Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Raise The Rates Action

Here is an OCAP report of a cool action that took place a few days ago in Toronto as part of their campaign to raise social assistance rates and get the special dietary supplement provision of the welfare rules reinstated:

On Tuesday Nov 29th, an OCAP delegation of women including those about to be cut off the Special Diet and a representative of Healthcare Providers Against Poverty confronted the Minister of Community and Family Services, Sandra Pupatello, who is responsible for slashing the special diet supplement, over the inadequacy of welfare and ODSP rates.

The women arrived at the Hotel Marriott as Pupatello was speaking to a conference on the issue of domestic violence. It was ironic that just as the Minister was speaking on the topic of violence towards women several large and burly security guards forcibly, and using excessive violence, prevented the delegation from addressing the Minister. A half hour struggle ensured as security attempted to literally push the delegation back up the stairs and we stood our ground. Our delegation caused a major ruckus, speaking to media, chanting throughout and disrupting Pupatello's speech continuously

Once informed of the reasons for wanting to meet with Pupatello, conference participants were incredibly supportive and attempted to negotiate to have the Minister meet with the delegation. More and more conference delegates left Pupatello's speech in protest and came to support us, distributing OCAP leaflets and bringing us a seemingly never-ending supply of snacks. Several delegates negotiated with Pupatello demanding that she meet with us. In true politician fashion, the Minister refused to meet. Claiming security concerns, Pupatello instead hustled out of the conference like a dog with her tail between her legs. Her feel-good B.S. speech about the Liberals' great work on women's issues didn't quite leave the desired impression that day as women from the conference floor held up "Raise The Rates" signs and intervened.

Conference delegates negotiated to have OCAP address the entire conference of about 1000 delegates from across the province and explain to them the implications of policies made by Sandra Pupatello and the Liberal government. This resulted in a peculiar situation as OCAP and the Raise The Rates fight took center stage at a conference sponsored by 3 police associations and filled with a combination of extremely supportive women from Rape Crises Centers and uncharacteristically silent cop delegates.

Women spoke about how, for the first time, they were able to feed their children fresh food, buy them the things the needed and deserved, and, most importantly were able to relax a little bit about having enough money to last the whole month. Getting the special diet money had relieved some of the stress and anxiety associated with not being able to afford enough food that had been present in their lives for far too long. The conference was reminded that many women don't leave situations of domestic violence precisely because they fear being placed in a position of extreme poverty, which they would inevitably face on welfare.

At the end of OCAP's address, amidst a standing ovation, a challenge was issued to agency workers and supporters of marginalized and oppressed people to address, verbally and in writing, through rallies and public speaking engagements, the inadequacies of social assistance programs in Ontario and to demand that the government immediately raise welfare and ODSP rates by the 40% that has been lost since the Harris government slashed rates in 1995. Participants were encouraged to attend the Raise the Rates Town Hall Meeting being held Dec 15th at St Michael's Hospital Auditorium at 7pm.

OCAP's call for an escort out of the building was enthusiastically answered by a crowd of hundreds of spirited and encouraging people who recognized the urgency and legitimacy of this demand and the need to fight for an increase in welfare and ODSP rates, leaving the conference and lining the hotel corridor cheering the delegation as it left.

Later in the day, delegates collected $700 from the conference floor and donated it to the Raise The Rates campaign. They also issued a press release in support of the demands and secured a promise from Ontario Women's Directorate representatives that Pupatello would be calling the
OCAP office today. We don't think we will be waiting by the phone. We'll be organizing our next hit against the Liberals instead.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Gramsci, Sesame Street, and Thomas

Today Z-Net published this interesting article by Paul Street, called "Antonio Gramsci on Sesame Street."

Street begins by observing that

The hegemonic ideology of the ruling class, Antonio Gramsci once observed, becomes all too much like the "air we breathe." It comes to define the "common sense"of ordinary daily consciouness and experience, with tragic consequences all around.

He then cites an example of this that he stumbled across recently: a Sesame Street skit involving Cookie Monster dressed up as "Cookie Hood." We saw Sesame Street pretty regularly when we lived in LA, and I have, in fact, seen this skit, and had a similar gut reaction, though I never bothered to articulate it so thoroughly. The skit is about Cookie Hood noticing a disparity in the distribution of cookies -- some people have more than they need and others have none. He engages in some creative direct action to redistribute the cookie wealth, but by the end of the skit is caught by Sesame Street's adults and corrected to the proper notion that respecting private property is good, redistribution of wealth is bad, and asking why some people have too much while others have nothing is not an acceptable agenda. Read the article -- it's short -- to get a more complete picture of this one small example of how children's popular culture is a vehicle for hegemony.

That also got me thinking about another popular show around our place, Thomas The Tank Engine. L, who is 27 months old, loves it. I have a certain fondness for it as well. The books upon which it is based were written 60 years ago in England, but I first became aware of it when my youngest sister and brother were little and a version of the series narrated by Ringo Starr played on PBS. But as I have watched it (and watched it and watched it and watched it -- L can be a little obsessive sometimes, not completely unlike me and a number of the members of my family of origin) I have found my fondness for it rather more difficult to maintain for reasons beyond just excessive repetition.

In the Thomas universe, the central characters are trains on an imaginary British Isle named Sodor, and the take-home values that it teaches are passive acceptance of a highly stratified class society. The trains engage in activity that is very obviously working-class work. Their social structure, much like the British working-class historically, is highly stratified in a number of ways. One mechanism of stratification is based on the status of the work each engine does -- tender engines are above tank engines, and within the tender engines those who pull passanger trains are higher status than those who are mixed use who are higher than those who pull exclusively goods trains. The top of the pyramid (of workers) is Gordon, who pulls the passenger express and who embodies the highest attributes of working-class masculinity like strength and pride.

There is also a division between steam engines and diesel engines which is disturbingly easy to map onto racial divisions within the working class. Both groups are shown as being capable of foolish and inappropriate behaviour towards the other, but steamies are clearly higher status and often come across as being innately "better."

Most of the engines are male. I suspect the few that are female are latter day additions not in the original books, though I don't know this for sure. Even with this tokenism, the stories reinforce the idea of "real" working-class work being a masculine domain. It is also interesting how those engines are feminized in the language that is used. For example, Mavis (a female diesel engine) is in one story described as having "flounced" away, a word never used in the context of any of the male engines and one for which it is hard to imagine any physical enactment when the supposedly flouncing entity is a train.

The ultimate authority figure in this world is Sir Topham Hatt, a railway bureaucrat given, so it seems, to micro-managing as he always seems to magically appear when some difficulty arises. He settles disputes and makes sure that the railway runs smoothly. His authority, like the divisions among the workers, is shown to be completely natural and benevolent, and it is never questioned. Workers make trouble for other workers, and the boss is the one who is best placed to sort it all out equitably.

