Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Review: Colour-Coded

[Constance Backhouse. Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950. Toronto: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History and University of Toronto Press, 1999.]

A commonsense understanding of history is that it is what happened. Certainly you can find post-structuralist critique that argues that history as commonly understood is impossible and inevitably oppressive. You can also find more materialist analyses that point out that even if what happened is possible to reconstruct in partial ways and at least potentially liberatory, most of what we get served up as history from conventional sources is oppressive anyway because it is shot through with lies and written from the standpoints of oppressors. What I've seen less often is the much less lofty point that even if a historian is trying to take the latter critiques into account, understanding "what" in a way that does not try to at least implicitly include a sense of "how" leads to history that may affirm resistance and boost morale but that is not otherwise terribly useful. Colour-Coded most definitely pays attention to "how" -- it is not just a dry litany of statutes and case law but uses six detailed case studies to get at some of both the surface "what" and the underlying "how" by which racialized relations of power were constituted legally and socially in early twentieth century Canada.

The chosen cases were as follows:
  • a reference by the federal government to the Supreme Court in 1939 to determine whether "Eskimos" were really "Indians", legally speaking, in order to settle a dispute with the Quebec government over whether Quebec should pay a share of the very minimal relief for "Eskimos" living in poverty in Quebec territory, with no participation by any actual "Eskimos" or representatives thereof in the proceedings;

  • the legal journey of Wanduta, an elder of the Dakota Nation, after being charged with violating Indian Act prohibitions against certain ceremonies by doing a Grass Dance at a fair in Rapid City, Manitoba, at the request of the fair's (white and also liable but never charged) organizers in 1903;

  • an attempt by a woman named Eliza Sero of the Tyndinega Territory of the Mohawk Nation to sue for damages a fisheries agent who seized her forty-foot seine fishing net in 1921, using sophisticated arguments for the continuing sovereignty of her nation, with important supportive intervention also provided by lawyers from Six Nations;

  • the challenge in 1924 by Yee Clun, a prominent business owner in the Chinese Canadian community in Regina, against a law prohibiting Asian men from hiring white women in their businesses -- a law whose passage in a number of provinces was vigorously supported by many supposedly progressive proponents of the social gospel and first wave feminists, and which was still on the books in some provinces until the late '60s;

  • the legal processes that resulted in 1930 after prominent Hamilton business owners, in their role as members of the Ku Klux Klan, travelled to Oakville and took a white woman from the home she was sharing with her racialized fiancee and returned her to her mother's house; and,

  • the aborted legal efforts of Viola Desmond, an African Nova Scotian woman, after a formally race-neutral provincial taxation statute was used to convict her of a quasi-criminal offence when she refused to abide by the racial segregation of a cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, in 1946.

The greatest strength of this book is its reconstruction of these events as things that actually happened to and because of the actions of people. Backhouse uses court records, media accounts, archival material, personal reminiscences where possible, and anything else she could get her hands on, to talk about not only laws and verdicts, but what people said and how they felt and what public assumptions and reactions were. The activation of processes in the legal system is used as an entry to show a larger picture of how racism was socially organized and produced in each instance. White supremacy is shown not as monolithic, ahistorical, abstract, and absolute, but actual, historical, enacted, ever-shifting, and contested.

(The exhaustive documentation in the book is also tremendously useful to me. Not only is there material about the specific cases, but also references to a tremendous amount of research and writing on racism in Canada and in general. In fact, the end notes, which contain detailed citations, are so vast that many are not printed in their complete form but contain pointers to a 500+ page Rich Text Format document linked from the book's page on the University of Toronto Press web site. I found a number of general background references that will be very useful to me, and about the existence of a particular archived interview that I absolutely must get a copy of.)

Through this approach of detailed exploration of events and issues surrounding specific cases, Backhouse is able to illustrate a number of very important points. For example, by tracing the shifts, explanations, arbitrariness, and illogic of racial definitions produced by a system that depends on certainty and clear boundaries, she very effectively demonstrates the socially constructed nature of "race". As she says, "The ficiton of 'race' is never so obvious as when one looks backwards in time" [274] (though she never loses sight of the fact that "'Race' is a mythical construct. 'Racism' is not" [7]).

