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‘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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Children don’t need to change – gender stereotypes need to go

Folks who see equality as a good thing readily agree that gender roles are discriminatory and oppressive. Despite this, it appears that many people have difficulty applying this knowledge to everyday situations. Perhaps this is because it’s far easier to agree with concepts when they’re presented as straightforward and conciliatory rather than as confrontational or requiring critical analysis. Acknowledging the harm caused by gender roles often incites derision and dismissal, which speaks to the reality that these tropes are status quo. They’re so ingrained in our culture that overcoming them is a constant struggle.

Gender roles stretch across the globe and dictate not only how females should behave but also how males should behave. The key difference, however, is that whereas males are punished for non-conforming, females are both punished for non-conforming and made to be subordinate when we conform through a host of expectations designed to make us passive and submissive. No matter what we do we’re set up to fail because not only are we never dominant like males are, but we’re never even equal in the gender hierarchy.

Patriarchy is the most oppressive system in the world. Save for whatever minute percentage of people who might live in matriarchal or equal circumstances, patriarchy controls everyone, impacts everyone negatively, and subordinates half of the world’s population. When we throw in the additional trauma of discrimination based on race, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and every other form of oppression, it’s a miracle that people who are marginalized and oppressed multiple times over are so resilient.

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Children have a tough time trying to make sense of this when they realize that the things they’re supposed to like and do don’t always match up to their own interests and personalities. They don’t yet have the experience or analytical tools to understand that there isn’t anything wrong with them and that the source of this cognitive dissonance is a system that was deliberately concocted well before they were born. This is mass psychological torture. It’s not up to kids to figure this out. It’s up to parents, teachers, relatives, and other adults. This is not a personal problem, a family dispute, or an identity crisis first and foremost. It’s a social issue. A moral issue.

Yesterday, it was reported in the news that a seven-year-old child was banned from using the girls’ washroom at a Catholic school in Edmonton, Alberta. The child identifies as a transgender girl.

The parents say they knew from the beginning that something was different about their child…

“As soon as she could speak, she would articulate that she is a female and would gravitate towards feminine objects,” the mother said.

“I just told my mom I felt like a girl,” the seven-year-old recalled.

That’s when her parents say they knew their child wasn’t “a boy who liked girl toys — she was a girl who had a penis.”

This is where I have to call a time out. What exactly is meant by feminine objects? Females have specific sex characteristics, so it makes sense to describe females and their unique physiology as feminine; but how are inanimate objects feminine? What about them is in any way female – or male, for that matter? For example, in an episode of Food Network’s Southern at Heart, Damaris Phillips describes her coconut lavender macaroons as feminine. On its face this statement doesn’t make any sense but the viewer understands what’s implied; something about these cookies reminds her of abstract qualities she associates with the female sex. This is the essence of gender and it’s where the problem starts.

It seems highly tenuous that an individual at the age of seven is at a stage in their life where they can elucidate the difference between being a boy who likes “girl toys” and actually being a girl. Children as young as four years old are now being asked to declare their gender identity. So what does it mean to think or feel like a boy or a girl, exactly? How does a boy who is learning to speak know enough about language – about anything – to know that they’re in fact a girl? Surely we should approach cases of potential gender dysphoria in children with extreme caution given their lack of maturity. I don’t know that anyone should be comfortable trusting the judgement of a child on a subject so complex it makes the heads of educated adults spin.

I’ve thought about what I would do if this were my child. Here’s what I’m thinking. A boy who likes stereotypically “feminine” things or has stereotypical “feminine” qualities is simply a boy who doesn’t conform to how society has decided boys are supposed to be. That doesn’t make him female. Associating traits like sensitivity or vivaciousness and an interest in dresses, pretty things, dance, soft colours, dolls, etc. with being female does nothing except reinforce gender stereotypes. There is absolutely no logical basis for associating the things our society identifies as feminine to the condition of being female.

Being female means being a member of the female sex and no doctor will deny that being a member of the female sex means having a female anatomy, which necessarily involves primary and secondary female sex characteristics, and absolutely includes a vagina. Whether any given female can become pregnant is irrelevant; a properly functioning reproductive system is required for pregnancy and gestation and any human being who’s ever been born was given birth to by a female. Being female cannot mean having a penis.

Of course, no one is disputing that the child is of the male sex, so what we’re left with is the question of what their gender is. While sex and gender are often conflated, they are separate concepts.

This is where what is considered controversial to some people is simple for others. If you believe that there is in fact no basis for thinking that being male must involve expressing a prescribed masculinity and being female must involve expressing a prescribed femininity, then you are gender critical. While gender criticism is often described as a central element of radical feminism (radical feminists are gender abolitionists, to be more precise), it’s also key to feminism at large because it’s impossible to challenge sexism without challenging gender stereotypes.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that discrimination against females exists but in order to challenge this discrimination we need to understand how and why it manages to organize different cultures, geographies, classes, and generations. In order for an ideology to endure so many barriers of time and space it must consist of a subliminal and self-perpetuating set of beliefs. Every oppressive system assigns unequal value to different groups of people. This requires that we develop a set of attitudes and assumptions about them that serve to make them unworthy relative to another group. At the same time, these people, should they use their voice or exercise any degree of autonomy or power, are seen as a threat and are summarily ignored, silenced, threatened, harmed, and murdered. How else can we explain white American police officers killing black women and men in cold blood and in plain view time and time again? How else can we explain the alarming number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, which Stephen Harper shrugged off as not “really high on our radar”, the blame for which indigenous men are expected to shoulder all on their own with no consideration of the effects of colonial patriarchy?

How else can we explain why discrimination persists despite the fact that many people who discriminate do so unintentionally and unknowingly? Patriarchy, like white supremacy, only requires that people with privilege go about their daily lives. That’s why even those who are aware of these systems and try to avoid contributing to them end up making mistakes. This is what it means for oppression to be systemic. To be systemic is to be effective.