The series emphasizes interpersonal harmony and the value of hard work in the status slot which you have been assigned. I know nothing about him, but the author was a Protestant minister of some sort in early 20th century England, so these values are hardly surprising. Of course the emphasis on harmony and hard work without any explicit acknowledgment of the highly obvious status differences among workers/engines and even more obvious one between workers and bosses serves to make the hierarchy seem completely natural. The highest compliment which Sir Topham Hatt can pay to an engine is to describe them as "a very useful engine" and an engine knows he is in trouble if he is accused of causing "confusion and delay."

It is interesting, too, that this hierarchy maps easily onto conditions of industrial work in capitalist states, in states with mixed economies, and in states with a hierarchical, centrally planned economy.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Review: Peace, Power, Righteousness

[Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto by Taiaiake Alfred. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.]

There is no better way to force yourself into facing the gaping void that is at the heart of whiteness than to read a book like this.

Taiaiake Alfred is the Director for the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria. He is also a member of the Kanien'kehaka (aka Mohawk) Nation, and was born and raised in the Kahnawake territory near Montreal. In this book, he outlines his vision for the next phase of the struggle by Aboriginal Nations in North America to throw off the colonial domination of settler states.

The heart of his vision is a call for renewed leadership in indigenous nations -- a new leadership cadre that is firmly grounded in ways of living and practices of governance based in traditional ways, but that is fully conversant in the skills of the modern world.

Without further explanation, this approach probably sets off some alarm bells in non-Aboriginal leftist heads. It sounds a lot like the liberal call to change society by changing the hearts of our leaders, while ignoring systemic change. And it also might seem to echo the calls for a return to strict adherence to tradition found among certain sectors of many of the world's major religions -- Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, probably others -- which are often imprecisely summarized by the Christian-derived catch-all label "fundamentalism." But it is emphatically neither of these things.

The traditionalism that Alfred seeks (and lives) is worlds away from the calls to stricter adherence to earthly hierarchy and word-for-word obedience to a particular, unchanging text. Rather, it is a traditionalism that looks not to strict interpretation of texts but to a true embrace of the values behind them, in a way that is flexible in response to changing times and needs but which does not forget its origins. In particular, one of the central values that he identifies as being present in almost every indigenous tradition in the Americas is an understanding of governance that is based on autonomy, consensus, balance, harmony, and respect. He doesn't make the comparison directly in this book, but it sounds like it is closer to some versions of anarchist thought than to any other European approach to structuring society.

Similarly, this manifesto is really nothing like the liberal creed that we really just need leaders who have better values to help us solve problems. That is because the embrace of values advocated by Western liberals is a privatized, individualized thing, but the embrace of values being advocated by Alfred is a call to a very material embeddedness in everyday practices in indigenous communities that function collectively in traditional ways. It is a call to be part of different collective structures, and to live in ways that come from those different structures. In this way, it is not just one individual's privatized conscience that is to supposedly withstand the forces that our political economy brings to bear on those who try to oppose it, not a single individual making highly constrained choices in a context that is beyond any individual's control. Rather, it is the collective unit of the revitalized indgenous nation which will provide a place of support, accountability, and grounding for leaders to make choices based on traditional values.

Of course, this book is really a document that is part of a process of Aboriginal peoples talking to each other. The author encourages non-Aboriginal readers to pick up the book and learn from it, but it is not we to whom it is addressed. So I have no basis to offer a tactical critique of his vision's suitability for advancing the struggle of Aboriginal liberation in the Americas. Even if I were presumptuous enough to attempt it, I have no knowledge base from which to start.

But the book did make me think about how its wisdom might apply to the broader society, and in so doing I could not help but come face-to-face with whiteness. Whiteness is a social construct whose organizing principle is and has always been that of domination. Eight centuries ago, nobody identified as "white." Rather, they identified as being English or French, and probably as being Christian (and, later, Protestant or Catholic). It was only as the historical processes of colonialism unfolded that being "white" took on any meaning at all. Those processes were, essentially, a collective term for the ways in which non-European peoples were deprived of their land, resources, labour, and lives by Europeans. To be "white" meant not to be subjected to those particular oppressions and exploitations, whatever other nastiness a hierarchical society might throw your way. Thus from the very beginning, being "white" has functionally translated not as sharing some common culture, not as sharing a common religion, not as sharing a common language, but simply as being qualified to escape from and, in ways small or large, benefit from certain practices of domination.

The emphasis on invoking culture as a strategy of resistance among some Aboriginal peoples is one I have not easily understood, because for a white, 21st century North American, culture tends to be instinctively understood as being about consuming certain things (food, media products, etc.) and about superficial memory and perhaps celebrations of past or present national identifications. Our basic ways of being in the everyday do not tend to be seen as culture, but rather are treated as being invisible. But for activists like Alfred, culture has power because it is about the coherence and vibrancy of collectives that function in their everyday in ways outside the homogenizing vortex of the liberal-democratic state and the creeping alienation of the market economy; yet it is precisely those two thing which have had the largest influence in shaping the everyday practices of white North America. In other words, "culture" in this sense is an important way of invoking the idea of actual material practices encompassing entire nations and their constituent individuals which follow different imperatives than those which the mainstream assumes to be natural and inevitable. "White North American culture," if such a beast can be said to exist at all, and the everyday practices that result from it are defined by their inseparability from oppressive structures like the capitalist/liberal-democratic state and economy.

When trying to apply this understanding of culture as a means of resistance to my own experiences as someone who seeks radical social change, it is obviously very difficult to come up with anything other than nothing. Once upon a time, my ancestors had such practices, but they have been lost for so long that I have no claim on any culture outside what capitalism has created that could be used as a basis for such a strategy of resistance. As I said, whiteness at its heart is empty.

It is a historically interesting question to find out when exactly that disruption of quasi-indigenous cultural practices (i.e. based in values simliar to those defined by Alfred for indigenous nations in North America) happened for Western Europeans. Certainly capitalism has played a huge role in eradicating the non-market relations that existed before it came into existence. Marx's phrase "all that is solid melts into air" is a poetic way of describing the power of market forces to colonize and disrupt almost every other way in which people might connect to each other and structure their existence except the market. That force privatized the commons back at the beginning of capitalism in England, it is resulting in the privatization of our very genes themselves today, and it is what makes it so difficult and, to most North Americans, strange to even think about ways of living that are not copmletely dominated by the capitalist marketplace. But my sense is that in pre-capitalist Europe, though there probably were elements of practices and ways of being with some analogy to the indigenous practices and values that Alfred talks about, the long history of institutions of hierarchy and domination like the Church means that such practices and values were deformed and struggling to survive long before capitalism came into play.

