Thursday, September 29, 2005

Review: Red Diaper Baby

(James Laxer. Red Diaper Baby: A Boyhood in the Age of McCarthyism. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004.)

I have hesitated before reviewing this book. Through no fault of its own, it has not proven particularly useful to me, and I fear that will result in me being unfair to it. The writing is good, the material is interesting, but -- well, I'm not sure exactly what I had in mind to achieve with this book when I ordered it, but it really did not advance my project at all except perhaps by fleshing out my sense of the mood for Communists in Canada before 1959.

Laxer's parents were activists in the Communist Party of Canada, and his father was eventually a mid-level leader. His father joined the Party in the late '30s and shortly thereafter recruited into its ranks the woman whom he would later marry. After nearly two decades of utter devotion to the cause they left because of the revelations about Stalin. As one can imagine, having Communist parents during the apex of conformist domesticity lead to a very divided, secret-riven life for Laxer. However, in a lot of other ways, as he skillfully illustrates, his family was very typical for the era. Another interesting and well-painted division in his life was between his extended family on his father's side, working-class Hasidic Jews in Montreal, and the propertied Toronto WASPs on his mother's side.

In terms of its use as political history, I didn't find the book particularly compelling. I can appreciate the need to purge onesself as an adult of the retrospective guilt and loathing at having felt, through no fault of one's own, an actual visceral affection for Joseph Stalin as a child. Unfortunately, through patterns of attention and blindness that are all too common in mainstream narratives, the book is unlikely to challenge readers to seriously consider that there might actually be a need for radical change and that there might be paths other than that followed by the parties of the Third International. Neither Laxer nor his father abandoned struggles for progressive social change forever when ties to the Party were cut, and it is a shame that the mission of the book did not allow for exploration of the multiplicity of ways of relating to social change beyond the highly polarized binary of the 1950s -- it does nothing to afflict or even challenge any but the most reactionary among the comfortable (who tend to view any attempt to characterize any Communists whatsoever as even vaguely human as some kind of plot). It fits some new-to-most information into a very traditional (and mostly implicit) historical framework.

Anyway. It is not a bad book -- the writing is good, the evocation of mood is skillful and useful for developing a qualitative understanding of the era in question. It's just that I, personally, would have been better served putting my money and time somewhere else.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hunger Clinic Organizing

Activists in Sudbury, me among them, are organizing locally as the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee in support of the Ontario Common Front campaign to use the special dietary supplement provision in Ontario's welfare regulations to try and increase the social assistance rates of as many people as possible. Increasing numbers of healthcare professionals are affirming the experiences of welfare recipients themselves and recognizing that current social assistance rates are so inadequate that they almost invariably lead to a situation in which recpients' health is at risk. Here is an article published on the front page of today's Sudbury Star...there are details of implication and wording I'd quibble with, but it seems to be pretty good for a mainstream media article on poverty issues.

Activists promote supplement for the poor:
Those on social assistance eligible for special fund

By Carol Mulligan/The Sudbury Star
Local News - Tuesday, September 27, 2005 @ 11:00

Anti-poverty activists are making an end-run around the provincial government in an effort to get more money for food for social assistance recipients.

Groups such as the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the Ontario Common Front and others are holding clinics to let people know about a special dietary supplement of up to $250 that may be available to those on social assistance.

People on Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program could qualify for the supplement if a doctor, dietitian, nurse, nurse practitioner or midwife says they need it to survive.

Amber Negrazis and Alex Paterson are members of the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee in Sudbury, which plans to hold a clinic on how people may qualify for the supplement.

But first, their committee is taking 15 people from Sudbury to a mass clinic to be held in Toronto on Oct. 3. There are still some spots left for people from Sudbury, but those who don’t make it before the cutoff will be invited to attend a Sudbury Clinic.

Negrazis says making people aware of the special dietary supplement is important, “considering people on welfare do not have enough money to survive.”

Paterson says the dietary supplement is available for people who require an organic diet, who need vitamins, are vegan or vegetarian or require baby food if their children are under-nourished.

That’s all contingent upon a medical professional signing a form confirming those requirements are legitimate.

Sudbury’s Gary Kinsman said there are fears the Ontario government is trying to get rid of the supplement, which most people on social assistance aren’t aware of.

Negrazis said people on welfare “don’t have money to get food — period. If they buy food, they can’t worry about nutrition.”

The Sudbury and District Health Unit reported last week that the cost of feeding a family of four a nutritious diet rose 8.3 per cent this year over last. It now costs $128.73 a week, up from last year’s $118.91, to buy “safe, nutritious and culturally acceptable food,” Dr. Penny Sutcliffe reported last week.

Sutcliffe is medical officer of health and chief executive officer of the health unit.

The Sudbury and District Board of Health directed Sutcliffe to work with food security networks and municipalities to explore initiatives to make sure people can buy the food they need.

Health board chairwoman Janet Gasparini, who is also executive director of the Social Planning Council in Sudbury, urged board members to support efforts to get the supplement for people in Sudbury who need it.

“It’s a provincial initiative, but we’re not going to wait around for the government to change things for us,” said Negrazis.

To sign up for the Toronto clinic next week or the Sudbury clinic, phone XXX-XXXX and leave a message, or e-mail

Monday, September 26, 2005

Cinefest and Class

It hit me when I saw an older woman with a pin on the lapel of an expensive but not particularly stylish jacket. This pin exhorted us to "defend marriage" and displayed a female symbol and a male symbol interlinked. I was already feeling some lack of ease in the crowd that surrounded me (though other than my moderate scruffiness I fit in perfectly in an objective sense) but this focused my attention on it.

