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.

Sex and Drugs

This has probably been said somewhere already in the course of this recent discussion about new anti-sex work legislation in Britain, but I lack the time that would be required to ensure that I’m not repeating something.

Right off the top in that thread, one of the commenters who supports the new legislation brings up drug addiction with the following point:

It is recognised that violence, experience of abuse, poverty and drugs are at the root of street prostitution in Glasgow.  Women are involved in prostitution because of their need to fund drug use and because they have no other viable means of earning the amount of money which they require, through legitimate pursuits….Now, these issues don’t speak of autonomy or of exercising agency, they speak of abject poverty and disadvantage where other concerns aside, 95% of prostituted women in Glasgow are addicted to heroin.

She goes on to discuss the need for a complex, interconnected system of outreach and support for the multivariate social and economic issues that lead some women into dangerous sex work due to lack of (real or perceived) genuine alternatives. I should assume it’s obvious that I’m all for that.

But try as I might, in any of the comments that bring up poverty and drug abuse, I can’t see any argument that explains to me how this new legislation criminalizing the purchasers of sex work in certain contexts (if I understand the legalities correctly) will provide new options for these women. It seems only logical to suggest that it’s actually going to take options away, and anyone who has any understanding of drug addiction and desperation can immediately recognize that if you take one option away, there’s always another one that’s even less safe, even more soul-destroying, and even less profitable that you will become willing to stoop to if that’s what it takes.

I don’t understand why people think that legislation is really going to find ways to protect these women. Selling drugs is currently illegal, but drug addicts still find a way to buy them. You can victimize the purchaser/demonize the dealer in this situation just as you victimize the seller/demonize the purchaser in the sex work equation, if you like, but it doesn’t change the fact that “outside the law” is familiar territory for people you’re already describing as addicted to heroin. Making one more part of their transaction illegal isn’t really that scary. Many of the comments supporting this legislation seem to take a tone that suggests that criminalizing the purchase of sex will somehow result in sex work becoming less “socially acceptable” and that this decrease in acceptability will make people understand the plight of trafficked, poverty stricken, desperate, drug addicted women. Given the way people view drug addicts now – as criminals, as somehow fundamentally different from good, law-abiding, citizens like ourselves – I can’t imagine how that’s going to happen, exactly.

I’ve written before about the way drug addiction is deployed as a rhetorical strategy in these conversations. In sincerity, I think some of the women writing in support of this new legislation are demonstrating more real compassion and understanding than I alluded to in that earlier post. Still, I can’t help but feel that there’s something hollow in these statements, not least because it feels like they really miss the point about what addiction means, let alone about how the social relationships around it tend to work. I know these are women who are working/have worked with substance misuse and addiction, and I don’t question their concern…but I feel like there’s a fundamental link missing in the thought process, and if the real point is to help alleviate this kind of problem, a knee-jerk support for anything placing limits on sex work is a huge blind spot, imo.

Faith, Certainty, Fear and Violence

I do realize that what little I’ve been writing lately has been on the self-centred side, in that it’s not really about anything that’s going on in the world, but rather whatever has been going on inside my brain. And yes, I’m extremely busy, but more than that, I just don’t know what to say about some of the big events these days. Thinking and speaking just feels so futile when it comes to Gaza. Everything seems both overwhelmingly complicated – and since I lack a PhD in Middle Eastern history, I feel unqualified to comment – and unbearably, horrifyingly simple in the unacceptability of this kind of violence.

Slightly closer to home, there’s recently been the Oscar Grant shooting, the violent hate-rape of a lesbian woman, and uncountable other acts of violence. Last week, Natalia asked the question:

Those among us who are least capable of defending themselves make for the most excellent targets. Is it because, deep down, we fear and loathe vulnerability in all of its forms? Do we just want to punish it, cull it, stomp it out? Are we disgusted by the people who trust us, who depend on us, in one way or another?

Honestly, I think so. There’s a lot to be said about the construction and dehumanization of the Other, but more and more, I’m convinced that the most terrifying thing about the Other is the threat that it could become the Self. Or rather, the possibility that the Self has those weaknesses. It’s not when we’re positively convinced of our superiority that these acts of hate play out on the most intimate and the grandest of scales, it’s when the mirror shows us our own vulnerability.

