On Spokespeople and Scapegoats

So, this Shona Holmes thing. First of all, let me say that I have no wish to criticize Ms. Holmes as a person. Not only is it not helpful to criticize the woman’s weight (of all things), it’s hateful and depressing (if unsurprising). I’m also not actually interested in disputing the accuracy of her story or her motives, financial and otherwise, for telling it.

The thing about her individual story is that as one story, it really shouldn’t be nearly as politically relevant as it is, because one story does not a health care system make. One of the things that’s absolutely impossible to know is how Ms. Holmes situation would have been managed had she lived her entire life under the US health care system. Would she have had insurance? Would her insurer have agreed to cover the cost of this particular procedure, or would their bureacracy have subjected her to similar delays for either treatment or repayment of costs? Maybe I haven’t done enough research, but I honestly don’t think these are simple questions, and it’s one of the fundamental problems with using a Canadian as a weapon in an American political dispute. On the surface, the story looks like one in which the Canadian way was screwing up, destined to kill this fine upstanding contributing member of Canadian society, and Ms. Holmes saved herself by running across the border into the arms of her American saviours. The spin makes it seem like there’s some kind of trump card in finding an individual story that pokes a hole in any idyllic illusions of Canadian health care, putting the argument squarely into a set of zero-sum, binary oppositions in which we have to go all in one way or throw the whole concept out the window.

And that’s the sad thing, to me, about spokespeople in contemporary politics, even beyond the kind of criticism and harassment that’s being leveled at this woman. Really, I think the hostility comes from this political battlefield mentality.  Complications and nuance are not allowed. Discussion is not really an option. Now, from what I’ve read in this particular case, I do think it’s more than a little disingenuous for a woman who has been making a very big political issue out of her life story to be shocked and appalled to find political criticisms leveled at her and to use inflammatory language about how she “survived” lunch with Washington bloggers or likening her current story to being “lynched”. While I do think it’s bullshit for her to suggest that she ‘just’ wants to tell her story and that she’s coming from a place of goodwill, simply trying to educate the public about imperfections that everyone already understood were present anyway, I also think that a lot of the reaction strips away the humanity of her story and reduces her to political football status. Whether she signed on for it or not, and whether she’s being compensated or not, she’s yet another example of just how quickly a person can become a symbol, a statement, a story.

It’s dehumanizing, and while I don’t really know the extent of threats or issues she’s faced, it doesn’t really surprise me that she does reference death threats. Because that’s part of what icon-construction does, is help to create scapegoats that sit on the flip side of the same coin. I think it’s all the nationalistic, border-based rhetoric from the Canadian side of this story that made me think of this, but it’s kind of a convoluted thought process and I slept horribly, so bear with me here. This post expresses some default assumption kind of thoughts that disguises themselves as common sense and that actually make this a really complicated story:

It’s not a perfect system and we too debate its reform and worry about its cost. But it is also integral to our identity as Canadians. Ask what makes us a people and the majority will cite government-administered, publicly funded healthcare. Along with the French fact, it is also what differentiates us from you – though we wish, for your sake, that it didn’t.

The first layer there is the binary of you/us, Canada/US. In this health-care system discourse, there are only two that are up for discussion – ours and yours. Whenever the issue of health care reform is raised in either country, Americans raise the spectre of wait times in Canada and Canadian socialists point toward the alternative as that which happens South of the border. I would go so far as to say that the fact that the US system is so bad, and so dependent on the capitalist free market model, is one of the major factors that is keeping the Canadian health care system from improving, because in combination with our national identity as Not Americans, it allows us to wrap ourselves in a sense of complacency and limit the extent of options that are up for discussion. Which brings me to the second layer, this thing about Canadian identity as intimately connected to our health care system. I’ll grant them this, it’s probably true, and those that have referenced the election of Tommy Douglas as “The Greatest Canadian” a few years ago (over such luminaries, granted, as Don Cherry and Wayne Gretzky) make a valid point about how this relatively universalist vision has played a significant role in our national mythology. The less well-thought out versions of this same perspective lead to the creation of such things as a Facebook group demanding the deportation of Shona Holmes and dismissive, ridiculous statements like “Well if you don’t like it here 100%, why don’t you just leave?”

