Monday, October 12, 2015

The Real Threat of Harper . . .

As we inch toward Election day and the NDP looks to be out of the running and much the anti-Harper vote edges toward the Liberals, many people are, I believe, soul-searching. Despite its turn to the Right in recent years, it seems clear that the NDP is definitely left of the position from which the Liberals are campaigning (to say nothing of the position from which the Liberals would govern). Despite Trudeau being clearly left of Ignatieff, from an economic point of view the Liberal Party is still squarely a neo-Liberal party and we can expect very little from them to address the economic inequality that has creeped into our system after decades of post-war incremental adjustments to those inequalities.

As the election nears and the Liberals look to be the only party that can take Harper's place, many leftists and progressives are now wondering if this effort to oust Harper at all costs was worth the effort. Seeing a return to the Party of Paul Martin's austerity seems a pale and disappointing replacement. And I share that sentiment. However, it seems to me that as progressives we need to be careful to remember what is at stake. When it looks like a chance that he could be gone, is easy to forget just how poison Stephen Harper as been for this country. As much as the Liberals have stood for economic inequality in the past, they have also represented important progressive efforts as well (and I say that as someone who is quite a bit left of the NDP). Much of what Harper has destroyed, the disappearance of which we sorely lament,  have been things that the Liberal Party of Canada began and supported for a long time. Though Trudeau made a big mistake supporting Bill C-51, let's remember that they are the Party that brought us the Charter and they have defended it many times while Harper has done everything possible to undermine it. Let's not forget that though Mulroney created the Court Challenges program, he later tried to kill it and the Liberals under Chretien saved it, only to see Harper kill it again. The Liberals funded a number of important women's programs that Harper has killed, as well as adult literacy programs which are now almost gone in this country. Though the Liberals sometime played a little fast and loose with the traditions of the House of Commons, they basically respected the process. Harper on the other hand has nearly destroyed it altogether and what we have now is a pale shadow of the Westminster system of government which, for all its faults, was something that could have been expanded into a much more active process of democracy and citizenship.

Some on the left might argue that the Liberal Party is just a 'kinder gentler' group that is going to screw the weak and the vulnerable. And there is a sense in which that is true. But here's the thing - when you eliminate the rule of law (as Harper is doing), when you eliminate the ability for people to protect themselves against the arbitrary power of government (as Harper is doing), when you make the House of Commons entirely unaccountable (as Harper has done), when you gut Elections Canada and make Election Fraud de facto legal (which Harper is doing), when you destroy the freedom of information system (as Harper has done), when muzzle scientists and eliminate fact-based policy efforts, when you do all these things then it really doesn't matter what you believe because you really can't change anything. And this is the trap that Harper represents. Sure the Liberals are not that progressive, they represent Bay Street far too much, they represent little change on climate issues, they won't bring much justice for the poor or even Indigenous people. But at the very least they represented a system in which we could legitimately fight for positive change with some degree of hope. And that really means something. Revolutionary defeatism can be an attractive ideology for the cynical and the angry, but in the face of genuine fascism, the struggle for real justice disappears and the progressive are forced to just fight for survival.

The Liberals may not become the progressive government many of us were hoping for, but HarperCons are a threat to the very system itself, to a system in which we can meaningfully fight for justice and equality. Harper represents a dark, American-like (Pottersville) sort of future where the justice system is a pawn of the government, where the police and the Army are an extension of a political party, where racism is institutionalized, where guns are everywhere, where the Charter of Rights is distant memory, and eduction and healthcare is reserved for the rich. Justin Trudeau may not be a progressive wonder-boy, but I will take a man and a party that represents the possibility of change than one who represents a dark, goose-stepping future any day of the week.

I leave you with a timely quote from the English Sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock

"If we continue to make any sort of social progress, I suspect that the political battle line of the twenty-first century will not be between socialism and capitalism but democracy and paternalism. The answer to paternalistic socialism…is not laissez-faire capitalism, or centralized corporatism or monetarism, with all their attendant ills and intrinsic injustices, but real equality under the law - where all of us have equal voice, equal access to our democratic institutions and equal responsibility. Sadly, some of the democratic infrastructure in our society seems seriously under threat at present - is often attacked in the name of "freedom" (by which is usually meant freedom of choice of washing powder or telephone company or porn video) - and it is up to us, I think, to examine those institutions, remember why they were developed in the first place and perhaps protect them."