There’s an overwhelming tendency to conflate faith and certainty. But as Daisy said in comments to one of my recent posts, it’s when I’m most fragile in my life that I feel the need to cling to my own rightness, that I will get most aggressive about my opinions and forceful about my need to have you share them. I think most of us here understand that, politically and religiously, inability to tolerate dissent is a sign of uncertainty, and the more unstable the position, the greater the need to erase the signs of one’s wrongness. In some cases, it’s enough to petition to have references to evolution removed from textbooks; in others, we have to erase the human markers of the possibility that the European Enlightenment project of reason, progress and modernity was not just ill-advised, but flat-out wrong.

On a purely interpersonal level, I’m still being held back by serious trust issues, and I still have to ask myself “what if”. What if I’m wrong about someone? What if what they tell me isn’t true? What if they intend me harm? What if everything changes again? Realistically speaking, I just can’t know the answer to any of those questions. There’s no script. There’s no certainty. When I want that certainty and can’t get it, I am an anxious, angry, hostile, frustrating person. If I’m being completely honest, I’m consumed with fear, not of the what-ifs above, which are all about them, but of the what-if of my own vulnerability.

I can’t pretend to really understand violence and hate, and I’m not trying to oversimplify them. I’m bringing the very banal and all-too-common experience of insecurity and a well-earned inability to trust into a discussion that is ostensibly about deep-seated historical inequalities, long-standing anger among groups of people and horrifying acts of violence because this is the part that seems pathologically simple, to me. Not “simple” in the sense of believing that we can just say “get over it” and “can’t we all just get along” and everything will be figured out, but just…heartbreakingly the same, over and over again.

Speaking personally again, I think I’m at my best when I’m not afraid of uncertainty because I’m absolutely confident in my uncertainty. Weakness and vulnerability are right up in my face, so I don’t have to defend the possibility that they’ll emerge and be seen. In the real world, outside of the bounds of my cozy warm apartment in which the greatest threats to my security are my cat’s claws, I have no idea where to go with that. So I kind of just…don’t.

Self-Identifying

This list of 2008’s Top 10 Christian Bashers from the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission is, to be frank, ridiculous on its face. The vast majority of my brain looks at stuff like this, sighs and moves on, because…what can I say? Most of it is all too predictable, though a little discouraging.

The part of my brain that won’t move on from this particular article, however, is the one that was stopped short by countdown items number 3 and 2. Back-to-back, we’re told that Barack Obama’s declaration of his Christian faith is an act of “defamation” while it was Sarah Palin’s mere self-identification “as Christian” that led to her being heinously attacked. The leap in logic is immediately apparent – we’re expected to accept that Christians are being persecuted by the left simply for stating that they are Christian while simultaneously getting outraged about the overwhelming support and electoral victory garnered by a man who dares to call himself a Christian.

For the most part, this is still depressingly predictable. I find it a little odd, however, that despite the placement of these two items next to each other, the authors seem to have missed the connection between them. I do recognize that without this “oversight”, a great deal of the persecution complex becomes untenable, so I guess I just expected some more significant rhetorical tricks to attempt to cover up the parallel. The thing about the Christian faith is that self-identification is (debatably, I know) among the most important markers of who is and who is not in the group. I’m no scholar of world religions, but what understanding I do have of others suggests that the importance placed on declaration of beliefs is significantly stronger in Christianity (anyone who is a scholar of comparative religions – or really, anyone more familiar with the topic than little ol’ me – can feel free to correct me here, or help me to modify this position). Certain kinds of behaviours matter, of course, and there’s the idea that genuine commitment to Christ will lead towards a specific path – though which specific path varies with sect, with cultural context, with C/church and even with individual practitioner. Even if some (on both the left and the right) wish to place specific limitations, using whatever historical and biblical criteria they deem most relevant, on who is entitled to self-identify as “Christian” without reproach, the point remains that, anthropologically speaking, a person pretty much “becomes” a Christian by publicly declaring themselves Christian (usually through an act of baptism).

