On the wrong side of justice

This post is going to be a bit of a pedantic rant about a figure of speech, but I hope you’ll bear with me because I don’t think it’s a trivial issue. Progressive liberals often describe conservatives as being “on the wrong side of history” when it comes to things like gay rights, gender or race equality, and generally most progressive causes. History indeed shows us that the people who make arguments standing in opposition to social changes often find themselves left in the dust – defenders of Jim Crow segregations laws lost, as did those who opposed women getting the vote, as did those who said that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to serve in the military.

There is something missing from that “left in the dust” statement though, and that’s the word “eventually”. The people who opposed Jim Crow were highly relevant right up until Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act. People who opposed gay equality in Canada (at least insofar as marriage was concerned) were highly relevant up until 2004, when the Supreme Court ruled that marriage discrimination violated the Charter rights of gay Canadians – people who oppose gay people serving openly in the U.S. armed forces only became ‘the wrong side of history’ last year.

Indeed, we can also see this starry-eyed phrase crop up in our ongoing social justice struggles: [Read more...]

Glass ceilings, cliffs, and the wrong side of history

Undoubtedly, the vast majority of you don’t pay attention to Canadian provincial politics. To be quite honest with you, I don’t either (outside of a bit of attention paid to my own province, mostly by accident). However, this past Saturday my non-provincial-politics-watching streak was broken by the occasion of the Ontario Liberal leadership convention coming to a close. Without wanting to go too far into the history, the former premier (a position equivalent to a governor in the United States) resigned quite suddenly in the midst of a number of political crises. The convention on Saturday was the result of a democratic process internal to the party to select his successor, and the presumptive premier of the largest province in the country.

In a move that may have surprised a number of people, the winner of the election, on the third ballot, was Kathleen Wynne, an experienced politician and member of the provincial cabinet. After a second round in which Ms. Wynne was the front-runner alongside Sandra Pupatello. Two other candidates trailed, but with enough delegates to sway the final voting in either direction. They both chose to endorse Wynne, and brought a large percentage of their delegates along with them, cementing Ms. Wynne’s appointment by a final vote split of 57% to 43%.

If you care to do so, you can read some of my initial reactions to the outcome as a Storify log. What I want to do in this piece (and likely in a subsequent one) is to explore a few of the statements I heard in the wake of the announcement. [Read more...]

Making their priorities clear

A government, like any organization, has to manage a number of competing interests simultaneously. The economy must be watched and occasionally massaged, health care has to be funded, as does a military, as does scientific research, as does infrastructure like roads and bridges. It’s a massive undertaking, requiring a wide variety of non-overlapping competencies and skills simply to keep going, let alone to improve.

Unfortunately, I live in a country whose government is a quasi-Soviet cult of personality, convened somewhat ironically around a man who has none. Stephen Harper runs what some refer to as a ‘tight ship’, but what is actually a gaggle of completely incompetent buffoons who, if the need was urgent, might be able to muster enough collective brainpower to run an alarm clock (provided the clock was small and it was okay if it lost a little time now and then). As a result, they seem to take not only their marching orders, but indeed their nouns, verbs, and syntax wholesale from the Harper machine.

This works incredibly well for a political party: [Read more...]

Historical projection

One of the things that blogging has moved me to do more often is to learn about history. I am somewhat ashamed to say that between, let’s say, grade 10 history class (which was in 2000) and the founding of this blog (in 2010), I was not exactly what you might call ‘a student of history’. Sure, I picked up things in fits and snatches from newspaper articles and what I gleaned from just generally being a person who was paying attention to the world, but it would be a rare occurrence indeed for you to catch me studying history for its own sake. I have since learned the critical role that understanding history should play in our daily lives.

I think history is kinder to liberals than it is to conservatives (although these labels break down once you reach more than 30 years back). While there have been, and technically continue to be good conservative arguments to make about things, the political ‘left’ has moved to more or less occupy what was once the centre, while the right (particularly in America) has steadily moved to the extreme. As a result, American conservatives lionize Ronald Reagan – a man who was a terrible President and a terrible influence on the world – a man whose policies they would demonize as Satanic socialism were he living today. They don’t really have many other icons to boast about, nor major policy positions they can hang their hats on. They have become the less-clever Statler and Waldorf of policy – having nothing substantive to contribute, but always lobbing criticisms.

And it is a combination of their own lack of laudable history, and the same failure to learn actual history that I have been guilty of, that leads them to accept shockingly ahistorical statements like this: [Read more...]

The revolving door of white privilege

One of the most fascinating case studies to consider when trying to underline the point that race is socially constructed (rather than an emergent property of biology) is the gradually-shifting definition of ‘whiteness’. ‘White’ was a label that has seen many redefinitions over the years in North America, as people who were previously forcibly excluded (e.g., Italians, Irish, Jews) were gradually and begrudgingly included under that privileged umbrella. It is an open question as to what extent political expediency versus demographics versus socioeconomic power played in this reclassification, but one cannot ignore the fact that it happened.

Canada is not immune from this reclassification pattern either. While the original political power in the nation of Canada was divided between those of English and French descent, the threat of American expansion and the promise of abundant resources forced the government of Canada to open its doors to large numbers of immigrants. As that (mostly and intentionally white) immigration happened, the definition of ‘white’ faced some serious pressures, both political and economical, prompting a shift that matches the one happening in the USA.

It is this history that makes the following story worth a brief comment: [Read more...]

