The Book Burning of Negroes

Long-time readers of this blog (at least, those that memorize everything I say) may remember two salient details. The first is that I am a big fan of Canadian author Lawrence Hill. His books explore race and racial issues through a Canadian and mixed-race lens, so it’s perhaps no surprise that I am such a fan. The other thing that you might remember is that I think book burnings/bans are possibly the dumbest thing of all time – not only because they don’t work, but because they usually accomplish the exact opposite of their intent, and make more people likely to read the book.

And so it seemed as though this news item was tailor-made for me:

A Dutch group is threatening to burn Lawrence Hill’s award-winning novel The Book of Negroes, because they oppose the use of the word “negro” in the title. The Canadian writer’s novel, which traces the life of a slave girl, was recently published in the Netherlands, where a group that represents slavery victims has threatened to burn the book if its title isn’t changed.

This week, Hill received a letter from Roy Groenberg, the leader of Dutch group Foundation Honor and Restore Victims of Slavery in Suriname. “We, descendants of enslaved in the former Dutch colony Suriname, want let you know that we do not accept a book with the title The Book of Negroes,” he said in the letter.

For those of you that haven’t read this book, you should. Hill is a master of the written word, and his skill is on full display in this particular book (which is hailed as his magnum opus, but I think he’s capable of better), in which he takes the narrator’s chair for the coming-of-age tale  of a young African slave girl. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to speak from a complete lack of personal experience (when’s the last time Hill experienced menarche?), but he pulls it off convincingly.

Besides the fact that the book is well-written, it’s also historically relevant. It chronicles the nascent and developing abolition movement in Canada, the United States, and England. It documents (fictionally) the foundation of the country of Sierra Leone, thought of as a refuge for freed slaves. It puts context around a period of history that has many myths built around it.

And these idiots want to ban the book because they don’t like the title:

“We struggle for a long time to let the word ‘nigger’ disappear from Dutch language and now you set up your Book of Negroes! A real shame!” Groenberg’s group plans to burn the book on June 22 just over a week before July 1 — which marks the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands.

This is the same mindset of people who would ban the book ‘Moby Dick’ because children would see a naughty word. First off, The Book of Negroes is an actual physical document, from which the novel gets its name. The title is not incidental – it references both the historical document and the people who are the focus of the story. Slavery abolition is the entire purpose of the novel, and to have an anti-slavery body object based on something like a naughty word in the title, one has to wonder whether they’ve actually read the damn book.

But of course, banning a book doesn’t prevent people from reading it. Especially in this day of instantaneous transfer of information, burning a book is simply raising a flag that says “We are ignorant” and “We are out of touch with reality” at the same time. If people in the Netherlands wanted to find a copy of TBoN, they could simply go to Amazon or any number of other online bookstores. Banning the book is therefore futile. Burning the book may have some kind of psychological satisfaction for the protesting group, but it is an outmoded and meaningless gesture.

Book bans also draw attention to the work in question. In this particular case, I have to confess I’m sort of glad for that. People should read this book, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s excellent. And while I can sympathize with those who don’t want to see racism spread through their country, objections to racist language should be based on fact and reason, not knee-jerk reactions based on poor understanding of language.

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To protect and serve… kinda

I have a difficult relationship with police officers. First of all, I recognize that they are tools of the state, which has its own plusses and minuses. When the goals of the state are bound to the benefit and protection of the people, then a strong police presence is a good thing. We saw this in last week’s riots in Vancouver – police were more interested in protecting people and minimizing harm and loss of life than they were concerned about protecting private property. However, when the will of the state is opposed to the welfare of the people, police have carte blanche to abuse civil rights and become an essentially-unchecked force of oppression. We saw this at the G8/G20 protests in Toronto – the legitimate right of people to voice opposition was met with boots and truncheons.

The second part of my cop conundrum comes from the fact that police officers are still human beings, which also has its negative and positive aspects. Individual police officers are capable of great compassion, discretion and empathy. I remember during the Olympics seeing smiling police officers talking to enthusiastic tourists and locals, joking and posing for pictures. I’ve had several positive interactions with police officers where they have revealed themselves to be human behind the badge. Then again, being human means that they have all the failings of individuals (pettiness, panicked responses to threats, abuse of power), and demonstrate the mean stupidity of groups. A reader sent me a story that I think illustrates how fraught these conundrums are particularly well:

Chris Cochrane, an entertainer who goes by the name Elle Noir, is recovering from a gunshot wound to her right arm. She said her attackers yelled homophobic slurs as she was hit with gunfire at her Fairview apartment early Tuesday. She said she believes they intended to kill her.