I was at Cinefest, Sudbury's international film festival. It is the largest event of its kind north of Toronto and one of the top five film festivals in Canada, and approximately 30,000 film lovers take advantage of what it has to offer every year. I attended three presentations: a collection of five short films produced by students at the Canadian Film Centre, including the one that won best short at this year's Toronto film festival; Cache, a French feature that was ostensibly about a middle-class French family being stalked by someone from the husband's past but which seemed to me also to be about colonialism (including the intimately related racism in the colonizing country) and the destructive and unliberatory blowback that it can spawn; and another collection of short films produced by Canadians. I quite enjoyed it. I'm not sure why I felt drawn towards shorts but I was happy with my choices.

The line of thought that was particularly sparked by this woman and her homophobic pin had to do with who was present at this event and who was not. The pin drew my attention towards the range of people in the crowd by its advertisement of a politics that I find repulsive (not that I'm a big fan of marriage regardless of the gender combination involved); more importantly, it made me think about the centre around which the people present were clustered, the core identity that would come out of an honest attempt to answer the question "Who is this event for?", the functional definition of which axes of diversity were present and unremarked (homophobe to pro-queer was one, apparently), and which axes were absent and equally unremarked.

Well, of course, the central identity in this case was middle-class and white, with a balanced gender mix and most people ostensibly straight. There were a few token people of colour, a few token folk whose personal aesthetic seemed to identify them as queer, and a handful of people who seemed to be working-class. (Of course, determining identity based on the reactions of one set of privileged eyes rather than, say, self-identification is politically problematic if used in the wrong way, but it is the only way we have to ask questions about who is included and excluded in spaces we inhabit in our daily lives -- questions that it is very important for all of us to ask.)

In thinking of the political importance of the central identity of this cultural event, I particularly focued on class. Communities of colour in Sudbury are tiny, so I'm not convinced that, for the most part, they were underrepresented amongst the attendees (though the Aboriginal community certainly was). But when I think of the people that comprise the Sudbury that I walk through every day and compare it to the Sudbury on display at Cinefest, the biggest difference is class -- in the former, working-class and poor people are very numerous, even predominant, and in the latter they were few.

What interested me about this was speculating about how this separation is maintained, how Cinefest is preserved as a primarily middle-class exercise. I suppose if asked, many middle-class folk would give a classist answer. They would attribute it to "these kinds of films" not appealing to "those sorts of people," with the implication that "they" are primarily interested in Hollywood dreck and just wouldn't appreciate this higher calibre of film. Which is nonsense, I think. I mean, Hollywood trash has colonized the media preferences of a majority of people across the population, including among the middle-class, who I would imagine serve as the main source of Hollywood's income just because we tend to have more cash to spare. I think, all else being equal, you would find people interested in going to a filmfestival to be in the minority both among the middle-class and among working-class and poor people. Still, given that it was likely middle-class folk selecting (and probably disproportionately making) them, it is possible that the content of the specific films that were on display was biased in some way to make them somehow more compatible with middle-class sensibilities than with working-class ones. I don't feel competent, in terms of framework or data, to have an opinion one way or the other on this.

There might have been some contribution from the event's location, though not an overriding one. Sudbury has a downtown cinema and a mega-plex with stadium-style theatres that is outside the downtown but easily accessible by bus and car. The film festival occupied half of the latter. It may not be quite as proximal to the lower income areas of the city, but I know from going to regular movies at this theatre that working-class people have no trouble making use of it.

So what was it then? Well, partly the expense, I suppose. The gala films -- I didn't go to any of those -- were $17 each. To go to the regular films you could buy a pass, and I don't know how much they were, or you could buy a book of tickets. The smallest book was four tickets for $35. The income range encompassed by the expression "working-class and poor" is quite wide, but that is still enough money that it would be a barrier for many folk.

Time is also an issue. I had hoped to go to at least one film on an evening last week, but I just wasn't able to manage it, and my time is pretty flexible outside of the daytime on weekdays. But the demands of making a living in the service sector or other less pleasant areas of the economy not only leave little financial flexibility, but they can also leave you with little time and energy.

Those things are important, but I regretfully have to conclude that it was probably also a matter of pro-active recruitment. The folks in charge of such events as this tend to be middle-class. They also know that disposable income is more available to middle-class folks, so are likely to target their outreach and marketing with that in mind. And though I have no sense at all of how this event is marketed, I would suspect that it reproduces the class privilege of the organizers -- ads in the programs of other cultural events that select for middle-class and above, for example, or partnerships with particular employers whose employees would be in the target group. As well, I would bet there are aspects of the outreach that are of minimal material significance but signal a certain status or elitism that might discourage some folks -- things that are trivial in and of themselves, but clearly mark the space as aspiring to a certain kind of class identity. I suspect this because it was present at the festival itself. Putting linen covers on the little fast-food tables in the mega-plex foyer, and a vase with a flower on it? Little baskets of pot-pourri in the bathrooms? Give me a break. None of that makes the fluorescent plastic environment of a mega-plex movie theatre any less tacky; in fact, I think it may even make it all come across as more tacky. The only takehome message I can convincingly read from it is that this special event is for a "better sort of people" than those who usually go to Hollwood-focused theatres.

So what would a film festival organized by and for working-class people look like in the Sudbury context? Not one centred on middle-class right-wing prejudices or middle-class left-wing exoticization of working-class people (yes, it does happen from time to time), but the real deal? I don't really have any speculations worth sharing, but I would surely like to find out. I'm not holding my breath for the necessary resources to put on something big to become available, however.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Review: Madeleine Parent

(Andree Levesque, editor and translator. Madeleine Parent: Activist. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2005.)