I also learned plenty of details that probably should not have shocked me but somehow still managed to. It is something that you still see in casual form from people socialized into whiteness today, but it was still a lesson to see the absolute certainty with which white judges who heard arguments only from white lawyers and conflicting white "experts" made declarations about the appropriate classifications for racialized Others. Or to get a sense of how vanishingly few white sources, even those who emphatically opposed the Klan, had a problem with their objection to interracial relationships rather than just with their methods that disregarded the rule of law. Or the true depths of the viciousness with which some Indian Affairs officials opposed certain dances and ceremonies by indigenous people, with special vitriol reserved for those that involved extravagant gifting -- oh, the horror of non-capitalist transfer of goods! Or the fact that the Oak River settlement of the Dakota Nation was assigned a "farming instructor" not because they were doing badly at farming but because they were doing far better than the mere subsistence that was intended as their lot, and someone had to be around to enforce arbitrary and racist rules (like not being allowed to leave the reserve without permission) to prevent them from outdoing the local white farmers. Or the striking differences in state and public responses to the Klan versus those to the Communist Party in the same period. None of these things, or a thousand other details that were new to me or even those that were not completely new, should be surprising to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of this country, but I guess for those of us who do not live with the realities of targeting by white supremacy in northern North America in our everydays it is an ongoing process to internalize its magnitude. Which is another reason why Backhouse's detailed illustration of its everydayness is useful.

The book's contribution to deconstructing dominant delusions about Canada is also important. It shows that Canada has a long tradition of deep racism papered over by claims to racelessness, and this is not an approach that was invented by the generation that followed the official enactment of state-sponsored multiculturalism. The Indian Act and some immigration legislation aside, compared particularly to the United States, Canadian statutes have rarely used race as an explicit category. When slavery existed, its legal basis was never completely clarified, and segregation was officially permitted by statute in some situations and some places, but it was implemented in haphazard and arbitrary (but no less damaging) ways. And Backhouse shows how thoroughly race and racism were disappeared by legal processes, from the selection against preserving cases about racism in the publications of court proceedings and the periodic purging of court archives, to the ways in which race and racism went almost completely unmentioned in the legal processes around Viola Desmond's experience of segregation and the Klan's intervetnion in Oakville, to the Saskatchewan Legislature's removal of explictly racial categories from the "White Women's Labour Law" with sufficient surrounding direction to the municipalities that were to implement it via their business liscencing regimes that everyone still knew exactly what it was for and subsequent courts were prevented from intervening to prevent it.

I also appreciated the nuanced treatment of political responses and resistance to racism. For instance, not all Dakota were happy with Wanduta's refusal to stop challenging the Canadian settler state's implementation of cultural genocide, and not all of those were bought and paid-for tools of Indian Affairs either. Some African Nova Scotians were not happy with Viola Desmond challenging segregation in the way she did. There isn't much to be gained by dwelling excessively on such divisions -- and Backhouse does a good job of including but not obsessing -- but it is also important that their inevitable presence be openly discussed, if for no other reason than to challenge the common assumption among white people that oppressed peoples must exhibit complete unity before we should feel obliged to take any action to address the oppressive social relations from which we benefit. As well, I appreciated Backhouse's attention not only to the majority of white people that left their complicity in racism unquestioned but also to the minority that spoke up vigorously against it. This adds to the recovery of racialized voices of opposition in undermining the latter day assertion that "that's just how people thought then."

As Backhouse is at pains to point out, this work is not exhaustive. The case study approach is pedagogically powerful and I'm glad she chose it. I see similarities to the approach I'm taking in my own work, of starting from a local, concrete, specific story and using that as a point of entry into larger historical processes and narratives. Still, such an approach is inevitably incomplete. Personally, I think any approach is inevitably incomplete, so doing history in ways that openly admits this is a strength, but others might be less comfortable with it. In any case, scholars now and in the future still have much to unearth regarding the historical legal and social organization of the relations of racialization, white supremacy, colonialism, and racism in Canada. But I think Colour-Coded is an extremely valuable contribution.

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

Earthquake in Sudbury

Not strong enough to damage anything, as far as I know, but considering that we have freight trains thundering by our house all night long it is notable that last night's earthquake woke both my partner and I up. I initially thought it was a train, until my partner pointed out that trains, particularly those travelling fast enough to shake the house that much, don't tend to pass by in complete silence.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Quote: Normative Masculinity

In an important sense there is only one unblushing male in [North] America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports. Every [North] American male tends to look out upon the world from this perspective... Any man who fails to qualify in any one of these ways is likely to view himself -- during moments at least -- as unworthy, incomplete, inferior.