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Growing up, I was very close to my older brother and was surrounded by boys more so than girls. This influenced my taste in music, my language, my sense of physicality, etc. I did all sorts of “masculine” things as well as “feminine” things and it never once crossed mine or my parents’ mind that this called into question my identity as a girl or a female. I have no doubt that the males who surrounded me rubbed off on me but they weren’t the way they were because of something innate. It was because they were raised to be that way from infancy as a result of the school curriculum, teachers, spiritual leaders, parents, friends’ parents, advertizing, books, movies, etc. It’s telling that this process actually hedged the female socialization that I was simultaneously subjected to. I also have a mother who exhibited femininity in many ways, but not consistently – and this didn’t escape my notice. My mom could be fairly tough with me and I saw that she was brave, outspoken, and did the same hard labour as her male co-workers. She told me about some of the misogynistic things they would say and do. It’s no wonder we’ve always shared a love of Bette Davis movies. Overall, the message was clear: never let people push you around and never let a man tell you that you’re inferior. I wouldn’t be the strong, independent woman I am today if I hadn’t had her example to follow.

Not long ago, I was taking a walk with my aunt, her 10 year old daughter, and two male cousins of around the same age. As she watched them my aunt said to me, “Boys and girls are so different.” I responded, “That’s because we tell them they are.” Silence followed. Later that evening I was teasing her husband and my brother for comparing their scars, which they seemed to think were badges of honour. To me, they just looked like reminders of stupidity. I remarked that they were lucky they didn’t have to go through the shit women do, neither through stupidity nor by choice, simply for being born with a reproductive system destined to hemorrhage every month unless it was transformed (usually accidentally) into an incubator that would eject a baby way too big for the hole it’s supposed to come out of. Whatever the method of delivery, I added, a woman gets ripped open, leaving a scar that will rival anything they can dream of bragging about. At this point my younger cousin – bless her heart – added that girls have to suffer the job of doing their hair and make-up too. “That’s your choice!” my brother countered. And therein lies the difference between sex and gender.

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Femininity and masculinity are arbitrary social constructs. Each of us should be free to express whatever traits come naturally to us without having to worry about how they supposedly relate to our anatomy. If we’re really concerned about equality and the well-being of children who will become adults who make important decisions, this is what we need to teach them.

Going back to the article about the transgender child:

The family has found an ally in Catholic school trustee Patricia Grell, who has publicly criticized the administration’s decision.

“I’m really worried about the impact of this stance we’ve taken on that child,” Grell said. “I’m very worried about that child’s mental health and wellbeing.”

I’m worried too. I’m worried that adults can’t seem to let children like what they like and act how they act regardless of their sex and leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with these kids. They don’t need to change. Our society does.

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Dogma is the problem: religion, secularism, and moral progress

Quick disclaimer so I don’t look like a complete idiot: In this post I discuss secularism and atheism sometimes interchangeably because this is how they’re often discussed – and perhaps I should not have done that because it contributes to the confusion that arises when people fail to acknowledge that there is in fact an important distinction between the two. I may return at a later date and clean up this language. My apologies.

In my last post I wrote about the morality of vegetarianism, specifically why being vegan or vegetarian does not necessarily represent a form of moral progress or enlightenment. Recently I came across an article by Michael Shermer entitled Bill Maher is right about religion: The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress in Salon. Sometimes Bill Maher is funny and he’s made some good points. But his tendency to be proudly ignorant and disrespectful, especially where culture and religion are concerned, makes him one of the last people I would turn to for guidance on the topic of moral progress.

My ethics in this area can be summed up thus: Never allow yourself to be silenced because you have something inconvenient to say, but don’t be an asshole about it. Most people avoid pompous blowhards for good reason. One can hardly trust the motives of a person who has already decided they know everything.

I’m not here to defend religion. I’m a Buddhist, first and foremost, with a lot of nature-based spirituality in the mix. Even though there’s something about Wicca and witchcraft that have always attracted me I don’t perform rituals or cast spells. It feels silly and contrived to me. I don’t pray or worship, although reverence toward nature is part of my worldview. I practice Vipassana meditation which involves an exercise called metta bhavana, commonly described as loving-kindness meditation or the cultivation of benevolence. Deities don’t figure into my spirituality; I don’t believe in God if by God we mean anything remotely resembling the Judeo-Christian male godhead. I was raised in a Catholic family but I’m not Christian in the sense that I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin and remained celibate, and that he rose from the dead as described by the Bible. I don’t agree that simply believing that he’s the Son of God will save me from Hell (which I don’t believe in either). I will never accept something as fact simply because someone somewhere wrote something down. I’ve always felt inspired, however, by Jesus of Nazareth, a man who preached love and stood up to injustice and was predictably murdered for it. What about reincarnation? I’ve never really given the idea much importance. Doing the right thing out of fear or a sense of insecurity doesn’t seem very right to me. And while I don’t think it’s lights out when our bodies cease to function, I’m willing to accept that this could be how things end. The Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. If this is all that underpins the concept of eternal life or resurrection, I’m okay with that. I think it’s healthy for me to accept that everything is impermanent. Everything is also energy and energy never really ‘leaves’, nor is it distinct in the way we like to think it is.

Paulo Coelho theorizes [YouTube] that when we die, the question that will be asked of us won’t be what sins we committed but rather: Did you love enough? Truth is, when our candle goes out, none of us knows what will happen until it happens. Some of us have had what we believe to be paranormal experiences. There’s a lot we don’t know about our planet or our universe and science may not be able to answer many of our enduring questions. Humans are also capable of believing what they want to or what others want them to. I think a lot of people believe crazy things, religious and otherwise. But there are more important things in life than who is right about spirituality and religion. What good is your faith if you don’t respect others? Likewise, what good is your rejection of religion if you don’t do the same?

Michael Shermer writes:

Most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment.

Woah. What?!?

What about societies that existed before the “Enlightenment” and those that emerged (and continue to exist) outside of Western science and culture? Are they primitive? Does the fact that a society isn’t secular preclude it from offering values we can learn from? Why would their values be inferior, or any different, for that matter? Why aren’t we counting the knowledge and stewardship of indigenous peoples in what is termed moral “progress” by those who control popular discourse?