In March 2001, McGill University in Montreal hosted a conference on the life and struggles of Madeleine Parent. This recently published book is an English translation of the compilation of papers that resulted from the conference.

Parent is of particular interest to me because she is one of the people that I interviewed for my project on social movement history. In an earlier post or two I referred in passing to a recent trip to Montreal; the eight-hour drive twice in three days was primarily to help Madeleine, now 87 years old, finish making revisions to the transcript of the interview I did with her. I was successful in that mission, and I had the privilege of having lunch with her and spending nearly an entire day with her, listening to many more fascinating stories of her almost seven decades of struggle for radical social change in Canada. She also gave me this book, as a reference and source of context for use when I turn her interview into a book chapter.

Parent got her start as an activist in the vibrant Canadian youth movement of the '30s and became very active as a student at McGill University. Upon graduation in 1942, Madeleine became a union organizer. Initially involved with the committee devoted to organizing war industries in Quebec, she soon became an organizer for the United Textile Workers of America. She and future husband Kent Rowley played a central role in organizing Dominion Textile plants in Montreal and Valleyfield, and were key leaders of the strike there in 1946, one of the biggest Quebec contributions to the massive post-war strike wave, as well as several other major strikes in the next number years.

It is the strike of '46 that is central to the material that she produced with me. Initially, I was worried that this book would have printed all there was to say about this strike. However, it is presented only as a brief summary, in a way that reaffirms my commitment to publishing social movement history via the words of the participants themselves -- the summary in this book lays out the basic facts, but it does not capture the spirit of the event, the bitterness of the struggle, the political drama in the same way as Madeleine's own words.

In this era, Quebec was dominated by English-Canadian capital, a conservative Roman Catholic church, and the right-wing thuggery and corrupt provincial legal system of Premier Maurice Duplessis, who also personally served as Attorney General. Even as simple an act as handing out leaflets at plant gates was illegal, and the infamous Padlock Law used hysteria about Communism to effectively ban anything and anyone that Duplessis decided was subversive. Parent and Rowley were arrested many times, and eventually Duplessis targeted them with sedition charges, and through the corrupt court system of the time was able to keep the charges hanging over them for years until they were dismissed by one of the few honest judges.

As happened to other militants, Madeleine and Rowley were purged from their union during the early '50s. They spent the remainder of their careers as central figures in efforts to support unions for Canadian workers that were democratic, militant, and based in Canada. Though the Canadian trade union central that they founded in the late '60s represented only 40,000 workers at its peak, they waged some politically key strikes in that era, and provided a constant harassment on the flank of the Canadian Labour Congress that encouraged its U.S.-based unions towards greater autonomy for their Canadian sections and, at times, greater militancy. Madeleine was also active in the women's movement, as a proponent of "equal pay for work of equal value," a strong ally of Aboriginal and immigrant women, and a voice for working women in feminist bodies at the national level and in Ontario and Quebec.

This book is a useful resource, but it suffers from the flaw of certain kinds of biography in its tendency towards sentimentality and hagiography, and its tendency to leave things out. I didn't happen to mind the firs two -- as Quebecoise feminist, trade unionist, and now filmmaker Monique Simard wrote in her contribution, "I am not a groupie by nature, but I think we should recognize the contribution and influence of people like Madeleine." And the ommissions were not so much with respect to Parent herself but rather a less complete painting of context than I would like to see. For example, Parent's steady support at the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) for Mary Pitawanakwat and her case against the federal government is worth noting and remembering, but its political significance might be more fully appreciated with a thorough discussion of the ways in which that case brought out issues of racism within the women's movement, an issue not mentioned in the book.

This book is a short, easy read and it paints a brief but fascinating picture of the life of an important participant in struggles for social change in Canada and Quebec, and an inspiring and wonderful woman.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Review: The Blacks in Canada

(Robin W. Winks. The Blacks in Canada: A History, 2nd Edition. Montreal & Kingston: Queens-McGill University Press, 1997. Originally published by Yale University Press, 1971.)

This book was the first attempt by an academic to write a comprehensive history of people of African heritage living in northern North America. Though the version I have is officially a "second edition," it remains unchanged from the 1971 version except for the addition of a new foreword by the author.

The book is massive, cumbersome, and not a particularly fast read. I shudder to think about the amount of labour that went into consulting archives and manuscripts and such, along with visiting most of the Black communities in Canada at the time and conducting interviews. The focus on maximizing the volume of "facts" extracted from primary sources and putting them into a more generally accessible form, and covering such a wide range of eras and locations, results in a rush of names and places and dates shooting by before you can really get ahold of them; inadequate attention to characterizing context for at least some of the times and places covered; and a very staid, academic writing style.

At the same time, I learned a great deal. One trap of privilege is a tendency to see oppressed groups as more homogeneous than they really are, and I had no idea that, even before the immigration of people of colour to Canada began to increase significantly in the 1960s and 1970s, the origins of African Canadian peoples was so diverse.

I also appreciated the effort at debunking the traditional Canadian self-satisfaction at having sheltered escaped slaves at the end of the Underground Railroad. While it did happen and it was important, even at the time there was a tendency among white Canadians to inflate the number of people who found sanctuary, and very little interest in hearing that being "safe under the lion's paw" wasn't necessarily as pleasant an experience as it was cracked up to be for the African American refugees in question. The exodus of Black people out of Canada during and after the U.S. Civil War wasn't just about returning to friends and family in the South.

