Tag Archives: inequality

‘Real’ nations and ‘real’ men

In my last post I wrote about deconstructing the language of ‘great nations’, ‘Canadian values’, and even ‘American values’. By questioning what is meant by these phrases, I hoped to explore how they erase historical and ongoing inequalities. There are many other ways in which mainstream discourse impedes progress by framing these discussions in specific, calculated ways.

Recently, David Cameron said that Jamaica should “move on” from the legacy of slavery. While this oft-repeated attitude is sometimes softened with a polite admission that the trauma is ongoing, the carefully selected people who are given a platform always avoid addressing the structural oppression responsible for these circumstances. Activists and observers have consistently pointed this out, as in these tweets by Eric Ritskes:

Telling marginalized people to get over their material reality is like holding someone underwater and telling them to breathe. If they drown, well, it’s their own fault. We’re expected to manufacture some semblance of justice within the boundaries of this logical framework. We know this is true because every tiny step forward, even when it’s accompanied by a step or two backwards, is supposed to be celebrated as a win, like the house of cards has collapsed and we can finally exhale. If you deny this you’re ungrateful and committed to anger and victimhood. We live in a post-racial, post-patriarchal society, remember?

There are more articles than anyone can read about how terrible it is that certain groups of people are just so unfortunate. We are filling pages and vats of tears over how bad we feel for these poor souls but very few people name the problems or identify the root causes. Writing for Maclean’s Magazine about the living conditions of First Nations in Canada, Scott Gilmore claims, “A real nation would not let this happen… We care more about postal service, child care and tax credits for the suburban middle class than we do Aboriginal issues. What kind of a nation are we?”. Gilmore gathers that since we allow this poverty and disenfranchisement to persist, the upshot must be that we’re not actually a nation.

But we are not a people, not a nation, not really. If we were, we would not be able to ignore each other, ignore other Canadians, the way we ignore the Aboriginal community.

No, we are not a people. We are different groups of different peoples. Different ethnicities, different sexes, different religions, different socioeconomic statuses, settlers, Métis, indigenous peoples, etc. We do not all share the same identities, interests or needs, owing to our experiences and the limitations we face. Moreover, our society is comprised of classes of people who do not enjoy equal power. It’s the absence of class analysis that makes articles like this one effectively useless when it comes to eradicating problems such as poverty and violence.

No, we are not a people but we are a nation. A very real one – just not the kind that we can or should be proud of. Canada is in fact a colonial state, a constitutional monarchy led by elected officials whose victories are produced by a disastrous electoral system. Our legal institutions still view First Nations as wards of the state via the Indian Act, with many other laws since passed that violate their inherent rights, including those protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (at least on paper).

With a few exceptions where indigenous leaders and groups have made some headway particularly in Latin America, even countries that have achieved independence are marked by deep racial, gender, and economic divides. Is Australia a real nation? Of course it is. The fact that Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals and other marginalized groups is abhorrent doesn’t detract from its status as a nation; the truth is, the state itself as well as many of its citizens have a vested interest in denying these rights.

A real nation as Gilmore understands it is a nation that treats people better somehow (he’s not quite sure how) but remains a political construct composed of institutions that are designed and controlled by people who possess the power to do these things. But that’s not all. A larger category of people – including the ones in charge – are the benefactors of these institutions. As for the poor people who get trampled underfoot, that’s not collateral damage. They’re the intended targets. Stepping on their backs is how we get ahead. The land we occupy, the resources we extract, the paths we clear to make way for pipelines, and the waste and pollution we produce – someone has to pay for that development. This often happens in the form of environmental racism.

In Canada, the treaties were supposed to guarantee a nation-to-nation relationship. First Nations and the Canadian government were to trade and share resources and co-manage. There was never any agreement that settlers would make decisions for First Nations. But they do. And that’s what Canada, a real nation, looks like. So what would we call a nation that respects the treaties? A decolonized one. A lot of settler Canadians have never even heard of this idea.

Privilege is having the luxury of theorizing about other people’s problems, failing to offer meaningful analysis or solutions, and failing to identify who is responsible but getting published by a major news outlet anyway. This is the limp shrug with which Gilmore ends his essay:

I don’t know who to be more ashamed of, our politicians or us.

Privilege is thinking that you might be able to blame other people for a system that you yourself benefit from and participate in because you can afford not to acknowledge white supremacy. Apparently, all we have to do is be nice folks who express sadness for other people and hope that someone gets their act together. There’s no need to challenge the ideologies that underpin power imbalances, and after all, why would someone like Gilmore want to do that? According to his LinkedIn page, he’s a co-founder of and owns equity in an advisory firm that works with the extractive sector, the most destructive driver of imperialism, capitalism, and ecocide on the planet. Why does he think people need to hear what he has to say about injustice? Oh, right. Privilege.

Now that we’ve established that the concept of real nations is nonsense, I’d like to turn our attention to the concept of ‘real’ men. It goes something like this: real men respect women, real men smoke cigars in their man caves, real men curse and grow facial hair, real men do this, real men do that. There’s loads of this crap everywhere. AskMen.com, for example, lists Traits of a Real Man, which they claim is “the only handbook you’ll ever need to becoming a real man”. You’ve already heard the drill: it starts with “strength, reliability, and action” and goes from there. Because women are weak, unreliable, and passive, I guess. Well, women and men who aren’t real men. If you’re a man who hasn’t mastered these traits, don’t worry. Old Spice offers a short cut to this coveted status. You just have to get past their ridiculous marketing and buy their stupid products. You didn’t think it would be free, did you?

Imagine extra terrestrials observing a conversation about masculinity here on Earth and trying to make sense of it.

“So if real men do all the things that make them real men, what does that make other men?”

“I don’t know. I mean, they’re men too, aren’t they?”

“Well, what else would they be?”

“Men who are losers?”

“But then they’re still men.”

“Wow, these humans are dumb.”

Yeah. All men are men. I know, it’s a tad confusing. That’s because masculinity is bullshit. But I’m not just being flippant here. As feminist Sue Veneer demonstrates, the repercussions of this framing are serious.

Well worth a read, she expands on this here by explaining that this phrasing “implies that rapists are some sort of ‘other’, a type of man that is outside of masculine culture. Yet we know that however monstrous the crime of rape is, rapists are not ‘monsters’. They are men from all parts of society; fathers, husbands, priests, servicemen…”. She adds:

By ‘othering’ rapists, it allows men to shirk collective and personal responsibility for rape. By defining rapists as not ‘real’ men, it allows men to conveniently place the blame for rape and violent male behaviour as something apart from them. By describing rapists as not ‘real’ men, men needn’t look at the systemic culture of rape and violence against women and how it defines our existence.

Michael Salter also does a good job of demystifying this subject in “Real men don’t hit women”: Constructing masculinity in the prevention of violence against women. Ultimately, there is no version of masculinity that’s healthy. Men don’t have to act in any particular way to prove that they’re men. We can see that they’re men. It’s not a big deal. There’s no need to make a drama out of what that means. Acting in a considerate, respectful manner and challenging hierarchies of power is pretty much all that’s needed to be a decent human being. Everything else is pure invention.

Whether we’re talking about real nations or real men, we need to recognize that behind this language lies a tightly woven web of beliefs that are harmful to everyone, especially disempowered groups of people. Many of us probably wouldn’t ascribe to these beliefs if we took a closer look. Let’s get real: pretending that behaviour is exceptional when in fact it’s systemic is a time-honoured method of maintaining structural oppression.

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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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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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