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Feb 25 2013

Reflections on the Oakville Klan story

I want to follow up this morning’s post with a couple of things that were sitting in the back of my mind as I was reading.

Canada’s polite racism, and the ‘tone’ crowd

One of the defining features of racism in Canada is that it usually comes disguised in very neutral, inoffensive language. Canada’s myth of its own “non-racist” status owes dearly to the fact that for the most part, outright racial hostility was much less common here than in the United States. This is not in any way to say that racism didn’t exist (as this book more or less conclusively proves), but rather that we found euphemistic ways to express violent thoughts without having to use the appropriately violent words, for fear of shocking our delicate consciousnesses.

While it’s not a perfect analogy, I couldn’t help but think of the endless admonishments that people press into service about the importance of “tone” in social justice movements. While tone has a role to play in persuasiveness, the argument about tone often manifests itself as a proxy for righteousness. In the nagging tones of faux-concern, people often chastise participants in social justice conversations for “demonizing” or otherwise offending members of the majority group. “Tone” is used as a way of dismissing the disempowered as being “too angry” or “divisive”, rather than recognizing that whatever anger there is is entirely justified, and the divisions pre-extant.

What this piece highlights particularly well for me is how destructive that argument can be. A mob showed up to a couple’s house at night and intimidated them into abandoning the safety of their home. At the very least, the threat of physical violence was implied. Members of what today would be termed a terrorist organization escaped arrest and prosecution because of the inaction of the chief of police. And the response from the newspapers? A series of commentaries about how polite and well-behaved the bigots were as they violated the human rights of Johnson and Jones.

Retributive justice

I struggle to reconcile my liberalism with the idea of judicial punishment. I think that the Klansmen should have been severely punished. I think a three month jail sentence is only marginally better than a $50 fine (about $640 in today’s dollars). I think the fact that the attorney prosecuting the case was shockingly negligent in requesting such a punishment, and if I had been Ira Johnson I would have been outraged that my dignity was considered so cheap.

That being said, I don’t recognize the value of punishment as a way of doing anything other than satisfying our lust for revenge. Were the Klan members who didn’t get punished going to mend their ways because their compatriot faced a few months’ imprisonment? The Klan wasn’t above threats, arson, and other violent acts as a method of achieving their goals. Would a few scattered fines here and there really derail their mission of ‘cleansing’ Canada of all non-white non-Protestants? I hardly think so.

This is, for me, a looming unanswered question: can I support retributive justice when I know that, except in a few circumstances, punishment doesn’t deter crime? What does it mean that I was at least slightly mollified to learn that the appellate court thought a fine was too little? What does it mean that I thought three months was still not enough?

As below, so above

One of the sub-theses of this year’s Black History Month series is that Canada’s history is not radically different from America’s when it comes to the pervasiveness of racism. This example is perhaps a pitch-perfect encapsulation of the difference between Canada and the USA. The KKK was an American organization that metastasized to Canada, where it developed its own agenda and list of priorities, but kept the basic tenets of hatred for anyone who wasn’t a white Protestant. It was different in style, but identical in substance.

Racism in a Candian context may not have come from the United States (although I’m sure more than a few tenets made their way up here), but I see the differences as being of style rather than substance. The justice system still saw preventing racial integration as a valid goal, even if it wasn’t willing to turn a blind eye to vigilante mobs enforcing such prevention. The justice system still saw a valid role for racial discrimination, at least insofar as that kind of bigotry didn’t seem relevant to the legal reasoning behind the sentencing or the denial of appeal. The only real difference was the degree to which physical violence and overt hatred were tolerated.

The thing that made the KKK so dangerous wasn’t the fact that they were capable of violence (although, to be sure, that’s a pretty big part of it). The KKK was able to commit its acts due to the silent complicity and at times willing participation of a justice system that saw racial division (of course with whites on top) as the good and natural order of the universe. The Canadian courts certainly didn’t differ from the American ones in that regard, and it is worthwhile to ponder what would have happened if the Klan had been able to establish a stronger foothold here.

The question that remains unanswered to me is whether Canada’s less-dramatic history of racial prejudice (when compared to the USA) is the reason why we don’t talk about our own civil rights struggles, or if it is instead a product of our shame and shyness around our own guilt and complicity to things we abhor today. After all, even our conservative politicians sing paeans to immigration, even as they seek to limit it. I find it hard to imagine that an anti-immigrant, anti-French, anti-Catholic movement would find much sympathy from my countrymen today, but maybe that’s just a lack of imagination on my part.

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6 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat

    Our much-loved *gag* PM was a representative from a party that would, unfortunately, make the imagination in your last line more clearly imaginary; the Reform Party were most of what you list, mouthfoamingly anti-immigrant and anti-French, calling BQ MPs “traitors” and fighting against every and any possible signs of progressivism, standing athwart history shouting “get out of my country, $OFFENSIVE_SLUR!” Throw in the nasties from the Christian Heritage Party for the anti-Catholic part, along with their usual anti-everything stance.

    And that wiping from the bottom of the barrel, Philip Rushton, didn’t he teach at UWO?

    That’s within the last 20 years, and the Western Standard is still out there, isn’t it? :(

  2. 2
    Sivi

    Yeah, JP taught, and was tenured, at UWO.

    I was going to say the same thing – anti-immigrant, anti-French rhetoric is astonishingly easy to find in contemporary Canada, though anti-Catholic is a bit harder to dig up, at least in the Eastern parts. In mainstream political discourse it’s usually covered up a bit better, especially since Harper keeps a tighter reign on his MPs than Reform did.