In a way, it is this very characteristic of capitalism -- "all that is solid melts into air" -- that leaves me with my biggest question about Alfred's thesis. This book is directed towards Aboriginal people strategizing for themselves and it does not address the question of what the broader society might have to do to meet the demands for complete decolonization that are at the centre of Alfred's vision. In a way, I think this is probably a deliberate act of political responsibility, because one of the principles of governance found in most indigenous nations is a respect for autonomy. I get the sense that the author's position is, "This is what we need to have to consider ourselves free. We don't really care about the details of what you Canadians need to do amongst yourselves in order for you to stop making us unfree. Rather, it is your responsibility to figure that stuff out and then to make sure it happens."

At the same time, there are hints that he believes it might be possible to achieve his goals still within the context of the larger society maintaining a liberal-democratic state and capitalist economy. I suppose in theory that might be true, but I have serious doubts. I think the kind of challenge to the political economy that is embodied in Alfred's vision is sufficient that it cannot be realized unless the political economy is more broadly transformed. Which, of course, is part of our challenge as non-Aboriginal peoples, purely from the point of view of our own liberation and not just in solidarity with North America's first peoples.

In any case, this is a must-read for radicals in North America. Alfred has a newer book as well, which I intend to read very soon.

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Okay, Rabble, What's The Deal?

I generally like Rabble -- they publish interesting, progressive, Canadian content, and link to interesting international stuff.

But what in the world are they doing promoting this and this, both pieces of soft-nationalist tripe that Canadian liberals and progressives do not need to be submerging themselves in. We do not need our alt/indy media to be reinforcing Canadian liberal "we are not American" smugness, or gloating about how many comedians who are successful in the U.S. came from Canada, or how exquisitely balanced our budget is. We need to be brutally honest about the absolute complicity of the Canadian state and broader political economy in oppressions both at home and abroad.

Here are a couple of older posts (1, 2) that try and puncture specific aspects of the politically dangerous smugness that tends to come with liberal and left nationalism in the Canadian context.


Martin, Malcolm, and Me

We all come from somewhere. We learn first to see what is immediately around us, and often only that portion of our surroundings that directly affect us. Acting in the world with any semblance of political responsibility and directed radicalness requires a slow groping to consciousness of what lies beyond that -- what is right in front of our eyes that we have been socialized into not seeing, and what is completely beyond our experience. This process of becoming never ends.

For some reason, recently I have been thinking about the way that one of the important environments that has shaped me has distorted my vision of two men who existed in environments radically different from my own. I first came to a politicized consciousness of the world in a particular corner of the white-dominated left in southern Ontario. The two men in question are Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I won't try to characterize the landscape of the left in southern Ontario in any kind of detail. In fact, I'm not sure I could do a passible job of it even if I made the effort. But a few characteristics are relevant to the discussion at hand.

The first is the obvious but never sufficiently repeated point that the oppressive realities that structure society as a whole also frequently structure progressive and radical spaces: male radicals who take up too much space in meetings or abuse their female partners, straight progressives who unconsciously dominate space by refusing to develop comfort with queer expressions of self, white activism grounded in white privilege. The last is particularly relevant to this post. Even in Toronto, but especially in other Ontario cities, the various structures of resistance that white people tend to be a part of are largely disconnected from and often completely unaware of the existence of structures of self-defence and resistance in racialized communities. This is both partially caused by and serves to reinforce political consciousness among white activists that is "white normative" and that does not progress as fast or as far as it might down that particular path of trying to glimpse and internalize (to the limited extent that it is possible) what lies beyond.

Other important landforms in the geography of the white left are fault lines corresponding roughly to perceived "radicalness" and to orientation towards tactics. I think both of these are actually much more complicated than many of those who would identify as being on either side of the lines might be willing to admit without some prodding. For example, it is too easy to conflate real, functional, to-the-root radicalness with an intellectual affinity for aggressive posturing and slogans that has little in the way of underlying substance. As well, the most rigid partisans of the polarized, often puritanical, extremes of the debate between active nonviolence and the "by any means necessary" position (which can itself vary from ambivalence towards certain kinds of violence to its active embrace) often seem to me to be missing important stuff.

Enter Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. In mainstream discourse, both are removed from their proper roles as potentially radical teachers from the past, Malcolm by demonization and Martin by selective historical purging that turns his legacy into a kind of white-supremacy-friendly puppy dog with little more substance than the last three minutes of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

The white left in Ontario (as I experienced it) allowed these prophets of African American liberation somewhat more substance and humanity than mainstream discourse, but still fundamentally refused to break with using them (racialized Others) for our benefit. In my experience, the active nonviolence side encouraged a full recovery of the complex humanity and grounded radical views of Dr. King, while not doing much to disturb the mainstream demonization of Malcolm X. The ambivalence-to-violence side occasionally valourized Malcolm (though still somewhat shallowly, it seems to me) and often seemed content to dismiss Martin as the weak liberal that mainstream discourse paints him to be. Each side could then mobilize a patron saint from what is a very important (materially and rhetorically) resistance movement in twentieth century North America. Obviously, the operative variable here is the utility of the past (Black) hero to current (white) ideological needs, not a truly nuanced understanding of the historical role, humanity, strengths, weaknesses, and wisdom of both of them -- i.e. it was mostly not about accepting their importance and deciding to learn from them in the context of their own communities and strugges simply because millions of oppressed people also learned from them.

Now, I know that is a simplification. I would bet there are people, including people I am very fond of and have utmost respect for, who would be quite indignant at that characterization. But it is very easy for an individual mind and heart to relate to these figures in deeper ways than I have outlined even while participating in a collective political micro-culture in which this depth never takes hold.

Now, I still come from where I come from, and my journey to remove the scales from my eyes is just as much in progress as anyone else's. I still have a considerably better understanding of Martin's contribution and life than Malcolm's, for example. However, I am thankful for hearing a radio discussion on KPFK while living in Los Angeles, between Jerry Quickly and (I believe) Erin Aubrey Kaplan, that first made me realize the limited perspective of these men I'd inherited from the white left of southern Ontario -- in particular, the complete absence of understanding of their impact on Black consciousness. And more recently it was this article by long-time African American civil rights lawyer J.L. Chestnut that started me thinking about it again and gave me a more developed framework with which to talk about it. But I still have a lot of learning to do. In fact, the larger lesson for me is a reminder that those of us with privilege seem to need over and over again, about listening -- why it matters, who we listen to, and how we listen, as well as the importance of understanding but trying not to be totally constrained by our own privilege, presumptions, and traumas while we do it.

Monday, November 21, 2005

365 Ways to End Violence Against Women

A feminist organiation in Calgary is collecting suggestions about how to end violence against women -- they are looking to collect at least 365. Please give your suggestion and take a look at what others have suggested.

The call for ideas reads:

To mark the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women (November 25), part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, the Violence Information & Education Centre and Community & Neighbourhood Services - East Area (City of Calgary) are co-sponsoring My 365 Ways to End Violence Against Women.