“They were yelling, ‘Tranny faggot, open the door, let us in, let us in,’ which leads me to believe they knew who I was. I’m in a second-floor apartment. You know, you have to have a security key to get into the building. Obviously it was 100 per cent hatred.”

So we have the victim’s statement, that armed men shot through her front door with handguns and a shotgun(!) after accosting her verbally. There was no reason for the intruders to pick that apartment at random, since there was no drug activity. There is a long and sordid history of violent assault against transpeople (that is, people who identify as a sex other than the one they were born into – someone please let me know if I worded that incorrectly), and this has all the hallmarks of a hate crime.

The police reaction?

Halifax Regional Police interviewed Cochrane on Wednesday. After speaking with witnesses, investigators doubt her claim that the shooting was a hate crime, said a police spokesman. “We believe this particular unit at least — while not saying this particular victim — was targeted specifically,” said Const. Brian Palmeter.

“Certainly we don’t believe this was a hate crime based on the information that we have so far… There may have been other reasons at play why this might have occurred.” Palmeter refused to elaborate on what those reasons might be.

And immediately the skepti-shields go up. Police would like us to believe that a group of armed men broke into a building, targeted the apartment of a publicly-transsexual person and shot their way in. They did this, according to police, for reasons that have nothing to do with the gender identity of the inhabitant. To persuade us of this highly dubious set of circumstances, police are offering us the iron-clad reassurance of “there may have been other reasons at play”.

It seems to me that there are two things that could potentially be happening here. The first comes from my cynical side: Halifax police aren’t interested in investigating a hate crime. Crimes against transpeople often go unreported and poorly-investigated (I offer no evidence for this assertion – it is based on the testimony of every transperson and gender equality speaker I have ever heard/read). It is trivially easy for the Halifax police to sweep the motivation for this crime under the rug, especially since it happened in an area known for drug involvement. The police force may be acting like a person – allowing their biases and transphobia to bubble to the surface in such a way as to preclude Ms. Cochrane from seeing justice.

The second possibility I can see is that Ms. Cochrane is mistaken about the nature of her assault. She lives with a roommate – perhaps the roommate was involved in the drug trade unbeknownst to Chris herself. Maybe she misheard what the attackers said at the door – hearing “tranny faggot” in her panic when something else entirely was said. The police are suggesting another option but are being intentionally vague (which is their usual way of doing things when evidence collection is ongoing) – maybe the neighbours are privy to some knowledge that Chris herself isn’t, something perhaps to do with her roommate.

Regardless of what the reason for the cagey response from police, this kind of reaction sends a chilling message to transsexual and transgender people living in Halifax and elsewhere: despite the fact that you are more victimized than cissexual people, police will absolutely refuse to take that fact into account. At the very least, Halifax police could have said “we are concerned about the hate component, and even though at this moment we don’t have evidence to suggest hate was a factor, we are cognizant of the fact that transpeople are singled out for special treatment by their assailants, and so we will give the matter our own form of special treatment.”

I am curious to see how this whole story shakes out.

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Passing through the eye of the needle

One of the funny things about the Bible is how regionally-specific its allusions are. Jesus is described as a shepherd, a potter, a sower of specific types of seeds… all references that would be readily understood by those living in the Middle East. Of course a culture that has no sheep wouldn’t really understand the reference, likewise with cultures that don’t use pottery, and has anyone ever seen a mustard seed grow into a tree? I’ve only ever seen them on a sandwich.

One of my favourite Biblical allusions comes from the book of Matthew:

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Any of you shocked by the fact that a confirmed and vocal atheist would quote the bible need not be: I quote Shakespeare, Nietzche and Orwell too. A good phrase is a good phrase, regardless of how bat-shit insane the author may be. This particular quote, replete with its regional dialect (why a camel? why a needle?) suggests that rich people, or more specifically people tied to material and worldly goods would find getting into heaven very difficult. ‘Abandon your material possessions and focus your attention on Yahweh’ is the bedrock of Jesus’ theological position.

They must make those needles pretty big in Nigeria:

Nigeria’s pastors run multi-million dollar businesses which rival that of oil tycoons, a Nigerian blogger who has researched the issue has told the BBC. Mfonobong Nsehe, who blogs for Forbes business magazine, says pastors own businesses from hotels to fast-food chains.

“Preaching is big business. It’s almost as profitable as the oil business,” he said. The joint wealth of five pastors was at least $200m (£121m), he said. Evangelical churches have grown in Nigeria in recent years, with tens of thousands of people flocking to their services.