-- Erving Goffman

I'd quibble a bit with some of the phrasing, and I think it is important not to erase the fact that different deviations from this normative ideal do not have equivalent impacts on consciousness and are not socially punished in equivalent ways, but it gets across the general idea...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Review: Lawyers & Vampires

[W. Wesley Pue and David Sugarman, editors. Lawyers & Vampires: Cultural Histories of Legal Professions. Oxford and Portland, Oregon: Hart Publishers, 2003.]

I fear that this book is a good example of inefficiencies in my work process. Really there were only two essays in this book that are directly relevant to my work, and perhaps only two or three others that I was really interested in, so I probably should have found it in a library, read only those two (or five), and been on my way. But I bought it -- books are one of my few consumerist weaknesses -- and therefore felt obliged to read the whole thing (at least in part so I could write a review).

The book is a collection of essays looking at histories of lawyers and other legal professionals in a manner that is ostensibly cultural and comparative, though I think the latter is a bit of a stretch since it is comparative only in the sense of having essays about different countries in the same volume rather than direct comparison within most of the essays. To a certain extent it is successful, though, because the biggest benefit to me of reading the entire volume was getting a more concrete sense than I have previously had of the ways in which the social organization of the law and those people who bring it to life tend to be highly specific to different states. The book only considers states in or derived from cultures that are European, Christian, and capitalist, yet the differences are significant.

I have to admit that, even though it took me longer than it should have to read, I read parts of this book more shallowly than usual. Essays on the impacts on lawyers of Finnish state formation or an investigation of the fees of 19th century French avocats have their place, I'm sure, but do not particularly excite me.

On the other hand, there were essays that are not directly relevant to my work but that I did quite enjoy. Perhaps the most significant of these was the first essay in the book, which examined the collective life, culture, and rituals of legal professions in England between 1500 and 1830. It was fascinating to hear about how, for example, English barristers were formally collectively organized around four inns -- the Inns of Court -- in London where they all stayed while court was in session. Originally just places that happened to be nearby, by the period of this study they had evolved into sites of education, apprenticeship, discipline, ritual, and considerable tradition, and were essentially closed guilds. As well, it is interesting to read history that is from Europe but that is sufficiently pre-capitalist that pomp and rituals are taken extremely seriously by the participants. As was the insight into how, as the modern state developed, it gradually usurped the independent, self-organized (although not at all internally democratic) authority of the Inns of Court through patronage and skillful manipulation.

I also had a passing interest in the essay about the trade union of junior French judges with radical syndicalist politics that was at its peak between 1968 and 1978, and in the one that gave a detailed reading of Bram Stoker's Dracula as a legal novel. I would have gotten more out of the latter had I ever actually read the novel myself, but even so I quite enjoyed it.

The two essays of most use to me were, not surprisingly, the two essays on the history of lawyering in Canada. Both provided me with leads to other sources that will be useful, and I think I managed to get a quote or two that I will use in contextualizing the chapter that I hope to start writing at some point in December.

The first of the two examined what it termed the "cultural chasm" between the legal profession and Mennonites in Western Canada in the first four decades of the 20th century. It gave a brief history of Mennonites in that part of the country, who at that time were still very much ethnically distinct communities. Then it talked about the culture surrounding lawyers at that time -- it was explicitly British and explicitly committed to facilitating the expansion of the particular vision of liberal capitalist individualism that was tightly linked to "Britishness" in the Canadian imagination at the time, and to dissolving more collective ways of being found among indigenous peoples and some non-Anglo immigrant groups. The final essay looks more at the deliberate cultivation of a particular vision of professionalism among Canadian lawyers, again especially those in Western Canada in the early 20th century, and makes a strong case for the ways in which deliberate choices were made by senior members of the profession (and the state) which not only furthered colonial and assimilationist goals but were also quite openly chosen to suppress radical political ferment.

So, yes, I am glad I read this book. Only I really do know that I have to be more careful and make more efficient use of my time as I make decisions about what to read and how to go about my research. The Inns of Court and Dracula are fascinating, but I have my own book to finish. (Thank goodness the writing side of things has been going well this week!)

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Protesting Canadian Contributions to War

I suspect that if I still lived in southern Ontario, I would have been at this...

BURLINGTON, ONTARIO, NOVEMBER 20, 2006 -- The power of persistent nonviolence disarmed what promised to be a heavy-handed police response today during a peaceful protest at the Wescam subsidiary of Canada's #1 war manufacturer, L-3 Communications. Today's protest brought out almost 60 people from London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, Belleville, Burlington, Durham, Oakville, and Toronto. By day's end, 11 individuals seeking a dialogue with company executives on transforming their business to
civilian-only production were arrested for trespassing, and are to appear in court December 19.