Friday, October 9, 2015

Harper's Poisoning of the Nation. . .

When I was seven or eight years old and living in California, I went on a school trip to a public swimming pool. Such experiences should be the material of pleasant childhood memories, but this one was memorable for more than a playful day in the water. There was a girl in my class who refused to go in the water because there was a black girl in the pool. When questioned about her reluctance to swim the girl told my teacher something to the effect that the black girl was 'polluting' the water. If I recall correctly, the girl in my class was unable to articulate what exactly was going to happen if she got into the same pool with a black girl, she just knew (presumably from what parents had told her) that it was bad. Luckily California was one of the more liberal places in the United States and I did not see a lot of this sort of racism directly when I was growing up. But a few incidents like this made me empirically aware that racism was there and it was real. Later when I was going to high school in Denver I had a jewish friend who attended another high school and he told me about an incident in which his social studies class had had an open discussion about race and religion. During that conversation a girl had asked my friend why Jews sacrificed Christian babies in religious ceremonies. At the time I was old enough to be genuinely shocked by such ignorance, but not experienced enough or jaded enough to understand just how ignorant many people are about other people's lives and beliefs.

Today I continue to exist simultaneously in both in a state of shock and cynicism about people's ignorance, gullibility, and their bizarre sense of priorities.

If human beings can be said to have one generalized skill, it seems to be hypocrisy. This is a fact that was continually brought home to me during the gay marriage debate in the public sphere. People who oppose gay marriage uniformly make appeals to the Bible and their supposed Christian beliefs. But one doesn't need to be a religious scholar to understand how inconsistent practically all such people are. The Bible is a rather bizarre historical document that says a lot of things and practically all Christians I have met pick and choose which parts they want to emphasize or believe. The Bible seems to legitimize selling you daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7), it says that women shouldn't be allowed to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34), it outlaws trimming your beard (Leviticus 19:27), it outlaws divorce (1 Corinthians 7:10-11) Etc, etc. . . . Yet the vehemence with which many Christians oppose gay marriage while ignoring various other biblical edicts is amazing.

Racism and bigotry often rely on this kind of selective concern with other people's lives. Opposition to gay marriage really has nothing to do with religious beliefs. If it did, those who oppose it would be a lot more consistent in their observances of religious edicts. Instead people who don't like homosexuality for whatever reason are just looking for external justifications for opposing it. But what these people seldom do is look inside themselves to understand their real, pre-rational reasons for opposing homosexuality. They don't ask themselves the fairly straightforward question "why am so concerned with what consenting adults are doing with their own lives, things that have no effect on me or my life?" If people were honest with themselves in their pursuit of such questions the world would be a very different place.

But racists and bigots, most of whom seek to prey on peoples' fears and gullibility in the pursuit of their own power and prestige, are usually very careful to avoid the promotion of questions concerning causality and effect. I remember about a year ago (in the wake of the "don't commit sociology" remark from Harper) a Conservative spokesperson on a network news program actually said "I don't want to know what causes terrorism!" I can't imagine a more revealing statement about the contemporary conservative attitude toward life. Similarly, the current government doesn't want Canadians to think about why the most important question in our sociopolitical life should be what difference does it make what clothing a handful of consenting, mostly educated, women chose to wear. They don't want you to think about it because any vaguely rational person will realize that regardless of what I think about feminism or women's rights, what a few women chose to wear will have no baring on my life as long as they aren't telling me or others what to wear. And perhaps more importantly, even if I oppose this or that cultural/religious practice, as long as it is not curtailing the rights of others, I will gain nothing by seeking to outlaw it. In fact there is a very good chance that attempts to outlaw such practices will simply further entrench people's commitment to those practices. As the great Canadian jurist Louise Arbour has said, it is only by welcoming women who wear niqabs into the public sphere that "they will gain economic power and be exposed to other views."