I also thought it was interesting that over the course of the centuries covered, one common characteristic of systemic racism in northern North America was its inconsistency. For example, because slavery (which in the early years often involved Aboriginal people as well as African people) never really became a central economic institution in northern North America, its legal basis was often unclear, inconsistently applied, and really of little concern to most white people (in contrast, of course, to those enslaved here, as well as to both white and Black folks in the southern United States). And in the late 19th century, state-mandated racial segregation of schools not only varied between provinces but, where it had a formal legal basis, often varied significantly from community to community within that province. (Another interesting piece of trivia: the law enabling forced segregation of schools in Ontario at local (white) discretion was on the books until 1964, though only one school created under that authority existed after 1900).

I suppose it's true of anything we see or read, but while reading this book I was particularly aware that it should be approached with caution and a critical eye. Like any cultural product, it very much reflects the era (published in '71, written over the preceding decade or so) and social location (white liberal academic man) from which it was written.

For example, its age leads to the use of vocabulary and concepts about race and racism that have long been seen as politically inappropriate -- the most obvious is that, though the title uses the word "Black," that was a last-minute ammendment before the original printing to reflect the growing preference for that label among African Canadians, and in the bulk of the text the word "Negro" is used. There are other ways this is reflected, too, though I don't claim to have been able to spot all of them. An important one is the way that it impacted the standpoint from which the history was written. At times the story seemed to be more grounded in the social location of the white folks in a given era, with the Black people of that era an object to be investigated from that white grounding. While it is not surprising that many of the primary sources from the earlier times covered by the book had white authors, because of the importance of depriving those at the bottom of the social hierarchy of literacy skills as a means of maintaining control, it seemed that the author was often inadequately skeptical when relaying contemporary white opinions of Black people, their habits, their successes, and their failures, especially when those opinions echoed racist stereotypes that are still common today.

Not that the author was unwilling to name racism -- it just felt that, as with all of us who do not experience it, there were times when he didn't see it for what it was. For example, there were a couple of places where he made bland, unadorned statements observing the formal equality of African Canadians of earlier times in Canadian law (at times in contrast to the United States, or parts of it) and following that up with statements that obviously assumed that formal equality translated into functional equality. There's lots of evidence that formal legal equality in a systemically racist society (like presentday Canada) leads to racist legal outcomes -- it happens today, and it stretches the boundaries of credibility that it didn't happen in the 1850s.

A final example that struck me of the impact of standpoint on the way the book was written was its unshakeable assumption that integration, only and always, was the ultimate good. While there was some understanding of why people in an oppressed group might choose to come together to form separate institutions under their own control -- as African Canadians have done many times in many eras -- it was contextualized by this author as always a bad idea politically in the long term. In places it was even attributed the role of making things worse and exacerbating discrimination. It's a complex issue, of course, but I tend to agree with the perspective, in the words of U.S. academic Iris Young, "that segregation is wrong, but that social group differentiation and reactive separation are not wrong." It seems to me that the political advisability of building independent institutions versus working in and challenging mainstream institutions varies with context, and deserves analysis each time the decision is made; both can be important and powerful political tools.

Much work has been done on the history of people of African heritage in northern North America since this book was written, and it is essential for anyone trying to understand that history to turn to those newer sources, particularly those produced by African Canadians. But this is still an important collection of facts and details about some aspects of that history. It may not be the most riveting read among the histories I've consumed over the last year, but it was still an important milestone in the writing of the history of northern North America, and when approached with a certain political caution it can definitely educate.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Historical Canadian Complicity Tidbit

Here's something I never learned in history class: In the infamous massacre of Black South Africans at Sharpeville by the apartheid regime on 21 March 1960 -- the event which inspired the choice of that date as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by the United Nations six years later -- the government strafed the crowd using Sabre fighter jets that were manufactured in Montreal.

That's right...Canadians profited from equipping the racist regime in South Africa with the means to attack anti-apartheid demonstrators.

(This is according to page 446 of The Blacks in Canada: A History, 2nd Edition by Robin W. Winks, a book I will soon complete and review on this site.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

CSIS Slammed

The watchdog of Canada's spy agency recently issued what the Canadian Press has characterized as a "damning government report." The following brief article appeared on page A8 of today's Sudbury Star:

OTTAWA (CP) -- Canada's security and intelligence investigators routinely destroy screening interview notes and are not above lying, making it difficult for anyone to scrutinize their work, warns a damning government report.

And when they don't destroy them, notes by officers from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS, can be inaccurate or incomplete, or both, says the Security Intelligence Review Committee.

The watchdog's June 2005 report, dubbed Top Secret and obtained by The Canadian Press, offers rare and disturbing insight into a security agency it says is not above lying and manipulating information to achieve its ends -- even if in the process it destroys the reputation and career of an innocent person.

Written by SIRC chair Paule Gauthier, the report says Bhupinder Singh Liddar was denied a consular appointment to India's Punjab because a rushed assessment by a rookie CSIS investigator was "inaccurate and misleading."

And though this is nothing new for the Canadian security and intelligence apparatus, it is important to take note when even government sources admit it. No wonder more and more people are objecting to the indefinite, arbitrary detention of five Muslim men based, pretty much, on CSIS saying, "Because we said so!"

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


An incredibly brave, personal, political post on rape at Melancholic Feminista, found via Blackfeminism.Org. Read it.