It was all bringing to mind a book we read in one of my classes this year, Bonnie Honig’s Democracy and the Foreigner, which referenced the role of the scapegoat story in nation-building. The scapegoat emerges – or is created – at a point when there is a crisis that threatens the foundation of the society. Through the dehumanization and marginalization of a scapegoat, that person becomes a valid object of violence, and through that violence, whatever taint or problem is represented and embodied in that person can be seen as purged as the community unifies around its expulsion or extinction. Shona Holmes isn’t quite a prototypical scapegoat, because it’s an exaggeration to suggest she’s really been subject to this kind of violence, but the rhetoric points in that direction, and it’s all centred around this idea, from this end, that she represents a threat to the Canadian way. Not just to details and trappings of public policy and health care, but to Canada as an idea.

I’m not naive enough to suggest that any political discussion can be expected to occur without underlying reference to nationalist mythology, images, icons and identities. I sometimes wish it could – that we could, actually, be having a conversation about what the best mechanisms for delivery of services might be and that people with all kinds of ideas and experiences might sit down and really think about how things could be improved in a given social context, rather than about such loaded, capitalized ways of being like Socialist, Universalist, Libertarian, Free Market, American, Canadian. What this Shona Holmes story says to me is that we’re nowhere near that conversation, and while I initially scoffed at the “Caught in the crossfires” headline the Hamilton Spectator chose to use, maybe it’s more accurate than I thought. Just for different reasons.

Bursting the Bubble

Points to both the Globe and Mail and the University of Saskatchewan (which has always been one of the best institutions in Canada when it comes to Indigenous peoples’ concerns) for this story here.   The quick summary of the situation is that a woman offered to donate a $250,000 scholarship to the University of Saskatchewan to be awarded on the basis of financial need, but with the condition that the recipient must not be an Aboriginal person. Her argument, of course, was your standard bullshit reverse discrimination claim, including the comment that Aboriginal people are “basically taken care of”, as well as a reference to her concern for “people like her”. I feel a little sick to my stomach at the irony in her comment about the ‘unequal playing field’ that exists, because I remain completely at a loss as to where a conversation can even begin with people who think this way (meaning, frankly, the vast majority of the Canadian population).

What I love most about this editorial is the way they present the statistics about Aboriginal underrepresentation in undergraduate programs, as well as the actual proportion of scholarship distribution – in case you’re not clicking through, the article points out that 18.9% of 18-29 year olds in Saskatchewan are Aboriginal, while only 7.5% of the university undergrad population are. Further, only 1.4% of scholarship funding was directed at this 7.5%.

What makes that 1.4% seem like a problem can only be flat-out white entitlement and racism. The fact that this woman received an outpouring of support and so much outrage has been directed against the U of S for this decision is really indicative of the mainstream perception of Aboriginal people in this country. I’ve said some of this before, but it bears repeating: to the extent that we talk at all about Indigenous issues and wrongs that have been done to the Canada’s Indigenous people, we tend to refer to it as something that happened in the distant past. Either it’s been corrected already (through reverse discrimination) or it’s so far gone that the status quo is the only option and it’s not worth considering making any kind of reparations. In either case, Aboriginal people would be best to quit complaining, accept the way things are and figure out how to move forward our way.

The only problem with that 1.4% is that entitled non-Aboriginal Canadians are keenly aware that it breaks into the 100% that has been theirs. It stands out. It bursts the nice clean bubble. This is Racism 101, and we in Canada are experts at this particular brand that does everything it can to create distance between ourselves and the problem.