Clearly Shermer has made no attempt to educate himself about the incredible work done by many non-secular people across cultures and traditions over time including (imagine this!) Islamic scholars, thinkers, and technicians such as Avicenna, dubbed the father of early modern medicine. Wise women (witches), wise men, and shamans are frequently portrayed as superstitious charlatans in the modern imagination. What isn’t so well known is that many witches and healers were demonized because they were less invasive and more successful than doctors whose outlandish theories (science, back then) led them to violate the bodies of the living and the dead. When we heap praise on Ancient Greece for its contributions to Western civilization, let’s not forget that the Greeks were Pagans, and that didn’t stop them from being brilliant human beings.

The suggestion that reason and sound morality can only come from a secular or atheist mind – and is necessarily absent in religious people – is rendered preposterous by even a cursory review of world history. More importantly, however, this type of posturing is irresponsible. I’ve seem many people take the Western liberal commitment to secularism to extremes with the result of dismissing the legitimate experiences of many people; this tendency continues to be used in order to justify colonization and genocide particularly in a passive way, including among self-professed liberals who, if they were being consistent progressive, would reject rhetoric of this kind. Although Shermer and those like him aren’t coming right out and saying it, what people are really saying when they claim that “most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment” is that European men are the moral compass of the world and without them, we would be savages. What a steaming, putrid pile of horse shit.

I think we need to be very careful in equating secularism with enlightenment. There are many illusions we can cling to and an awful lot of damage we can cause (and have) outside of a spiritual or religious ideology. We need to look at the core problem as one of dogma. Western science preaches reductionism, which seeks to isolate phenomena, introducing the notion of separateness into our perception where none exists in reality. We live in a world in which everything is interconnected and interdependent. We barely understand these processes today even with all of our modern technology. Discovery Channel’s Earth From Space [YouTube] is a mind-blowing documentary that helps us to understand how so many of our planet’s systems overlap and work together through the use of satellites, and yet this knowledge has not inspired us to stop devouring the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate. A paradigm shift in thinking, not data or gadgets, is the key to determining our future. Western science will not save us. Western values, whatever we believe them to be, aren’t doing much good on that front either.

We’ve also lost a great deal of knowledge precisely because we’ve been told that there’s a special strata of people who are more intelligent and more worthy. If this doesn’t feed the idea of supremacy, particularly white/European/Western supremacy, I don’t know what does. We must eliminate this intellectual cancer from our psychology permanently.

Reductionism misses much of what we can’t see, measure, or articulate even through our own languages. It represents a compartmentalized framework that can’t grasp a holistic reality. Atheism and secularism aren’t in and of themselves antidotes to this problem. And what about science? Science is nothing more than a human construct that we’ve put into practice in order to better understand our world. It has never been confined to one continent or one period in time. And yet, it’s still not “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

The very concept of moral progress is false. How can we possibly say we’re more evolved today as a species than we were even one thousand years ago? We subjugate sectors of the population based on race, gender, economic standing, etc. A tiny percentage of the global population owns and controls the world’s wealth and resources and nowhere is this more pronounced than in Western, secular countries. That’s moral progress? The consumption on which our lifestyle is based requires resources plundered from elsewhere. This necessitates corporate and state imperialism and even war. We are the new conquistadors. Technology may have advanced, but where has that gotten us? Who’s benefiting? Who’s paying the price for this “progress”? Morality is quite frankly nowhere to be found in all of this and yet Shermer wants us to believe that the boogeyman we should fear is religion. I don’t buy it.

While Carl Sagan was critical of religion, more specifically he was critical of dogma and recognized that atheists don’t have a monopoly on the truth:

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed. A wide range of intermediate positions seems admissible.

I’m tired of atheists and secularists advertizing their ideologies to the rest of the world as though they’re not just as susceptible to errors in perception and judgement as everyone else. Religion brainwashes people. It gives them a crutch. A reason to hate. A reason to die. But also a reason to live. Sometimes a reason to love. After tragic events such as the recent attacks in Paris, I inevitably hear people say that perpetrators who call themselves Muslims are ruining it for all the “normal” or “good” ones. Why? Why should members of any religion have to prove they’re not homogenous or inherently crazy and violent? Are the rest of us, who are supposedly so much more reasonable than these extremists or mentally unstable individuals, really not capable of figuring that out on our own? When NATO members bomb innocent people in countries whose governments aren’t actually invading entire regions for geopolitical control, how can we say that this is all happening because they’re backward people who don’t share our values and need to be saved by us? Messiah complex, anyone? This is the modus operandi of imperialism.

Western morality as defined by state and corporate puppets is largely self-validating. Why are countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel not sanctioned while others are? Why does our anti-money laundering and anti-corruption policy deem certain businesses high risk when they operate in particular jurisdictions but not in terms of how they turn a profit in the first place? We’ve increased our scrutiny of financial institutions and the precious metals trade only to scale it back or fail to enforce laws altogether. Most industries exploit workers, natural resources, and local communities unless there’s regulation or public resistance preventing them from doing so. Our leaders don’t question “free” trade and globalization schemes that involve the privatization of local resources, land grabs, vulture capital-backed polluting industries, austerity (i.e. the gutting of social programs), and export-driven markets that weaken local economies. They want us to believe that this system is a natural expression of modern economics because identifying ourselves as the winners means we have to talk about the losers. Our hypocrisy is sickening. Once again, I ask: Is this moral progress?

In contrast to the capitalist banking system, Islamic banking actually prohibits the charging of interest, specifically money earned on the lending out of money itself. The Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance explains that:

Money in Islam is not regarded as an asset from which it is ethically permissible to earn a direct return. Money tends to be viewed purely as a medium of exchange. Interest can lead to injustice and exploitation in society; The Qur’an (2:279) characterises it as unfair, as implied by the word zulm (oppression, exploitation, opposite of adl i.e. justice). [Edited to correct one grammatical error]

You know what? I’m not about to convert to any religion but I absolutely agree with this tenet and I don’t see why we should have to determine its merit based on whether it’s secular or religious. Obviously it can be both, so there goes the assumption that values have to fit into an ‘either/or’ type of classification.

