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.

Solidarity, Empathy and Compassion

I was reading through this thread at the Silence of Our Friends the other day, skimming the comments and thinking about what I might want to add, and came to this quote by Fire Fly:

The point of intersectionality is that we have a stake in each others’ liberation, the point is solidarity. And solidarity can’t be about who’s better at being a martyr. Sometimes it needs to go both ways.

And along with what Donna said in the OP there, I honestly felt like there was nothing I could add after that. That statement sums it up more concisely than I ever could.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately – even more than is my usual wont – about compassion and solidarity. The ridiculous backlash at Obama for daring to suggest that ‘empathy’ might be a valuable trait to seek out in a Supreme Court Justice fits right in. It’s telling, to me, that the context of that thread is all about trying to communicate just how frustrating, ineffective and damaging it is to hear one’s own supposed friends and allies pass judgments without context and understanding, while the latest manufactured scandal of the US news media connects directly to someone whose job it is to pass judgments on people’s lives.

I realize that everyone recognizes that since Obama said absolutely nothing that reveals anything of substance about his potential Supreme Court pick, the procedures manual says that the pundits will have to find something that they can dissect and devour, and the word they happen to have chosen is ‘empathy’. We can all mock that particular extreme manifestation of adventures in missing the point, but we’re also so prone to these every day failures of empathy and inclinations towards judgment, pressure and decontextualized categorization. Solidarity would obviously be a terrible choice of words to use with respect to the selection of a justice, but at the core, what we’re talking about here is how we can come to operate based on the connections rather than the divisions between us. I’m not even talking about connections emerging out of categories of oppression and means of marginalization (though I’m certainly not saying that those things don’t matter), but about the simple basics of mutual interdependence over isolation. I mean, again, that recognition of the fact that ‘we have a stake in each other’s liberation’.

While doing my best not to downplay the indisputable facts of unacceptable levels of violence, systemic oppression, poverty and exploitation that exist and that I fully believe in working to change, I’m finding I can’t use the language of ‘fighting’ and ‘battling’ to talk about it anymore. I can see the relevance of the metaphor, and plenty of the people on ‘my side’ who use it are doing damn good work, but I just can’t help but also see a kind of destructiveness and division that comes along with those images. The people who are freaked out about the idea of ‘empathy’ guiding life or death decisions for millions of others are coming from a place that sees the world in terms of winners and losers, whether that’s in the ‘culture wars’ or in the economic competitions inherent to the achievement of the “American Dream”. And as I said a few days ago, I’m starting to think of this model of the world, in which we all exist on a massive playing field and life consists of a series of battles in some kind of perpetual steel cage championship death match, as lying at the heart of far too many problems. And I think that the pervasiveness of the metaphor means that it becomes really easy, even when the fight one is fighting is the one for social justice and increased rights and equality and non-violence and all of those beautiful things, to lose sight of the soldiers for the war. It becomes a question of victories and losses and allies and enemies, and it stops being about people.


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).

The Desert and Lenten Sacrifice

I was on a bus the other day driving through random small town back corners of Southwestern Ontario, and saw a sign on one of the churches that said “Lent is about surrender, not discipline”.

That got me thinking about a lot of things. I definitely like the overall sentiment, especially since I think the elements of authoritarianism, restrictiveness and punishment still pervade the Christian faith (both from within and from the perspectives of those outside). Moving away from spirituality that focuses heavily on those things – and that is grounded, more than anything else, in fear – is, I think, extremely healthy for anyone and a particularly important part of where I see the intersection between faith and feminism (or really, any anti-oppression activism). The word ‘discipline’ is full of incredibly problematic connotations, not least would be the contemporary assertion of “Christian domestic discipline” as biblically justified spousal abuse. The word ‘surrender’ has some layers to it that I had originally planned to address in this post, but I find my brain going in a different direction, so maybe I’ll get to them another time.

The cultural practice of Lent brings a few things about our social attitudes into focus. Again, I think these attitudes are prevalent among people who are practicing Christians as well as people who aren’t, but who have grown up or lived surrounded by a culture that is full of Christian imagery, mythology and behaviours; I think that’s important, because it has to do with how a specific model of thinking continues to shape both our experience of Christianity and things that purportedly have nothing to do with Christianity directly. What, mostly, do we know about Lent? During my (Catholic) childhood, I was told that Lent is when you give up something you like. Chocolate, or TV, or whatever. As I got a little older, I knew that it was related to Jesus having gone out into the desert to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. If Jesus did it, we should do it. Because of the rather tenuous spirituality of my upbringing, I don’t know that I got an understanding that the whole point was to use this time to get into closer contact with God until well into adulthood. All I really knew was that you were supposed to give something up, that it was going to be unpleasant, but that you should do it anyway.