November 25 was declared International Day Against Violence Against Women at the first Feminist Encuentro for Latin America and the Caribbean in July 1981. The date was chosen to commemorate the violent assasination of the Mirabal sisters (Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa) on November 25, 1960, by the dictatorship of Tafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. The date was officially recognized as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women by the United Nations in 1999.

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence includes the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25), World AIDS Day (December 1), the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women (December 6) and Internatonal Human Rights Day (December 10).

We are compiling 365 ways that all of us, together, can use to end violence against women.

We invite you to share your ideas below.

(Via an email on the PAR-L list.)


Contention is the opposite end of the reaction spectrum from cooptation. It is a non-cooperative, non-participatory position vis-a-vis the state, its actors, and its policies. In terms of action, it calls for disagreement with the kind of marginally progressive half-way measures put forward by the state to appease the less committed among us. Instead, it demands accountability for the underlying power relationship and the state's domination of our existence.

-- Taiaiake Alfred

Friday, November 18, 2005

Constituency Offices and the State

In the last month or so I have been involved in several political actions focused on the constituency offices of Members of Parliament or Members of Provincial Parliament and I have therefore been thinking about their role in the overall structure of the state. It's nothing very novel, I suppose, but I've been thinking about the ways in which they are set up not to respond to the needs of constituents but to frustrate them -- some kinds of needs, anyway. They are a mechanism of dealing with the kinds of urgent anger that oppression inevitably creates sooner or later by taking advantage of a disjuncture between two groups' knowledge/experience of the world, those who work in the office and those who are being harmed in some way by the state. Neither group is very powerful or important, but the former obviously has more power than the latter. This can lead to constituents going away further alienated, and therefore less of a danger to the state, or it can result in a small, local conflict that can be managed by the police while the broader machinery of the state goes chugging merrily and uncaringly along. Or, perhaps, it can be used as one approach in a broader movement.

The first reality is that of those who work in constituency offices. Whatever they believe personally, the structure of their work is presmised on the liberal-democratic mythology of the state (though I'd imagine, like most middle-class Canadians, most such workers actually semi-believe some version of it, albeit with a heavy dose of the cynicism that tends to come with seeing it from the inside). Under this mythology, politics is supposedly as a largely rational exercise -- debate is encouraged, even vigorous debate; free speech within the bounds of civility is cherished; an exchange of views, proposal and counter proposal, with the most convincing going forward is the basic mechanism.

One's relationship to a political question is treated as having a view or an opinion. This view can and should be shared, which is seen as the highest form of political participation other than voting. Constituency office workers function, at least partly, as receptors for this kind of sharing, this kind of political participation. They feed this information into the machinery of the state through the Member for whom they work, and (so runs the mythology) the magic of democracy turns that into an outcome that may not be ideal but which is the best possible outcome for all. If the MP/MPP is not doing this translation effectively, supposedly they will not be elected next time. As well, when the inevitable minor hiccoughs arise in the functioning of the state bureaucracy, constituency office workers can help smooth things out.

The reality of consitutency office workers is largely confined to the "opinion intake" stage of this process. Because of this limited role, it is fairly easy for people in that position to maintain denial about the fact that, as this input is passed up -- and it often really is, I'd imagine, because of the value to political parties of having accurate knowledge of what the politically interested portion of the electorate is saying -- it becomes merely one factor among many, and in fact on many issues is far from the most important factor. These other factors include political donations, the privileged access to major political figures by elites, the commonalities of worldview and subject position among political elites and those higher in the pyramids of privilege/oppression in general, the power to shape public opinion held by a highly concentrated media structured around private tyrannies (i.e. corporations), the structure of the state itself and its organic connections to the economy, pressure from more powerful states, and the ultimate power of capital to punish any government that strays too far out of line by simply not investing in the jurisdiction in question. But because each of those inputs into the process is not directly visible to the everyday experience of the constituency office workers, it is possible for them to functionally deny their existence or treat their existence as yet another "opinion" out there in the liberal pluralist smorgasboard of options.

As long as liberal-democratic mythology remains unpierced in the minds or at least the practices of the general public and of the constituency office workers, then certain consequences and expectations follow. It follows that since difference of opinion is the central difference and rational debate is the only acceptable approach to dealing with differences of opinion, basic rules of bourgeouis civility must therefore apply -- be polite, speak or write in moderate tones, don't use strong language, and understand that your opinion is one among many and that the magic of the liberal-democratic state will sort out which to respond to. It follows that once opinions have been shared by constituents, they are expected to shut up and go away, and perhaps write another letter next year and/or vote in another several.

The contrasting experience varies, but tends to have certain characteristics. In these situations, rather than being the abstract and undifferentiated citizen of liberal-democratic mythology, citizens are flesh-and-blood whole people who have very real and very urgent claims against the state. Say your husband is scheduled to be deported to a country in which he is likely to be tortured or even killed, without even due process leading to some sort of criminal conviction preceding the deportation from Canada. Say you are forced to depend on the state to have money to feed your children but the state refuses to provide you with enough money to do so, and is in the process of making it harder to do so. These are the two issues around which my recent actions at MP/MPP offices have revolved. To people in these situations, the state is doing things that very directly and obviously hurt them. It isn't just some abstract debate about policy: It's a matter of life and death, of enhanced wellbeing or of greater suffering. Not only that, but it usually quite obvious to those being harmed directly by the state in this way whose interests are being served by this harm. Obviously people in this position are going to be angry, perhaps even in despair.

Constituency offices can often handle minor hassles experienced by constituents with the civil service bureaucracy. Constituency offices can smoothly deal with opinion and positions delivered in ways consistent with myths of liberal pluralism.

But when you have the realities of people being directly and urgently harmed by the state, and political action based in that standpoint, and you juxtapose it with the reality of constituency office workers, things don't mix well. It is awful for the constituents, who rightfully experience the expectations for civility and patience as outrageous. It is probably not all that pleasant for the constituency office workers either -- at most, they might actually be challenged to think about what their boss and the institution that employs all of them (the state) is actually doing, and at the very least they have to deal with some unpleasantness and disruption in their routine.

The thing is, constituents really only have two choices in this kind of situation: You can behave as if you accept the liberal-democratic mythology which governs the functioning of the constituency office, and return unsatisfied to your own hunger or pending loss of loved one, or you can refuse to accept it. If you choose the latter, the constituency office workers can then call the police, and the armed agents of the state can then enforce standards of behaviour that are premised on liberal-democratic mythology. And the state is happy because the conflict that inevitably comes from a stratified society has been limited to a fairly peripheral piece of its apparatus, and the core functionings have continued.

Not that actions which focus on the constituency office are a bad idea -- it can prove a valuable site for powerfully symbolic political drama, and it can interfere in the functioning of that piece of the state in a minor but still practical way. The actions I have attended have been useful parts of larger campaigns, and I've been glad to have been a part of them.

