As in all things, context is key

I don’t usually double-post on Mondays (I find it uncouth), but there was so much to talk about this week that I felt it necessary to hit you with two shots of the good stuff every day this week (don’t worry, Friday is still for movies only, and I have a great one for you this time around).

If I can, I will commiserate with my conservative brethren for a moment: it is often incredibly difficult to know the right thing to say when discussing race, and sometimes people’s reactions can seem overly sensitive. The fact that their reactions always seem overly sensitive to you is because you haven’t bothered to try and understand why, but that’s your issue to deal with. Two stories came to my attention this week that I thought were good illustrations of when even your humble narrator found it difficult to pick a side.

Beyoncé raises some eyebrows with her makeup choice

For the 90th anniversary of French fashion mag, L’Officiel Paris, Beyonce Knowles appears in a pictorial which pays tribute to an “African Queen” theme. More specifically, Knowles channels Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician and human rights activist who supposedly inspired the music on her upcoming album.

Is this going where you think it is?


Beyoncé has dressed in what could accurately be described as “blackface” for a photo shoot. Now as I’ve said before, blackface has a history in the United States that is connected to buffoonery and the outright mockery of black people. It would be incredibly difficult to make that connection here – Ms. Knowles is going out of her way to pay tribute to the cultural history of Nigeria, which is about as far from mockery as you can get. She is also simultaneously wedding dark skin with the idea of beauty and power – a positive image, especially considering the dearth of dark-skinned models of colour in fashion today. It would be ludicrous to accuse her of “blackening up” in the same tradition of a minstrel show.

However, there is another side to this issue. Firstly, Ms. Knowles is fair-skinned, a fact which has earned her her fair share of criticism. With her straightened hair (often dyed blonde) and her status as a sex symbol, Beyoncé’s image is that of having “good hair” and “good skin”, which does no favours to her dark-complected sisters. After the shoot is over, Beyoncé gets to wash the makeup off and reclaim her status as being light-skinned (and anyone who thinks that doesn’t make a difference is woefully out of touch). It is not so for someone whose skin is naturally that hue – they’re always dark. Additionally, it is not necessary to the shoot that Ms. Knowles darken her skin – the image could be conveyed just as convincingly with the cheek makeup and the clothing. The makeup seems completely extraneous, and suggests to me that she is trying to convey some kind of additional message about dark skin. What that message is is subject to interpretation, and I will not speculate.

Professor retires over racial remarks

A longtime Murray State University professor has decided to retire after referring to slavery while making a point about tardiness to two black students last semester, the school said Friday. “I did say, ‘Do you know why you were late? There’s a theory that a way to protest their master’s treatment was for slaves to be late.’

The newspaper reported that according to Johnson’s official complaint, when she asked (professor) Wattier what he meant, he replied: “It is part of your heritage. The slaves never showed up on time to their owners and were lashed for it. I just don’t have the right to do that.”

Yeah… that was a stupid thing to say. The original remark was bad enough on its own, but the elaboration was the nail in the coffin.

As with the “blackface” issue above, this is one of those situations in which context is crucial. I do not doubt professor Wattier’s assertions that he is not a dispositionally racist person. Testimony from his colleagues reveals him to have many connections to the black community stretching back many years. However, the fact remains that a while professor comparing his black students to slaves and lamenting his inability to humiliate and punish them in the way that their ancestors (possibly – the students may not have had slaves for forebearers) would have experienced is inexcusable.

It’s remarkable how easy it is to bring the pain of historical mistreatment to the surface. One misplaced word, an off-hand comment, an inadvertent (or completely innocently-intended) reference can expose the scars of the past almost instantaneously. It is for this reason that I continually go out of my way to extend the benefit of the doubt to those who say racially insensitive things. However, I will not excuse that ignorance, nor will I ever let an opportunity for education pass. I certainly have no interest in “calming down” or “getting over it”, as is the common refrain whenever anyone points out the effect of unintended or historical racism. We all make mistakes – it is those who are willing to learn from them that will make sure they become more rare.

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Black history in Canada moment: the maritimes

This year for Black History Month, I have decided to do a bit of research into black history in my home and native land, Canada. Since there are 4 Mondays in February, I am going to focus on 4 different regions of the country. Last week I looked at black history in Ontario. This week I will be concluding this series with a look at black history in the maritime provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island.