There’s an equation in this picture between suffering and holiness. There’s a direct line between giving something up and being good. Sacrifice is about loss, it’s about unpleasantness and yes, it’s about discipline.

First of all, there’s a point missing on this chain of causality. I was in my 20s before anyone ever talked to me about what fasting meant to them in a more spiritual sense. I realize now that a lot of people take the opportunity, when they feel that sense of craving or frustration or suffering, to pray. Maybe just to force themselves to be more aware of God, maybe to specifically find a way to be grateful for things, maybe to ask for greater peace and acceptance. But there’s a step there between the suffering and the resulting benefit, so that the suffering isn’t the end in itself, nor is the simplistic prideful victory that you were stubborn enough not to give in to the cravings. The moments of pain (however large or small they may be, depending on what you’re giving up) remind you of something you need to be more conscious of, and you bring that to God.

There’s also the assumption that the main point is the taking away of something that one enjoys. When a lot of people casually talk about Lent, they ask “What are you giving up?” This year, I started jokingly saying that I’m giving up working for Lent, but I fairly quickly realized that I wasn’t really joking at all. I’m taking some time off from the 24-hour a week, shift-work heavy part time job that I was trying to retain while also juggling full-time graduate studies and a few other commitments that require varying amounts of time and energy. For six months, I was sleeping sporadically at best, eating completely irregularly and pretty much never feeling genuinely relaxed or calm. It was starting to threaten my health, physically, mentally, and yes, spiritually. Not only did I lack the time to really focus on prayer and meditation, and not only was my exhaustion starting to make me angry, bitter, frustrated and lacking compassion, I was also constantly getting that prideful perfectionist streak back into me. The one that says that I have to do more than anyone else, and I have to be better than anyone else at everything I am doing, and that the possibility that I might have to drop something or do less than brilliantly at something is really absolutely vital to, like, the survival of the human race or something.

The desert is more than just a place of empty, barren sacrifice. It’s more than this no-fun world where you don’t get to do cool things like play video games and eat yummy stuff (the equation of deliciousness and, yes, fat with sin is full of its own problems, and they clearly apply well beyond the boundaries of the Christian faith into our popular consciousness about what is good and bad and holy, but they’re really the subject of another post). The desert is a place of silence and stillness, where you move away from the multitude of distractions that are not God. It’s a place where you’re forced to take away all of the distractions and performances that you put up on yourself and just be.

So I’m giving up working for Lent, as part of a way of foraying into the desert. Given how much trying to do everything and be everything was taking me away from God, this is, actually, an act of surrender. I’m suffering a hell of a lot less these past few weeks, and in fact feeling a great deal of relief and even joy. None of that suffering was doing a damn thing to make me a better, holier person. I didn’t really ever think it would, but I think there’s a subconscious tendency to move towards that belief, where never enjoying one’s self is the mark of true goodness. There’s a reason the ‘martyr complex’ is so pervasive.

If we could all, collectively as a culture, give that up for Lent, I think that would be really cool.

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.

What I Hate About Christmas

“Hate” is probably too strong a word for how I feel about Christmas, mainly because I’ve made a decision to opt out of everything I hate about the season and I’m therefore actually pretty neutral on the subject. But as the snow is now on the ground, seemingly to stay, the lights and decorations are going up, the tunes are starting to play and the parties are being discussed, I recognize that my emotional reaction may actually start to shift towards that all-out “Bah, humbug” point.

Here’s the thing: Christmas consists almost entirely of bullshit. I don’t just mean that it’s become overly commercialized and commodified – though it has – because I think that the “putting the Christ back in Christmas” people are doing the exact same thing in ways that are as bad or worse. The entire ritual is based around performed joy, the inauthenticity of which is palatable from nearly corner and which, to me, is the antithesis of any kind of actual joy. I’ve always hated Valentine’s Day not just for its incredibly overcommodification of Hallmark-ified “love”, not just for its overwhelming heteronormativity and enforcement of gendered relationship expectations, but because the extent of that prescibed affection is such that if a partner were to tell me he loved me on Valentine’s Day, it would mean less than nothing. I’ve come to feel the same way about Christmas, only tenfold, because the expectations extend to every relationship I have, and further, to the presumption that I – especially as a Christian – should feel some sort of warm, fuzzy gratitude deep down in my cold, cold heart.