Located in Burlington, Ontario, Wescam makes targetting equipment for some of the world's deadliest weapons systems, most notably the Predator, the unmanned aerial vehicle that shoots "fire and forget" Hellfire missiles into schools, weddings, markets, and other civilian areas in Iraq and Afghanistan, causing ceaseless bloodshed and misery. According to many on-the-ground reports, three weeks ago a Hellfire shot from a Predator drone resulted in the murder of some 80 schoolkids under the age of 15 in a Pakistani school. Wescam also produces "border control" technology that decreases the likelihood that refugees will safely find asylum.

The focus of a four-year campaign of nonviolent witness, education, and resistance, Wescam and its parent, L-3, represent a one-stop shopping centre for the many nefarious components of the "war on terror": ever deadlier weapons systems, the supply of private contractors to carry out brutal acts of inhumanity, the provision of "border control" technology that prevents refugees from finding asylum, and the outfitting of police forces with the tools of repression.

It appeared in the days leading up to the gathering that Wescam's goal was to shut down further resistance to their weapons production. Through Halton police, they informed Homes not Bombs members that the company was under orders from their New York offices not to speak with any of us. But one goal of nonviolent direct action is to organize acts of consciousness-raising and resistance to bring to the table an opponent who refuses to negotiate. Hence, our return to Wescam on this day, with the possibility of paying a heavier price than we have in the past.

As demonstrators attended a prep gathering at a local church prior to the demo this morning, a Halton police sergeant entered the building. He calmly told those gathered that he and his officers were merely independent parties who would not be taking sides - indeed, he promised to nail ANY party for infractions of the law. The sergeant went on to tell us that a blue line had been painted across the vast grassy expanse near the Wescam vehicular entrance, and that anyone crossing that line and refusing to leave would be faced with "serious criminal charges" and release conditions prohibiting participation in ANY protests. The sergeant also informed us that Wescam was considering launching a lawsuit against us to "recover" the costs of extra private security they felt was necessary to deal with three (count 'em, three) small demonstrations and a number of one-person vigils in the past year.

Noting the officer's statement about charging ANYONE who ran afoul of the law, Burlington's Gail Lorimer handed the sergeant a 15-page "citizen's inspection certificate" outlining some 22 separate legal violations committed by Wescam through it's war production and association with subsidiaries implicated in torture and murder of detainees. However, no arrests of Wescam executives were made today.

While the sergeant's message of threat and more threat was clearly intended to cast a pall over the gathering, we instead reiterated our purpose in going to Wescam, the context of war crimes and complicity in serious human rights abuses that frames our concerns around L-3 Communications, and the obligations that are placed upon us as global citizens by the Nuremberg Principles.

Our arrival at Wescam was met with the presence of much muscle: almost two dozen burly security guards dressed in black, standing on the grassy grounds and on the Wescam rooftop, surveillance cameras, and some 15 Halton officers and other security-related individuals.

But it was almost as if those folks, with all their promise of menacing physicality and criminal sanction, were not even there as we decamped at the foot of Wescam's property, placing in the ground the grave markers with the names of hundreds of people killed in Afghanistan and Iraq by the likes of Wescam technology. Songs were sung, and a team with huge papier mache "peace vaccine" syringes went up and down the grounds, offering inoculations against militarism, which is, after all, a preventable disease. Wescam executives may have thought the group were "mooning" them as many bent over to receive a healthy dose of the peace vaccine.

Before crossing the Wescam "blue line" (that line in the grass akin perhaps to George Bush, Sr.'s line in the sand?) the group heard from David Milne of Belleville, who had been to Iraq three times as part of his work with Christian Peacemaker Teams. David spoke eloquently about the violence he had seen, of being outside of Abu Ghraib prison trying to help detainees and their families, and of the sheer inhumanity of military violence. "I'm here as a witness to their suffering and I'm here to tell Canadians that we are contributing to the misery of other people through companies like this," he said. Like five others, he was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and a black hood, much like those who have been detained throughout the so-called war on terror. He carried a sign around his neck that read "Sami Abbas Al Rawi, Tortured by L-3 Titan." Mr. Al Rawi is one of the plaintiffs in a class action suit against L-3 subsidiary Titan, whose private contract interrogators are alleged to have committed acts of torture and summary execution in Baghdad.

For Milne, the journey he has made from Iraq to Wescam is a direct one that makes perfect sense: to stop the horrors halfway around the world, he, along with the others, must come and make witness where those horrors start.