The wearisome part of blogging about religion is the depths of hypocrisy that one finds among believers, especially those that lead the flock (of camels?), becomes almost cliché after a while. It becomes repetitive and rather thin gruel for people who have been paying attention to religious establishments. It is pretty much de rigeur for those who claim a superior level of morality, purity, and righteousness (as given them by strict adherence to YahwAlladdha’s commands and the power of the Holy Spirit) to be caught, sometimes literally, with their pants down in violation of some stricture or other. Another religious zealot violates the strictures of her/his own purported beliefs? Ho hum… where’s my Congressional cock shot?

The reason I think this stuff bears repeating is twofold: first, because there are people who honestly believe that these kinds of things are isolated indiscretions rather than exactly what happens when human beings give other human beings power that is not only unquestioned, but fundamentally unquestionable. Criticizing the god-man is a good way to get ostracized and run out of the community, and when you depend on that community for your survival, you’re even less likely to raise an eyebrow when your hard-earned dollars are going to buy his… what did these guys buy again?

Bishop Oyedepo owned a publishing company, university, an elite private school, four jets and homes in London and the United States, according to Mr Nsehe.

“Oyakhilome’s diversified interests include newspapers, magazines, a local television station, a record label, satellite TV, hotels and extensive real estate,” Mr Nsehe said.

Ah yes, the kinds of necessities that are needed to support and develop the communities from which the funds come. Authority derived from religious faith is basically a blank cheque for corruption and abuse. It requires the engagement of the rational part of your brain to recognize and critique hypocrisy – faith actively encourages the suspension of the rational mind. The next thing it actively encourages is for you to make a show of sacrificing your material possessions to gain an afterlife reward for which no evidence is offered (“you just have to believe!”). We have to begin to recognize that the only legitimate reason to believe in a leader is a proven track-record of effectiveness and honesty – piety shouldn’t enter into it.

The second reason I bring this up is that it is usually the people who can least afford to give away their money that are most susceptible to these hucksters. It’s the poorest and least-educated that have the greatest level of desperation, and who are therefore most likely to abandon what little they have for the promise of something greater in the future. Conversely, it is those who have the most to gain from fraud and deception that prey on that same desperation to make what is a huge amount of money in a place like Nigeria. And of course religious organization like the Vatican can’t say anything, lest they open themselves up to more accusations of gross hypocrisy about how much money they take in from gullible suckers pious believers.

It is a great shame that these funds are being used for the exclusive benefit of the pastors. Had the people in these communities instead invested in themselves, they could have built their own schools, newspapers, and real estate. Imagine for a moment if they had pooled that money to attract skilled tradespeople to teach community members how to build businesses and develop commerce. That’s how wealth gets built. Instead, they happily threw it into the pockets of the first hypocrite to cross their path.

Or maybe they just have tiny camels.

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Normalizing belief (pt. II) – in defense of aggression

Previously, I tried to illustrate my take on the “accommodation vs. confrontation” issue using a model from statistics. In brief, I pointed out that by asserting a strong, persuasive position it is possible to shift a population of people along a continuum from absolute belief toward absolute disbelief. This shift can occur despite the fact that you may not move a single strong believer into a position of disbelief:

In the graph above, the blue line represents the distribution of a priori level of belief in a proposition (to wit, the existence of a god/gods with 1 reprsenting gnostic theism and 7 representing gnostic atheism), and the green dotted line is what I call a “precipice of belief” – the point at which people begin to ask serious questions and doubt the validity of their beliefs. The red line is a hypothetical distribution after someone has made a compelling argument against belief. Notice that many people have crossed the “precipice”, particularly those that were already close to questioning. Note also that none of the “strong” believers (those 1s, 2s and 3s) are atheists now, but are still somewhat shifted.

The question inevitably arises in such discussions: is it necessary to be aggressive? Doesn’t being aggressive and employing mockery of people’s beliefs make them less likely to listen to your argument? Wouldn’t it be better to state your case in a nice non-confrontational way, rather than arguing from an extreme point of view? I outlined my objections to this argument in the first post:

In general, there are 4 major objections: 1) someone who believes in something because the opponents are mean isn’t rational; 2) there would have to be a lot of people turned off for this to be ‘counterproductive’; 3) minds change over a period of time, not at a single instant; and 4) believers are not the only people in the audience.

I feel it’s important to expand on those points.