I’d like to sit Michael Shermer down over a nice cup of tea and ask him why, if we’ve developed so much, we have more global conflict than ever and we’re jeopardizing our own survival and that of millions of other species. Even as our own scientific process proves this to be true, nothing we’re doing offers a systemic solution to this problem.

Who gets to define enlightenment? Shouldn’t it be up to all of us? Don’t we all have that right, whether we’re spiritual, religious, agnostic or atheist? Don’t we share this planet with each other? Don’t we need each other?

Arrogance is another form of dogma and just like every other type of dogma, it arises from ego. Anyone who forgets this is prone to reproducing the same sort of closed-mindedness they criticize in others. Religion is just one possible vehicle of delusion. Anyone can get behind the wheel of their mind and drive it into confusion. As long as we’re convinced that the enemy is some external threat, personal responsibility is no longer necessary. This is fertile ground for binary thinking, xenophobia, racism, exceptionalism, and, of course, war and misery, among other things.

Governments should be secular because neutrality is necessary in order to respect the diversity and freedom of the people. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend we’re something we’re not. It also doesn’t mean we should be hostile or disrespectful toward what is an important part of many people’s lives. Especially when we’re talking about marginalized people who are targets of institutional violence. Karl Marx was under the impression that people would have no need for spirituality in a post-capitalist world. We haven’t gotten there yet but I sincerely doubt that we’d all suddenly become secular or atheist simply because we own the product of our own labour.

Maybe it’s tempting for secularists to cling to the idea of moral progress because it gives them hope that someday they’ll have proof that humans aren’t inherently spiritual after all. The reality is that some people are spiritual and some aren’t, and every individual can change their status at any point in time for pretty much any reason or no reason at all. Leftists – and I count myself among this broad category for better or for worse – exist within a culture of secularism to the extent that many chanted “Je Suis Charlie” while denying vehemently that Charlie Hebdo is racist. They’re wrong. If you’re a so-called progressive and you won’t stand up to Islamophobia because you don’t like religion, you don’t get social justice.

Our biggest threat doesn’t lie in other people or in other ideologies. It’s in ourselves; in the ego’s tendency to seek self-gratification over the self-denying work of observing our own emotions, thoughts, and actions. Being a Muslim doesn’t make one a better person than anyone else. Neither does being Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Pagan, atheist – whatever. It’s one thing to be proud of our heritage and traditions but quite another to delude ourselves into thinking that because we’ve come to believe or reject a spiritual precept, that makes us superior to anyone else. The only thing that makes us good people is how we treat other beings.

Have we loved enough?

The very purpose of religion is to control yourself, not to criticize others. Rather, we must criticize ourselves. How much am I doing about my anger? About my attachment, about my hatred, about my pride, my jealousy? These are the things which we must check in daily life.

– Dalai Lama

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What do Stephen Harper and Hitler have in common?

In so-called Western democracies like Canada, people often complain about corrupt and self-serving politicians but there doesn’t seem to be much fear that an individual could come along and change the very foundations of this country. A fascist government? In Canada? Never! We look at politically unstable countries and assume that we’re immune to the problems they face. But we’re not. All it takes is one person. It’s happened countless times in many different countries around the world. Some of these leaders seize power through a coup or some other violent or underhanded method. Sometimes, they’re elected.

People seem content to rest on the assumption that if a head of state ever did want to transform our nation, we would know. Somehow, we would see it coming. And granted, Harper did warn us that we wouldn’t recognize Canada once he was through with it. How far along does one suppose we’ve gotten at this point? When the Fair Elections Act was introduced, I read that only 23% of those polled indicated that they were aware of the proposed legislation. Something as important as a plan to make substantial changes to our electoral system – and one that was actually being discussed in the media – escaped the notice of so many people. Clearly we don’t even pay attention to the big things.

We’re all very busy and these announcements often occur on Fridays when we’re least likely to notice. And to be fair, so many alterations have been made that it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s hard to know which ones are worth really worrying about. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

The next time someone suggests we’re overreacting when a new law is passed, another “action plan” is advertized, more scientists are muzzled, or additional research programs or departments are crippled or shuttered altogether, feel free to quote Adolf Hitler:

 

ahmk

 

While we’re talking about Harper and Hitler, I would submit that the topic of genocide is relevant here too. Every iteration of the Canadian colonial government from its inception has either exacerbated or failed to challenge the racist nature of its policies with regard to First Nations and Métis peoples. Not a single major political party has called our government out for what it is: a tool for racist oppression. Even leaders who talk about cooperation and reconciliation are rationalizing the foundations of what is still a paternalistic relationship. The only answer is to decolonize, and that would require the government to relinquish its control over indigenous peoples in this country and thus much of the land and natural resources. Recognizing indigenous rights means abandoning a centralized economic policy that would see the extraction of natural resources as perpetual fuel for a capitalist fire. And every party wants to stoke that fire – but that does not mean that they are interchangeable. Stephen Harper is the ringleader for those who wish to do more than maintain the status quo; he seeks to address the “Indian problem” with far more malice and surgical precision via his First Nations Termination Plan [PDF].  As Russ Diabo details in this presentation, the Harper government is expanding on an aggressive program whose goal is to eliminate First Nations title, status, and rights altogether. How else can we describe this but as genocide in a neocolonial context?

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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 a testament to the insidious nature of white privilege 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 this event in this kind of space. 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. Explaining your intention does nothing to remedy the offense and no matter the character of the person in question, it always carries a whiff of cold, calculating damage control, all the more insulting because the damage is already done. A dab of whitesplaining rubbed on for good measure is just another slap in the face.