It’s somewhat psychologically satisfying to conclude this series on the east coast. I say that because one of the very first things I ever talked about on this blog, and something I have made repeated reference to, is a hate crime that occurred in that region. At the time, I pointed to the complicated history of the region:

Nova Scotia is home to a surprisingly large number of black people – that is, surprising unless you know some of the history. Africville is an area in Halifax that was home to hundreds of recently-freed slaves and imports from Africa. Some black families in Nova Scotia can trace their lineage back hundreds of years. However, due to overt racism in the 1800s and early 20th century, and more subtle systemic (“polite”) racism in the latter half of the 1900s, black people in Canada have rarely been able to move into the upper middle class. Since race and class are closely related, and given the economic fortunes of the maritime provinces (largely agricultural, less industrial, economic decline in recent years due to fisheries changes), black people have commonly got the short end of the stick.

The maritime region of Canada has a long and storied racial history. With Nova Scotia and New Brunswick both joining confederation as one of the original provinces, much of the foundational history of these provinces is tied inextricably to Irish immigrants. In fact, even a brief period spent in Halifax or St. John will immediately call that lineage forth. However, in addition to British, Irish, Scottish and Welsh, a large population of black immigrants were instrumental in building the territories even before confederation in 1867.

The first group of black New Brunswickers were Loyalists – black men and women loyal to the British Empire who left America following the war of independence. Despite being given land to farm by the government, there was little by way of instructional assistance available to these Loyalists, meaning that they struggled to raise enough to live off of from their land. Given that they were barred from voting, essentially banned from living or practicing a trade within the St. John city limits (something that’s been mentioned on this blog before), and could be kept in unofficial slavery as indentured servants, life was not exactly pleasant for black Loyalists well into the 19th century.

One fascinating chapter of Canadian history that is unique in the world is our role in the country of Sierra Leone. This country enjoys the somewhat backhanded distinction of being an experiment in the “back to Africa” concept – returning the children of slaves back to Africa to return to their roots. 1200 escaped slaves and freemen who had given up on living in Canada were loaded onto transports and shipped back to Africa to establish a place for themselves. Of course, the interests of the colonial powers and foreign corporations undermined any attempt for the newly-relocated settlers to gain any kind of economic independence (a practice that still persists to this day), and the welfare of the relocated black people wasn’t much improved. Much of this process has been described in Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes.

In addition to the Loyalists, another group of black immigrants landed in Nova Scotia following the war of 1812. These refugees, largely from Virginia and Maryland, were also given land. Many of them were relegated to ghettoes, the most famous of which being called Africville in Halifax. Despite having land and the right to trade within the city of Halifax, it was exceedingly difficult for black Nova Scotians to secure employment, due to a variety of factors which include lack of access to education, and the pervasive racism of the time. That employment that was available was mostly manual labour, working in shipyards or processing the imports and fisheries.

Africville was always considered a ghetto – while the rest of Halifax was kept modern with infrastructure, Africville lacked plumbing or sewage systems. Home ownership was low, meaning that the accumulation of wealth by black families was next to impossible. After a huge explosion in 1917, the city of Halifax was rebuilt and updated – Africville was not. The city began relocating whatever unsightly detritus they didn’t want in the nicer parts of the city into the Africville area, including sewage treatment plants, garbage dumps, and prisons. Advocates of a “chez nous” approach to social services will be interested to know that the churches provided most of the types of services that we would currently expect from the government. However, being consistently and purposefully excluded from the larger Halifax community meant that these approaches were limited in their effectiveness.

In the 1960s, the government decided (in their enduring wisdom) that Africville was an eyesore that could not be allowed to stand any longer. Residents were forcibly evicted (remember that most did not own their homes – those who did have ownership title were given a tiny stipend and forcibly relocated to housing projects) and the area was bulldozed. The matter would not be investigated, and an apology would not be forthcoming, until 2004 – 40 years too late to do anything about it. The CBC has a film archive of the history of the area and its eventual destruction.

It is perhaps unsurprising, given the context of this history, that there is a great deal of racial tension in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick today. Social norms and attitudes about racism don’t change overnight, and much of the history was swept under the carpet for many years. Black immigration into the eastern provinces would all but stop in the early 20th century. Despite the fact that black people helped build the maritimes, they were never granted a place there. The story of the maritimes reflects well the story of black people in the rest of Canada – we’ve been here forever, but have never been welcome.