Street Knowledge

Check out Street Knowledge: Conscious Music Blog. The name comes from a line in the hip-hop classic "Straight Outta Compton" by NWA -- "You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge." The blog's introductory post, put up less than a week ago, reads in part:

Street Knowledge is a weblog featuring a variety of conscious music. Conscious music, broadly defined, is music that has an explicitly politically aware theme. Commercial radio and stores often marginalize artists who make conscious music. Music tastes that are cultivated to the apolitical often ignore conscious music. Street Knowledge was created to share information about artists, past and present, creating politically progressive expressions. At the same time, Street Knowledge is aimed at showcasing diverse cultural and ethnic sounds; sandal-wearing folkies will get their shine, but the overly and covertly subversive music by people of color also has its place here. Art is an expression of politics, in one way or another, and this music weblog is aimed at promoting the artists who make truly special sounds.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Times, They Are A Changin'

I have had the sense for a long time that much of the centre-left in Canada (I'm thinking the Council of Canadians, the NDP, lots of other folk) bases much of its agenda on assumptions grounded in a world that no longer exists -- there is a refusal to admit that the material conditions which made it politically sensible for elites in the West to agree to the post-World War II social democratic compromise no longer exist. A refusal to come to grips with that reality limits the ability of left-liberals and social democrats to accomplish what they claim to want to accomplish.

But it has occurred to me more recently that there are certain other major changes on the horizon which we also need to take into account, changes that may mean that 2035 looks a lot more different from now than now does from 1975.

There are three things that I can think of that are going to have huge implications for how our society is organized and how progressive movements can and should organize in response.

  1. From what I've read, the idea that we have hit "peak oil" seems to be sound. In other words, the volume of oil production in the world right now is either at its peak or will hit its peak in the near future. After that point, production will shrink. However, demand is continuing to increase. This means that oil prices will rise. Our economy and even the physical arrangements in which we live in North America are based on the assumption that cheap energy is available. When energy ceases to be cheap, there will be big and potentially very unpleasant changes. The speed at which all of this will have to happen is uncertain. The ability of new technology to harness other energy sources in ways that can replace oil is uncertain. And it is also uncertain whether progressive movements will be able to force a proactive and pro-social response, or whether we will see an incompetent, anti-social, and authoritarian one from the states that govern us (a la New Orleans).

  2. There seems little doubt that global environmental instability -- aka "global warming," aka "climate change" -- is real, and that it is likely to have severe but highly unpredictable implications. There will be destruction. There will be shifts in climate that will force changes in human uses of at least some environments. There is no way to know for sure what impact this will have, and I fear it is too late to prevent it entirely, but we have to be ready to react to it and to force changes in policy and economy that minimize the damage.

  3. The dominance of the United States is in decline. This may sound like a strange thing to say, but I think it's true. I won't go into the details of the argument, but the link I've provided gives at least an introduction. There are a number of economic indicators that show this, not to mention its inability to marshal support from the other major capitalist powers for the recolonization of Iraq, and its inability to take and hold Iraq despite the fact that the scope of the armed resistance to the occupation is much less than it was to the occupation of Vietnam a generation ago. This doesn't mean a collapse of the United States is imanent, or anything like that, but it does mean that there will likely be a serious renegotiation of the world order to the disadvantage of the United States over the next couple of decades. Unfortunately, the area in which the U.S. remains most dominant is that of military force, which means that Iraq is probably not going to be the last example of the use of such force as a means of jockying for strategic economic and military position with the other rich countries. The current radical right extremist cabal in control of the United States is going to be particularly unwilling to give up ground without a fight, which will probably be brutal and nasty and kill lots of people. But when it comes to the kind of decline of U.S. power that seems to be on the horizon, I don't know if the less fanatic factions of U.S. elites will really end up being much better.

    This issue is a particular poser for Canada. Post-colonization northern North America has never been anything but an appendage of the most powerful empire on the planet, whether that empire happened to be based directly to the south of us or across the Atlantic, and much of the history of conflict among Canadian elites is about how best to play that role. The playing field will change drastically as the ubiquity of U.S. hegemony fades. The degree of economic integration between the two countries is likely to seriously limit the willingness of Canadian elites to explore positions beyond the range of tepid loyalty to fanatical loyalty to the slowly sinking U.S. ship of state. This is a problem, and a big one, because neither sticking with the U.S. nor striking out in another direction will have easy consequences for the majority of Canadians, I suspect.

Well, there we go -- my injection of pessimism into the blogosphere for the day. I'll try to write something happier next, perhaps something about my trip to Montreal over this past weekend. I think it was that story I came across just before bed last night, which tried to put a cheerful spin on an end-of-the-world scenario, that made me think about this stuff when I should have been sleeping. But, unfortunately, I don't think I'm wrong, and I think we really do need to think about it.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


"Should" is a funny concept. Often, I think, it has a tendency to flatten out reality.

In personal life, it is common enough to say or hear things like this: "He's a jerk and she should leave him." Or, "She is wasting her life. She should finish journalism school." Or, "Dear, you really should lose those extra pounds. How will you ever find a boyfriend?"

Each of these pieces of advice may or may not actually be a sound course of action for the person in question (whether for the reasons provided or for better ones). For the purposes of this post, I don't really care about that. What interests me is the way that individual context and complexity get submerged under prejudice, inherited and often oppressive narratives of what our lives should look like, and a one-size-fits-all understanding of how difficult decisions are made.

Yes, they may be good advice. But what if he's not a jerk and the person speaking just doesn't like him? Or what if he is a jerk, but the most important immediate thing for the woman in question is not making changes in her love life but figuring her own stuff out, so that a year from now or two years from now her decisions about staying or leaving or whatever are going to be strong, sound, and followed through?