1. Someone who believes in something because the opponents are mean isn’t rational

If we grant for a moment the existence of people who will simply move further to the left, or completely shut down, if someone isn’t nice to them (and I’m sure they’re out there), this still fails to be a reasonable objection to the use of aggressive rhetoric. If the strength of your belief is predicated on the disposition of your critics, then you’ve abandoned rationality and are doing things from an entirely emotional perspective. As an analogy, imagine someone who believes in science primarily out of a hatred for hippies and anti-vaxxers. Her belief in science has nothing to do with its actual efficacy, but rather an ad hominem rejection of the opponents. Her reasons for belief are therefore non-rational, and a reasoned argument against them would be a complete waste of time.

It is certainly someone’s right to believe or disbelieve for any number of reasons, but then we have to stop pretending that a rational argument, no matter how friendly, will sway them in the slightest. It therefore requires a different type of argument to convince someone with this mindset, one that is based on emotive reasoning rather than logical. Unless “Diplomats” are advocating abandoning reason as a means of dialogue, then we have to accept that a variety of approaches are necessary.

People whose beliefs will not respond to logical reasoning represent only one portion of the population of believers, and those ones are likely in the 1s and 2s, rather than close to the precipice of belief. After all, if you’ve drawn the cloak of your belief around the shoulders of your brain that tightly, you’re probably not interested in hearing dissenting opinions anyway. It’s also nearly impossible to find arguments that aren’t offensive to believers, when any questioning of their faith is seen as an unforgivably rude insult.

2. The issue of ‘counterproductive’

One of my least favourite words that always pops up in this argument is “counterproductive”. The assertion is that being aggressive turns more people off than it turns on. If we look at that curve in the above image, we can see that while no ‘strong believers’ have crossed the “precipice”, quite a number of those living in the middle are now in a position to seriously question their position. In order for this to be a “counter-productive” shift, an equal or larger number of people would have to be pushed away from questioning their belief.

There is no evidence to suggest that such a shift happens. What is more likely is that people simply ignore a given argument if they don’t like the speaker, and their level of belief remains fixed where it was before. Viewed in isolation from an individual level, this may look like a failure of the argument, but we have to remember that we’re dealing with a distribution of beliefs in a population, not the efficacy for any one person. Furthermore, the audience for an appeal that includes aggression is, by definition, those who are mature enough not to dig in their heels every time their feelings get hurt.

3. Changing minds takes time

The “Diplomat” position also makes the implicit assumption that the goal of a given argument is to turn someone from a believer into a non-believer immediately. This is an attractive fiction, but a fiction nonetheless. People do not arrive at their beliefs all at once, but rather over a period of time. It is a rare person who can look at even the most compelling argument against a position and switch their beliefs immediately. More common is that a series of kernels of cognitive dissonance are introduced, whereafter more questions are asked. This process eventually leads to the changing of minds.

As evidence, consider the stories of people who are outspoken atheists. Many of them start from a position of strong belief and then turn to a more liberal form of their religion. Then, as time progresses and they allow themselves to ask more questions, they slowly (over a number of years, in my case) progress toward a complete rejection of those religious beliefs, then of religious beliefs altogether. More rare are stories of people who have a friend point out, in the nicest language possible, that YahwAlladdha is fictional, after which they say “those are good points – I’m an atheist now!”

4. Believers are not the only audience

Once again, I am up against the word limit for this post, and I think I can devote an entire 1,000 to the fourth (and in my mind, most important) of these defenses of aggression. What I will do instead is summarize what I’ve said above and leave off the final part of this discussion for next Monday’s “think piece”.

Much of my objection to the “Diplomat” position is that it demands exclusivity. It says that being confrontational is inherently a bad idea because it fails to convert a believer into a non-believer. My contention is that it is neither desirable nor practical to focus on converting individual believers into atheists, especially given the diversity of belief within the general population, and the fact that changing minds takes time. We must remember that we are speaking to a variety of people, who are at different stages in their journey away from belief. One approach is not going to reach everyone, and pushing hard can move people who are already close.

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Vancouver after the riots – it’s about love, peace, foundation and family

As some of you know, I live in Vancouver, British Columbia. Recently, after the Vancouver Canucks (local professional hockey team) lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, there was a huge street riot. It was immediately clear that those instigating the riot were not simply disgruntled fans. People had brought backpacks full of chemical accelerant, masks, rocks and other tools designed to destroy property and injure police officers. There would have been a riot regardless of the outcome.