Summarizing thoughts

The stereotypical refrain of the put-upon hight school history student is “why do we have to learn this stuff? It’s just names and dates!” A knowledge of history is crucial if we want to understand why things are the way they are now. Historical ignorance breeds contemporary ignorance – one of the many bones I have to pick with those who would clamor to “take our country back“: more likely than not there were real problems for major groups of people at any point in history you’d like to point to, and members of those groups do not particularly want to go back.

Black history in Canada is not merely a subject thrown in people’s faces to make up for historical injustices, or to remind us that black people used to be slaves a million years ago – it serves to remind us that the daily reality of being black in Canada is built on an ancient foundation of hatred, distrust, exclusion, and intentional suppression. From the east to the west coast, every black Canadian carries that heritage on her/his shoulders, regardless of how long or short her/his family has been here. I was born into this history, despite the fact that my father was not born Canadian.

You were born into this history too, regardless of what your feelings toward it are. We are all products of our society, which is itself a product of our history. Understanding the historical forces at work provides us with much-needed context with which to colour our daily experiences. To understand our history is to understand ourselves, and it is only when we are armed with that kind of understanding that we can take the steps necessary to walk into the future together.

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Thou shalt NOT believe

One of the more tedious and bizarrely inaccurate straw men that anti-secularists like to pin on secular advocates is that we want to take people’s religion away from them. Having established this completely untrue assertion, they trot out the shopworn examples of people like Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Adolph Hitler. While atheists often counter that Hitler was a Catholic, that Stalin created a new religion based on worship of the state, and that Pol Pot created a cult of personality centred on himself – hardly non-religious actions – I think that this response grants far too much credence to the complete lack of merit present in the assertion.

There is a world of difference between the kind of mandatory atheism that were attempted in Cambodia, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany and the kind of state atheism that is proposed by secularists. The first is an attempt at thought control – criminalizing certain types of beliefs as being non-harmonious with the interest of the state and punishing any kind of expression of those beliefs. The second is the prescription of a stance toward religion by the state – a refusal to recognize the supremacy of any supernatural belief as worthy of state sanction. The difference between these two positions is akin to the difference between eating at a vegetarian restaurant and murdering anyone who’s ever had a hamburger (albeit inverted – and I’m not likely to do either).

As a committed secularist (not to mention a decent, feeling person) I am an ardent supporter of the principle of freedom of conscience and belief. The punishment of thoughtcrime was, for me, one of the most chilling aspects of Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 – one did not even have to do something to merit punishment; one only had to betray a thought that didn’t meet official approval and one was subject to torture. Hand in hand with the idea of freedom of conscience must be freedom of expression – to me, the most important and least negotiable of the fundamental human freedoms. Every human person has the right to be sovereign in her/his own head, and should be allowed to civilly discuss and disagree with even our most closely-held ideals – it is the only path toward freedom and progress.

If this wasn’t a compelling enough reason to oppose the caricature of secularism that is mandatory state-sponsored atheism, there’s also the fact that it doesn’t work:

One of the last great efforts at state-sponsored atheism is a failure. And not just any kind of failure. China has enforced its anti-religion policy through decades of repression, coercion and persecution, but the lack of success is spectacular, according to a major new study. No more than 15 percent of adults in the world’s most populous country are “real atheists;” 85 percent of the Chinese either hold some religious beliefs or practice some kind of religion, according to the Chinese Spiritual Life Survey.

Members of the Chinese Communist Party and Youth League are required to be atheists, yet 17 percent of them self-identified with a religion, and 65 percent indicated they had engaged in religious practices in the last year, reported sociologist Fenggang Yang of Purdue University, a lead researcher in the project.

What’s interesting is that a place like China, which has been officially anti-theist for more than a generation, has much higher rates of religious belief than places like Denmark or Sweden (or even my homeland of Vancouver), with their strictly secular attitudes toward religion. It somewhat reminds me of a poem I read on a bus in Toronto about two dogs who strain at the leash, yearning for freedom, until the leash is removed. The dogs, newly freed, are content to stay where they were. Of course, in this example, religion is closer to a leash than it is to freedom, but mandatory atheism is not much preferable to state religion.