What if journalism school is really what your father wants and not you? What if you want to be a journalist but you just can't stand the racism and sexism you've been facing in your journalism school so far? What if you really would actually prefer to live on lousy, minimum wage jobs and produce 'zines and blogs and radical art, rather than spend three decades churning out articles on gardening and car shows for a mid-sized daily that makes you want to be ill whenever you read it?

What if you just get angry at the thought of modifying your body to please others, and it is more important to you to learn to love yourself than to reduce a mild to nonexistent health risk factor? What if you really want not a boyfriend but a girlfriend, and the women you're interested in couldn't give a f*** if you're chubby or not?

All of these example are rather obvious ones, of course, where the speaker lacks some rather significant knowledge of the subject of whom they are speaking. But the difference for those with more intimate knowledge, if they still presume to speak in "shoulds," tends to be one more of degree than of kind. Seems to me that the role of an intimate in such situations is, for the most part, to ask questions and even to challenge and provoke if it seems called for, but to do all of this with a firm grounding in their own location in the situation rather than some imagined, objective place from which verifiable "shoulds" could be issued. Not that I won't engage in interpersonal "shoulding" when it really seems important, but I try to keep the threshhold of proof pretty darn high.

But what about applying "should" to the broader world -- after all, whatever we actually say, whether we actually use that particular word or not, whether it is explicit or implicit, isn't most writing (and broadcast or beer-side oral commentary) about social and political issues inevitably linked to some kind of "should"? Aren't political blogs just layers upon layers of "shoulds" with hyperlinked references? Is it really acceptable to be so cavalier with our "public" shoulds, when it is clear that "private" shoulds are in such blatant risk of trampling the autonomy and agency of others?

Yes; of course they are; and, definitely.

I think there's an argument to be made in here somewhere about citizenship and participation, and how the collective "should" of the body politic can only come to be when individual (and sub-societal group) "shoulds" are shouted from rooftops, pounded into keyboards, and made material through actions of various sorts, just as the different and conflicting psychological currents within each of us need to battle it out about leaving a lover, making a career decision, or taking action around how one wants to live in one's own body. Properly articulated, it would account for the fact that oppression means not all "shoulds" are or can or should be treated equally in the abstract liberal sense, but that participatory public "shoulding" is, in general, a social good. But I'm not going to give that the attention it would take; I'm still more interested in how "should" does or does not reflect the complexity of the real world.

Let me use an example. I commented in my original post on the destruction of New Orleans about the ways in which Hurricane Katrina is a parallel to 9/11. One way this is true is how the political opponents of the current radical right extremists who control two and three quarters (and, after Roberts is confirmed as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and the other vacancy filled, a full three) of the branches of government have responded to these tragedies: by talking a lot of "should." Unlike some commentators (and the White House talking points) I don't think there is anything at all wrong with mixing a direct response to human need in a crisis with a sound analysis of where the need came from. But despite the parallels between the events, and the fact that "shoulds" have been deployed in both cases, I think there are important differences in how those "shoulds" correspond to a complex reality.

To outline what I mean, let me construct a couple of simplifications to facilitate discussion. I would say that there are two broad kinds of "shoulding" that have gone on with respect to these two tragedies, which we can superficially (but not without a basis) label "left" and "liberal" variants. The "left shoulding" often includes much or all of the "liberal shoulding," but generally the converse is not true. Another way to look at it is to differentiate between "shoulds" that focus on large-scale issues and root causes (with a particular emphasis on power) versus more immediate issues (which often have to do with competence, efficiency, a simple notion of "fairness," and basic foresight).

In terms of the "left shoulding," both disasters point in roughly similar directions. The emphases are different, but the systems which can be shown to be responsible for the problems are the same: It comes back to what Paul Street has summarized as "empire and inequality" in the title of one of his books. The only big difference I can see between them is that Katrina is more obviously linked to environmental destruction, but a lot of the things that created the broadly-experienced rage that nurtured the tiny grouplet of nutters that blew up the twin towers have to do with oil, which in turn has everything to do with the imperative to maintain access to the means to continue fuelling global warming, so they are related. Anyway, the root causes of both are very related, and they tend to be underplayed by those oppositional or pseudo-oppositional commentators who have the most access to mainstream media space.

But just because their most visible articulators tend to miss out on the systemic stuff doesn't automatically mean that the more immediate stuff is irrelevant. In the case of Katrina it is things like the complete absence of a disaster plan in New Orleans (which the mainstream media persists in claiming was actually a fatal deviation from plans, despite the refutation provided by their own facts) and the lack of adequate maintenance of the levees despite plentiful warning that this was a big, big problem. Folks from diverse oppositional spaces are going to push these facts hard, as they should, and some may even link them to more systemic issues like racism and capitalism, though many will not. In this case, even though the version of these "shoulds" that will probably become most visible will leave out what I consider to be pretty important stuff -- they will erase context and complexity to a certain extent -- they will still have some political purchase because the erasure and simplification is not so much that meaning and credibility are lost. Obeying those simple "shoulds" could very clearly have saved many lives.

This is in contrast to the way in which immediate "shoulding" has been deployed with respect to 9/11. In that case, the story goes, the president had been warned that terrorism was a danger, he deployed resources in ways that disregarded the danger, he kept reading My Pet Goat when he should've been doing something presidential, and 9/11 happened. In a way, it is much the same argument as with Katrina. But in the case of 9/11, I find the liberal "shoulding" to be much less powerful because it simplifies too much. Certainly there is evidence that Bush & Co. were not terribly interested in the issue of terrorism before 9/11. It is plausible that, if they had taken it seriously, they would have done a few things differently. But the problem with those who harp on about the August 6 National Intelleigence Estimate and the warnings of Richard Clarke and all of that is that they presume that administrative measures will actually be effective in preventing terrorism, which is not only silly but is also a presumption that much of Bush's political credibility since 9/11 has depended on as well. Such measures might reduce the likelihood of one specific attack, certainly, but it is a crucial and (by those who make this kind of argument) excluded point that terrorism is really pretty easy to commit, and it will keep happening unless you remove the underlying conditions no matter what administrative steps you take to try and prevent it.