But emotion holds sway over many people's ideas and thoughts. The fact that opposition to the niqab is so strong in Quebec is not really that surprising, for example. Many people in Quebec have felt that Francophone culture in north america has long been persecuted and threatened. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of them would express fear about people that they perceive to be "outsiders." The sad part about this belief that it fails to recognize that you can't stop any culture in time, and you can't 'save' it by insulating it against difference and otherness. Culture is like a shark, it has to keep moving forward or it dies. And one of the ways that culture moves forward is by embracing diversity and otherness, by enriching itself through the input of the perceived 'other.'

I was talking yesterday to the mother of one of my daughter's friends who, like me, has English as well as Canadian citizenship. Despite the fact that this woman, again like me, is what we used to refer to as a WASP, she expressed her genuine fear with the divisive and racist thrust of our government's politics. While claiming to be appealing to some abstract, non-existent group of "old-stock" Canadians, what the Conservatives are really doing is attempting to stoke fear of 'cultural contamination.' And this mother who was born in England and settled here has a genuine felling that she and her children (who were born in Canada) have suddenly become second-class citizens, people who could eventually be deported on the whim of the government of the day. This is what divisiveness and fear of otherness does, it poisons the nation, it stifles difference, it stagnates culture and leads inexorably to fascism.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Fight Against Racism and Bigotry Continues. . .

Racists, even the worst, most blatant sort, tend to look for justifications for their hate. The most ignorant forms of racism rely on very basic forms of hate speech, reducing its targets to a non-human-status or mere animal. Primitive racists alienate 'the other' by calling them 'savages' or 'lazy' or 'smelly' or 'stupid.' It doesn't much matter what adjective they use, they all have the same object - to mischaracterize and reduce.  

As society "progresses" racism and bigotry grow more 'sophisticated,' and people begin to construct elaborate excuses and justifications for their hateful beliefs. Because in modern society it has grown increasingly unacceptable to simply express blatantly racist beliefs, people find supposedly reasoned justifications for their hatred. These excuses largely come in the form of some kind of supposed threat posed by "the other." In the US racists have created an elaborate narrative about millions of so-called "illegal aliens" who threaten to somehow undermine the integrity of the political and social culture of the United States. Anti-Gay bigots have a similar narrative about the legalization of gay marriage. They kept telling us that it will disrupt and eventually destroy society. 

One of the most troubling forms of racism and bigotry is that which evokes the notion of "security" to justify its hatred. Worse yet is the growing practice of promoting bigotry in the name of freedom. This strategy targets the practices of religious minorities and tells us that only by curtailing those freedoms will the rest of our freedoms be protected and guaranteed. So our government trades on ancient fears and hatred of Muslims and attempts to tell people what "not" to wear as though that will keep the rest of us 'free.' Such "leadership" on the part of the government has the knock-on effect of creating public space for the expression of underlying feelings of racism and bigotry. To trade on this increase in acceptable racism the government seeks to create a 'snitch' line whereby you report on the actions of your racialized neighbours, giving it the name of "barbaric practices" tip-line, thus creating in the public mind an association between certain groups and barbarism, further stoking the fire of racism. This is, of course, an entirely contrived attempt at promoting hatred and fear in the population given that all the supposed "barbaric" practices are those practiced by racialized people and are all already illegal. 

If anyone doubts that these policies are the thin edge of the wedge, look no further than the words of Conservative incumbent candidate Brad Butt who this week floated the idea of deporting Thomas Mulcair to France, a country from which he holds citizenship. 

The idea of using "feminism" to justify a ban on the volitional religious choices of certain women is a bit like invoking pacifism as a call to war. But then reason has never been the bigot's strong suit. 

Though bigot's and racists have held sway over people's thoughts and feelings in various ways throughout history, they are slowly but surely losing their battle. Love is, indeed, better than hate, and hope is better than fear. Those who would seek to foster racism and bigotry for political gain would have us forget what is perhaps the simplest lesson in life. Though some people are easily swayed by hatred and fear, some of us hold our ground and raise high the standard of real freedoms, the freedoms to wear what we want, to love who we choose, to worship how we see fit, to hold ideas and beliefs that are ours, and to defend those rights in others. I will fight for these things, and when I am gone by daughter will continue the struggle, and so on till the fight is done. 