Defenders of the faith will be quick to seize upon results like the ones found in the study as evidence to support the conjecture that faith is an organic part of being human – that our brains are “wired” to believe in some kind of god. These results do not show any such thing. I’m more inclined to believe that if there is any connection between brains and faith, it is that we have a tendency to invent explanations for strange phenomena, irrespective of how plausible those explanations are (bump in the night? must be a ghost). What they do suggest is that religion cannot be abolished by simply making it illegal.

Personally I am relieved to know that mandatory atheism in China isn’t working. Compelling people to hold a certain belief is an immensely evil act, whether that belief is religious or anti-religious. While it’s disappointing that people are turning toward religion, China is a place that places great value in ancient wisdom and tradition as opposed to science and reason. Atheism is the result of a refusal to accept antiquity and authority as legitimate paths to truth – once those props are gone, religious and other supernatural beliefs are left without anything to hold them up. This is not a process that can be forced on someone; only encouraged.

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I missed Valentine’s Day!

Well… maybe “missed” isn’t the right word. I’m mostly indifferent to the passage of Valentine’s Day, mostly because I’ve successfully managed to avoid being in a relationship for many years, and while I am happy for my friends who have coupled up, the prospect doesn’t really appeal much to me. As with all things though, just because I don’t like something, it doesn’t mean I have cause to stop other people from doing it (unless it directly harms me or someone else).

This, among many other reasons, is why I will never be elected to office in Malaysia:

Islamic morality police in Malaysia have arrested more than 80 Muslims in an operation to stop them celebrating Valentine’s Day. Officers raided budget hotels in the central state of Selangor and capital, Kuala Lumpur, detaining unmarried Muslim couples who were sharing rooms. The religious authorities in Malaysia say Valentine’s Day is synonymous with immoral activities. Those arrested could be jailed for up to two years if convicted.

While I like the idea of punishing people for religious hypocrisy (can you imagine what our society would look like if you were legally obligated to practice what you preach?), I am less in favour of doing so in a country where you can be declared Muslim by legislative fiat. I am even less in favour of laws being passed for reasons of morality, particularly when the religious are the ones deciding what is moral and what isn’t.

I’m sure that the lawmakers in this case think that they are acting to maintain a sense of good, chaste morality for the benefit of all society. While I would challenge them to demonstrate such a benefit, I would also point out that the religious sex fetish does little to prevent “immoral” sexuality, and seems to go a long way toward compelling the kinds of behaviours that they claim are so anathema, whilst simultaneously making people less likely to engage in the kinds of risk-reduction that prevent real harms from occurring.

Here’s the kicker line:

Human rights groups say actions such as the Valentine’s Day ban harm Malaysia’s image as a moderate and progressive Muslim-majority state.

This is what passes for “moderate” and “progressive” when we talk about Muslim theocracy. How sad. Again, as I said back in August, it’s a state that is making small inroads, but it’s still a crime to be gay there. If this is what is considered “moderate” and “progressive”, we’re clearly grading on the mother of all bell curves.

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Religious chicken and homophobic egg

The three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) get the bulk of the attention in North American media. This is partially due to their immense familiarity and power in the world, partially due to number of believers in North America, and partially due to the fact that they stem from a common root. As a result, the way we think of religion as a concept tends to be coloured by those particular traditions. It is important to note that besides these three, their bizarre offshots (which would include Mormonism, Baha’i, Jehova’s Witnesses, and others), and the so-called “Eastern” religions (chiefly Hinduism and Buddhism), there are a number of religions that are seemingly created uniquely, or at least which weave together a number of other traditions into a new narrative.

Religions like these allow us to examine the way in which humans are able to craft new creation mythologies and rites of worship, and give us a clue into how the older traditions may have gotten their start. Aside from Scientology, which gained its notoriety by systematically making bizarre and grandiose claims while defrauding its adherents of their lives and human rights (which is, I realize, a fair cop for pretty much any religion) and Vodun, which has been mischaracterized and caricatured by Christians into something far more bizarre than anything anyone actually practices, this phenomenon of a completely new religion is probably no better and popularly exemplified than it is by Rastafari*.