This may be a very long way of making a fairly simple point. I can understand why it is important for some commentators to harp on immediate "shoulds" and give rather less attention to systemic "shoulds." I don't agree and I don't plan on doing the same, and I may criticize specific instances, but in the service of the informal left/liberal united front against the current incarnation of radical right extremism, I can see why others might. But it is when the simplification in this "shoulding" occurs to the extent of taking advantage of and reproducing serious misunderstandings in how the world actually works that it becomes a real problem. I can't totally predict how the broad spectrum of folk from the moderate conservatives in charge of the Democratic Leadership Council within the Democratic Party on out to the sectarian Marxist left, anarchist rabble rousers, and so on will end up translating the current tragedy into words and arguments once the initial furor has died down, but I would exhort those who are less inclined towards systemic analysis to be very careful in their "shoulding" so that it, in its inevitable simplification, does not dishonour the victims by losing political and analytical efficacy for the sake of palatability. For example, as important lack of disaster plans and inadequate funding for levee maintenance and enhancement are, if Democrats who are almost as laden with oil money as Republicans dwell on that rather than facing up to the environmental elephant in the room, they will win short-term political points, but the number of lives likely to be lost to environmental/social calamity over the next century will continue to rise. We can't escape the ideological and institutional pressures to employ "shoulds" that flatten out reality, but we can resist them.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Chuck D on Katrina

Chuck D, legendary emcee for Public Enemy, is the first to put into song some of the anguish and rage of the twin atrocities of Hurricane Katrina and the state's abandonment of working-class African Americans. Here are the lyrics:

“Hell No We Ain’t Alright”

New Orleans in the morning, afternoon, and night

Hell No We Ain’t Alright

Now all these press conferences breaking news alerts

This just in while your government looks for a war to win

Flames from the blame game, names? Where do I begin?

Walls closing in get some help to my kin

Who cares?While the rest of the Bushnation stares

As the drama unfolds as we the people under the stairs

50% of this Son of a Bush nation

Is like hatin’ on Haiti

And setting up assassinations

Ask Pat Robertson- quiz him.... smells like terrorism.

Racism in the news/ still one-sided news

Saying whites find food/

prey for the national guard ready to shoot

‘Cause them blacks loot

New Orleans in the morning, afternoon, and night

Hell No We Ain’t Alright

Fires, earthquakes, tsunamis

I don’t mean to scare/ Wasn’t this written somewhere?

Disgraces all I see is black faces moved out to all these places

Emergency state, corpses, alligators and snakes

Big difference between this haze and them diamonds on the VMA’s

We better look/ what’s really important

Under this sun especially if you over 21

This ain’t no TV show/ this ain’t no video

This is really real/ beyond them same ole “keep it real”

Quotes from them TV stars drivin’ big rim cars

'Streets be floodin,’ B/ no matter where you at, no gas

Driving is a luxury


State of emergency

Shows somebody’s government

Is far from reality....

New Orleans in the morning, afternoon, and night

Hell No We Ain’t Alright

I see here we be the new faces of refugees

Who ain’t even overseas but here on our knees

Forget the plasma TV-ain’t no electricity

New worlds upside down-and out of order

Shelter? Food? Wasssup, wheres the water?

No answers from disaster/ them masses hurtin’

So who the f**k we call?--Halliburton?

Son of a Bush, how you gonna trust that cat?

To fix s**t when help is stuck in Iraq?

Making war plans takin’ more stands

In Afghanistan 2000 soldiers dyin’ in the sand

But that’s over there, right?

Now what's over here is a noise so loud

That some can’t hear but on TV I can see

Bunches of people lookin’ just like me…

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Katrina Rant

The destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, aided and abetted by bipartisan environmental destruction, global warming, foolish human planning/political economic decisions (2), privatization of essential services (2), and funding cuts in the service of upward redistribution of wealth and expansion of empire, should make our souls cry out in empathy for the suffering and the dead, our pocketbooks (given the criminal incompetence (2, 3) of the richest state in the world, which should be taking care of it all) open in the spirit of mutual aid, and our lives be recommitted to radical social change.

A post at Lenin's Tomb says it well:

Where do you even start?

The lack of planning for/giving two shits about the poor? The wittering on about 'looting', ie the clear, unambiguous prioritising of property over human life? The none-more-post-horse-escape stable-door bolting in terms of 'disaster funds'? The wide-eyed ingenu act from Bush? 'I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees!.' Oh really, Mr President? So there were no extended warnings written months back, exactly describing what would happen? No concerns about lack of funding? The US Army Corps of Engineers didn't beg for more flood defence money for the last three years, and have a fraction of it granted? You-all didn't cite Iraq as the reason for that? You utter fuck.

Reporters are groping for metaphors - Jonathan Rugman (wmv file) offers 'apocalyptic venice' - and while that kind of aestheticisation normally sticks in the craw, I find myself forgiving it somewhat: it seems a sincere attempt to express a genuinely unprecedented spectacle.