I agree with Martin Luther King Jr. when he said that - "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality……I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word." 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Political Shifts and the (apparent) Falling fortunes of the NDP . . . .

The apparent gradual decline in NDP fortunes over the course of this gruellingly long campaign has carried a morbid fascination for me. As polls stand today, the NDP are thoroughly out of this race now (at least in terms of forming government), the Liberal Party seems to be on the gradual uptick and the Cons, though they received a racist bump in the polls, are basically holding steady. The polls at the moment seem to point toward a fairly large number of people switching from the NDP to the Liberals in the past few weeks, and the Liberals are now ahead in Ontario and threaten to actually overtake an NDP lead in Quebec that once seemed unassailable.

Predictably, there is a lot of blog-chatter concerning these recent movement in the polls. Is the NDP decline a result of a poorly run campaign? Is it a result of Tom Mulcair's apparent abandonment of traditional NDP leftist ground? It is it a demonstration that is ultimately, despite temporary shifts, an expression of the long-standing status quo of the Conservative/Liberal strangle-hold on Canadian politics.

Let me say right off that it doesn't appear to me that the NDP decline is a result of the party's abandonment of its leftist tradition. As far as I can see, people are simply partisan, they care surprisingly little about what 'their' party's actually policies are. The majority of people seem to be lead around by the nose by their party and fall continually for their talking points and various emotional appeals. Supporting a political party seems, for many people, like supporting a sports team - it is not a rational decision, that is just "my" team and I am sticking with it. The most obvious demonstration of this attitude is actually the Conservative Party. There is very little that is conservative about the contemporary Conservative Party, yet their base of support remains remarkably steady. You would think that a Conservative PM running six or seven straight deficits would turn off Conservative voters, but it doesn't.  Harper once said, and most conservative say they agree, that stimulus spending does nothing to help the economy and that running a deficit under any conditions is just an attempt to buy votes. But Harper's total performative hypocrisy on this matter has done nothing to the core of Conservative support. Furthermore, though Harper has made guns (particularly assault rifles) easier to get in Canada, he has dubious credentials on the libertarian front - he has significantly increased police and state powers, something Conservatives (particularly of the North American variety) usually say that they strongly oppose. Harper has done nothing to protect the environment. On the contrary, he has basically gutted most of our environmental protections. Hardly a traditional conservative value. Harper has done nothing to further the social conservative cause either. He never made any attempts to limit abortion and left gay marriage alone. Harper is not 'conservative,' he is 'corporatists' plain and simple. But people who vote Conservative have simply chosen their team and are sticking with it. Rightly or wrongly, many people (and many traditional NDP supporters included) contend that the NDP has abandoned their traditional left position in many ways, yet their core support appears to remain unchanged. It is very difficult to contend that the NDP of today is anywhere near as left as the NDP of Ed Broadbent, but the core remains unshaken.

I also don't believe, as some of my blogging peers contend, that the NDP has fallen in their fortunes because they have run a poor campaign. The NDP has certainly run an uninspiring and uninspired campaign, but then so have the other two major parties. The NDP has failed to be bold or particularly interesting but there has been nothing that I could say that could be defined as a "gaff" in their campaign. In fact the Liberals have been the only of the three major parties that could be said to have run a "good" campaign and that is only because Trudeau has exceeded expectations and has not particularly faltered.