Rastafari is a somewhat bizarre patchwork of beliefs, stitching together Christianity, pre-Christian Judaism, African mysticism, post-slavery Afrocentric thought, and the worship of a former political leader in Ethiopia. As a general movement it is mostly harmless, as the main underlying philosophy is an existential exploration of man’s relationship with the divine and with other human beings, often fueled by smoking marijuana. It is, interestingly, difficult to divorce Rastafari from its roots deep within post-slavery Jamaican culture. As such, it is hard to tell where Rastafari ends and Jamaican culture begins, which makes this issue far more interesting:

On November 27th, 2010, protesters in Sacramento, CA gathered outside musical artist Capleton’s reggae-dancehall concert to oppose the violent gay-bashing ideas his lyrics promote.  This wasn’t the first protest against reggae artists calling for violent homophobic acts in their music.  Other reggae artists criticized and boycotted over the last decade for anti-homosexual lyrics include Beenie ManBuju Banton, Sizzla, Elephant Man, T.O.K., Bounty Killa and Vybz Kartel.

A major leader in the campaign against the homophobia found in dancehall music (the reggae spinoff popular in United States and western Europe) is Stop Murder Music, who eventually initiated the “Reggae Compassionate Act”.  This contract requires artists who sign it to preclude all homophobic sentiment from their future music and to vow against further reproductions of prior songs which promoted intolerance or killing of gay individuals—thus ensuring that their music will no longer be subject to boycott.  The original problem that lingers past these artist’s vows of free-but-destructive-speech abstinence, however, is the defense originally used to justify the lyrics:  Homophobia is a cultural, even religious value.

One of the knotty problems when considering the intersection between religion and homophobia (and to anyone who wants to claim that “homophobia” just means “fear of gay people” and therefore doesn’t apply to their particular gay-bashing agenda, please take your pedantry and shove it somewhere uncomfortable – adults are talking) is that there is a real chicken-egg conundrum to resolve. Are people homophobic because their religion instructs them to be so, or does a homophobic society spawn a homophobic religion?

Having been to the Caribbean a handful of times, and having half of my family members being of Caribbean extract, I can claim a bit of familiarity with the culture. As with any group of people among whom machismo and “manliness” is considered a high virtue, homophobia is endemic. After all, what greater abdication of the rightful role of a man could there be than mincing around like a goddamn fairy? Add to this male-centred mentality the extreme anti-gay sentiment of colonial Britain and you have a culture that is richly steeped in the hatred and persecution of gay men (and it is predominantly men – Caribbean lesbians seem to by and large escape the kind of hatred they experience in places like South Africa and the Congo).

It is mostly inevitable that a religion that comes from such a background is going to have homophobic elements. I say mostly inevitable because, by a strict interpretation of Rastafari, there’s really no doctrinal reason why homosexuality is wrong – to get there, one must invoke the Old and New Testaments. Additionally, considering that the reggae prophets of Rastafari (Desmond Decker, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley) chose to spend their time concerned with uplifting the human spirit and avoiding hatred, the focus of contemporary reggae and dancehall music on gay hatred seems like the result of foreign influences rather than something that sprung through the religion itself.

As with the anti-gay movement in Uganda, Iran’s bizarre treatment of its homosexual population, and the simmering hatred of gay people (again, predominantly men) here in North America, this intrusion of homophobia into the cultural expression of Rastafari seems to be the pre-existing anti-gay sentiment of adherents being masked as a religious tenet. Of course this kind of hatred tends to be self-feeding as people come to sincerely believe that YahwAlladdha (or Jah, as the case may be) cares more about where your neighbour puts his penis than He does about you specifically inciting violence against one of His creations.

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*I must insist that people remove the term “Rastafarianism” from their vocabulary – the doctrine explicitly rejects “isms”, and even if you don’t care if they don’t think they’re an “ism”, Rastas find such classification offensive. You don’t call Jews “Heebs” simply because they are descended from ancient Hebrews – there’s no need to be unnecessarily offensive.

Libya has upped the ante

I have a niggling suspicion that I glossed over the issue of the struggle for freedom in this morning’s post. There is some real shit going down right now:

Pan-Arab news outlets report that Gaddafi’s troops have used live ammunition and heavy military equipment such as anti-tank missiles in Benghazi. Late on Sunday fierce clashes were being reported in Tripoli. Libya Al Youm reported on its website on Sunday that the regime was using “heavy weapons” and shooting at random.