There was a lot of talk about Ani having a racist fan base with many people, including myself, being defensive about this. What, me, racist? Where there’s white people there’s racism. Rich white people, working class white people, straight whites, queer whites, white men, white women – doesn’t matter. The common denominator here is white privilege. If you’ve got white privilege there’s a far greater probability of your having retained racist attitudes – no matter how hard you’ve tried to unravel them – than not. White progressives may prefer not to admit this because we like to think we’re the enlightened white people. It’s this very belief that sets us up to perpetuate racism under the cover of liberal politics.

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

There may be some people so turned off by this situation that they’ve decided they’re done with Ani. Maybe previous controversies were the stepping stones to this. For the rest of us there remains this uncomfortable dichotomy to our fandom. People attach a strong emotional connection to artists who’ve helped usher them through their formative years or through difficult or even magical times in their lives. It hurts to know that the people we idolize are flawed because there’s an existential truth hidden there: we’re flawed too. No degree of coolness subtracts the actions we regret. Everything coexists, the good and the bad.

Still, I love Ani. I still respect her for having opened my eyes to a lot of issues that I might not have been aware of or cared about otherwise. I reread the lyrics she’s written now with fresh eyes and they speak to me in a slightly different tone. They carry more weight now that the person who’s written them has had a mirror held up to her face, as I have to mine. Something discomforting has been brought out into the light that changes the context, doesn’t it? If you’re familiar with Ani’s music, does it sound different to you now? Do these words, ideas, and images, feel different?

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.

 

 

 

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Idle No More: An anti-colonial perspective on justice, peace and wisdom

“Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!”
– Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I grew up in Northern Ontario, Canada in a town which now has a population of about 8,000 people and whose name, Kapuskasing, means “bend in the river” in Cree. It’s located 850 km northeast of Toronto (about a nine hour drive), and if you think it’s anywhere close to the northernmost limits of the province, think again. It’s located 388 km south of Attawapiskat, a town situated on the shore of James Bay that has gotten a lot of press for the horrific living conditions of its aboriginal residents. The community stands as a prime example of the long-simmering tensions between First Nations and the Canadian government.

Kapuskasing

Kapuskasing

The only thing Kapuskasing is ‘known’ for is being the hometown of director James Cameron and a former prisoner-of-war camp, in addition to lots of great outdoorsy stuff like hunting, fishing, camping and snowmobiling. My family dragged me along on hundreds of these expeditions over the years. Kapuskasing is a predominantly French-Canadian town, with a meager 1.7% of its population consisting of visible minorities. This does not include aboriginals, who comprise 4.3% according to a 2006 census. I once had a friend who seemed ‘different’ because she had darker skin and covered her hair with a scarf, but when she explained that she was Muslim I had no clue what she meant. We had a handful of students at school who were Asian, black and Indian (East Indian), and considerably more native kids (as we referred to them) than all of them combined. In comparison to us white kids, natives didn’t stand out the most in terms of their appearance or behaviour. But Kapuskasing is where I learned just how normalized and rationalized aboriginal-focused racism in this country is.

In my Grade 9 math class, there was this quiet native boy named Emerson. The kids would ask him mockingly if he was going hunting for moose, taunting him with the word he used in his own language to describe these animals: “tatanka”. I don’t know why I remember that word of all things, but I recall feeling angry and ashamed at the way he was treated. Still, I doubt I said anything to defend him.

My mother was born in Canada to an Italian immigrant father and a French Canadian mother. Many of my family members on her side have aboriginal ancestry, though I myself do not as far as I know. I was told as a child that I was the last in our line to qualify for an Indian status card; my mom’s adoptive father was part Ojibway or Mohawk. I remember hearing stories that some of my aunts could read tea leaves or stop a nosebleed instantly. I wondered if it was some sort of indigenous folk medicine or superstitious witchery.

My father is Ukrainian. He came to Canada when he was 16 and had to learn English from scratch. He told me that he was called derogatory names at school until he stood up for himself. At that time, Eastern Europeans were being shipped up north by the government to work in forestry. Apparently the French Canadians did not take very kindly to them. There’s a tendency to think all white people of European origin are similar. Not so. Cabbage rolls, perogies and beet soup must have seemed very strange to the locals, along with the different clothing, music, religious traditions and of course, language. Even within the Eastern European communities I noticed alliances of certain nationalities, which to me all seemed to be the same. And in Kapuskasing, by these groups, I was introduced to the concept of anti-semitism. It wasn’t until years later when I moved to Toronto to attend university that I saw and met Jewish people.

I couldn’t figure out how persecuted newcomers, who told traumatizing stories of famine and genocide, could look at First Nations and not see the terrible irony inherent in their own racism towards these people. But the fact is that the prejudice wasn’t limited to them; everyone participated.

Canadian_Aboriginal_FestivalThis is the real Canada – not the peacekeeping, welcoming melting pot image we’ve been projecting to the world. That image is crumbling amid criticism of our treatment of our aboriginal peoples, which is really nothing new but has gotten obvious enough that the United Nations is questioning why First Nations are still so much worse off than the rest of the country. Our reputation isn’t only garnering negative attention for our domestic policy; the Minister of Foreign Affairs (a former police chief) characterized foreign aid as a crutch and is repackaging these initiatives as public-private partnerships. In other words, a strategy whose basic intent is to open up markets in poor countries to privatization. We now have decades’ worth of evidence to show how these neoliberal policies, fronted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, inevitably play out. We never quite see the wealth and prosperity promised (at least not equitably distributed, and with little lasting benefit to the people most affected by these projects). If this is the sort of strategy we’re exporting as a country, we shouldn’t expect to see things being done differently here at home. In fact, it’s getting worse.