As a group seeking dialogue with company executives prepared to head up the driveway and into the wall of police and private security, a number of individuals lined up at the sound system, and there began a two-hour reading out of names of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan -- civilians, soldiers, anyone killed in these wars. It was an emotionally-charged reading both for those who read out the names and ages of those killed, and for a number of security, who also appeared moved at the devastating numbers of names read out -- a mere fraction of those whose lives have been taken.

Unlike the protests at Wescam last May, during which dialogue-seekers were able to make the long journey to the front door of the corporation, we were stopped today close to the roadway and told we could not walk by. We had to leave the property or face criminal charges. Lorimer, perhaps the best known of the group to police and security for her persistent series of vigils at the company entrance, ignored the demand that she leave the property and continued weaving her way through the police lines, eventually to be stopped and hauled away to a police cruiser.

A number of individuals bobbed and weaved their way through the police and security, and were eventually nabbed and placed under arrest. One person, clutching the citizen's inspection certificate and holding up the name of a 5-year-old child killed in Iraq by aerial bombardment, was told he would be charged with assault for trying to walk around a police officer. Most were forced to sit in front of the line of police and refuse to move until they got a meeting with Wescam executives. One by one they were picked up, placed under arrest, and put in the back of police cars.

Throughout the two-hour protest, the atmosphere was calm, determined, sombre, yet hopeful. The police, security, and some Wescam employees on hand for the action were forced to see and hear the names and symbols of what Wescam war technology represents. Five minutes of those names and symbols is one thing; two hours is quite another, and our refusal in equal parts to neither give in to fear nor to allow ourselves to view the police and Wescam as an enemy seemed to change the atmosphere dramatically. The harsh language of heavy charges slowly gave way to smiles and an almost cordial atmosphere; by the time most were arrested, we weren't even frisked, just placed in patrol cars while we awaited our charges.

It felt like the power of transformative nonviolence in action as the day went on. The rigid roles that we are assigned and expected to play in society tended to melt away as we recognized our common humanity. And while there is no question that police were not independent, siding clearly with Wescam, we also recognized that some of them were not terribly comfortable with that role. Maybe they were thinking for the first time about what is getting built at this massive facility. Some of us noted with irony that the police computers in each car are made by L-3 Communications, putting the Halton police, as a client of the corporation, in a potentially awkward conflict of interest situation!

The police seemed unprepared for the determination of the group, and had many discussions about how to handle post-arrest logistics. They had failed to order a police wagon, and so were stuck: they could not take us to the station, for that would leave no Halton police "guarding" the area, so we had to sit for a good 30 minutes in the cramped back seats of cruisers that provide no room for one's legs. All during this time we too could hear the names being read out over the sound system, and numerous officers asked their detainees about the names: why they were being called out, who they were.

Police also seemed concerned about the media presence, as those in custody heard numerous queries from police radio dispatch about how many reporters were there.

One police officer turned on her radio and, in one of those magical moments of art meeting life, she punched up a country music station that was in the middle of a Dixie Chicks song. In Taking the Long Way, lead singer Natalie Maines sings, in relation to the uproar she and her fellow group members faced when criticizing George Bush and the war against Iraq, "Well I fought with a stranger and I met myself/ I opened my mouth and I heard myself/ It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself/ Guess I could have made it easier on myself/ But I/ I could never follow."

We discuss our involvement in the group Country Music Fans Against War -- which welcomed the Dixie Chicks during the Toronto Film Festival premiere of their new film Shut up and Sing -- as well as other country lyrics that speak to the very themes that brought us to Wescam on this day. We also recalled the price the Dixie Chicks paid for speaking up in terms of lost airplay and death threats.

But in the end, the price we paid for our resistance was a very small one. Only another hour in custody, this time in a police wagon which eventually did show up, and then release not to loneliness but to our friends and fellow resisters, still reading out those names. As we left, we waved to police and private security. To our delight, many of the private security were smiling, flashing peace signs back at us.

Meanwhile, the company eventually did break its silence, but only to issue an email statement to reporters: "We respect the rights of all individuals for legal, peaceful protest. The safety of our employees is our most important priority and we will take every necessary step to ensure their security and well-being."

While we share the company's concerns about safety and well-being (the numerous letters to them pledging our nonviolent intentions, and our subsequent peaceful actions, are certainly clear enough), we hope that L-3 and L-3 Wescam will also make a top priority the safety, security, and well-being of the human beings who are the targets of their deadly wares. One way to extend that concern beyond the scope of their employees to everyone else in the world is to enter into dialogue on transforming their war business to civilian-only work. And so the campaign continues.