I’m actually a very hopeful person, despite my penchant for sarcasm and the Scrooge-esque sentiments outlined above. I’m just a big believer in authenticity with a deep aversion to expectations. I grew up in a family where serious dysfunction was consistently masked by intense pressure to present an outward image that everything was okay, and Christmas amped up the volume so that we had to project “fantastic”. Partially by luck, but also because I’ve made a series of conscious choices to move towards eliminating all the bullshit from my life, I’m in a position where I can opt out of a lot of Christmas-based expectations. Baking? Not a chance. Tree/decorations? Too much work. Family gatherings? Sorry, I have a job that requires me to work on Christmas day, but hey, I’d be glad to meet up with people in a much more low-key setting. Gifts? Only in so far as I can do something that actually matters to the people I really care about, and not – for example – if I have to resort to a box of chocolates/cheap decoration.

Mainly, what I refuse to do is perform joy or peace or love. Not because I hate joy and peace and love, but of course because I’m a huge fan of joy and peace and love, and I take them far too seriously to project false versions of them or, for that matter, to limit their relevance to December. Like I said, I feel really fortunate that I’ve situated myself in life in such a way that I don’t have to tolerate very many Christmas-based expectations, but I feel a lot of empathy for those people who can’t really shed them and who are still dancing the dance of stressed-out anti-joy. For my own sake, I’ve reached a comfortable détente with Christmas and its attendant pressures, but I do still kind of hate watching what it seems to do to everyone else.

More on Parenthood and Selfishness

I seem to have become somewhat easily baffled. I was going to do a simple list-style post about “conversations I don’t know how to have anymore”, filled with references to people from whom I expect more missing the basic points of feminism/anti-oppression/acceptance, but the list just keeps getting longer in my head.

I’ve often written about the idea that not having children is a selfish act, about the equation of motherhood with selflessness, and about my own decision to likely remain childless for my lifetime. Despite never having had children, I do try – hard – to sympathize with the position that it changes your perspective on a lot of things, and to allow for kinds of emotions, opinions and attitudes I just can’t understand. I really struggle, however, with the fact that I think that on the whole, having children in our culture tends to make people more selfish. Certainly, parents in general – and often, mothers in particular – are required/called upon to make certain kinds of sacrifices in their personal lives in order to meet their children’s needs. Incredible amounts of time, money, and energy go into ensuring that other people are clothed, housed, fed, and I know that a lot of what I do with my life would instantly become impossible if I were to have children.

When I say we encourage an increase in selfishness with parenthood, it’s largely because of way so many parents are inclined to fight for their own children at the expense of anything else. I’ve written before about how the self-sacrificing mother myth can be destructive because it creates a conflation of the mother with her children, making their actions inherently “all about her” because she has no other self left. This is somewhat similar, in that the children, or the family unit, become an extension of the self, and the “other” expands a little further into the “out there”.

A lot of this current thought is connected to some of those conversations I just don’t know how to have anymore, which are pretty good examples of what I’m talking about. There’s a woman I love very much, who I consider in many ways to be an extremely generous spirit, and who works extremely hard to take care of her family. When her children have health problems, if she isn’t able to get an appointment with an appropriate doctor, or even able to get answers to their test results, in a timely manner – say, within a couple of weeks – she gets extremely upset. More than once, I’ve heard her ask in frustration “Are we suddenly living in a third world country?”. The most upsetting of conversations with her, for me, revolve around a young girl who was sort of becoming friends with her older daughter (age 11) last year. The other little girl (also 11) has developed already, tends to wear revealing clothes, and, I think, will talk in sexual language. My friend doesn’t really want her daughter hanging out with this other young girl, and I can respect that. What I can’t respect is the way the other girl is talked about – the word ‘slut’ is studiously avoided in the presence of the local feminist, but the meaning is clear, and it goes without saying that she is ‘bad news’, a ‘bad influence’, ‘inappropriate’ etc. There’s not even any consideration of what the other girl may be thinking or feeling, she is not only marked as immoral, that immorality is automatically assumed to start and end with her.