I’ve been hesitant to confess that I’ve actually been struggling with that self-identification for quite some time now, and while I hate to admit it, this kind of bullshit article really doesn’t help. I don’t think it’s my own beliefs that have been shifting so much as my understanding of the implications of the words and labels, especially as the readings I’m doing in my academic life continue to point out ever-more-intensely horrifying layers of those implications. Some of this line of thinking takes me in a more personal direction that I’m up for going in this particular post, but in addition to being stupidly busy, I suspect that this struggle might be keeping me from blogging more than I’d like. There’s a weird dynamic of self-identification connected to blogs, which lend themselves so well to categorization and Ven diagrams of collaboration and contact, but less well to shifting positions and permeable labels.

I don’t have a point of closure for this highly meandering post, except to say that it’s kind of a way of dipping my toe into some personal waters in that oh-so-strangely intimate-yet-distant venue of the blogosphere.

Unity

As I suppose may be obvious by now, I spend a lot of time thinking about selfishness, from both a “practical” and a spiritual perspective. I think, on the whole, that selfishness is both a lot more complicated and a lot simpler than is immediately apparent. I don’t think there’s a checklist somewhere of actions (or people) that are Selfish and actions (or people) that are Not Selfish, creating conveniently obvious binary hierarchies between childless/mother, Christian/atheist, liberal/conservative, feminist/nonfeminist, male/female etc etc and so forth. I also don’t think that actions can be easily dismissed as selfish because they show some benefit to the individual who performs them – or, for that matter, deemed unselfish because they involve some pain for that individual.

No matter how much I try, it still grates me to hear “it’s okay to be selfish”. I know where it’s coming from, especially in a feminist context, since accusations of selfishness are often leveled at women as higher rates of self-sacrifice are demanded. I do know and hate that particular weapon. But I’ve also heard “it’s my turn to be selfish” – or variations like “I deserve it” – used as just as powerful a weapon, used to hurt people and make excuses not to examine one’s own actions. I’m not interested in a debate about whether genuine altruism is or is not possible, because it inevitably begins and ends with the “gotcha” position of pointing out that when someone does something generous for no apparent gain, they clearly get the gain of the warm fuzzy feeling of having done something for no apparent gain. Sure, okay. Fine. Don’t really see what that has to do with anything, sophistry notwithstanding.

A couple of words seem to come up extremely frequently in both my academic and my spiritual reading (or my brain is in such a state right now as to notice these words repeating themselves. Whichever): unity and solidarity. Spiritually and politically, solidarity strengthens. Divide and conquer and whatnot. Capitalism not only pits individuals against each other in competition for wealth, it also creates this pervasive myth of merit, having earned our material possessions as well as our personal worth. This is mine, it can’t be shared.

I feel like I’m writing “all I need to know I learned in kindergarten”, but while none of this is new, my point is that it’s all connected. My point is that selfishness doesn’t come down to gaining vs. not gaining and unselfishness can’t be summed up as giving something up (stuff/time/pleasure, whatever). Selfishness is about setting the self apart, acting in division rather than in unity, living first and foremost as an individual rather than as part of a whole. In Christian terms, the whole is how we as the church make up the body of Christ (based in my very limited understanding of Christian terms), but there’s lots of other frameworks saying the same damn thing. Thomas Merton describes individualism as spiritual pride, saying “The man who lives in division is not a person but only an ‘individual'”. Selfishness here isn’t really about stuff or about charity or about taxable donations. It’s about creating a separation between self and other, about living in order to create that separation, that hierarchy, that superiority, whatever its terms (financial, moral, political, sexual, spiritual). It’s the antithesis of unity and of peace.

I can’t get okay with selfishness. I know that some people use the “it’s okay to be selfish” line when they mean “I need to take care of myself before I can take care of everyone else”, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I actually think it’s selfish to take care of others in order to be recognized as the philanthropic businessman, as the self-sacrificing mother, as the fine upstanding churchgoer. Motivation plays a huge role here in how I see it, but not just for abstract philosophical purposes, because I think that ultimately, the prideful, self-aggrandizing motivation has to shake loose and will end up causing harm. The self-seeking drive is the divisive one, the one that tries to set self apart from other. By definition it has to break apart.

As usual, not rocket science. But sometimes I think rocket science is easier.