Those arrested today were Gail Lorimer (Burlington), Mike Smith (Hamilton), Dan Hilton (London), Barney Barningham (Durham), Maggie Panter, Dave Marshall, Jean Leahy, Paul York, and Matthew Behrens (Toronto), Kirsten Romaine (Etobicoke), and David Milne (Belleville). Leahy was released without charges; the remainder of the group will be in court on December 19 to set a date for trial, expected sometime in early 2007.

Thanks to all who spent many hours travelling to the protest!

(report from Matthew Behrens of Homes not Bombs)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Donate In Solidarity With Oaxaca

To donate money to support the struggles currently raging in Oaxaca, particularly those in rural and indigenous communities rather than in the city of Oaxaca itself, click here. Here are a couple of paragraphs talking about the effort: and are collaborating on a Oaxaca solidarity fundraising strategy, which is based in contributing media resources and medical supplies to some of Oaxaca’s most remote indigenous farm-worker communities. The organizations we are directly contributing to are CODEP-APPO, COMPA, OIDHO and AMZ. The paramilitary violence highlighted by the recent assassination of NYC Indymedia journalist Brad Will, has been an all too prevalent reality for Oaxaca’s indigenous communities.

Most of the attention and aid going to Oaxaca today is concentrated in the state’s capital, as a result of recent clashes there. However, the history and future of paramilitary violence in Oaxaca is rooted in the natural resource extraction of its most remote communities. The strategic displacement of these communities, in order to gain access to their resources, and subsequently to their cheap labor, is the driving force behind paramilitary violence today. Communities who organize and resist this violence are met with brute police force.

(Found via this post at Women of Color Blog.)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Riel Day (Plus One)

One hundred twenty-one years ago yesterday -- sorry for missing it by a day but I was only reminded of it by an email this afternoon -- the canadian state hanged Louis Riel. It is the day that his people have chosen to honour his contributions to resistance.

Riel was a leader of the Metis people, and he was central to efforts by some Metis in what is now the province of Manitoba, in alliance with other indigenous peoples, to resist the westward expansion of a canadian state committed to the control of indigenous lands by English-canadian capital, white settlers, and Protestant Christianity, and the consequent cultural genocide of the indigenous inhabitants.

I'm told that in the past, local Metis groups in Sudbury have done a flag raising and a smudging ceremony in front of city hall in honour of Riel Day. There were rumours of such a thing last year, and L, myself, and a friend turned up in hope, but it was not to be. But it is commemorated every year at other sites across Ontario and western canada, according to the Metis Nation of Ontario.

And stolen from this post, here is a poem (with introduction) written by Riel for his jailer, three weeks before he was hanged:

Robert Gordon! I beg your pardon for so having kept you waiting after some poor verses of mine. You know, my English is not fine. I speak it; but only very imperfectly.

The snow,

Which renders the ground all white,

From heaven, comes here below:

Its pine frozen drops invite us all

To white -- keep our thoughts and our acts,

So that when our bodies do fall,

Our merits, before God, be facts.

How many who, with good desires,

Have died and lost their souls to fires?

Good desires kept unpractic'd

Stand, before God, unnotic'd.

O Robert, let us be fond

Of virtue! Virtues abound

In every sort of good,

Let virtue be our soul's food.

-- Louis (David) Riel Oct. 27, 1885 Regina Jail

Thanks to CB for the reminder, and the pointer towards the post with the poem!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Ending Woman Abuse

The title of this post is the title of a double issue (Vol. 25, Nos. 1,2) of the journal Canadian Woman Studies. This post is, I suppose, in the tradition of my many book review posts, though I don't feel able to quite label it so -- more than a few books I've reviewed are also collections of thematically related but quite distinct essays by a wide range of authors, but the feel of this is a bit looser even than those, perhaps because it is a journal and not a book, so I don't want to try and pretend I am presenting a more comprehensive commentary on it than is actually the case. Of course, many of the posts I label as "reviews" would be better characterized as "responses" anyway, and that is certainly true here.

This is only the second issue of CWS I have read from cover to cover -- there was one on queer sexualities about a year ago that I read and thought was great and after perusing their backlist I also intend to order the issue from 2004 on women in the Black diaspora. Generally speaking, the bulk of the contents seem to be essays drawing from a wide range of approaches, many of which clearly situate themselves within academic disciplines but some of which just as clearly do not, at least as the traditional male-dominated academy tends to define such things. There is also a healthy sprinkling of original poetry by women, and the odd bit of visual art.