I cannot put too fine a point on this – Muammar Gaddafi has authorized the use of deadly force against civilians for exercising their right to free speech and free assembly. He has called in foreign mercenaries and snipers to shoot Libyan citizens, and has directed weapons strikes from aircraft against crowds of unarmed civilians. The United States declared war against Iraq at least partially on the justification that he had done stuff like this to his people. The drama is rapidly unfolding:

Meanwhile, two Libyan fighter jets have landed in Malta, where officials say the pilots defected after they were ordered to bomb civilians. Two Libyan helicopters apparently carrying French oil workers have also landed in Malta.

These reports are unsubstantiated eye-witness accounts so it’s entirely possible that we’re not getting the unvarnished truth here, but these reports are coming from Al Jazeera and the BBC – not exactly World Net Daily.

By the time you’ve read this, this “news” will be more than 24 hours old, but I’ve been told by a handful of people who don’t read the news regularly that they wouldn’t have known about this stuff if I hadn’t been harping on it. I hope this will motivate you to read up a little about what’s going on – this will have major repercussions for all of us for many years to come. It’s a good idea to be paying attention. This morning, Gaddafi appeared on state television and gave an hour-long histrionic rant, blaming America and demanding that his fictitious supporters go out onto the streets and arrest those protesting the government, promising death to all who oppose the government. Chilling stuff.

Of course in all the tumult it’s easy to forget that The Ivory Coast has been in a state of violent revolution, with citizens being murdered and raped, since November.

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Something important is still happening

Back in the beginning of January, the people of Tunisia decided they’d had enough of systemic government corruption and a leadership that had repeatedly demonstrated its contempt for its people. They staged a large-scale protest, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets and calling for the resignation of then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. When Ben Ali fled the country and his government toppled, people in oppressed countries all over Africa and the Middle East took immediate notice.

That spirit of revolution and the power of ordinary people to affect widespread change was picked up almost immediately by the people of Egypt, who fought an even tougher battle against a firmly-entrenched and powerful leader. The people’s desire for wholesale change was barely dented by vicious violence directed by a corrupt government, its baton-wielding thugs and its unashamedly dishonest state media. It took weeks of mounting protest and the attention of the entire world, but the protests (largely peaceful although there was occasional retaliation by anti-government protesters) eventually achieved their stated goal: the removal of Hosini Mubarak after 30 years of corrupt rule.

As I stated previously, there’s really only one important thing happening in the world right now, and it’s spreading:

Hundreds of Libyans calling for the government’s ouster clashed with security forces early Wednesday in the country’s second-largest city as Egypt-inspired unrest spread to the country long ruled by Moammar Gadhafi. Ashur Shamis, a Libyan opposition activist in London, and witnesses said the protest began Tuesday and lasted until the early hours Wednesday in the port city of Benghazi.

What’s perhaps most interesting about these protests is that the governments don’t seem to learn much from each other’s missteps:

Protests have been banned in Bahrain and the military has been ordered to tighten its grip after the violent removal of anti-government demonstrators, state TV reports. The army would take every measure necessary to preserve security, the interior ministry said. Three people died and 231 were injured when police broke up the main protest camp, said Bahrain’s health minister.

The immediate reaction of these regimes seems to be the use of force to quell dissent. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t seem to work all that well, and often only serves to bolster the resolve of the people who are in the streets. It seems as though people living in autocratic regimes where police and government officials are all corrupt and organize crime syndicates are often inextricably intertwined with the normal day-to-day business of living aren’t all that afraid of getting beat up if the chance of freedom exists. Sometimes, the consequences are more dire than that:

Bahraini security forces have opened fire on anti-government protesters, witnesses and opposition activists say. The protesters were fired on after they had streamed into the centre of the capital Manama from the funerals of protesters killed in a security crackdown earlier this week. Witnesses said the army fired live rounds and tear gas, and officials said at least 120 people had been hurt.

Two people have been killed and 40 wounded after police shot at a crowd of protesters in Kurdistan, northern Iraq. Hundreds of young men, chanting slogans against corruption and high unemployment, tried to storm the local government offices in Sulaimaniya. There have been a string of protests in cities across Iraq. On Wednesday, three people were killed in clashes with police in the southern city of Kut.

