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.

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Sermons I Can’t Hear Anymore

I’m finally at the point in my history of church attendance that I’m recognizing the patterns of stock sermons and things that get said over and over and over from the pulpit. Certain questions need to be answered (or asked) repeatedly, certain lessons need to be examined again and again, certain issues are the ones that Christians think about (or are supposed to think about) every day and that need to be seen from different perspectives. And thematically, these are usually the kinds of questions that all church leaders have been studying for years in their own lives and centuries in Church life, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to getting something new and fresh every time. And summer, when we’ve got a rector on vacation and a guest preacher who doesn’t necessarily know the congregation all that well, seems to be something of a high point for the kinds of stock sermons that I just can’t stand.

What I can’t stand about this particular kind of sermoning is mainly that it doesn’t actually challenge anything. Not only does it take on a pretty basic question, but its answer is usually the Obvious Christian Answer. It’s usually the one that Church People want to hear (sarcastically capitalized “Church People” refers, for me, to a specific kind of Christian churchgoer, the kind that fits into the classical meanings of ‘holier-than-thou’ and self-righteousness) because it doesn’t really threaten their understanding of their place in the universe and God’s expectations for them. Maybe I’m being too harsh, and maybe I have nothing to say here that is anything more than ridiculously obvious, but what gets said up there matters in the lives of individuals and emerges in the actions of those individuals when they leave the church. Part of what frustrates me about these kinds of sermons is that it’s impossible for these kinds of answers, with the comforting smugness and the reassuring sense of certainty, not to come from a place of social power and blindness about the nature of that social power. More than blindness, even, outright refusal to accept the nature of that social power and the great, Spiderman-esque responsibility that comes along with it.

I’m starting to feel like the specifics of the sermon that have been running through my head are less important than that general point about how the easy answers relate to power, but I suppose my generalities make little sense without a grounding reference point. In this case, it was a Power of Prayer sermon, with three examples drawn from the preacher’s life of miraculous interventions by God in direct response to prayer and faith. I got an informal version of this sermon as well from a Church Person who just saw a loved one recover from a life-threatening illness and who attributes this person’s recovery directly to all those who were praying for her. And I hate that I feel this uncharitable sense of frustration and focus on that woman’s smugness, because of course she’s grateful to see this recovery. But when she talked about the power of prayer, she explicitly mentioned all the people who didn’t heal from this illness, and spoke with a sense of having a trump card over these others, these poor lost souls who, the implication is, didn’t have prayer on their side. It felt, to me, like she was articulating the “Gotcha” moment of having found an irrefutable argument for her own rightness. When I’ve expressed this frustration to others who know this woman, they’ve pointed out that if she were to examine it, she likely would have to see this flaw, because she’s watched other loved ones not recover with just as much prayer and loving attention, but the connection doesn’t seem to stick.

And that’s the incredibly obvious problem with this particular sermon – what about when the healing doesn’t happen? This is the question that non-Christians or seekers or people who are struggling ask all the time about Christian theology. If we’re going to talk about miraculous healing, responses to prayer and interventions against an unjust, unfair world, without mentioning the continued presence of that injustice, illness and pain, what the hell are we saying to the person listening who is in that kind of pain and for whom no miracles are forthcoming? I obviously have no answers to this question, though I could point to dozens if not hundreds of attempts by people who’ve tried, any one of which makes a better sermon than a simplistic, reductive and omission-filled claim that “prayer works”.

The comforting thing about “prayer works”, and the reason I think it can’t come from anywhere but a position of power, is that is presents and reinforces the illusion of being in control. It’s “The Secret”. It’s the basis of bootstraps theology of “God helps those who help themselves”. It isn’t really about God. The way it’s expressed always feels, to me, like providing us with something that we can do to assert a sense of order over the chaos. And I recognize that overcoming that sense of helplessness in the face of incomprehensible experiences and big, all-encompassing pain matters, but there’s a lot of nuance that has to come into those much, much more complicated questions from a psychological and theological perspective than “Don’t worry, it’s okay – here’s a series of examples from my life where prayer has worked. I asked for something and I got it. Don’t change what you’re doing. Don’t expand your sense of justice. Just believe more. It really is true that God likes our kind better”.

In the old “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” model, these sermons do neither. And even on summer vacation, I’m coming to expect better.