A very nice message, but he just couldn’t resisting squeezing in that bit of propaganda at the end. What makes America great, exactly? I need reminding, Mr. President. Is it the legacy of genocide and dispossession? The guiding forces of white supremacy and patriarchy? The epidemic of police brutality? The perpetual profit-driven war? The ruling oligarchy? Or maybe it’s the undercurrent of arrogance through which America pretends it offers heaven, when for so many people both in America and abroad, it’s a living hell.

Canada is not much better. Instead of coming to terms with our failures, we double down on language that everybody speaks but nobody understands.

Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.
― Arundhati Roy

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The lazy and the crazy

As news broke out about the Tuscon, Arizona shooting on Saturday, media outlets were busy deeming the event a result of US economic troubles instead of just reporting the facts as they became clear. Analysis doesn’t belong in headlines. But we were all on the alert because those who report the news have demonstrated their knee-jerk tendencies time and again, right? Right? There can now be no doubt that the incident was the direct result of mental illness which went untreated, but not unnoticed. According to many sources, several people have since come forward to describe shooter Jared Lee Loughner’s behaviour many months ago as having been unstable and frightening. He just happened to have certain political opinions. He could just as easily have believed that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was actually an alien masterminding a coup d’état of the US government.

While people continue to quibble over whether any responsibility lies with Sarah Palin for her ill-conceived campaign graphics (did you honestly expect anything intelligent coming from her camp?) or whether we should finally do something about the economy or gun control, I’m wondering why we need an assassination attempt on a politically significant individual to realize that people are suffering every day in numerous ways because of the policies of our governments. Like, now we’re supposed to sit bolt upright and pay attention, but last week the state of current affairs didn’t warrant intrusion into our daily thoughts? If there was no deep socio-economic unrest, would we still run the risk of something like this happening? Yes, for two reasons:

  1. Mental illness needs no motivation for violence – it’s an unfortunate fact that many people go untreated and are capable of harming themselves and others at any time, with or without social destitution or other catalysts;
  2. Gun laws are ridiculously lax because many Americans feel entitled to carry weapons, regardless of whether they face any reasonable risk of personal injury. This most recent tragedy, so highly publicized and bulging with rhetoric, will likely not result in a sobering of the US discourse on gun culture and laws. So as usual, people will feel shocked and then they’ll argue, none of which results in an improvement in the situation. News providers can’t be expected to provide this either, so it’s up to the rest of us.

Oh, and here’s a word you don’t see the media using in this situation that it would otherwise opportunistically flash: TERRORIST. Why? Because Loughner is white? American? Not Muslim or Arab? The omission is not lost on everyone (see An American Terrorist in Tucson Arizona by Paul I. Adujie) but unfortunately not obvious enough in the mainstream imagination.

What theme am I taking away from this? We don’t need massacres or events officially deemed ‘tragedies’ by officials or the media to give social causes meaning and urgency. I understand that information fatigue contributes to the fickleness of a public body that largely only pays attention to sensationalized events. But we run the risk of reinforcing in people’s minds the idea that we can go about our daily lives in a bubble unless and until something arbitrarily significant happens. A lot of people seem to feel that they can’t handle thinking about the terrible things that happen in the world every day. How many times have you heard people say, “I have my own problems to worry about”? Well, I’m not asking people to worry, cry or really even react to these things. If you’re the type of person who’s accepted that these things are a part of life for many people on a large and small scale, occurring in hospitals, boardrooms, schools and homes, to people who are public figures, members of the clergy, parking valets or the cashiers at your local grocery store, then you don’t feel compelled to react emotionally to every tragic event. The last thing we should do is freak out or tune out. Instead, we could empathize and reflect. We can’t prevent people from crumbling under the pressures of their lives. We can’t as individuals change guns laws, public perception or the media. As a collective, however, there’s always massive potential for change. But the answers to our problems are always more simple than they seem. Interestingly, a pivotal philosophy of both a militant revolutionary (Guevara) and a pacifist (Gandhi) was simply this: the first step to changing the world is changing ourselves. It’s all about perception.

Sources

Accused Arizona shooter’s lonely descent into instability and paranoia
Jared Lee Loughner: erratic, disturbed and prone to rightwing rants
Accused Arizona killer Jared Lee Loughner had others fearing for lives before shooting