The thing is, we need to use these as object lessons to publicize not only the specific issues but to illustrate the wrong-headedness of the basic liberal-democratic assumptions which govern the functioning and rhetorical place of the constituency office. Constituency offices, despite being our local political interface with the state, are set up in such a way as to make it impossible for those within them to respond in any useful way to very real and very urgent human suffering. It's not about bad people working there, it's about a state that tolerates and even depends on human suffering, and is very reluctant to incorporate into its core functioning mechanisms to actually prevent it in the two examples cited and in many others.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

More Rally Coverage

This time from The Sudbury Star. Not a bad article, all in all.

This sentence bugs me: "Anti-poverty activists have been using the allowance to supplement welfare recipients’ incomes, which they say don’t provide enough money to buy nutritious food for themselves and their families" (emphasis added). Try including the numbers for average rent plus nutritious food basket (both government numbers) and compare them to social assistance Mos Def says in his track about Hurricane Katrina, "No opinion, man, it's mathematical fact."

It still presents the use that the Ontario Common Front has been making of the dietary supplement as being taking advantage of a loophole, which it patently is not, rather than telling people about the existence of a perfectly legitimate tool to feed their families and having the health impacts of not accessing it verified by liscenced medical professionals.

I think it is also striking that not a single person on assistance was quoted in this article, despite the fact that two or three spoke at the initial rally and quite a number more were in attendance.

Still, like I said, not a bad article for the dominant media.

Rally Coverage

Here is some brief dominant media coverage of yesterday's action. I believe if you look carefully at the picture that is published with it, taken right at the beginning of the march portion of the event, you can see one wheel of a stroller on the left-hand side -- that's us, I think.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Anti-Poverty Action

As I reported last week, the Liberal government in Ontario recently gutted a provision of the social assistance regulations which was being used by activists to actually try and get people enough and good enough food to be healthy. Today in Sudbury the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee, part of the Ontario Common Front, held a protest to object to these changes in the strongest possible terms.

L and I attended part of it. There was a rally in front of the provincial government building in the downtown, then a march to the office of Rick Bartolucci, the local MPP and a member of cabinet. The details are described in the action report below. I would add that, despite a rather tepid response from them in the lead-up to the action, plenty of representatives of the dominant media were present at the initial rally. Unfortunately, L indicated his desire to do something more fun, less cold, and less loud about mid-way through the march, so I can't provide an eye-witness account of the rally at the end of the march and the very targeted, very political arrest that was made.

Small but powerful anti-poverty action in Sudbury leads to one police arrest of an activist for "swearing."

More than 40 people attended an anti-poverty rally in Sudbury today. The action was held to protest the slashing of the special dietary supplement by the Provincial government and to call for raising social assistance rates. The rally at the Provincial Building heard from a number of speakers on social assistance as well as Sam Kuhn from the Tenant Action Group (TAG) in Belleville, a member of the Guelph Union of Tenants and Supporters (GUTS), Sandy Bass president of the Sudbury and District Labour Council, Rick Grylls of Mine Mill/CAW Local 598, city councillor Claude Berthiaume, Brenda LeFrancois of the Social Work department at Laurentian University, Luke Norton of the Students General Association (SGA) at Laurentian University, and others. We then took to the streets chanting "We won't be quiet until we get our special diet!" There were many honks of support as we moved through some of the main streets of Sudbury leafleting people as we went.

When we arrived at Liberal MPP and Cabinet Minister Rick Bartolucci's office his office manager was waiting outside the door with at least four police officers inside to prevent people from having any access to the office. We soon had a wall of cops keeping us out of his office. We continued to hold a loud and noisy rally outside his office. We also pointed out that Bartolucci would prefer to use the police to keep anti-poverty activists out rather than talk to and learn from people on social assistance. Bartolucci in the media claimed that people who needed it would still be able to get the special dietary supplement. He lied!

As our rally continued with no business as usual going on in his office more police started to arrive. Three police officers moved alongside the crowd and did a very targeted arrest of one anti-poverty and student activist. They grabbed XXXX YYYYY, a student senator for the Students General Association (SGA) at Laurentian University, and told him he was being arrested for "causing a public disturbance by swearing." The Sudbury police have a history of using this charge against young protestors. We briefly tried to demand that the police release XXXX but then a number of us were also threatened with arrest.

Following the arrest and the threats by police of other arrests and their pushing and shoving of a number of protestors we moved across the street to the Market. There we decided to collectively go to the police station to demand that XXXX be released. We did and while about 25 of us waited outside a delegation of students from Laurentian went in to ask that XXXX be released. About 15 minutes later Luke Norton, president of the SGA, came back and told us that the Staff-Sergeant told him that if we dispersed from the front of the police station that XXXX would be released. We decided to comply and many of us left and some of us went to wait for XXXX's release in a nearby park. When Luke went back a little over 30 minutes later he was now told that the new Staff-Sergeant (there had been a shift change) had decided that XXXX was not going to be released but was going to be hold overnight and would have a bail hearing on Tuesday morning at 9:30am at the court house.

The Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee is asking everyone who can to turn up to support XXXX at 9:30am at the Court House and ask which courtroom XXXX will be appearing in.

Gross, gross, gross -- a perfect example of so-called neutral laws being implemented in targeted ways in order to have a blatantly political impact. It's not my place to share details, but he was targeted because he is militant and because, right now, he is vulnerable.

What deserves arrest? Taking food out of the mouths of hungry people? No, of course not. How about swearing? Oh, good idea, arrest him! Of course if they were to enforce that more broadly -- well, this is not to suggest that all working-class men swear, but if the police did some heavy duty undercover surveillance at the mines that form the basis of Sudbury's economy, I bet they'd be arresting enough people to shut 'em all down. But of course it is only swearing while doing something political that counts as "causing a disturbance."

[Action report by GK.]

More Memory!

The computer that I use every day is, if I am remembering correctly, about four and a half years old. I don't push the envelope in terms of its capacities in most respects, or at least I haven't since sound editing ceased to be a major part of my activities, but given the way in which the memory requirements of software tends to balloon with time even my fairly pedestrian-but-multitasking usage has put some strain on the rather meagre memory resources that came installed in my machine. I'm planning on getting a new computer some time in the next twelve months so normally I would hesitate to put money into the old one, but I broke down and bought a new memory card which has tripled my machine's capacity.

I am definitely noticing a difference. This is very exciting.

Yes. I am, indeed, a geek.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Review: Autobiography of a Blue-eyed Devil

[Inga Muscio. Autobiography of a Blue-eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2005.]

I think I'm in love with Inga Muscio.

Well, okay, maybe that's putting it a bit strongly. After all, I've never met her, she mostly isn't too into bioboys, and I've only read one of her books. But that one book really, really rocks. Call it an early-stage literary and political crush, if you'd like.