While the riots made international news, the city’s response to the disaster has had much less attention. Vancouver is a beautiful city that is predominantly inhabited by caring and tolerant people. The riots do not really reflect the average denizen of my fine city, but I think the response does:

Thousands of Vancouverites flocked to the downtown core the next day to volunteer for cleanup duty. The boarded up windows that had been smashed the night before were literally covered with written messages of condolence, apology, anger, frustration and hope from disappointed residents.

 

You can see these pictures and more in this gallery. I was also lucky enough to spot this fantastic busker who put into music what I think everyone in the crowd was feeling:

Especially the part about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups!

Anyway, it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of humanity, but for the sake of our mental health we should remember that people are also capable great acts of kindness and justice. Vancouver will heal, and become stronger for the process. Those who tried to destroy my city have failed.

It’s bigger than you and me

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Movie Friday: So… this happened

Yesterday I called out Alabama as being the most racist place in the United States. But after watching this video, I’m not sure anymore:

Watching this, part of me literally had a hard time processing and believing that it was real. First, because it’s of such poor quality, and second because this kind of over-the-top racism is pretty rare. But I guess people are feeling more safe in being openly hateful against minority groups – likely fueled by anti-Muslim and anti-gay sentiments becoming part of the mainstream discussion.

What also baffles me, aside from the fact that it wasn’t taken down as soon as it was discovered by media outlets, is the supportive comments it’s been getting:

I’d say this really does sum up Hahn. What is she afraid of, the truth? Not a voter, the system is not for the hard working man/women, its for the special interest and non-whites to bleed the whites. So republican or democrat, have no place for you. But would say this girl is the worse of the two evils. GREAT VIDEO. - MrWhitey88

I wish liberals would get this upset when real rap videos came out. Yeah yeah yeah, It’s racist if a conservative does a parody, but its somehow a noble reflection of their culture when rappers make them. Outrage Hypocrites. – Yereviltwin2

What a down to earth, common sense video. There is absolutely NOTHING offensive in this political ad… if you can tolerate/allow current rap music. Now, I can understand people completely against ANY form of ganster rap and demanding it ALL be banned. However, if not, this very reasonable ad would certainly be acceptable. Word. Freedom of speech is a two way street. Now… SWALLOW that biotch. LOL! – kyvenom

In case you were wondering: this is not parody. Parody would be making fun of rap videos, thus making the rappers themselves the object of fun. This is cruel and exploitative racism, designed to equate urban blacks with criminals. This is to say nothing of how sick it makes me to see the two ‘actors’ in the video dancing around like it’s a Minstrel show.

For the record, Hahn’s opponent has denied knowledge of this video and has denounced it publicly. That isn’t the point. This is intentionally stoking racial hatred to win the votes of racists. And, of course, the candidate is a conservative Republican.

So now I can cross off Los Angeles from places I would ever visit (which is too bad, because I had been looking forward to driving down along the coast). I guess my trip will stop in San Francisco – I can check out Stonewall!

Here’s a black and white otter managing, against all odds, to live in harmony with each otter (see what I did there?):

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Ah, sweet juxtaposition

I’m not sure if it shows (and I sure hope it doesn’t, because I really am trying to become a good writer), but my last instruction on literature or the craft of writing came at the hands of my OAC (that’s grade 13) English teacher, Mr. Lowens. By the time I got to his class, I had already been well-schooled on one of my all-time favourite literary techniques at the hands of Ms. Mooney (the ~25 people who read this blog at the time will no doubt remember that she appeared in one of my first posts). That technique, friends, is the fine art of juxtaposition.

Let’s contrast two news stories out of the USA, shall we?

Alabama passes extreme anti-Mexican law

The new legislation, similar to one passed last year in Arizona, requires schools to find out if students are there illegally. The law, which takes effect on 1 September, also make it a crime to give an illegal immigrant a ride in a car…

…in addition, businesses and schools will be required to check the legal status of workers and students, while landlords will be committing a crime if they knowingly rent to illegal immigrants. Republican Governor Robert Bentley, who signed the bill into law Thursday, said: “We have a real problem with illegal immigration in this country.

The actual headline read “Alabama passes tough immigration law”, but that’s too euphemistic for my taste. First, it’s not “tough”, it’s cowardly. It’s refusing to actually deal with the issues your state is facing, and instead choosing to blame them on a poor, brown scapegoat. Second, it isn’t about immigration – it’s about harassing Mexicans. So congratulations, Alabama, you are still the most racist place in the entire United States. Feel proud – you’ve come a long way since Montgomery (in that you haven’t changed at all).

But wait… what’s this other story?