I kind of go silent in these conversations – which, from me, fortunately, is in itself a statement, since I’m so rarely quiet. But how do I say, in response to the former comment, that really? You really refuse to recognize the privilege you’re working with, even compared to a lot of people in this country? The last time she said it, it was shortly after I had been listening to Stephen Lewis talk about the impact of the “brain drain” on HIV/AIDS in Africa, referencing the fact that in Namibia (I believe), a country of several million people, the exodus of locally born and educated doctors and health care professionals in search of better employment elsewhere has left the entire country served by only 93 doctors, including only 2 pediatricians.

If I do say something, not just with this one individual but with most parents, the response is generally that yes, it’s exaggerated, but the expectation is that I should understand how that desire to protect one’s children emerges. And on some level, I do, but I can’t help but notice how open-mindedness and tolerance, or a general belief in equal access to such human rights as health care in principle is much easier to throw out the window when children enter the equation than when only adults (one’s self and perhaps a partner) are at stake. Being a big skeptic about biological determinism and a quase-cultural anthropologist type, I don’t honestly know how much of this behaviour is “natural” and how much reflects the cultural prioritization of one’s own children as extensions of the self.

As usual, I want to be clear that I’m talking about what I perceive to be tendecies or pressures. I’m not universalizing this behaviour, I’m not criticizing all parents and I’m certainly not dismissing parenthood. My main suggestion is that there is a cultural push toward increased “selfishness” that is attached to parenting, one that is actually supported by the idea of “sacrifice” that creates a superficial mask of selflessness.

Because apparently I feel like being controversial in the morning.


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.

The Politics of Being Bored

This post may meander, because I’m not entirely sure what my point in writing it is. Suddenly, we’ve got a federal election that will be taking place *before* the American election, which feels strange given how we’ve been hearing about the latter for, oh, about two years now. This weekend, I still heard more conversation about Barack Obama than I did about Stephen Harper even though, y’know, dissolving parliament is kinda big news and stuff.

It’s not even a little bit insightful to note that Canadians think of their politics as boring. I heard three or four people lament the fact that we have to vote in this election and even express a desire for our politics to be more exciting, more dramatic, explicitly, more American. To my mind, our politics are still more or less politics, as opposed to reality TV, mythologies and grand sweeping narratives, and for that I remain eternally grateful. We’re obviously not immune from that mass media influence, and the ongoing battles in the US are not exclusively those things, but comparing the discourse on either side of the border, I don’t think it’s terribly radical to suggest that the southern side tends toward the latter behaviour more than we do.

But goddamn are we disengaged from our politics. The vast majority of the population doesn’t have a clue why this election is happening and why it’s happening now. There’s a large proportion of people whose biggest complaint is that an election is a waste of taxpayers’ money, so content are they to stick with the status quo. These aren’t people who are particularly fond of Harper, and even includes some who oppose the bulk of what he stands for. The latter category mostly consists of people who see Harper as innocuous and irrelevant, partially because that’s how they see Canadian politics in general, partially because Harper really does come off as a buffoon who may very well literally be made of rubber.

And in between all of these conversations, I’m reading the brilliant work of Taiaiake Alfred:

Politics is the force that channels social, cultural, and economic powers and makes them imminent in our lives. Abstaining from politics is like turning your back on a beast when it is angry and intent on ripping your guts out. (Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom, p.20)

Many Canadians can’t relate to the second half of that statement, especially if they’re white, middle-class, educated, privileged. I can’t entirely relate to it myself, because I don’t have such direct experience of that anger, but I’ve been paying enough attention to believe it’s true. That first sentence, however, is, in and of itself, being overlooked by the general Canadian public who is bored and disengaged, and even if the beast is relatively tame, or is focussing its gut-ripping rage on another food source, that’s incredibly dangerous. Politics is seen as big decisions, military actions, legal arguments – something distant and decidedly not imminent. Thirty years after “the personal is political”, the political is still personal and we still haven’t learned that damned lesson.