People of colour and Aboriginal people have been talking about getting screwed over by systems of power that target them and benefit white folks for, oh, five-hundred years or so. Since they fought their way to still-more-limited-than-white access to the resources to publish, they have written plenty about it as well. Writing by white folks that really tries to speak about racial oppression honestly and in a way that is integral to its analysis is a rather more recent development, however.

For any oppression, the alpha and omega for privileged people educating ourselves has to be material that comes from them what get it worst. True to the realities of privilege and oppression, sometimes white folks get rewarded for saying/writing things about racism that people of colour get punished for, and it can be just another way for white folks to benefit from the oppression of racialized people. But you can't really say much about the world that is truthful and useful and revolutionary without talking about racial oppression, and as long as the self-educating person of privilege constructs their pantheon of political wisdom in a way that does not allow white ally voices to in any way subordinate the voices of racialized people themselves, then including ally wisdom can be a real benefit. The journey to understanding and ultimately trying to undermine our own privilege can be scary, and it helps to have guidance from others on the same journey.

I've read articles and books that fall into that category, and I've learned lots from them. Words in such books have challenged me, inspired me, taught me, reminded me, helped me.

But there is something about Muscio's book that stands out. It isn't necessarily that her politics are in some sense "better," though they are certainly no-holds-barred radical. Rather, it's something about the writing. It is quirky and passionate. It is playful and deliberately tweaks convention. It coins new phrases, and curses copiously when cursing seems called for. It is built from bite-sized chunks of text, engaging and easily digestible when exhausted after a hard day at work or between changing a diaper and cleaning up spilled orange juice. You feel a person in those pages. You are pushed poetically, and however fleetingly, into the kind of imaginative empathy that insticntive avoidance of pain, and the narcotic of the mass media and our own privilege, innoculates us against. You feel anger and despair -- the anger and despair that we should all feel if we are human, but so often we don't. And you feel pushed to find hope and joy, too, and to act.

I think, at heart, I'm drawn to and maybe even kind of jealous of the writer's ability to put her self out there on display, without apology and without shame. That, and her organic experience and expression of anger. The book isn't necessarily flawlessly crafted in the sense that a reviewer might deploy such a phrase to describe snobby high-art writing. It is better, though: It is alive.

Okay. Enough gushing. I have a couple of things that I would tweak in terms of analysis, were it me -- like maybe I'd include a bit more to acknowledge the inevitable limitations of anti-racist ally consciousness among white people while systems of white supremacy remain intact, and maybe shift some stuff in terms of talking about the relationship between white supremacy and capitalism. And I'm sure there are other things to debate and critique, too, as there always is with this kind of stuff. To a certain extent, though, too much focus on trees and not enough on forest seems counter to the spirit of the book.

Despite its length it is an easy read. I think that even though it doesn't shy away from scary political words like "white supremacy" and "imperialism," its approach and its passion will allow it to engage readers with these ideas who might be turned off by works that are more restrained in their rhetoric but that fail to get past the "blah, blah, blah, politics, nothing to do with my life" barrier which so often stands between people and upsetting (i.e. unconscious privilege disturbing) ideas.

Thanks Inga!

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


"Never will I take for granted how gratifying it is to be published and to have people read and respond to my work."

-- Esther Newton

Friday, November 11, 2005

Another Poverty Tidbit

Some depressing statistics on transfer of wealth from poor to rich in Ontario, taken from an email sent around by an organizer with OCAP:

In 1995, just as the 21.6% cut to welfare was about to happen, OCAP organized a march from the poor neighbourhood of Regent Park up to LG, Hal Jackman's home in the ultra rich area of Rosedale. Research done by a Cit Councillor's office at the time revealed that, if you took the tax cut to the rich and the reduction in welfare payments as they applied to those two place, $1 million a month was being taken from Regent Park and given to Rosedale. In ten years, $120 million has changed hands between two Toronto communities. An Ontario wide figure would boggle the mind.

When we did the feast for the Homeless in Yorkville just before the Liberals took office, research by the CAW showed that the tax break a $1 million a year CEO would get in Ontario was the same as the cut in income that 17 single parent families on welfare had experienced.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Support Argentinian Workers

Support the workers occupying and running the Bauen Hotel in Argentina. They are under assault. Their efforts are singularly important. Please check out the petition and consider signing.

Here is the English text of the petition:

The struggle of Argentinian workers to recover factories and companies abandoned by their owners has become an inspiring model worldwide, and an important symbol that another world is possible. The Bauen Hotel is a concrete example. Its future and significance were recently recognized by the government of Venezuela, with an agreement signed with the Ministry of Tourism and the National Ministry of Popular Economy to work together in the development of a cooperative tourism venture. At the Bauen Hotel there are 120 men and women who every day demonstrate how to build self-managed alternatives that create jobs, dignity and justice where neoliberalism has resulted in devastating failure.

Following a fraudulent bankruptcy and after exhausting all legal paths for a year and a half, they decided to take their futures into their own hands and they built what we can see today: a fully functioning hotel with a restaurant, bookstore and cultural galleries, along with spaces that they lend to social organizations for meetings, conferences and assemblies. If you want to demonstrate your pride in a symbol of the movement right in the centre of Buenos Aires, all you have to do is let the Bauen Hotel continue to operate the way its workers, with efficiency and solidarity, have planned it.

But if you want to attack everything that this movement of recovered factories and companies represents, Hotel Bauen is a target.

Over the last few months, Hotel Bauen has been through various attempts to close it down. Now, some legislators in the city of Buenos Aires want to introduce a regulation that will destroy what the workers’ cooperative has achieved. We, the undersigned, call on the Argentinian government and its legislators to act immediately to carry out the following measures:

1. Withdraw all threats of eviction or closure from the Bauen Hotel both now and in the future.

2. Pass a law of definitive expropriation in favour of the Workplace Cooperative B.A.U.E.N. (Buenos Aires a National Company, from the Spanish initials).

Social movements around the world are watching the struggle of the Bauen Hotel workers with great interest and passionate support. This highly successful alternative should not be destroyed or threatened: it should be celebrated, supported, and shared with others!

(Via Z-Net email update.)

Poverty Tidbit

According to a media release by the Sudbury & District Health Unit, 60% of the workers in the Sudbury area earn $10 per hour or less.

In other words, 60% of the jobs in this city allow you to bring home less than $21,000 per year before taxes, assuming that the jobs are full time.

Many jobs that people depend on to feed themselves and their families, of course, are not full time.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Remembering Racism, Seeing It Now

Remembering atrocities of the past is never wrong, and for that reason I was glad to see this article on the cover of today's Sudbury Star. It is a detailed account of a survivor of the Holocaust who spoke at a local senior public school here in Sudbury.

And yet.

Why was there no mention in the article of the fact that, though the persecution of Jews under the Nazis was visible for years before the war started, the Canadian government refused to take Jewish refugees when it might actually have saved lives from the gas chambers? Why was there no mention of the anti-Semitism found posthumously in the diaries of our Prime Minister of that era, William Lyon Mackenzie King? Why not a word about the role that North American capitalists, including the grandfather of the current President of the United States, played in the revival and prosperity of the Nazi-aligned German industrial machine of that era?