Kidnappings

In starting to research a paper this morning, I just came across the news about four MSF workers who’ve been abducted in Darfur (some of the articles say three, some say four – there are some conflicting reports about whether both of the Sudanese guards who were with the foreign staff members were released immediately or whether one of them continued to be held). One of them is a young Canadian nurse, originally from PEI, named Laura Archer.

There’s a lot of contextual information that’s really important to understand in order to get a full sense of the situation, including the fact that the Sudanese government has very recently issued an expulsion order for MSF personnel working in Darfur. The government’s order, in turn, comes on the heels of the International Criminal Court’s decision to indict the Sudanese president. MSF maintains a strict policy of non-involvement with judicial and political events/organizations, but reiterating that fact has not cancelled the expulsion.

This is the context of these kidnappings. All remaining MSF staff are now being pulled from Darfur. The MSF workers’ descriptions of how devastating it is to be leaving are fucking gut-wrenching, and those are just the words of aid workers.

And you know what really destroys my faith in humanity? The CBC story. Here’s the one on the kidnappings, and here’s the profile of Laura Archer, the Canadian and therefore the one for whom we are supposed to have greatest sympathy. In sincerity, it does seem like she’s an incredibly strong, passionate and compassionate human being, but I cannot let go of frustration at the fact that despite the fact that she was working with an organization called Doctors Without Borders, we are expected to see her as a Canadian first and foremost, acting on the basis of Canadian values and driven by Canadian virtue. I make that observation above and beyond the concern generated about white Canadian individuals that we can’t ever seem to muster for black Africans themselves. You don’t get a lot of CBC profiles offering us the life histories of individuals living in the camps that Laura Archer worked in. You don’t get a full human picture of that humanitarian crisis, becaus you don’t get a full human story about the full humans living in it. You get a bunch of statistics and numbers and racial/ethnic identities, never names and never stories.

Honestly, that feels like the basic not-rocket-science to me. Before diving in to the cesspool that is the comment section on those CBC pieces, I would just add the observation that the other individuals (Italian, French and Sudanese) who were kidnapped along with this woman were men (actually, I’m not sure about the Sudanese guard, because I’ve only ever seen reference to “Sudanese guards”, but I’m making the possibly erroneous assumption that they were male. I won’t speculate as to why I haven’t seen their names, because there could be a lot of reasons). From the CBC commentariat, it ultimately seems less important that Laura Archer is Canadian and more relevant that she’s a kind, innocent, pretty, blonde woman who’s being held captive by savage beasts. I’m blissfully unaware of how to create a perma-link directly to specific comments on CBC articles, but the most recent two comments when I opened the article were “Of course she is beautiful, she from PEI” [sic] and “Hello nurse” (that latter from a user named “toetag”). This sexualization shit makes me want to vomit, but I think I feel even worse when people who are apparently putting slightly more thought into the question who noted that the motive for the kidnapping could clearly be discerned from the woman’s picture. While I don’t deny that the risk of specifically sexualized violence that Archer faces is relevant and different than the fears faced by the men with her, there is just so much wrong with that comment. Several people gave that comment in particular a thumbs down/disagree, but a few others did the opposite, and I think it points to so many layers of misunderstanding about rape as a weapon of war, not to mention its complete ignorance of – and, it seems to me (since all of this information is readily available with a few clicks), apathy about – all of the contextual details surrounding this specific kidnapping, right down to the basic fact that she was not the only person taken.

But the worst, for me, and by far the largest proportion of problematic comments, are the ones that are asking why we’re not sending in a military response to rescue Laura Archer. “Our boys” can do this. We can – and must – send in strong white men to save this pristine, victimized white woman from her savage kidnappers (presumably African, presumably black). Again, I don’t want to sound cynical about the woman herself – not only are there obvious reasons to respect her work, her quotes make her sound like someone who does the work from a place of genuine and deep compassion – but I hate the way the story and responses are constructing her to be the perfect victim. There are comments on the overall “Darfur kidnappings” story in particular that disagree with this construction, but only in so far as her/their decision to go to such a scary, dangerous, God-forsaken place means that they should have expected such things to happen. She shouldn’t have been walking around alone in that dark alley country.