I think the NDP decline is fairly simple to explain actually. It is the result of two factors. The first is that the soft support in Quebec has evaporated, and the second is that its apparent support in the rest of the country was largely illusory. The NDP support in Quebec began to evaporate when they released their fiscal platform. I think that Mulcair's deficit fetishism is the primary factor in the NDP losing support in that province. It seems that Quebecers are tired of "austerity" attitudes and they were just turned off by Mulcair's apparent need to stick to a "balanced" budget. Proof of this is that since Trudeau came forward with his "infrastructure"  investment plan, the Liberals have been on the steady rise in Quebec and are now nearly tied with the NDP in a couple of polls. I think that the Niqab issue has been relatively small in actual voting intentions. Both Mulcair and Trudeau have been fairly clear in articulating their support for the court's decision and the need to support religious freedoms, but the Liberals have been on the uptick while the NDP has faltered, suggesting that this is not the primary factor in voter intention changes. The second reason that the NDP has fallen in the polls is, I think, that the high status that they enjoyed in the polls in the first part of the campaign was a kind of false reading. I think that during those heady days of the Duffy trial a lot of Conservative voters were pissed off and embarrassed to admit that they would support the Conservatives, and since many Con voters would never vote Liberal on principle (and would particularly never vote for someone named Trudeau), and since Mulcair's political style seems similar to Harper's, this skewed  a lot of polls and created the illusion that the NDP had a chance at forming government. A lot of Con voters were just saying that they were going to vote NDP out of anger with no actual intention of voting for that party. As the election has neared and the Cons have effectively diverted a lot of attention away from their terrible corruption and incompetence, some of the supposed support for the NDP has just dissipated. Meanwhile, the Liberals (again, rightly or wrongly) have managed to place themselves in the perception of many as somewhat revitalized party with a slightly left of centre slant. This has meant that some voters have returned to the party and some people who are soft NDP voters are thinking maybe the Liberals are a worthwhile alternative to Harper. Furthermore, as the election nears I suspect the Liberal numbers will rise as the "anyone but Harper" crowd sees the Liberals as the party most likely to beat the Conservatives.

However, the falling fortunes of the NDP doesn't trouble me that much. I think that there is little doubt that the political discourse in the world and Canada is changing. As I have said before this change is a result of the near total failure of Neo-Liberalism to deliver greater prosperity or equality, the growing precariousness of people's lives, and the entrance of a new generation into political life. The first significantly noticeable change in this regard was the so-called "Occupy" movement. We are now seeing changing attitudes in economic orthodoxy everywhere, increased talk of the need to address inequality, genuine movement in the IMF and World Bank, and a change in discourse among many political parties. These kinds of changes are very slow and they have barely arrived in Canada, and so far have left our politicians largely untouched. But the very fact that a national leader like Trudeau is talking publicly about running deficits with the intention of investing in infrastructure is a sign of this shift. The truth is that regardless of one's political beliefs, it is pretty clear that neither Trudeau nor Mulcair represent a deep change in political policies. And because of the depth of Harper's threat to even basic democracy and civility in Canada, this election is not really representative of the looming political shift that is just beginning. Anyone who is not stupid enough to support the Conservatives is largely in panic mode hoping to get rid of this political pariah and get to a government, any government, that actually respects the Constitution, the rule of law, the traditions of democracy and Westminster and won't continue to dismantle the very basics of our political system. Getting rid of Harper (if we can actually do it) if the first step in a long journey. I am not too worried about the apparent falling fortunes of the NDP because ultimately I believe that Mulcair is, like Harper, yesterday's man. And in the political change that is coming the NDP as well as the Liberals will have to rebuild themselves in response to what will be radically different views about government and the economy in the coming 20 years.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

We Have Met the Enemy. . .

An important part of my youth was spent in the United States in the 60s and 70s. I grew up against the backdrop of the fight to end legal segregation and the racism that was at its root. I was never, I don't think, naive enough to believe that I would see an end to racism in my lifetime (this disease runs too deep to end in one life or even one century). But I was aware that progress was being made.

When I came to Canada in the seventies I realized quickly that Canadians liked to think of themselves as superior to Americans on this front. And in some ways they were. Certain racialized groups were much more accepted by average Canadians. But it didn't take me long to realize that others were just as victimized by racism as anyone in the US. The open and painful bigotry displayed by people around me against East Indian immigrants was shocking. And the Racism against Indigenous people was socially accepted and made the racism I had witnessed in the US pale in comparison.