At least three people have been killed during widespread anti-government demonstrations in Yemen. Two people were killed in the southern port city of Aden from gunfire as police moved to disperse protesters, medical officials and witnesses said. In the city of Taiz, one person was killed when a grenade was thrown from a car into a crowd of protesters. And in the capital Sanaa, supporters and opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh clashed on the streets.

Iran’s opposition leaders should face trial and be put to death, the country’s hardline lawmakers said Tuesday, a day after clashes between opposition protesters and security forces left one person dead and dozens injured. At an open session of parliament Tuesday, pro-government legislators demanded that opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mahdi Karroubi and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami face be held responsible for the protests.

It’s tempting to cheer unabashedly for the forces of popular reform. After all, these are countries that are ruled by despotic leaders that regularly violate the human rights of their own people, hold corrupt “elections” where the outcome is decided a priori and fail to display anything that looks even slightly like common decency. However, just because those people are being thrown out, that doesn’t mean that the new batch is necessarily going to be any better. Imagine what it would look like, for instance, if the Tea Party in the United States successfully overthrew the government and installed Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann as the new leader – sometimes the people are idiots, and find even bigger idiots to lead them.

Most interesting (to me personally) in all of this is the role that the media and especially the internet are playing. The uniform knee-jerk reaction from those in power has been to spread lies over state media about how violence is being started by the protesters, that they are sponsored by foreign interests, that police are being called in to protect the people… the list of falsehoods goes on. Despite attempts to silence reporters (and the particularly disgusting and shocking case of Lara Logan’s assault in Egypt), reports have been flowing out on a regular basis. In an age when anyone with a cell phone and an internet connection can become an instant amateur journalist, controlling the flow of information has become next to impossible. The United States is making noises like it understands that:

China has warned the US not to use calls for internet freedom as an excuse to meddle in other countries’ affairs. The foreign ministry comments came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced an initiative to help dissidents around the world get past government internet controls. Since Mrs Clinton’s speech, comments about it have been removed from China’s popular Twitter-like microblog sites.

It seems like some autocrats never learn. Whatever the outcome of all of these uprisings, the inability of these despotic states to control the free speech of their citizens will ultimately ensure their downfall. No society that can communicate with the rest of the world can truly be controlled by its rulers.

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Black history in Canada moment: Ontario

This year for Black History Month, I have decided to do a bit of research into black history in my home and native land, Canada. Since there are 4 Mondays in February, I am going to focus on 4 different regions of the country. Last week I looked at black history in the prairies. This week, I am focusing on the Ontario, Canada’s oldest and most populous province. This summary will intentionally exclude Toronto – black history in Toronto is so long and complex that any attempt to summarize it in ~1000 words would be doing it a grave disservice.

I was born in British Columbia, living in the interior until I was ten years old. My family moved to the Toronto area in 1994 so that my father could complete his graduate degree in social work at the University of Toronto. I lived in various parts of southern and eastern Ontario over 15 years, including two years in Kingston, Ontario (which was Canada’s first capital and where first Prime Minister John A. MacDonald resided) while I completed my own graduate degree. While I call British Columbia home, I am just as entitled to consider myself a native son of Ontario, having spent my formative years there.

Black history also has long and deep roots in the province of Ontario. After the United States passed the Fugitive Slave act of 1850 which, among other things, compelled people to return runaway slaves to their owners, the northern United States were no longer a safe haven where a slave could find her/his own life. As a result, emigration (flight, really) of black Slaves into Canada began in earnest. Because of where the borders were located, their proximity to major American urban centres, and the difficulty of moving people across the prairies in the United States, Ontario became a prime location to smuggle in freed slaves. As with most displaced peoples, blacks settled and tried to build lives for themselves as soon as they had the opportunity, which means that black settlement in Ontario dates back hundreds of years – prior, in fact, to much of any group settling in the prairies.

One of the earliest such settlements was the farming community of Buxton. Buxton is famous among buffs of the history of slavery, as it was considered the “last stop” on the Underground Railroad that brought escaped slaves from the United States to Canada. The land was purchased and made available to the fugitives by Reverend William King – a fact that should not be overlooked when considering the role of Christians and white abolitionists in the movement to aid slaves. Despite the availability of land and a means of cultivating it, things were obviously not all roses and smiles for freed men in the new “promised land”, as this quote from A NorthSide View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by themselves, with an account of the history and condition of the colored population of Upper Canada will attest:

Among some people here, there is as much prejudice as in the States, but they cannot carry it out as they do in the States: the law makes the difference. I am acquainted with many of the colored families here, and they are doing well. We have good schools here.