I really could go on and on about this one, but I’ll wrap up with a quote that I’m glad the CBC decided to include, from Laura Archer herself, which covers a lot of the point in far fewer words than I ever use. In discussing her first trip with MSF, in Central Africa, she noted:

The experience was humbling. I knew that, unlike my locally hired co-workers, I could leave. I was constantly aware of the fact that I had a safe home to return to.

Obviously, I hope she does return to that home. But I also hope that her African co-workers get that same safety and a home to return to (or go to for the first time).

Peace, Order and Racism

I’ve held back from commenting on the Obama inauguration in this space – mostly because there’s too much to say, and I can’t figure out how to say any of it. Like many others, I found myself tearing up watching the YouTube vidoe of him being sworn in, but I can’t quite place exactly why. I wasn’t consciously thinking about everything it means, or really about any of the many things it means (for the immediate, urgent, crisis moment as well as in the broad historical context), and I’m normally not one to get emotional over structured ceremonial procedings, however joyous the occasion may be. But something was there, and try as I might, I couldn’t put it in to words.

The other reason for my lack of comment has been that I seem to be hitting another point of exhaustion in my politics. At a time when so many other seem to be feeling hope and have been galvanized into action, and despite the increased focus on hope I’ve had for the past several months, something seems to be getting to me. Personal stresses (as well as personal uplifts) bleed into my political expressions, and vice versa, and a sense of both stagnation and underlying unknowns are hitting me on both of those fronts.

I’m in Canada. This change, this victory, whatever it is, is not ours. Obviously, American politics has a significant impact on our lives, but in broad cultural terms, not much has changed up here. Renée has had a couple of good posts up recently about racism in Canada in which she makes the very good point:

Canadians have a tendency to practice a far more subtle form of racism than that which is practiced by our American cousins but there is no doubt that not only do we define ourselves oppositionally to the US (the excuse we use to claim status as an equal society) but that we have largely constructed the Canadian identity by default to be white.

We have also constructed that identity to be more orderly than peaceful. That first (more recent) link points to a story about police violence. More and more, I’m convinced that those first two words of our national statement of values not only do not equate to the same thing, they fundamentally contradict each other. The maintenance of order depends on the maintenance of the default position of “whiteness”, including the invisibility of that which fucks up the pristine, snow-covered valley.

I had to read a bit of Kant for one of my courses recently, and one of the points he makes is that struggle moves humanity toward its ultimate state of global peace and unity. Many of the fundamental premises he’s working with are hugely problematic, and I’m not saying I agree with the teleological picture he draws, but that position in itself points to one of the things that’s been bothering me. That sense of stagnation comes through in the orderliness of our society. Even as things are rapidly changing immediately to the South of us – and all over the world, as the repeal of the Global Gag Rule has passed and the closing of Guantanamo Bay has been announced – we’re content to ride on the coattails of change, to push nothing, to suggest that actually, we were here in enlightened glory the whole time, so we’re just glad you’ve decided to join us.

The Canadian myths of multiculturalism, of tolerance and of non-racism haven’t been shaken, and we remain convinced not just of our state of order, but of the equation of that concept with peace. There’s a lot to be grateful for in the world these days, but I damn well hope we, as Canadians, don’t use this change as an excuse to sit back and suggest that all the work can be done for us.

Could Someone Please Tell Me…

….what Michaelle Jean is thinking? Because actually, this assessment seems pretty accurate.

Now, prorogation seems to me to be definitely in the realm of higher-level courses in Canadian political science, and at least part of the story seems to be that she’s doing it because that’s pretty much the way it goes for the GG when the PM calls to prorogue parliament. But there’s not really any precedent for calling for prorogation mainly because you think maybe you’re going to lose.