Why, when our city is playing host to people whose latest encounter with a white colonial settler state means that they had to be evacuated from Kashechewan, their home, because of bad drinking water, is Canada shown only in the role of a country that defeated and took in some victims of racist persecution, and not as an institution that is based on racist persecution -- of Aboriginal peoples whose land we took, of African peoples whose labour and lives we stole, of colonized peoples of colour around the world whose wealth still flows in our general direction thanks to a rigged global economic system?

Why, when I walked through the city's downtown mall today on the way to an anti-poverty meeting, did I pass a temporary sales stall that included among its wares two full-size Confederate flags, easily recognized symbols that celebrate blatant white supremacy in the Americas and the African holocaust of the Middle Passage? Why, when I raised this issue amongst my fellow activists at the meeting, all white, did many not think it was really that big an issue?

And this Star article ended with a sop to the season of Remebrance Day:

“We are wearing poppies,” he said, pointing to one on his lapel, “because we have to remember the price that was paid to put down this terrible ideology of hatred.

“They fought so we could be free. We must continue to fight to make sure that racism, hatred and xenophobia never rear their ugly head in that way, ever again.”

Yeah, so "we" could be free, but so that Aboriginal peoples could continue to experience soul-destroying colonization and poverty, and (at that time) African Nova Scotians could continue to experience legal segregation, just to pick two examples.

And this whole article, in its focus on what has become a rather exotic racism of the past with no mention of the present, makes it that much easier for white privilege to blind us to racism's current forms. As Grace-Edward Galabuzi wrote in a 2001 report on the racialization of poverty in Canada:

The place of racialised groups in Canadian society faces greater peril from the everyday discounting of the human capital and value of racialised group members in the workplace, in public institutions, in the social service sector, in civil society organizations, in the arts, in the media, and in government than it does from cross-burning, swastika-wielding Heritage Front members, whose form of aggressive racism Canadian society has already marginalized.

[[Edited 05/11/09 -- Removed an aside from the middle of the post.]]

Monday, November 07, 2005

McGuinty Promotes Malnutrition

Dalton McGuinty and the Ontario Liberals have decided that in Ontario, the government doesn't care if poor people's health is being destroyed by inadequate and insufficient food, even if a medical professional certifies that a social assistance recipient needs more and better food to be healthy. Provincial bureaucrats now get to decide in advance which kinds of medical needs deserve to be met, and which kinds of medical needs -- which empty bellies -- get the big ol' middle finger from Uncle Dalton. In the process, he and his Tories-in-disguise will be literally taking the food out of the mouths of thousands of families.

The following was released by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty earlier today:

We have just gotten word that the special diet program has been slashed -- effective immediately -- for everyone in the Province on Ontario. On Friday the Provincial Government quietly changed the law for everyone on welfare and ontario disability who is trying to get the special diet. The new policy they have come out with means that they now have a specific list of medical conditions that are worth different dollar amounts (e.g. cancer, diabetes etc..)

If you do not have any of the listed conditions you will not be able to get the special diet money. And if you do have one of the listed conditions you will ONLY be able to get the amount of money the province has legislated for you for special diets.

Anyone who is already getting the special diet will have their applications "reviewed" at some point, and will be cut off. It's unclear what will happen to people whose practitioners have said that they required certain special diets permanently.

Please come out and join this fight! About 10 000 peoples' lives have been dramatically improved because they've been able to get the special diet money ($250 more per person/month). This change will be utterly devastating for people who have finally had some hope of surviving because of this campaign. We can not allow this policy to change. We can not give in. Tell everyone you know.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Republicans Fix Elections Yet Again

Grrrrrr. Apparently, former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown has been unceremoniously bounced from her standing as Green Party candidate for mayor of Brunswick, Georgia, a city that has a majority of African American residents but has never had a Black mayor. I (poorly and ignorantly) reviewed Brown's autobiography in one of my earliest pieces of published writing. Reading it sure as shootin' challenged me to take early steps in the long, painful process of starting to get my head around issues of racism, and I have definitely found the very real prospect of her in charge of a city in the U.S. to be very exciting. The good ol' boy Republican election fixin' machine (I seem to remember Public Enemy having a rather more direct name for it) feels otherwise, I guess, though Brown is still taking action in the courts and the streets to overturn the decision.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

StarWatch: Kash Kids Back To School

This article from the Sudbury Star talks about how the local Catholic School Board has agreed to reopen a closed school to allow the young people who were part of the evaculation to Sudbury from Kashechewan First Nation to return to school. This evacuation occurred because chronic settler state underfunding for basic infrastructure in Aboriginal communities across the country combined with other factors to get white politicians to recognize the water contamination crisis in this single Cree community near James Bay while largely continuing to ignore it in the other 100 or so reserves with similar problems.

Some of the colonial content of the article is interesting. For example, parents voted to send their kids to this specially reopened school rather than integrate them into the regular school system. In speculating about the reason for this decision, they cited not any of the parents themselves but rather a woman who had taught at an elementary school in Kashechewan and who came as part of the evacuation. Her racial background was not specified, so she may or may not be Aboriginal, and her history (duration, nature, relationship) with this community is not specified beyond mentioning her employment in it as a teacher; this obviously has relevance to her suitability to speak to the motivations of the parents from the community.

The article paraphrases her:

She speculated that parents were reluctant to have their children placed in regular classrooms here because they require extra attention from teachers.

Kashechewan students may also be lagging behind a grade or two, so there were concerns Grade 10 students, for example, might have had to be bumped back to Grade 8 in Sudbury.

The situation is presented in a careful, passive voice, and no reason is provided for why these things might be the case. I can see lots of white folks taking this, consciously or not, as reinforcement of racist preconceptions about Aboriginal peoples. It would not have cost the reporter anything to ask the necessary questions and then include a sentence or two of context that explains some of the reasons rather than giving the impression that that these kids are just slow or something. I don't know for sure, but the whole situation is one big clue: These folks are in Sudbury because of state negligence in providing basic infrastructure that white communities take for granted, so just maybe the educational infrastructure in Kashechewan has been systemically underresourced just like the drinking water infrastructure.

The most ridiculous ommission, however, is a very obvious potential reason for the parents choosing to use this reopened school rather than integrate their kids into the mainstream school system: Maybe they want to protect their kids, as best they can, from facing any more racism than they absolutely have to. The mainstream school system can be a pretty harsh place for Aboriginal kids and kids of colour, white Canadian delusions of multicultural harmony notwithstanding. Again I can't be sure, but I'd imagine the schools these evacuated youth come from are either completely Aboriginal or at least mostly Aboriginal, and the stress of being forced from their homes would only be compounded by having to negotiate on a daily basis new-to-them white-dominated spaces. In addition, a separate school may provide some scope for content less tainted by white supremacy than the mainstream curriculum -- Aboriginal peoples in urban centres across the country have at times, with varying degrees of success, fought for resources for their own schools for these very reasons -- but it is not clear how much space there might be for this in this case, given settler state insistence on regulation of educational content.