It is now about 80 years since the Germans elected the NAZI party to power. It seems like a long time, but it is only one lifespan really. To their credit, the Germans seem to have made an incredible effort to learn from the worst parts of their racist past. Today even a right of centre politician like Angela Merkel has led the way in pushing racism aside and welcoming tens of thousands of racialized refugees to Germany. For all of Germany's faults, this is an act of humanitarianism that should not go unnoticed. Canadians seem considerably less interested in learning or atoning from their own racist past. Perhaps this is because, unlike Germans, we have been able to kid ourselves about the depth and profundity of our racist culture. But even a casual observer should be able to see that we have been as guilty as the Germans of attempted genocide.

And if there is any doubt of the dept of Canadian racism, the horrible turn in the Election campaign should bring us to our senses in this regard. We knew it was coming. The Conservative Party was fully aware of when the recent Niqab decision would come down and what that decision would be. They hired a blatantly racist campaign manager, bided their time, and lit the fire at the right moment. This is our Reichstag folks. We are being tested and we have come up sorely wanting. Talking heads like Rex Murphy, or Jason Kenny try to tell us that this is not about bigotry. But anyone who thinks it is not racism and bigotry is either stupid, historically ill-informed, or engaged in wilful self-deception to try to cleanse their soul of the terrible stain of this historical moment. We all know what is going on, but the saddest part is that we kept telling ourselves that we had learned from the past. But Santayana's dictum sadly applies here - those that don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

I feel much like a progressive person must have felt in Germany in the 1930s when they saw the NAZIs consolidating their power. Sure, today we are not talking about 'death-camps' in our own nation but the spirit is the same. We are turning back refugees, bombing foreign nations for pure political gain, creating two-tier citizenship, race-baiting, and attempting to overcome our own constitution to legalize racism. It is all the same historical thrust - the more extreme forms of racism (those involving guns, ropes, and gas-chambers) have been expunged or watered down, but roots of the actions are the same as ever.

The great political cartoonist (and creator of Pogo), Walt Kelly, once comically misquoted the American naval officer Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, to create an aphorism that should daily echo in our minds - "We Have Met the Enemy and He is US!"

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Harper's Fear of the "other" . . .

The various racializing tropes to which Harper and his minions have begun to appeal in a desperate attempt to win the election ("UnCanadian," "Old-Stock," "Our Values,") are intended as 'power-markers.' They mark off the power relations between an 'us' and a 'them,' generating a passionate defence of certain perceived identities and notions of cultural and racial 'purity.' Such tropes are initially intended to 'distinguish,' then to 'divide,' and ultimately to 'conquer' (or alternatively, to generate a fear of being conquered). Racism is not, generally speaking, an end in itself, but rather is a means to the end of division and, by association, control. It is not so much control, or even the exclusion of the 'other' that is really at stake, but the wider goal of general political control with all of its sociopolitical implications.  These self-conscious and divisive word games seldom appeal, except in the case of the most ignorant listeners, to any real threat of invasion by the 'other,' but rely on more sinister (and often more dangerous) implications such as 'infiltration,' 'cultural watering-down,' and 'attack on (our) values.' The need for this indirect racialization is rooted not only in a blatant lack of actual 'real-life' threats and a growing (if irregular)  mainstream intolerance for directly racist statements, but in the emotive power of the sinister and the conspiratorial. In other words, implying that our cultural is 'threatened' by an 'outside' force which is acting in nefarious or indirect ways to somehow subvert our perceived values can be considerably more powerful, particularly in a milieu of ignorance, than any direct claims that must rely on some reasoned argument about a threat that has no basis in fact. Thus, it is not surprising that even a liberally minded citizen can get caught up in fears of 'hidden identities.' Perhaps more importantly, more direct discourse (one that will ultimately be reduced to legal rights and categories) now favours those who would eschew exclusion.