U.S. Border Guards accept bribes from Mexican drug cartels

Mexican drug cartels are increasingly targeting American border guards and customs agents with bribes and sexual favours, a US security official says. Charles Edwards of the US Department of Homeland Security told a Senate committee the cartels were using what he called systematic corruption to smuggle drugs and migrants into the US. He said the cartels were also seeking tip-offs about police investigations.

Ah, those crafty illegal immigrants… sneaking across the borders at the risk of drowning, police dogs, detention centres, and at great personal cost. If only they knew that all you had to do to gain entry into the United States was to give a handjob to an American border guard! Then you can just waltz (salsa?) right across the border and into your new life being legislated against by the reactionary bigots that run the southern states.

Gawrsh, Governor Bentley. Doesn’t it seem as though the problem isn’t that your laws aren’t tough enough, but that the people who are enforcing them are absuing their power? Well, I guess the answer is to give them more power, right? That’ll fix everything! Or maybe, just maybe, this law isn’t about your illegal immigration problem at all, but about your racism and the racism of your state.

We should try deporting all the reactionary xenophobic assholes out of Alabama. See if that helps.

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Banking on poverty

So at various points in the past I’ve talked about the pernicious lie that is the idea of Africa as a barren wasteland. Because Africa’s people are poor, we assume that the continent itself is poor. After all, isn’t that what we see in the charity commercials? People (mostly children) poking through rubble, having to walk miles across a barren wasteland for fresh water, dry savannah with no resources to exploit? It’s a lie, all of it: Africa isn’t poor because it lacks resources; it is poor because it is kept poor:

Hedge funds are behind “land grabs” in Africa to boost their profits in the food and biofuel sectors, a US think-tank says. In a report, the Oakland Institute said hedge funds and other foreign firms had acquired large swathes of African land, often without proper contracts. It said the acquisitions had displaced millions of small farmers.

When colonial powers officially left Africa, they left behind a long legacy of abuse and destabilization of local government. The lack of domestic education and infrastructure meant that newly-minted African leaders were woefully unprepared to resist sweet-sounding offers that came from foreign corporate entities, promising high-paying jobs and modern conveniences. What people didn’t realize was that, much in the same way European powers had taken control of American land from its native people, Africans were signing their lands away.

Africa is incredibly resource rich, but lacks the human capital to exploit its own powers in the way that, say, the United States was able to do to become a world power (of course the fact that outside Mauritania, Africa doesn’t really have a thriving slave trade prevents them from really matching the USA’s rise to dominance). The result is that Africans have a choice – work for foreign corporate powers or starve. Whatever political will there is for change is tamped down by well-funded and armed warlords that act as political leaders, but reap the rewards of selling their people back into slavery chez nous.

Of course with no real options for self-improvement, people who wish to survive in Africa agree to work for the corporations. It is only by allowing the conditions to remain oppressive and hopeless that the corporations can maintain an economic stranglehold on the nations of Africa. That is why I am particularly skeptical when one of the same hedge funds that owns African land roughly the same acreage as the country of France (wait… isn’t colonialism over?) say something like this:

One company, EmVest Asset Management, strongly denied that it was involved in exploitative or illegal practices. “There are no shady deals. We acquire all land in terms of legal tender,” EmVest’s Africa director Anthony Poorter told the BBC. He said that in Mozambique the company’s employees earned salaries 40% higher than the minimum wage. The company was also involved in development projects such as the supply of clean water to rural communities. “They are extremely happy with us,” Mr Poorter said.

Anyone who knows about the existence of a “company town” knows to be wary of statements like this. When the entire economic health of a municipality is dependent on jobs from one source, the citizens of the town basically become 24/7 employees. Without strong labour unions and the rule of law, this kind of arrangement can persist in perpetuity, or at least until the company decides that there’s no more value to be squeezed from that area and the entire town collapses, creating generations of impoverished people.

Much like we say in yesterday’s discussion of First Nations reserves, when there is not a strong force for domestic development – whether governmental or otherwise – people are kept trapped in a cycle of poverty. Poverty goes beyond simply not having money – it means that one has no hope of pulling themselves out. When you lack the means, the education, and the wherewithal to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” (a term I hate for both rhetorical and mechanical reasons – wouldn’t you just flip your feet over your own head and land up on your ass?), all of the Randian/Nietzschean fantasies of some kind of superman building his fortune from scratch can’t save you.