Fucking fuck, is all I really have to say at this point.

Democracy 101

Matttbastard, as per usual, is doing a great job staying on top of the various relevant points that are coming out now that there’s something big happening in Canadian politics. The links he’s got on his various posts over there flesh out better than I ever could the whats, hows and whys of this possible progressive coalition government.

Me, I still get tempted to scroll down just that little bit into the CBC comment zone. I know I shouldn’t. I know it will cause me pain. But I also know that this is what the general Canadian public thinks about how our government works, or should work. There are a lot of good comments over there that are explaining why words like “treason” and “coup” are, frankly, fucking ridiculous, but there are lot of others from more moderate voices opposing this coalition in principle. The basic argument (the one that isn’t based on either “Lions and tigers and separatists and socialists, oh my” or “Jack Layton is an evil lying scumbag politician who makes political deals and has political negotiations with other politicians behind the scenes! Shouldn’t you be outraged now, hypocrite lefties?!?”) says that this minority Conservative government is the one that we as Canadians elected fair and square and that any change in governing party or PM would have to go through another election process. Many of these also include some hefty tones of bitterness suggesting that the left-wingers were the ones who wanted an election in the first place, so we should continue to want another one instead of supporting this “undemocratic” course of action.

Okay. Even beyond the nuances of coalition, and how it might work especially given the negotiations over cabinet seats for the smaller party and the role of the Bloc, how hard is it, really, to understand that this is exactly the point of a parliamentary structure? Anyone who’s looked at the theory of the Canadian political structure beyond the very basics understands that the PM is not, in theory, necessarily the leader of the party with the most seats (minority or majority), (s)he’s the person identified by the representatives as best able to make the government function by gaining the support of the majority of parliament. In practise, that person is usually the leader of the party with the most seats, even in a minority government, but an organized coalition of opposition parties to such a minority in a time when trust in the government is seriously threatened by, say, a global financial meltdown, would be exactly the exception to that rule.

Maybe that’s actually Canadian politics 201 or so, and my snarky title is unwarranted from that angle, but my main source of frustration is actually the continued demonstration of outright laziness on the part of the electorate. I think I was 19 or 20 when I read John Ralton Saul’s book Reflections of a Siamese Twin and suddenly woke up to this idea of participatory democracy (I’m not the biggest fan of Saul anymore, and I do realize now that there are far more challenging thinkers who are hitting that drum a lot harder and a lot more directly, but I was young and just beginning to emerge from my shell of mainstream complacency). At that point, it was actually news to me to imagine that we don’t have to think of democracy as something that only happens when we mark an X on a little piece of paper. Once a government is elected, we the people, whether we voted for them or not, do have the right/responsibility to try to influence their policies, and opposition parties do have the absolute duty to try to pull those policies in the direction of what those who voted for them would expect. Really a radical concept, I know, but I was a teenager during the Harris government in Ontario, when the most common response to any kind of a non-Conservative political opinion was basically “You can’t complain – he’s only doing exactly what he promised he would do”. This position was perhaps leveled even more strongly against people who voted for him because they liked some aspects of his position, but then felt that maybe he had gone a little too far, or wanted to speak out against other policy issues. And I remember being a loud and passionate but somewhat inarticulate 17 year old, feeling completely baffled as to how to respond to that point, not because I thought it was a good one, really, but because I kinda just didn’t know where to start.

Democracy is not an all or nothing proposition. That should be simple, but the philosophical position underlying that argument during the Harris government, and the current argument that the Harper government won fair and square and therefore the opposition parties have no right/authority to form this kind of a coalition, or that they would be going against the will of the electorate in doing so, is that “the will of the people” can only be expressed through marks on papers and those Xs demonstrate complete agreement with everything the party next to them says at any time, ever, regardless of the circumstances. Nuance not allowed. Negotiations not allowed. Shifting positions as new information becomes available definitely not allowed.

