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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The hypocrisy of grief

Nelson_MandelaOne of the greatest visionaries and leaders of our time has passed away. Judging by all of the outpouring of sadness I’m hearing and seeing, pretty much everyone is sad. And they should be.

My personal feeling is that most people have shown genuine respect and admiration for everything that Nelson Mandela accomplished and represented, even if they wasted no time in hopping on to their social media accounts to log their grief. The reactions seem to suggest that we’re all staunch supporters of freedom and justice.

It’s easy to love Nelson Mandela. It’s easy to appreciate the ideals of love, integrity, peace and justice. Most people do on principle. But not everyone. And because they know that they would be vilified and shunned if they admitted who they really are, every politician – whether a true devotee of Mandela or not – is tripping over themselves to make sure that we know that they’re sad he’s gone.

Primer Minister Stephen Harper:

“He showed how people can shape better tomorrows and do so in their own time. Nelson Mandela’s long march to freedom, his grace and humility throughout that walk, and the bridge to the future he built for his people as he proceeded along it ensures that his remarkable example will inform others for generations.”

This, from a man who has categorically denied Canada’s colonial history and completely ignores sweeping protests for human rights by First Nations. What did he have to say about the group of brave young people who trekked over 1,600 km through the harsh North earlier this year in the name of freedom and solidarity? Not a word. I guess that wasn’t worth the brownie points.  (I wrote about this at length here).

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford:

“We join the people of South Africa in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, a true leader and advocate for freedom and democracy. Mandela dedicated his life to social justice in South Africa and around the world. As President of South Africa, he introduced a new constitution and launched numerous reforms and policies for the benefit of all South African people.”

This, just a few days after this wealthy self-described defender of the poor and marginalized said, “I don’t believe in all this public-funded health care, we can’t afford it. If you want health care, you pay for it.” When responding to a proposal that councillors hold public meetings to consider establishing new homeless shelters, he asked, “Why don’t we have a public lynching?” (video link)

Oh, the hypocrisy.

As for the rest of us who so readily grieve the passing of this great man, can we say that our own values and actions truly align with his message? Or do we come up short when our attention returns to our own interests? In so-called Western democracies, although we hail figures like Mandela as beacons of courage and hope, we do so only to the extent that our own comfort – both physical and ideological – will allow. Let’s face it: while Nelson Mandela was always respectful and kind, he was an unapologetic radical who never compromised when it came to condemning systems, practices and regimes that place profit or self-interest above justice, peace, and equality. Hoarding huge amounts of wealth while millions starve? Unacceptable. Denying people healthcare and critical support because they can’t afford it? Unacceptable. Austerity programs that gut public education while subsidising billion-dollar corporations? Unacceptable. Military occupations, indefinite detention and secretive surveillance programs? Unacceptable! If we connect with the essence of Mandela’s goals, we can’t possibly allow these types of policies to continue.

To hear some people lament the passing of Mandela, one would think that all is lost. “They don’t make people like him anymore,” they say. And why exactly do they think they are so not “like him”? He deserves all of the praise he gets, and all of the mourning too. But we’re wrong if we think we can distance ourselves from our responsibilities by placing him on a pedestal. No one appointed Mandela the saviour of South Africa. He was not a privileged man, or a prodigy with special talents beyond the capabilities of each and every one of us.

Now is not the time to pay lip service to ideals. Let’s think of Mandela the next time we read the newspaper, see a protest or cast our vote, and not remain silent and complacent. Instead, let’s remember how just one person can transform the world when they transcend their own self-interest and identity to channel the spirit of the people. Let’s carry on his work – our work – with dignity, clarity, openness, honesty, and love. If nothing else, what Mandela proved was that it can be done. In his own words:

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”