The range of the content is, as I said, quite broad. Some of the comment response to a single statistic I got from this volume and decided to post on the weekend was a reminder that there are lots of people out there who do not have a picture of the true shape of the phenomenon that is the focus of this issue; though I'm sure for some it is a willful blindness, for the rest of us, this journal is one good place to start or continue filling in our ignorance. There is focus on experiences of violence at the hands of intimate partners in various communities and contexts, and on the experiences of those who have devoted their lives to responding to the needs of women in such situations. There is some awareness of the role of the colonial state in the experiences of violence by indigenous women, of the state funding of electroshock therapy in the violence experienced by some psychiatrized women, of the intersecting impacts of sexism and homophobia in violence experienced by queer women, of the role of the legal system in retraumatizing survivors of violence and forcing their stories into oppressive discourses. I was particularly appreciative of the strongly worded analysis in the essay focusing on the role of social assistance systems, particularly as they have changed in Canada and in Ontario since 1995, in both abusing women directly and in forcing women back into relationships with abusive men. Apparently the provincial Liberal government in Ontario released a plan of action with respect to domestic violence in 2005, and it "is silent on the links between poverty and violence and on the harms of current welfare policies...[and] the plan fails to take seriously the evidence that violence makes women poor and keeps them poor, and that the realities of social assistance can be harsher than the abuse."

At the same time, I find myself unable to decide whether "broad" is equal to "broad enough." There are, unsurprisingly, a few places where, even with the caution due the fact that I would be commenting on dialogue within a movement of which I am not part, I would still feel comfortable making critiques. For example, there is one essay in the book that is a good example of liberal feminism, probably without realizing it, being useful as a sort of screen for imperialism -- it is a look at work that has been done at the United Nations around violence against women and girls in conflict situations, with a particular emphasis on a flattering portrayal of Canada's role in this process. While I think it is important not to dismiss such a U.N.-based process out of hand, given that it has some potential to function as a kind of harm reduction approach, the problem is presenting violent conflicts as these free-floating entities which we good folks in the West must manage as best we can through U.N. committee meetings and cheerleading liberal diplomacy in a narrow realm, rather than beginning from the ways in which Canada, via its complicity in global economic and military relations, contributes to the overt and structural violence that kills poor women of colour throughout the developing world.

But there are lots of other areas where it feels like it goes beyond my ability to assess -- I have a vague sense of there being more to say, but not quite sure what. On the one hand, this is a tribute to the seriousness with which the women's movement has treated criticisms from women who are oppressed on more axes than just gender. At the same time, the journal did not go out of its way to make the contours of such debates visible to those who might not already appreciate their existence and significance. I became quite aware by the end that there was a time when I could have read this issue and not really been made conscious of the fact that there are serious and important political questions with vigorously held and diverging approaches to answering them represented within those pages, and would have read it all as different facets of a monolithic, large "F" Feminism, rather than as feminisms. Perhaps a more explicit and more explicitly dialogical approach to differences not only in social location but in politics grounded in different social locations would have been useful. And I wonder if more could have been done to orient the politics of the journal towards a centering of complicity, which I think is almost always useful.

The bottom line for my own reading of the journal is, of course, what it means for my own political practice. And on this score I'm not so sure. This journal is obviously not, and should not be, oriented towards helping men figure out what our part should be in ending woman abuse; that's our job. However, I still expected that this journal being what its creators wanted it to be would spark more concrete ideas in my own mind. In a way, I suppose a big part of why it did not do more of that is because, at least on an intellectual level, much of what should be the practice of pro-feminist men is already quite obvious: Don't do it. Don't be silent when you know others are doing it. Make discussion of it integral to whatever political discourse you produce, be it a blog or at activist meetings or in casual conversation or whatever. Always believe it when a woman or other gender-oppressed person shares an experience of violence with you. Orient your political involvement towards activities that support women in their struggles against abuse, whether that is in the sense of fundraising for feminist organizations, or whether it is trying to transform social assistance, decolonize the canadian state, end the complicity of the canadian military in the occupation of Afghanistan, or whatever -- and in doing those things, always keep in mind (and word and action) their integration with gender oppression. All of these things, and most others that I could list, are painfully obvious in the abstract, but what can be more difficult is not just thinking you are applying them but actually doing so. As with anything of this sort, it is a journey that involves mistakes, practice, and lots of listening.