You know what’s undemocratic? Complacency. Casting a vote – or fuck, not even bothering to cast a vote – without bothering, really, to examine what the issues on the table are or what you might be voting on/for (I wish I could forget how many Ontario voters went to the booth last year not knowing there was a referendum happening, let alone what it was about), then crawling back into a nice, warm bed, singing a round of “Que Sera, Sera” and steadfastly refusing to think about politics until the next time there’s an X to place in a box. Or rather, until someone who believes that democracy actually also happens between election days, that nuances are kind of important, that opposition parties should oppose and might even accomplish something, starts trying to make that work. Then your role as a proponent of such good Canadian values as peace, order and good government is to tell that person to shut up and take it, majority (or the closest thing to it, even when it’s not) rules.

GodDAMN does that piss me off. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go lament the fact that I just wasted an hour or so writing 1000+ words that do not count toward the thousands this little grad student monkey is supposed to be churning out in essay form this week.

Remembering

There is something that bothers me about Remembrance Day, and I can never quite put my finger on what it is – at least, not without knowing that my discomfort is at least somewhat inaccurate, because I’m not sure it’s Remembrance Day in principle that’s problematic, so there’s some baby-bathwater conflation going on. Like a lot of people who have opposed or criticized contemporary wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, even Kosovo), I know how quickly discussion of “remembrance” turns into “support our troops”, even here in Canada. It’s a day when it’s rendered unseemly to criticize military practices and policy, even as what we’re supposed to be bringing the horrors of war into public consciousness.

I think my problem is that we’re not. Not really. We’re listening to mournful trumpet music, looking at wreaths and poppies, reciting a poem that has been stripped of emotional power for most of us as through sheer grade-school repetition, and looking at black-and-white photos of smiling young men in uniform. We’re practicing symbolic rituals that, for the vast majority of Canadians, have absolutely nothing to do with war. Remembrance Day involves a series of prescribed ways for discussing, thinking about and “remembering” specific wars, as well as specific ways of fighting those wars. First of all, we’re talking about the noble wars – the Great War, the Second World War, battling communism in Korea. Second, we’re talking about the men who took up arms to go over there and fight. We’re allowed to talk about how they died, but not about whom they killed. We’re not allowed to talk about women who were raped as acts of war. Maybe if we’re really feeling generous, we’ll talk about how Canadian women stepped up on the home front, we might check out some pictures of young, 1940s era war widows holding babies and looking stoically prepared to face the challenge, but certainly not about the likelihood that such women fell into poverty from lack of social support systems or ability to work. We’re not going to talk about the post-traumatic experiences of soldiers or people living in war zones.

The pictures we see are all going to be in black-and-white, and there’s not going to be any blood in them. Not visibly, anyway. Everyone is going to be wearing nice, neat uniforms, remaining silent and on their best behaviour. A friend of mine called it a national funeral mass, which I suppose is fair, and his point is that there is a place for exactly this kind of ritualistic “mourning”. As he said, you don’t show the pictures with the blood at the funeral of an individual who died violently. I’m still contemplating his point, because something still sits wrong with me, as the whole constructed experience feels problematic. I still question whether it’s the event in itself or what has become an inevitable component of it – that you’re not allowed to mention the problems with the official story, let alone the other half of the story, or even the contemporary military and its actions.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how war has become an event mitigated through television screens and newspaper articles, and I suppose my point is that I don’t see how this changes it. In fact, I think it makes it worse. Peace activists I know are far more likely to have seen photos of real, bloody, violent death from recent or ongoing conflicts and wars, or even to have been on-hand to see some of that violence. The sepia tones, the flowers, the narrative of nobility, honour, sacrifice – that creates more distance, not less, between us and war. Lest we forget, this shit happens in colour.

I’m not wearing a poppy today, and that’s pretty much why.