John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press

Near the end of 2012, four women in Saskatchewan, three of them aboriginal, sparked a grassroots movement called Idle No More, which was primarily designed to challenge the second omnibus budget bill passed by the Harper Conservative-dominated government of Canada. Bill C-45 included changes to the Indian Act that would make it suspiciously easier to lease or sell First Nations land, and the number of lakes and rivers protected by the formerly named Navigable Waters Protection Act was decimated to a fraction, most of those waterways still protected being in affluent Conservative ridings, interestingly enough.* Since there has been a lot of confusion about this topic, I’ve provided a detailed explanation and further suggested reading at the bottom of this post. All of this was happening amid fierce opposition to the proposed Enbridge pipeline and reports that our Prime Minister had already secretly assured the energy company that the project would go ahead while publicly asserting that it would only be approved if it was sanctioned by scientists – despite severe staff cuts. Then the government signed a ‘free’ trade Foreign Investment Protection Agreement which allowed a Chinese-state owned energy giant to take over a Canadian company and control a huge section of the tar sands (yes, tar – not oil). Harper conceded that this was indeed an exceptional deal. They dumped the news on a Friday night when no one was looking, probably because in addition to fearing ecological disaster, Canadians would not be happy that China National Offshore Oil Company will be able to secretly sue our government if we initiate any measure, be it environmental or human rights-related, that would negatively affect its bottom line.

REUTERS/Geoff Robins

Parliament Hill, Ottawa

So on the day that Bill C-45 was being voted on, a coalition of First Nations marched to Parliament Hill to realize their right to grant or withhold their full and informed consent, a right guaranteed them by the Constitution. They were shut out. Now two Alberta First Nations are suing the federal government to contest the legality of this most recent budget bill as well as the one passed before it, Bill C-38. Many similar lawsuits based on alleged violations of constitutional and treaty rights have since sprung up. Ottawa officially states that First Nations will be consulted with respect to matters that affect them, but the reality is that their voices are silenced or ignored. Furthermore, as long as First Nations aren’t part of the actual decision-making process as true partners, that relationship remains paternalistic at best.

7734659.binCanadians know shamefully little about our history particularly as it concerns First Nations. What is taught in schools is simplified, sanitized and preserved as an ancient artifact. It’s something we study, not something we live. We’re given the impression that all of the injustices have occurred in the past. History, to those who believe this lie, is no longer relevant. Canadians pacify themselves with the delusion that if First Nations are suffering from lack of basic infrastructure and societal problems, it must be their own fault. There are many ways in which this narrative is defended, as online forums and comment sections demonstrated through a torrent of shameful slurs.

slavery02The truth is that few people outside of social justice activism circles understand the nature and process of colonialism. Consider a cross-cultural study of this phenomenon: What happened after the Dutch and English enacted apartheid in South Africa? What happened after the Spanish colonized South America? The Portuguese colonized Brazil? The English colonized Jamaica and Australia? The French colonized Haiti and Senegal? In a conquest for land and resources, which was justified by an unapologetic civilizing mission ideology, again and again Europeans invaded lands already inhabited by prosperous peoples who lived in harmony with the earth, sometimes uprooting millions of people and transporting them to new lands. In these ‘New Worlds’, they murdered, enslaved and tortured indigenous peoples, stole their land and their resources, jailed them, stripped them of their languages, families and cultures and told them that they weren’t human. In Canada, this was epitomized by a campaign to “kill the Indian in the child” which forced aboriginal children into residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their mother tongues, practice their traditions or communicate with their families. The Canadian government placed these schools under the jurisdiction of several Christian denominations, whose representatives abused children en masse. Many of these people are still alive today. Anishinaabe activist Wab Kinew has bravely spoken out about how his father was raped by a nun in one of these schools.

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” – Ezekiel 25:17

Aamjiwnaang First Nation - Chemical Valley

Aamjiwnaang First Nation – Chemical Valley

What happens to people when they’re singled out, dehumanized and exploited, not just as individuals but as a culture, as a race? Let’s reflect on this for a long moment – what that process does to a people who, generation after generation, see their communities grasping for meaning, identity and healing with nothing more than bandaid solutions and blame thrust in their face. Every single indigenous group is either at risk of becoming or already is, a victim of a festering cycle of discrimination, poverty, domestic and substance abuse and crime. They struggle to overcome poor education and representation, rampant unemployment, high rates of incarceration, lack of basic infrastructure and access to essential resources like clean water, the loss of land to governments and corporations, lack of adequate mental and physical health treatment and exposure to contamination from extractive industries and hazardous waste sites. Sure, there are lots of people in these countries who are doing very well. That was the whole point. But why is it that the people who were colonized are not those people? Ever? Is it because there’s something wrong with them? Or do all of these people have one thing in common: the incredible injustice of being born or forced into a system that is designed to either kill them bodily or spiritually – whatever is necessary – to keep the powerful people powerful?

HarperI was born into this system. I was educated in it, worshiped in it and pressured to conform by people who used their authority to try to shape me into someone I wasn’t. It never felt right, and I got into trouble many times for challenging my family and anyone else who tried to insist that things were the way they should be, because they know that once you accept that mold, it’s very difficult to penetrate or outgrow that basic intellectual framework. It’s a subconscious process. You become entrenched in the story of your country, your ethnicity, your religion, your family and your personal identity. You work hard to forge a path in a sea of people, each struggling to get ahead. You see people who can’t seem to rise above their circumstances, whose situation doesn’t seem to improve no matter what. They want to move ahead too. But this threatens you. You don’t want to give anything up – at least you fear that this is what will happen if the people who didn’t have power before suddenly find themselves in possession of it. You don’t want things to change unless it means that things get better for you.

This system has a name. It’s called colonialism and it’s the product of a worldview that human beings like you and I thought up. We may recognize its ideological characteristics as follows:

  • Patriarchal, hierarchical, top-down social organization
  • Focus on individuality over community, competition over co-operation
  • Shunning of indigenous and ‘informal’ systems of organization, thought and belief
  • Focus on quantification, control and manipulation
  • Value system based on monetary and economic measures
  • Belief that natural resources are sources of capital like any other and therefore subject to private ownership and exploitation for financial gain
  • Tendency to differentiate humans from nature (claiming dominion) and to compartmentalize ecosystems, disciplines and geographic/political boundaries
  • Surrendering trust to the knowledge and interests of the business and academic elite
  • An understanding of time and systems that is linear, not cyclical or symbiotic
  • Tendency to interpret human behaviour and experience only as consequences of individual human choices, rather than the predictable products of systems and established patterns

Aboriginal Protests 20121223All of these factors combine to create a society that has a very specific and deliberate power structure. Why is Idle No More happening? Why are so many First Nations demanding change and why are there so many Canadians joining them? Because now, the consciousness of many people is breaking out of the colonial mold. We know there is corruption, oppression and racism. We know it won’t end unless we shake up the system. Many people have been hoping for a long time that this movement would take shape. I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.