Not only the utter fucking ineptitude, but the race-and-class-inflected nature of this catastrophe is so utterly, nakedly, blatantly obvious, that they're very hard to write out, no matter how the gears of the ideology-machine spin. Most of the interviewed refugees make it clear: 'Bush doesn't care.' 'He's playing golf.' 'That's where our tax money went.' And even the lamest media is saying the same thing: this is a third-world crisis in the richest country in the world; this is appallingly managed; it's the poor who are suffering. And you keep hearing the 'I' word - Iraq.

There's something surreal about the whole thing. Admittedly, I think some of me reacting that way is indicative of having been sucked into First World arrogance: Natural disasters happen Elsewhere and to Others, almost by definition. They are one of the few reasons "exotic" place names fall from the lips of our televised news reciting drones, other than the U.S. invading somewhere. In the dominant discourse in North America, disasters reinforce Their backwardness, Their "unfortunate" status, Our benevolence in providing woefully inadequate aid while we pat ourselves on the back (and support a political economy that deprives Them of adequate resources to begin with). As much as both the actual impact and the mainstream news coverage of Katrina are targeting North America's domestic Others and further Otherizing the victims, that can't erase the strangeness of such a disaster happening here.

It is also because Katrina is a sign of a new era, a herald of death and destruction yet to come. In a way, it is the twin of 9/11. After World War II, when they wisely decided to stop slaughtering each other's civilians, the rich countries (or at least the owners, the middle-class, and even much of the white working-class within the rich countries) enjoyed a sense of near immunity from the devastation capitalism wreaks upon the world. But 9/11 showed that there are those who are willing to respond to the violent reactionary fundamentalism of markets and empire with a violent reactionary fundamentalism of their own. And Katrina shows that Mother Nature can punch through the fingers-in-ears, "Nah, nah, can't hear you!" of the Bush administration and the barely better liberal pandering of Europe and Canada, which deny how close to serious, irreversible, long-term environmental devastation we have driven the Earth. Of course, as with everything else, the worst suffering falls on those already most heavily oppressed: Free market disaster preparedness means the rich and the white flee in their SUVs while the poor and the mostly-Black have no choice but to wait around to die.

But perhaps the most surreal element is one that is, in material terms, less important: I just can't believe how little effort the Bush administration feels it needs to put into even pretending to care about suffering and death among working-class people of colour. I mean, is your right-wing white electoral base so overtly racist that even pretending to care will cost you support? Or is it a recognition of political vulnerability because of National Guard units unable to respond to domestic disaster because they are busy creating disaster overseas, levee reconstruction money cut to fund Homeland Security and empire, or disaster preparedness planning funding cut for same? Or is it because the only people of colour that can be found to blame the magnitude of this disaster on are those who are suffering from it? (Which will be accepted by a segment of white America, but I hope, hope, hope not the majority.)


I'm not sure what more I have to say. Spewing moral/political vitriol may be therapeutic, but it seems particularly inadequate in this instance. It seems to me the most appropriate response to this disaster is to do, not to say. This disaster intersects in some way with nearly every major struggle that occupies progressive movements in North America. After the first priority of providing necessary direct aid is accomplished, it should spur us on to heightened commitment to create transformative social change in all of those areas.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Canadian Secret Trial Detainees On Hunger Strike

Two men held in Toronto in solitary confinement, without charge, based on secret evidence, are into days 71 and 57 of hunger strikes, respectively, to demand minimally decent treatment at the hands of the Canadian state.

Here is an update received today from the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada:

HUNGER STRIKE UPDATE -- September 1, 2005

Secret trial Detainee Hassan Almrei is now on day 71 of his hunger-strike. After almost four years in solitary confinement without charge, held on secret evidence, all Almrei is currently asking for is the same conditions as federal prisoners: one hour outside his cell per day; the right to wear normal clothes instead of an orange jumpsuit; radio and tv. Things that would make it slightly easier for him as he awaits the conclusion of lengthy legal processes which will determine the legality of indefinite detention, deportation to torture, and denial of bail. Hassan is in constant pain. He cannot lie down because his ribs are so sore. He does not have the strength to stand or walk. He is afraid to sleep now for fear he will not wake up. His body, like his life, is rapidly running out of options. He is heartened by the outpouring of support from Canadians across this country.

Secret trial detainee Mohammad Mahjoub is on day 57 of a hunger strike, also demanding minimally decent conditions of detention, including contact visits with his two young children, as he awaits numerous court decisions similar to Hassan's. He is weak and has lost a great deal of weight, but wants Canadians to know how much he appreciates their support.

Both men are held under the secret trial security certificate at Metro West Detention Centre in Toronto.

Although hundreds of calls have been made, hundreds of letters and faxes written, demonstrations have taken place in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and in Toronto (scheduled for 4 pm Saturday at Metro West), nothing has been done by the authorities who could so easily make the decision to provide the prisoners with their simple and fully justified demands.

Before the long weekend gets underway, please CALL AND WRITE to the appropriate ministers, and demand that they takes steps toward the kind of solution that will enable these men to end their hunger strikes. Each claims that the other is responsible, so best to contact BOTH.

In Ontario, it is Monte Kwinter, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services 18th floor, 25 Grosvenor Street Toronto, ON, M7A 1Y6 Phone: (416) 325-0408 Fax: (416) 325-6067

In Ottawa, Anne McLellan, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency
Preparedness Sir Wilfred Laurier Blvd. 13th Floor 340 Laurier Ave. Ottawa, ON K1A 0P8 Phone: (613) 992-4524 Fax: (613) 943-0044 or


Please cc: The Campaign to Stop Secret Trials, PO Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0, (416) 651-5800,

Please take a few minutes to contact the ministers responsible and voice your support Almrei and Mahjoub. For more information on the issue of secret trials, please see the Campaign's web site.