Which is why well-fed free-market capitalist ideologues annoy me so much. The private sector is not bound by ethics, and most of the companies doing this kind of exploitation aren’t the kind of things you can boycott (as though boycotts actually work, which they don’t – just ask BP). When profit is your only motive and law is your only restraint, you’ll immediately flock to places with the least laws and most profits. I’m not suggesting that more government is necessarily the answer – most of the governments in Africa are so corrupt that they simply watch the exploitation happen and count their kickbacks – but neither is rampant and unchecked free market involvement.

Like Canada’s First Nations people, Africans must be given not only the resources but the knowledge and tools to learn how to develop their own land. They must be treated as potential partners and allies, rather than rubes from whom a buck can be wrung. Small-scale development projects that put the control in the hands of the community rather than the land-owners are the way to accomplish this. Not only does it build a sense of psychological pride and move the locus of control back into people’s hands, but there are effects that echo into the future, as new generations of self-sufficient people grow up with ideas and the skills to make them happen.

While it’s all well and good to talk about bootstraps, when there’s a boot on your neck then all the pulling in the world won’t get you onto your own feet.

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Canada’s third world nations

Remember when Katrina hit, and the underbelly of American neglect was exposed to the world? The fact that millions of people in the richest, most prosperous country in the world were living in squalor was the subject of much consternation and concerned tongue-clucking. The fact that the vast majority of people affected (and subsequently neglected) by the disaster were from a racial group that has historically been abused and continues to be patronized or ignored by the powers that be also didn’t escape notice. We here in Canada were comfortable, perched atop our high horse, thanking the heavens above that we were simply better than that:

Conditions in one Haida Gwaii hospital are so bad that chemotherapy drugs are mixed in an outdoor wooden shed and the morgue is housed in a temporary trailer. Not only that, but the regional hospital district says water needs to cleared from the main building’s roof by hand and physiotherapy sessions need to be conducted in an old greenhouse.

The problems at the 61-year-old Queen Charlotte General Hospital and Health Centre were detailed to the NDP in a letter from the North West Regional Hospital District, sent in mid May. On Tuesday, the NDP raised the issue in the legislature, pressing the government on why it has let the facility deteriorate to such a low level.

I am not a popular entertainer, and I don’t have an internationally-televised live broadcast to exploit. All I have is this humble blog and my microcelebrity (I got Pharyngulated yesterday! Sniny!) to make this statement: Christy Clark doesn’t care about Native people. Neither does Gordon Campbell, under whose watch all of this happened, but he’s gone. For those readers outside of British Columbia, I should probably explain. Christy Clark is the current premier (akin to a governor in the United States, or a First Minister in many other parliamentary democracies) of British Columbia, having recently been elected after the resignation of the disgraced Gordon Campbell.

Health care is administrated by the provinces, meaning that the premier is responsible for ensuring the funding and oversight of health care facilities meets a provincial standard. It is up to her (or him) to ensure that resources are properly allocated, which means that the extremely sub-standard conditions of the Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlote Islands) are her responsibility.

If this were an isolated incident in which political powers neglect First Nations communities, then I might be content to shrug it off. Shit happens, and sometimes things get missed. But for some reason (more on my suspicions on what that reason is later) it is always Native communities getting a shipment of body bags instead of health supplies; it’s always Native people being the subject of NIMBY protest, and because they receive taxpayer support, everyone with an internet connection thinks that they’re qualified to offer an opinion on the issue, which usually contains at least one racial slur (prefaced by “I’m not racist, but…”) and an admonishment to “get off their asses”.

I’ve spoken before about the need for effective political opposition, and this is exactly what I was talking about. Instead of running around trying to score cheap political points and play games with the debt ceiling, the provincial NDP has found an area where the government is slacking, and has brought it to the forefront. My cap is tipped to them, at least on this issue (although I am no fan of the provincial NDP generally). However, this issue is not simply relegated to the provinces:

Announcing the release of the joint work plan, INAC Minister John Duncan noted that “Canada and First Nations have an enduring historic relationship based on mutual respect, friendship and support.” However, the 2011 June Status Report of the Auditor General of Canada (AG Report) tells a different story. Chapter 4 of the report highlights the ongoing appalling conditions on First Nation reserves, the stark contrast between conditions of First Nation reserves and other communities and the federal government’s repeated failures to address adequately the deplorable conditions on First Nation reserves.