Fears of the 'other' have always been rooted deep in the nationalist psyche, but only recently have the perpetrators of such fears been able to appeal to (in a remarkably ironic twist) fears of a loss of freedom in order to restrict freedom. In this regard, the fear of 'infiltration' is of fundamental importance. The restriction of a religious freedom (for example the wearing of a niqab at a citizenship ceremony) has to be fashioned not in terms of facts but in terms of an underlying fear of cultural inflitration, as though the religious freedom granted to the 'other' today will turn into domination by the 'other' tomorrow. Never mind that no such material threat obtains, never mind that the particular racialized group constitutes only a small minority, what matters is the narrative of threat and the exclusion from the body politic. Similarly, a law which grants the government the right to revoke citizenship is, by its very nature a power marker that is not particularly directed at the individual criminal, but is intended to inform the citizenry of the government's power to exclude. This power is initially restricted to particular acts of conspiracy or violence (either here or abroad), but once granted can quite easily be extended to jaywalkers or political protestors. This 'thin edge of the wedge' problem doesn't even address the establishment of a de facto 'separate but equal' citizenship status.

The overriding generation of fear is a shockingly easy political target. Fear of the 'other' preys upon latent racist feelings by which the most bigoted are suddenly given a free range of legitimation for their racist feelings which are usually suppressed or kept quiet in the contemporary context. This age old political strategy cannot be outmoded by modern decorum, only refined by a new sensibility.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

More on the Question of Freedom and the Niqab. . .

It is interesting and bizarre to me how the foot-soldiers of the rightwing have continually railed against the so-called "nanny-state" and yet they are the first to call for state intervention when they find something that they don't like. They don't want the state to tell them that they can't, say, text and drive, or smoke in restaurants but they are more than eager for the state to come up with a dress-code. For me, this little act of cognitive dissonance is quite a feat and one that leaves me doubting the progress of social democracy.

The foundations of the modern freedoms associated with constitutional democracy are found in events like the French and American revolutions and the writings of people like Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Godwin. Though there are complicated theoretical and academic traditions associated with the questions of the limits of freedom, personal autonomy, and self-ownership, in public discourse we have used some pretty basic conceptual standards.  We commonly legitimize individual freedom of action as long as it is doesn't "harm others." Though this is by no means a legal category, it is a kind of conceptual litmus test that people think about in relation to freedoms. For example, freedom of conscious, freedom to marry who we chose, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of worship, these are the sorts of things that come to mind when we discuss a "free society" in private and public discourse, and they are the kinds of freedoms that are enshrined in various constitutional documents all over the world.

As long as your actions or thoughts aren't perceived as harmful or threatening to others, social democracy is generally thought to be tolerant of them. But how societies choose to limit freedoms is a complex issue. Perhaps the most famous example that is used in public discourse is the idea that your freedom of speech doesn't include yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre. This would be a so-called act of public mischief, because the impending stampede could cause harm to others, and limiting your freedom in this regard does nothing to substantially change your rights. Other limits to freedom of speech are more complex. For example many countries have decided to limit political advertising because even courts recognize the need for a more level electoral playing field. Your freedom of movement is limited to public spaces and doesn't include the private property of others or restricted government property, with the occasional exceptions of recognized easements.

There are other complex limits to your freedoms that are connected to perceived social goods. For example, the state compels you to wear a seatbelt  or a motorcycle helmet because there are significant social costs associated with not doing so.  Such freedom limitations are usually perceived as justified because they are relatively small and don't have huge impacts on people's lives and so are not perceived as too intrusive. But even here we grant exceptions in order to protect religious freedoms. In many places those who practice the Sikh religion are exempted from helmet laws so that they don't have to remove their turbans. The social "good" that this exception is meant to protect (the freedom of religion) is usually thought (at least by the courts) to outweigh the social risks associated with not wearing helmets.*

This brings us to the question of the niqab. Our question regarding freedoms should never, generally speaking, be 'how do I, as an individual, feel about someone's thought, conscience, actions or dress?" Rather, the question is "do those freedoms pose a significant impact or threat toward others or society?" If you want to limit people's freedom to marry who they want, for example, you can't simply appeal to a personal religious belief that gay marriage is some sort of unholy alliance. Since two gay people marrying each other has no direct impact on you as an individual, if you wanted to mount a meaningful argument against it you would have to contend that gay marriage is some sort of social threat, that is to say a threat to the stability or our society etc. However, the values of gay couples span the spectrum of our social values in general; some are conservative, some are liberal, some are atheist, some are religious, etc. In other words, gay couples are, in their beliefs, no different from straight couples. Thus, arguments that claim that we shouldn't legitimize gay couples because doing so poses some sort of threat to our social cohesion, seem to be extremely weak at best.