Even beyond all of the issues that are being contested in this election, even beyond the likely outcome and the impact (or lack thereof) that each possible outcome might have on the political trends in this country, even beyond the long list of issues that we as Canadians should, but won’t, be talking about and demanding, I really wish we would take bother to recognize that we do, in fact, have politics. I really do think that there’s a quiet humility in some of the positive aspects of our national culture/identity, but far more often, I see that massively overblown, incredibly destructive and decidedly not humble inferiority complex running the show (because there’s a huge difference between humility and feeling shitty about yourself, though that’s another psychological story, really).  Being bored is the latter. Being bored is a political statement. Being pissed off that our government is daring to ask us to fucking vote is…shit, I don’t even know what that is.

The Christian Feminist Contradiction

In checking my incoming links page this morning, I was kind of intrigued to find myself favourably linked in this blog post, which starts by asserting general agreement with a Guardian article that says, among other things:

…the term “Christian feminist” is an oxymoron; it’s a glaring contradiction in terms on a par with “compassionate conservative” and “pro-life anti-abortionist”…

Christianity is and always has been antithetical to women’s freedom and equality, but it’s certainly not alone in this….

From the very first days of feminism there’s been a recognition that religious doctrine is incompatible with the quest for women’s rights….

In any society where religion dominates it is women who pay the price: we can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether or not any particular religion sanctions so-called honour crimes for example, but what’s unarguable is that men’s interpretation of religion, and the patriarchal values that religion instils, has led to the murders of countless women.

The blogger goes on to talk about more of her own specific experiences within the Roman Catholic church in Canada, and they’re experiences to which I can certainly relate, having been raised in that community. She also talks about what she finds to fill in for what she misses about church, through things like poetry, and being the freewheelin’ kinda Christian (heretic) that I am, I’m cool with whatever experiences of the divine people go for.

The main argument I want to make with regard to this “Christian feminist contradiction” thing is that whenever it’s asserted, it gets pointed out over and over that “mainstream religion” has always been misogynistic, has consistently been used to uphold misogyny, includes countless examples of male dominance and the male paradigm for an image of God/God’s will, and has not, to say the least, been kind to the feminist movement, which is all true, but it doesn’t seem to occur to any one making these points that the problem is the mainstream, not the religion. Religion is the tool here, misogyny is the problem. Atheists and atheistic regimes can find plenty of ways to be misogynistic, and if we somehow manage to get rid of religion because it’s misogynistic instead of getting rid of misogyny, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

It’s not all that different from my reasons for frustration with feminists who talk about eliminating pornography and prostitution because the mainstream industry is misogynistic. I’m not denying that it – or the church – is. The mainstream is misogynistic. This is the starting place from which I’m operating as a feminist – that society as a whole is plenty full of sexism, and it’s worth working to eliminate that. Naturally, you’re going to see the threads of misogyny in religion, as well as in pop culture, in education, in politics, in everything. Fuck, you’ll even see them in feminism. The world has “always been” antithetical to women’s rights, and feminism exists, imo, as a force of hope to change that. Any argument that starts with the premise that because something has always been that way it must inherently be ever so is one that doesn’t place a lot of real hope in feminism, from my perspective.

Quoted above, the Guardian article claims that it’s inarguable that “…the patriarchal values that religion instills [have] led to the murders of countless women”. I guess that would be inarguable, if it didn’t originate from a faulty premise – religion does not “create” patriarchal values. Patriarchal values are imposed on religion (and everything else) by a patriarchal society, and I think the author gets that, because right off, she points out that as men get ahold of religion and begin envisioning a God that goes with it, that God is inevitably shaped as male.

I go through waves of thinking that calling myself a Christian is maybe a little misleading, since, in addition to all that feminism, I do take a lot of my faith practice from other, radically different, traditions, sometimes more than I take from the Bible. And sometimes, someone at my church says something from the pulpit or in conversation about the nature of Christianity and Christ, or I read myself some CS Lewis or something, and I think “fuck this, I’m out”, because if what they say is true, I want none of it. Me and God will get on just fine, perhaps better, without all that “Christian” baggage getting in the way. But then I come across some reading or some passage that really does emphasize the loving, accepting, radically transforming, hopeful faith that I do want to share in, and I sigh and stick the label back on again.

In general, I’m not a fan of being called deluded, or stupid, or condescended to (trackbacks being what they are, I’m sure mirabile dictu will read this, and to be clear, it is apparent that she’s not doing any of those things), but actually, it occurs to me that I’m fully okay with being a glaring contradiction.

Consider this the manifestation of my glare.