[By the way, a word on the title...I've decided I need to be more regular in paying attention to our local print media as a form of self-education and local political engagement...I'm not sure I'll actually stick with it, given my limited time resources, but I may end up commenting more regularly on things I read in the Sudbury Star.]

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Accurate History and the Rising Right

This article is about a liberal feminist organization primarily concerned with getting pro-choice, Democratic women elected in the United States. Both the article and the organization it profiles -- EMILY's List -- are typical of AlterNet, in that they are very much centred in the liberal tradition, but they are generally positive (if not particualrly radical) and have interesting attributes that folks across the left and liberal spectrum can learn from.

However, I don't raise it because of a desire to comment on the main focus of the article. Rather, I got to thinking because of a single sentence that was putting the aspirations of many present-day U.S. liberals into some kind of historical context by comparing them to the rise of the right in that country: "After Barry Goldwater's crushing defeat in 1964, the hard right began a long march to power, taking over local school boards and Republican Party machinery, grooming candidates for higher office, building networks, coordinating strategy."

Barry Goldwater was a very conservative Republican candidate for president running in a time when the version of liberalism that came to power under Franklin Roosevelt was running high. He got creamed. The ideological ancestors of the current nutjobs in Washington started acting local and thinking global. I forget the details, but I remember that at some point, while in Los Angeles, I heard a show on KPFK which outlined the actual historical continuity through the right-wing movements from that point to the present. In other words, it is not just a symbolic relationship: mailing lists of supporters from the Goldwater campaign built the organizations that built the organizations that built the movements that run the country today (or something like that).

Now, I'm pretty sure that once or twice on this blog I have used a similar reference point to ground some more general statements about the rise of the right-wing political and social movements in the United States. But it occurs to me that using this as a beginning point leaves out some pretty important information for anyone wishing to create progressive social change in the United States. In particular, I think, it is liberals who need to pay attention.

My thinking is this: In the 1930s, whatever Franklin Roosevelt was able to accomplish in the way of progressive reforms was only because of the rising power of the labour movement (primarily in the form of industrial unions, rather than the older craft unions) and the political left (at that time dominated by the Communist Party U.S.A.). The first victory of the right in their rise to power was not electing proto-fascist Joe Schmoe to the Poughkipsie school board the month after Goldwater crashed and burned (or whatever); it was using the post-World War II anti-Communist hysteria, in conjunction with mistakes made by the CPUSA during the war, to destroy both the party and any unafiliated progressives that they could smear with the same charges. The anti-left witch-hunts in the '50s split the liberal-left united front that had swung to power in the '30s and created a situation in which the elite liberals turned on their former allies with vicious abandon. Their first victory, in other words, was to destroy the organized left. There are ways that this success by Joseph McCarthy (and his allies in both right-wing and liberal circles) still reverberates today.

I would argue, therefore, that anyone looking to draw lessons from the rise of the right in the U.S. that might be translated into defeating them in the future needs not only to pay attention to their long-term vision, their bottom-up approach, and their at times aggressive and critical relationship to the Republican Party. You also need to look a bit farther back and see that liberal progress will not happen without a vibrant and independent left -- and I mean the term "left" in the way the rest of the world uses it, not as a synonym for "liberal" the way it is often used in the United States. Of course today that doesn't mean the CPUSA or some direct successor; rather, it means militant and effective social movements that are independent of and significantly to the left of the Democratic Party. Liberals need to get over the lingering cold war fears (not to mention their own privilege) and, with no strings attached, put nontrivial resources at the disposal of activists who experience various oppressions and have a radical analysis and years of experience. You may not know any, but I absolutely guarantee you they are out there, slogging away in struggles that usually get ignored. Without them calling some shots, you are going to continue to get beaten up by the neocons no matter how funny Al Franken and Jon Stewart might be.

Queer Resources

Here's a neat index, prepared by somebody at University of Calgary, that links to a large number of academic documents in full text that deal with various queer issues, from history to suicide to family and much more.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Joe Volpe and Deportation to Torture

Here's a report on an action of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada that I attended while in southern Ontario last week:

About 35 people showed up to mark United Nations Day outside the Toronto office of Immigration Minister Joe Volpe October 24. It was Mr. Volpe's delegate who determined in September that one of the Secret Trial Five, Mahmoud Jaballah, should be sent to torture or murder in Egypt.

While politicians in Ottawa made hypocritical statements about Canada, the UN, world order, etc., members of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada wanted to remind the public that Canada is acting in defiance of a UN call for Canada to end the practice of deportation to torture.

Currently, the Canadian government is attempting to deport five Arab Muslim men to torture or death based on secret evidence neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to see. They represent the tip of a much larger iceberg, as over 10,000 people are annually sent through the deportation mill to an uncertain fate (this at a time when Canada says it wants more immigrants!).

But Mr. Volpe, who for two years has evaded protesters, delegations, and family members most affected by these draconian policies, continues to make himself scarce. After a small group that included Mona Elfouli, whose husband is secret trial detainee Mohammad Mahjoub, managed to gain entrance to the lobby of the Volpe office, they were told by office staff that Mr. Volpe flat out refused to meet with them or even set a date for such a meeting.

The group waited inside a tiny vestibule for half an hour, as harried office staff, alarmed that members of the community would be seeking some accountability from the government, made frantic calls to Ottawa to find out what they should do. In the end, a young man came out to inform us, through the newly installed thick glass barrier that separates the lobby from the rest of the office (making it resemble a prison meeting room instead of the constituency office that is supposed to be a symbol of the democratic process), that Mr. Volpe is not responsible for deportation decisions, and that we should contact Anne McLellan, reigning czar of the Canadian Border Services Agency.

While we acknowledged that Ms. McLellan is indeed the individual at the head of the Canadian agency that is responsible for physically rendering human beings up for torture, it is in fact Mr. Volpe's department that makes the decision on whether or not someone meets the eligibility criteria to be deported to torture.

Elfouli was disappointed. She was told directly that no one would even set up a meeting with her and her children. When she tried to stand quietly in the main office (the door to the new barracks is not yet complete), she was physically pushed away by an office staffer. She left a very large note which asked Volpe how he can sleep at night, how he can refuse to answer her directly about what he plans for her husband and the other secret trial detainees.

While the Raging Grannies sang to passersby and three very large banners were prominently displayed along Lawrence Ave. West, a constituent of Mr. Volpe's asked what was going on. When informed of the situation, he sneered at the office, and made an unprintable comment about how little Volpe does for anyone.

(Action report by MB.)