Once again, this fact cannot be overlooked by those who would claim that Canada was a racism-free land of milk and honey, or those who would claim that passing laws against discrimination or other prejudice are ineffectual.

I’ve been to Buxton, Ontario. There are in fact several Buxtons with similar histories – one in Nova Scotia, and another in Grenada in the West Indies. The Buxton I went to has a graveyard, which is perhaps the oldest and best-kept black historical site in Canada. There are Cromwells buried in the cemetery at Buxton, Ontario, but these are likely no relation to me – our name is a bastardization of a Dutch surname. Near Buxton is the small town of Chatham, which has its own distinct historical significance. Perhaps chief among its contributions is the fact that it was used as the staging ground for the famous raid on Harper’s Ferry by the American abolitionist John Brown.

In my pokings around doing research for this article, I was struck with a bit of history I had never even heard hinted at before. Reading books by Lawrence Hill (a great Canadian author who you should definitely look into if you get a chance), I learned that Oakville, Ontario has a long black history. This is a particularly outrageous suggestion, given the nearly monochromatic makeup of Oakville currently. I was looking for some information to corroborate this, when I discovered that the Niagara Movement has a Canadian origin.

The Niagara Movement was a political group devoted to antisegregation and the improvement of the plight of black people in the United States, founded by black intellectuals under the supervisory auspices of W.E.B. Du Bois – himself a prominent and influential black intellectual whose life history is an amazing story that is chronicled in the book Up From Slavery (n.b. – Up From Slavery was written by Booker T. Washington, not Du Bois. Du Bois has written several autobiographies, the most recent of which was published in 1968, and which I apparently need to read post-haste). The Niagara Movement laid down the foundation of what would become the prevailing attitude towards the improvement of black people’s lives, and eventually lead to the foundation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which is, of course, still in existence. The inaugural meeting took place in Fort Erie, Ontario near Niagara Falls. Interestingly, the advancement of women was part of the foundation of this movement, working in concert with and anticipating the suffrage movement that was to define the next few decades.

It was at their meeting in Fort Erie that they (mostly Du Bois) built the basis of their foundational document that called for, among many other things, equal and desegregated schools, the protection of trade unions, anti-discrimination statues, and a number of other things that would make any decent conservative wake up in a cold sweat. They also criticized the institution of the Christian churches, particularly their complicity in racial prejudice. Once again, these facts speak against the attempt to re-brand the abolition movement as being in line with conservativism or Christianity, as is often attempted.

As I stated in the header, there is far more to black history in Ontario than I can comfortably address here, and more conscientious scholars than your humble narrator have done much more thorough jobs of chronicling it. The “take home message” of this piece (indeed, all of these pieces) is that black history is closely tied to Canadian history. The prosperity and stability of the territory of Upper Canada (the early name for Ontario) owes a good portion of its existence to the contributions made by black people – freed slaves and their descendants alike. To fail to recognize this is to rewrite history and neglect an important and interesting narrative.

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Movie Friday: Stewart Lee – Political Correctness

A friend put me on to a new standup comedian:

There is a general misunderstanding that pervades the society we live in, and it comes from a grating lack of historical awareness. I’ve made somewhat oblique reference to it before, but the problem arises when we look at conditions today and assume that they were ever thus. For example, the words “political correctness” have taken on an almost pejorative connotation, implying an over-sensitive “culture of victims” where every word you say must be scrutinized and agonized over. What this view necessarily neglects is the reasons why those practices came to be in the first place. Whatever your feelings on welfare are, for example, there was once a time when there was no state welfare and poverty was a death sentence. Abolishing welfare isn’t an answer to anything, and suggesting otherwise is being criminally ignorant of history.

Stewart Lee points this out in a very dry way:

“…if political correctness has achieved one thing, it’s to make the Conservative party cloak its inherent racism behind more creative language.”

Racism, in a de facto sense, is inherent in conservative ideology and cannot simply be whitewashed over. When we forget our history and the struggles that it took for us to get here (however your feelings might be of “here”), we expose ourselves to the possibility of looking at the world today and crying “injustice” over issues where the alternative is far worse.

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