The report itself is pretty chilling, detailing the several ways in which the federal government has failed to take meaningful action on issues of basic necessities to First Nations communities across the country. Their approach is disorganized, slipshod, and shows a complete lack of commitment to actually ameliorating the problems faced by First Nations people. And therein lies the problem: it is convenient and easy to blame Native people for their lack of success, but when the support they receive from the federal government is so woefully inadequate (compared, say, to the amount that municipalities receive), one cannot simply chalk these problems up to being lazy. We’re talking about thousands of people who don’t have clean drinking water. This isn’t asking for “a handout” or special favours – this is ensuring that our citizens have what we would describe as the bare necessities to live.

So, if bringing the conditions of Haida Gwaii to provincial attention represents a successful official opposition, then the complete lack of progress and the widening disparity between Native Canadians and everyone else represents an appalling dereliction of duty on the part of the Liberal Party of Canada (with whom I am aligned) and the New Democrats. Government has a duty to look after the interests of its people, and the opposition has the responsibility to take the government to task when it fails in that duty. This failure is just as appalling as what happened in New Orleans – more so, because it’s happened over the stretch of several years.

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, describes the problem in much the same words I would use:

This isn’t about assigning blame or pointing fingers – it’s about accepting responsibility and saying “my brothers and sisters need my help.” And while Mr. Atleo wasn’t at liberty to say it, I will put into words the general feeling I got from his discussion: First Nations people are treated like the ‘niggers’ of Canada, and we have work to do if we care enough to change that.

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In defense of my bigoted moron brothers

Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta is a non-crazy freethinkers group in Atlanta, and you should check them out.

This morning I went on a bit of a tirade against KD and Black Son, two of the hosts of a public access television show called “Black Atheists of Atlanta” for their completely non-scientific rationalization of their anti-gay stance. I got so fired up about tearing them a new asshole, that I forgot to talk about the original point I wanted to make about the show.

The first point was that being a member of a minority group (whether that be a racial or ideological minority) doesn’t make you immune from being a bigot or an idiot. Similarly, being an atheist doesn’t automatically mean you’re intelligent – it just means you have at least one thing right. KD and Black Son are just as seeped in the heterosexism of their society as anyone else. While we might be surprised to see someone that is a religious skeptic use the same kind of nonsensical “reasoning” we complain about in apologists, it’s not completely mysterious. The challenge is to be skeptical about all claims, and to apportion belief to the evidence – KD and Black Son clearly aren’t very skilled at appraising the quality of evidence.

The other thing I wanted to say but didn’t get a chance to was a response to something that Hemant wrote:

At one point, someone calls in to say that there is, in fact, a biological basis for homosexuality. The response?

KD: “Those scientists were white, weren’t they?”
Caller: “Why does that matter?”
KD: “It matters to me because I’m black… if you’re not careful, even science can be racist.”

(I’ll admit it’s true that black people have been victims in some experiments, but that’s the fault of individual scientists, not science as a process.)

Hemant’s comment represents a fundamental misunderstanding of racism, and the climate from which things like the Tuskegee experiment came. It wasn’t simply a handful of unscrupulous scientists operating outside the norms that were responsible for the atrocities of the now-infamous abuses done in the name of science. Rather, the rationalization for using these people as they were used sprang from the societal idea that black people were little better than animals, and as such could be used as instruments of medical testing rather than treated as people.

KD’s remark about science being prone to racism is not then an indictment of the process of science, nor is it a misplaced criticism of a few people. It is justifiable skepticism about truths that come from the scientific establishment – an establishment that has demonstrated again and again its vulnerability to racism, sexism, heterosexism… all the flaws we see in human beings. Seen from this perspective, KD’s point is entirely justified – one does have to be careful to ensure that science isn’t racist. We see this taking place in clinical trials, where medicines are tested in primarily white, male populations, and then distributed to the population at large without checking to see if the results are generalizable. To be sure, this is getting better, but we haven’t reached the point where we have to stop being careful.

That being said, the correct response is to remain skeptical – not to reject the science. Animal studies of homosexuality have been performed by a variety of scientists in many countries, and they are based on observation. They were also not performed with the purpose of proving that gay sex happens in the animal kingdom, they are based on field observations and followup hypothesis testing. This is quite ancillary to the fact that there is nothing inherent in people of European descent that is pro-gay; white people and black people alike hate LGBT people, in equal measure, and with equally little rational support.

So while I am still appalled and horrified by what KD and Black Son said in their broadcast, and find it just as stupid and meritless as I did this morning, I have to defend that particular comment, because it is rooted in a justifiable and rational response to a scientific establishment that is predominantly white and has a long history of racism. Science, properly applied, leads to the acceptance of homosexuality in humans just as sure as it does lead to the conclusion that black people are equal in all meaningful ways to all other people.

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