What a lot of Canadians don’t realize is that Canada is a multinational country. Treaties were originally signed not with the Canadian government, but with the Crown, and this country remains a constitutional monarchy. Yet the most important decisions affecting First Nations continue to be made unilaterally by the Canadian government at federal and provincial levels. Many First Nations did not surrender their land, nor did they agree to be governed by laws enacted by people they did not elect to represent them. Like it or not, our country is founded on the fact that when the Europeans came to this land, there were sovereign Nations already here. Tribes were plentiful and had no problem living in prosperity and harmony with the earth before their world was changed forever by the settlers. While inherent treaty rights were recognized on paper, they have scarce been respected in deed. Acknowledging this is not an exercise in blame or guilt; it is recognizing that a system that could not be stopped and which has evolved into what it is today was imposed on these peoples. There was no magical moment when that system disappeared or changed. As Anishinaabe lawyer Aaron James Mills writes, “Colonization is not a completed historical fact from which all must simply move on; it is a deliberate, daily violence continuing this moment and anyone promoting that Indigenous peoples are ignorant not to accept this violence as legitimate is at worst, racist; at best, living in a dream palace”.

As aboriginals are largely hidden away on reserves in remote reaches of the country, Canadians are seldom presented with the challenges and cultures of First Nations peoples. The fact that they experience so many problems both on and off the reserve is no justification for assimilation. No people should be asked to forfeit their culture. Ignorance and racism – expressions of colonialism – prevent Canadians from seeing past the stereotypes and myths. Canadians don’t remember their government’s treaty obligations because they were never taught about them in the first place. Chief Terry Bellegarde has explained, “Our treaties were not meant to make us poor in our own homelands. But that’s what we see”.

idm1We often hear that we support these communities with perpetual payments – unfair burdens on the taxpayer. But we don’t understand their financial burdens, or the land that is still being slowly siphoned away for resource extraction by corporations that threaten ecological integrity, human health and traditional ways of life. How many Canadians have considered that placing people in unlivable conditions out of which there is no escape was not simply an act of cruelty but a strategy to dispossess aboriginals of their land and resources, thus finally forcing them to join ‘the rest of us’? Who is supporting whom?

There is no doubt that there is corruption within some band councils and that band members are demanding more accountability. This is precisely why popular voices from the Idle No More movement have stated that it is a revolution of the people – not necessarily those who claim to represent them. As Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo has pointed out, councils for the most part are doing their best within a system not of their own design, and one that is fundamentally flawed.

Some words on Chief Theresa Spence and Attawapiskat are in order. The reservation is in dire need. I know how cold it gets in northern Ontario. Here in Toronto, people really have no idea how terrifying the idea is of living in a tent or without heat during a winter up there, on top of inadequate sewage and water delivery systems. Before anyone gets into whose fault it is, it bears stating upfront that it’s unacceptable for government officials to shrug their shoulders at alleged aboriginal financial mismanagement and walk away. And before discussing the effectiveness of management, the Canadian public needs to understand the exceptional challenges that First Nations band councils deal with. The quality of construction and infrastructure in most cases was substandard from the very beginning and communities struggle just to keep things from falling apart. The cost of construction, maintenance and social services in remote and sub-arctic environments is prohibitive. Transportation of materials to these locations is extremely expensive, as are the hiring of contractors and lawyers to put things in motion. And while Attawapiskat has signed a contract with the nearby De Beers diamond mine, that agreement is in dispute and it is alleged that not all terms are being met. That aside, the fact is that aboriginal communities receive less funding per capita than do non-aboriginal communities, and yet their operation costs are much higher.

spenceWas there fraud on the part of the First Nations managers when it comes to managing public funds in Attawapiskat? This hasn’t been demonstrated. All we know is that there was a systemic lack of documentation to support transactions – a problem which shrunk significantly once Spence became chief in 2010. The federal government also reviews financials every year, so the Harper administration’s claim that funds have been squandered and wasted since at least 2006 begs the question of why, if that’s the case, they continued to throw money in that direction. It wasn’t until media reports of the plight of the community shocked the world that the government pointed to the band council and sought to impose third party management. This should all be considered alongside the fact that the government leaked a “damning” audit report by accounting firm Deloitte & Touche (whose credibility has been seriously questioned), conveniently while Spence was in the midst of a much-publicized hunger strike. Furthermore, a lack of public discussion about the Canadian government’s own scandals and rampant financial mismanagement sparked a wave of indignation and jokes that hatched the Twitter hashtag, #Ottawapiskat.

Attawapiskat vs G8 gazebos

Now, apparently Chief Spence owns a spiffy SUV, or gets chauffeured around in one, while her people starve and freeze. I don’t know what the deal is with her transportation situation or anything else she might indulge in. It’s quite possible that transparency and accountability issues persist. But the degree to which critics were skewering Spence because she didn’t starve enough (i.e. apparently she hadn’t lost enough weight and subsisting on herbal tea and fish broth isn’t a hunger strike) lends support to the claim that she was the subject of a smear campaign which sought to deflect attention from the original root causes of the problem.

If the campaign was somewhat successful, it was partly because Spence was made into a poster child for the movement, when in reality Attawapiskat is one First Nation out of over 600 and Spence is one chief. If you can tear Spence down and make the community out to be a casualty of aboriginal corruption, you make Idle No More look like a bunch entitled hotheads. At least that seemed to be the plan.