  3. 3
    km

    Yeah…I spent 5 years living in London (where JPR is tenured). It’s a really surprising hotbed of white power and conservatism (not that the two are necessarily linked, but I think in this case they are). Perhaps the most shocking thing is this: from an airphoto taken just to the west of the city. http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?t=187676

  4. 4
    Nathair

    I lived in London for about thirty years and while I was certainly aware of the intensely conservative tone of the town, the white power element just slid right by me. Until I took one particular job. I had been working there for a couple of months when something came up and I had to swing by my employer’s house and pick up some papers. Instructed to come to the side door so as not to disturb the kids I was led straight down the stairs to the home-office in the basement, the home-office completely covered in Nazi (and some Confederate regalia.) Seriously huge, floor to ceiling Nazi flag on one wall, Nazi Eagle statue on the desk, various White Power bric-a-brac around the place and three of the people I had been working with hanging around in this nightmarish setting just drinking beer and shooting the shit with the boss. It was quite a rude (and surreal) awakening to what I’d just been privileged enough to be able to ignore up until then.

  5. 5
    sambarge

    I think our (as in Canadians) belief that we’re not racist is directly linked to witnessing the American experience. Slavery ended in Canada before Confederation, so we can stand up in history class and (somewhat) honestly proclaim that it was never practised in our country. Likewise, we watched the Civil Rights movement in the States and patted ourselves on the back that we didn’t have those problems here.

    It’s a bit like how Peter Gzowski used to love having Noam Chomsky on to talk about how terrible US Foreign Policy was but didn’t like Chomsky talking about Canada’s complicity in the policies.

  6. 6
    Infophile

    On the issue of retributive justice, this is an issue I’ve thought a lot about myself. I recently made a rather extensive comment on it (well, very close to it) over on another blog, on the issue of disproportionate penalties for file-sharing. Let me copy-and-paste that first, to save myself rewriting it. It’s not quite the same topic, but enough of it is relevant here.

    The concept of proportionality is often an underrated component of a healthy justice system. One might naively think that increasing the penalties for a crime would result in less of that crime, but this comes with a few problems:

    First, human nature doesn’t work that way. For the most part, people commit crimes without thinking (they panic, they get enraged, etc), unknowingly (they don’t know it’s against the law), out of desperation (they need to steal food to live), or when assuming they probably won’t get caught (like is usually the case with file sharing, as so many people do it and so few are prosecuted). There are very few people (though surprisingly many corporations) who properly weigh the chance they’ll get caught and the penalty for it against the benefit of the crime. As such, increasing the penalty for a crime will do next to nothing to make it occur less often. The only thing that can be done on the enforcement end to make crime less common is to make enforcement more consistent: If 90% of the people who shared files were caught and forced to pay back even a small amount (as long as it’s larger than the cost of buying legally), file sharing wouldn’t be an attractive option. But of course, this costs the government money to enact, so they take the easy option of just raising the penalties.

    Finally, disproportionate punishment simply isn’t ethical. If we consider the government as a tool to enact justice, then imposing a disproportionate punishment is anything but just. If someone steals $100 and is fined $1,000 for it, that’s relatively proportionate – the cost of what was stolen, plus time and effort needed for the government to enact the punishment, plus inconvenience. The total harm done by the thief is in the same ballpark as the harm done to them. If they’re fined $220,000 for doing something that may or may not have actually caused someone harm, then they’re being harmed far more than the alleged victim. The government’s gone overboard and turned the offender into a victim themself. Now, one could make arguments that the purpose of the justice system isn’t simply to balance out wrongs, but perhaps deterrence, then I refer you to my first point: Deterrence doesn’t work. If the purpose is vengeance, then doing so disproportionately just leads to resentment and possible backlash. If the purpose is to prevent further harm, then such massive fines only make life harder on the person, and more likely they’ll resort to other crime in the future.

    To expand a bit, and bring this back to this particular issue, there are typically four goals of penalties in a justice system (listed in declining order or priorities for most people):

    1. Retribution. Humans naturally feel an urge for revenge when they (or their family or “tribe”) has been wronged, and this satisfies that urge.

    2. Containment. Imprisoning a dangerous person prevents them from committing further crimes while imprisoned (hopefully). Note that this is only relevant to crimes that affect others – for victimless “crimes” like drug-use, containment is pointless.

    3. Deterrence. See my quoted post above – a crime that is punished almost all the time it’s committed, and isn’t often done without thinking about it, can be successfully deterred. This doesn’t apply to all crimes, though. Even if the punishment for second-degree murder is astronomical and guaranteed, it will still happen occasionally, as people sometimes do it in a fit of rage without thinking about the consequences. But crimes with any sort of consideration beforehand can in principle be deterred if prosecution is sufficiently likely.

    4. Rehabilitation. Some don’t even consider this a worthy goal at all, and many justice systems don’t include it, but I do consider it worthy, so I’m including it here.

    So, is a three-month jail sentence better than a $50 fine? Well, it’s more vengeance and more containment, perhaps more rehabilitation, and perhaps more deterrence (increasing punishment doesn’t work nearly as well at deterrence as increasing the conviction rate, due to people preferring to assume the best will happen). So even if you leave out vengeance, it’s still better than a simple fine.

    But beyond that, it’s vengeance is a part of human nature that we can’t simply excise. If our justice system weren’t retributive, and worked solely for the other three goals, we’d see vigilante justice being enacted whenever the emotional need for vengeance isn’t met. This could possibly lead to more crime overall, rather than less. So, perhaps from a harm-reduction standpoint, it makes some sense for the criminal justice system to contain a bit of vengeance.

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