Picking your battles (and picking them stupidly)

If you follow Canadian politics news, you may have noticed that a copy of a third-party forensic audit of Attawapiskat First Nation was leaked to the press yesterday. The news wasn’t exactly good* – a large majority of expenses had no supporting documentation, which is certainly a suspicious state of affairs. The fact that the band has been under co-management and that the number of un-documented expenses dropped after 2010 (when Theresa Spence took over as chief) has not stopped the crowing of the critics of Chief Spence’s attempts to elicit federal assistance from a government that seems more interested in sending accountants than resources. They see this as further evidence of their central thesis: that the problems experienced by First Nations are the result of their own incompetence as opposed to anything that the Government of Canada has to step in and address (because fuck the Auditor General, right?)

To their credit, the only response from the Harper team so far has been to say that they agree with the findings of the audit (they’ve had a copy of it for months now), but their supporters have been bleating their triumph to the skies. Which makes me wonder: is fiscal responsibility really the moral high ground you want to stand on? The whole argument right now is whether or not the incompetence and shady practices of Chief Spence and her clique have resulted in a situation where her people are suffering, and she is to blame by virtue of her lack of fiscal responsibility.

Again I ask you, Harper supporters: is this really the hill you want to die on? [Read more...]

Settler to settler: #IdleNoMore advice

There is an overwhelming and near-undeniable temptation when presented with a social justice movement to see in it an opportunity for you to mobilize the energy and commitment of its members to accomplish one of your own goals. I remember for example, seeing a lot of passionate people during Occupy Vancouver insisting that what we should do is take all of our anger at the current political/economic system and channel it toward stopping pornography, or finding out what ‘really’ happened on September 11th, 2001*.

Now it is very much an open debate whether or not Occupy was a social justice movement per se, or whether its aims were too diffuse to qualify, or whether by largely ignoring the racial components of the system it complained about, it abrogated its claim to social ‘justice’. That’s not the substance of my argument here. What I will note, just in passing, is that Occupy Vancouver was well-attended by social justice groups, including (obviously, if you know the activism scene in Vancouver) a number of Indigenous organizations.

Which brings us around to what I do want to talk about, which is the role that settlers play in the #IdleNoMore movement; or, more specifically, roles that I want to see them (us) stop playing. First, just to establish some terminology, ‘settler’ refers to non-Indigenous inhabitants of North America (or Turtle Island), and speaks specifically to the fact that while we may live here, we are not the original inhabitants of this land. More information can be found here if you find this term troubling.

There are two general patterns of behaviour that I want to comment on, because of how often I see them and how deeply they annoy me. [Read more...]

Connected by a common thread

Because of the way in which the conversation has been traditionally framed and understood, we face a serious reluctance to identify all but the most egregious examples of racism in common parlance. To be sure, there are those of us who make a habit of exploring the racial component of every human interaction under the sun (and what exactly do you mean by ‘under the sun’?). To discuss racism properly is to be involved in a constantly-evolving conversation that explores all angles of an issue without falling too definitively hard on any one position (at least without acknowledging the other positions).

When racist behaviour carries with it the (apparently immense) threat of being labeled ‘a racist’, the emotional stakes are quite high before a claim will be accepted as having any merit at all. Absent a fMRI and sworn testimony by a panel of psychics, people are prone to deny the racist component of any behaviour they may have exhibited, and will jump to the immediate defense of any admired person who is thus accused. On comes the search for a loophole - any loophole – that provides enough cover to escape having to confront the harm that those behaviours have.

Most people don’t have time for the kind of near-constant scrutiny and encyclopaedic historical knowledge required to identify all instances of racism. Whereas those of us in visible minority positions are made more aware of racism by the mere fact that we are more likely to experience it, I would venture to guess that within any race-based story there is a subset of even the affected minority group that says “now you’re just overreacting”. Depending on how convoluted or specific the issue, this dissenting group may encompass all minority group members except a few dedicated academics. [Read more...]

Those poor Wall Street CEOs

One of the fascinating aspects of privilege is the way in which it totally skews your perception of what ‘average’ is. I would think, for example, that things like street harassment or sexual assault or other forms of misogynistic abuse are fantastically rare. After all, I’m a guy who spends a lot of time with and around women, and I almost never see street harassment or hear stories of people getting assaulted. It wasn’t until I actually asked the women in my life about their experiences that I saw just how widespread and pervasive these behaviours are – they just don’t happen when guys like me are around to see them. My male privilege makes the ‘norm’ of a safe and fair society seem plausible, when the lived experience of my friends and family is anything but.

So when one is confronted about their privilege, or when their privilege is even simply discussed openly, an interesting thing happens. From the perspective of the privileged, the critics are attacking what is right and normal! Why on Earth would someone criticize a just world? There’s certainly no rational reason to do that. Nobody without a particular axe to grind, or maybe even an outright hatred of a particular group would level such accusations against the norm, right? And when those criticisms continue unabated, there’s only one possible way to see it: as demonization: [Read more...]

I attend an #IdleNoMore rally

The Friday before Christmas I took part in a rally/demonstration that started at the Vancouver Art Gallery as part of the #IdleNoMore movement. I arrived to a small group of people with drums, tobacco, and more than a little resolve. That group would grow in size as the demonstration continued.

A view of the early crowd in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery

It was interesting for me to note that while it has become more or less de rigeur to start ceremonies of great import in the city of Vancouver by acknowledging that the city is built on land that was not ceded through treaty by the Coast Salish people who still live here, this was the first time I had ever been at an event where those words had been uttered by a person who identified hirself as Coast Salish. This particular gathering was dominated by aboriginal people, an experience that was novel for me. Growing up where I did, a native person was like a puffin: I knew of their existence, I knew they were somewhere relatively nearby, I generally wished them well, but I never expected to see one up close. [Read more...]