Canadians at some point will have no choice but to realize that Idle No More is fighting to protect future generations from certain catastrophe. Our government insists that the only way of ensuring economic survival is to squeeze out the last of the most elusive, dirtiest and corrosive fossil fuel on the planet, funnel it through poorly constructed pipelines with the ultimate goal of exporting a huge majority of it. Job creation forecasts are grossly inflated. And yet the federal government is so intent on allowing corporations to shape our economic ‘growth’ that they’re labeling people who are trying to protect the planet as terrorists. Why would the government choose to pursue what is essentially a dead end? Inconveniently enough for them, it has come to light that the government has slashed environmental protections specifically because the oil and gas industry asked them to.

We share this planet with other species who together form complex, life-supporting systems. Who says we have the right to disregard their existence, or that we actually own resources, or nature for that matter, particularly considering that we are part of it? Isn’t that a ridiculous conflict of interest? And who said it makes sense to exploit natural resources for private profit? Not Idle No More. We don’t have to go along with a system that is making a small number of people very, very rich while creating chaos, sickness and scarcity. Yes, we need livelihoods. We need goods and we will inevitably consume resources. But we will not be able to continue doing so at the rate at which we believe we’ve become entitled. It’s not simply a question of whether we use resources or how much, but of who has control over those resources. How are they managed? Who benefits? Who shoulders the costs and the impacts? What may shock Canadians is that we do not have the legal right to a healthy environment. The only group of people who have any legal grounds for halting resource exploitation is First Nations, through land treaties that are protected by the Canadian Constitution. They are our last defense. Imagine the idea that the people we have most oppressed are fighting to liberate us all.

Are First Nations justified in staging blockades? Do they have other alternatives or is the threat of economic impact the only kind of language that Stephen Harper will understand? Let’s not lose sight of the kind of person our Prime Minister is. He is unsympathetic hostile to aboriginal rights, his politics formulated within the ideological mold of his mentor Tom Flanagan, who through a plethora of racist justifications has stated that the only sensible approach to aboriginal policy is assimilation. Sylvia McAdam, one of the founders of Idle No More, along with many other prominent supporters, cautions that this tactic may cost the cause considerable public support. To a large extent, I think that the people who are opposed to Idle No More to the point of denouncing blockades are probably not the sort of people who were going to be onside anyway. Sometimes, civil disobedience is the only way. Debates have sprung up about whether blockades are a form of aggression and are therefore inconsistent with the larger vision of peace and nonviolence. Although the overwhelming majority of chiefs, spokespeople and supporters do not advocate this method, unfortunately these are the sorts of actions that will get the most media attention. So it’s very important for the movement to continue to focus on the fact that it serves the interests of all Canadians, despite the fact that some groups will create controversy. The overall goal is to strike a balance between fighting for human and environmental rights without placating the whims of the privileged, while welcoming the broader public into the movement.

idm3

Idle No More solidarity protests

Some have charged that the message of Idle No More is unproductive and vague. I don’t claim to be a spokesperson, but I think it’s pretty clear why people feel disenfranchised, even if they represent diverse opinions and there is some in-fighting and struggle for power. Did we expect anything different? Also predictably, the media has distorted these aspects by oversimplifying and failing to provide sufficient context on the issues, sometimes intentionally or negligently misrepresenting statements of key organizers. As long as we remember that what we’re really challenging is an idea, and not an invincible force, we can continue to galvanize the people whose hearts and minds are open.

“When you and I are inside of America and look at America, she looks big and bad and invincible. Oh, yes, and when we approach her in that context, we approach her as beggars, with our hat in our hands.” – Malcolm X

Idle No More is about love because it is a movement to end a destructive approach to all life. I may not be of First Nations ancestry, but the joy and pride I feel at seeing indigenous peoples rise up, celebrating their cultures and joining hands with all of humanity is something that I would have never dreamed to experience in my lifetime. The settlers, immigrants and First Nations of Canada, despite our disappointment in the illusion of our democracy and our contagious apathy, are awakening to co-create a new society. When there is so much at stake that unifies so many courageous people, a sacred fire is lit that cannot be snuffed out.

I leave you with the wisdom and power of Winona LaDuke:

* Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) and other laws

Some have objected that the NWPA was never designed to be an environmental instrument and only involves navigation. Let’s set the record straight once and for all. Under the NWPA, there were four provisions which triggered automatic environmental assessments under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). Now that those provisions have been stricken and the act renamed ‘Navigation Protection Act’, the removal of the word ‘water’ isn’t simply a symbolic action. The CEAA is one of several laws which both directly and indirectly impact the environment and which were severely weakened by amendments tabled in both budget bills (whose content are largely unrelated to the actual budget). Not only are these changes unprecedented, having been squished into massive omnibus bills – which by their nature don’t allow the requisite time and clarity and for this reason were once slammed by Harper as undemocratic – the original authors of these changes appear to be the fossil fuel industry. A letter sent to the Ministers of Natural Resources and the Environment on behalf of the Energy Framework Initiative (which represents oil and gas corporations) made specific suggestions about which environmental laws to amend and how. Most of these changes were realized months later through the passing of Bills C-38 and C-45.

Charges have been made that human rights activists, environmentalists and First Nations are being reactionary and/or partisan. However, many interpretations of the bills by numerous lawyers, law firms and legal organizations have characterized them as detrimental. In short, it’s incorrect to state that people who are opposed to Bills C-38 and C-45 are misinformed and unjustified simply by virtue of their opposition.

Further suggested reading:

What Bill C-38 means for the environment by Ecojustice and West Coast Environmental Law

Collection of materials about CEAA and CEAA reform by Canadian Environmental Law Association

New Canadian environmental assessments exclude stakeholders and issues by Dianne Saxe (Saxe Law Office)

Gutting the Fisheries Act and Other Federal Environmental Legislation by Juli Abouchar and Joanna Vince, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP

How navigable waters and environmental protection flow together published by Macleans Magazine

Energy industry letter suggested environmental law changes published by CBC News

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