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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Fueling division

I came across a celebrity-studded video by the NRDC Action Fund that advocates for a clean energy bill. The organization’s mission is to “achieve the passage of legislation that jump-starts the clean energy economy, reduces pollution, and sustains vibrant communities for all Americans”. Seems like they’re doing good work, right? Well, I’m wondering if anyone else picked up on some troubling language:

Here’s the phrase that raised my eyebrows:

“Oil we buy from countries that don’t share our values and kill our soldiers.”

Interesting. You’d think that all of the protests in the Middle East would make it clear that the will of the people in that region is characterized by a democratic fervor. Yet this video parrots the propagandistic narrative about relative cultural values. Would this have anything to do with mainstream America’s obsession with associating Muslims to terrorism while turning a blind eye to the terror its own country propagates? If we are to assume that all Iraqis and Afghanis are represented by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then how do we think the rest of the world should view American citizens? Making such statements perpetuates the concept of the ‘Other’ – more of this Us versus Them bullshit. Labeling nations that challenge imperialists who steal their natural resources and slaughter their people as inherently morally flawed is a deep expression of racism which only moves us further away from peace.

Now, even if the video refers to foreign leaders who don’t share American ‘values’, this betrays the fact that the U.S. administration has systematically colluded with dictators to establish free trade, which generates unthinkable corporate wealth and requires unabated, unconscious consumption. The fact that the NRDC Action Fund (and the celebrities we mindlessly idolize) are pressuring their own government on clean energy exposes their lack of faith that their own leaders reflect their values. So what are American values anyway and how do they differ from those of citizens anywhere else in the world? Do we not all share the goals of having viable livelihoods, a healthy environment, a just society and world peace? Also troubling is the fact that the video places paramount importance on American lives. They’re worried about American jobs and soldiers – but no mention goes to the horrific carnage and destruction perpetrated internationally in our names, and for our comfort. Yet another question: precisely what prosperity is there to defend? With 44 million Americans ‘living’ below the poverty line, high unemployment rates and a country sick enough to generate record profits for the health insurance and pharmaceutical corporations, the American Dream is proving not only to be an ever elusive illusion but also one predicated on inequality and instability.

I’m all for clean[er] energy. But there’s something very strange here. If developing markets for clean energy would fuel economic growth, why aren’t corporations seizing the opportunity? And why do groups even have to lobby the government to enact what appears to be win/win legislation for all stakeholders? Very strange indeed. And even if we do develop viable energy alternatives, it won’t address other issues such as access to clean water, waste management, the procurement of resources (e.g. minerals mined in politically unstable countries) or reliance on imported food staples. While a sustainable energy policy is crucial, the ‘This is Our Moment’ campaign, in addition to employing racist rhetoric, completely fails to address the fact that our ‘civilization’ is fundamentally wasteful and unjust. The assumption is that we don’t need a paradigm shift; we just need to get our energy from a better source. There’s nothing wrong with our governments, corporations, or the economic system they work so hard to protect – in fact, it’s precisely a market incentive that will save us. The reality is that the source of all of these problems is a mindset characterized by the following fallacies:

  1. Our belief that human beings (a single species on this planet) are somehow above and separate from nature and therefore have the right and ability to control it;
  2. Our belief that all resources (living and non-living) exist for our exploitation in order to support an economic system which assumes infinite growth and is based on a false sense of value (i.e. one which externalizes environmental and social costs);
  3. Our belief in the concept of a ‘nation’. Nationalism perpetuates division and isolation, effectively creating a citizenry that has no empathy for a perceived ‘Other’, when in fact all peoples have the same needs and rights.

It’s perfectly natural for interest groups to focus on specific causes with a particular geography in mind. I wouldn’t suggest that only international organizations are legitimate or respect the rights of all peoples. But the NRDC Action Fund is a good example of an organization whose work can do significant harm in perpetuating ignorance as it advocates for a good cause (even if for the wrong reasons). To mobilize for real change, grassroots movements need to re-imagine the place of our species within this world. And we can’t fix our relationship to the Earth without first honouring our intrinsic connection to each other. There’s no room for bigotry in this movement.