Arguments about the niqab are similar in nature. If someone choses to wear a niqab, other than potentially offending your personal sensibility, they don't have an individual impact on you. Thus, talk of banning a niqab (whether in citizenship ceremonies or in public in general) has to rely on some more abstract argument concerning what would have to constitute a public threat. This supposed public threat could be of two sorts; a perceived 'feminist' threat, or some kind of pseudo religious one. It is not uncommon to hear people say that the niqab is part of a system of gender oppression and therefore harmful to women. This may be true. However, going from this position to justifying a public ban on such clothing is a substantial and problematic conceptual leap. The danger involved here is, of course, one of extreme paternalism. By attempting to ban consenting adults from actions that they claim to be taking freely by their own volition, we are arguing at some level that these adults are unwittingly caught up in their own oppression. Such behavioural bans do, however, exist. Even consenting adults are not allowed to sell their organs or sell themselves into slavery. The reason that we as a society don't grant these rights is that we know that the most vulnerable among us would potentially fall victim to a system of exploitation. Tacit in the assumption of a niqab ban is a similar claim about exploitation. However, there are two important differences. One is that unlike a ban on selling yourself into slavery, say, a niqab ban involves a perceived religious practice. The other is that a ban on the niqab involves only one gender while other such bans refer themselves to the population at large. It isn't difficult to understand how potentially tricky it is to use a feminist argument to ban women from taking actions that they claim are not only religious but carefully considered and volitional.

An argued ban on the niqab that invokes a perceived cultural or religious threat is even more complicated. Whether we want to admit it or not, behind such arguments are centuries of prejudice, feelings that have resulted in countless acts of aggression and war by the West against muslim targets beginning with the Crusades. The concern here, though people often avoid its strict articulation for fear of sounding racists, are that Western nations are too tolerant, and that if we extend our religious rights too liberally we are opening the floodgates to some sort of Islamic take over of our society. I heard this argument regularly when I lived in the UK and I hear it here on AM talk radio. And politicians regularly stoke these fears with expressions like "jihadists" or the ever-popular "they hate our freedoms."  The argument is problematic in a number of ways. Most importantly people commonly forget that many of the muslims that have arrived in Western nations over the past fifty or sixty years have been compelled to leave the Middle East because of wars, and in many cases these are wars that the West has helped to start and promote. Far from being a sign of some conspiracy to take over the West (as many unhinged rightwingers would have you believe) Islamic immigration to the West has often been a result of our own adventurism and militarism. Perhaps more glaringly obvious is the fact that muslims have chosen to live in countries like Canada when they could have in many cases chosen to live in non-Western states. Though their are crazy and aggressive individuals in all nations and religion, the bizarre notion of an Islamic conspiracy has no basis in fact and is simply a myth conveniently propagated by Western, mostly rightwing politicians eager to exploit fear as a way of winning votes. In fact, the opposite of this myth is actually more true, it is the Western nations that have continually been involved in cultural and military colonial efforts in Muslim nations not the other way around.

There is no question that politicians and rightwing pundits will continue to exploit fears and prejudices concerning such things as sexual preferences and religious beliefs in order to create social division and win support. There is also no question that many people will continue to misunderstand or misrepresent the principles of religious freedom and constitutional rights. The struggle for justice and democracy is, in part, the struggle against fear and bigotry; and a long struggle it is.

(*There are, of course, massive exceptions to all of these liberties which conflict with the principle of 'not harming others.' Perhaps the best example that I can think of is the use of carbon burning personal vehicles. The use of combustion engine automobiles does regular and widespread harm to others. But we accept this harm because the activity became a central part of our culture before we realized the dangers and thus we assume that, though a change must be made, it has to be made slowly.)