I want to end by reemphasizing the importance of keeping the struggle against the abuse of women (whether it is perpetrated by individual men, by agents of the state, indirectly via the complicity of privileged people of all genders, or by a combination of all of those things) as a core part of our politics, regardless of what specific struggles we are involved with at any given time. For those who doubt this importance, read this journal.

And I should add that it provided difficult but important personal emphasis for me that in the time that I spent reading this publication, I found out that two more people -- people that I am not super close to but that I am still connected to in one way or another and whose wellbeing matters to me -- have recently had experiences that fall under how this journal understands its mission. Even if you don't hear about it (and it's important that we as men don't assume we hear about more than a fraction of what actually occurs to women and other gender-oppressed people we know) it's not unlikely the same would be true for you, too.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Canadian Men Killing Canadian Women

In Canada, on average, more than one woman a week is killed by her male partner.

[Reference: Beattie, K. "Spousal Homicide". Family Violence in Canada 2005: A Statistical Profile. Canadian Centre of Justice Statistics. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2005.]

Friday, November 10, 2006

Cold Water On Post-Election Smugness

Just to throw a little cold water on the very much misplaced post-Democratic Party victory euphoria that seems to have affected some self-identified progressives even here in Canada, here is some material that offers contrary viewpoints. Most of these folks are happy, I would imagine, that the Republicans have taken some lumps, but they are also not going to forget the bigger picture even for a second. That's a good model to follow, I think...

Take a look at this writing by Brownfemipower (make sure to read the comments, from which I've taken seom of the quote below)...

Affirmative Action in Michigan ... Has been pretty much obliterated tonight. No longer exists, thanks to dickhead Ward Connely and the marvolously un-racist, un-biased, totally fair voting population of Michigan.

It wasn’t even a close vote.


you know, i kn ow I’m supposed to be all joyful because yay, a woman is the [House] leader and yay the democrats won–but this affirmative action thing and the fucked up fucking english bullshit and the gay marraige thing. motherfucker. this stupid fucking election hit me harder than when george bush won again. I kinda expected him to, so i wasn’t all that devistated. but this election…christ. just to rub it into your ass how much you social justice people SUCK, we’re going to elect a horrible anti-immigrant shrew into office, we’re going act like abortion is the ONLY feminist issue, and we’re going whack the hell out of queer folks and destroy affirmative action. All so that you can have an anti-immigrant nut job in office.

...Joe Bageant...

Now, lo and beshit, the Democrats have rescued us, if you can call running around like chickens with their heads up their asses while the Republicans did what they always do, get caught stealing the national kitty while bombing the hell out of some miserable piece of dirt as a distraction, thereby self-destructing in 12 years as usual, but getting obscenely rich in the process.

...Stan Goff, who stood in the rain encouraging folks to vote for the Dems...

Note to the Democratic party: We now have you firmly in our sights, exposed. Ain’t gonna be no honeymoon. We’re not hearing that you need time. Not with the bodies piling up every day.

We also know that many Democrats are going to engage in immigrant-bashing with alarmed hyperventilations about the threat posed by the brown victims of US international policy from the Global South. Do it, and we’ll bust our asses to strip away the enhanced base of Latin@ voters who helped bring you in this year.

We know that some of them will abandon the defense of reproductive choice for women. They should be made to pay, and pay big for that. What the hell is the (electoral) choice for Choice if enough misogynistic Democrats cross-over to support the Republican agenda anyway?

I noted earlier that the most striking thing about American voters that impressed me at my polling site was the staggering ignorance of our society. Not only ignorance, but a kind of chip-on-the-shoulder defense of that ignorance. I am reminded of the VOICE song that says, “We are selfish, we are ignroant, and we celebrate these things.”

Rather than get caught on the infinitely-recycling treadmill of supporting this institution (the DP) as the lesser-of-two-evils, which frequently implies dumbing down our public discourse and evading the most embarrassing subjects, I would urge people to see this election as an opportunity to flush the Democratic Party out into the light.

...Robert Jensen...

As I stood in line for coffee on the morning after election night, a Democratic Party supporter ahead of me in line said, "Thank God this country is finally switching trains."

If only that were true.

On Election Day 2006, the U.S. public didn"t switch trains but simply ratified a different group of conductors.

It"s the same old train, on the same tracks, heading in the same direction.

This isn"t an argument that there are never any meaningful differences between politicians; sometimes it does matter who is giving the orders on the train. But on this day after the morning-after, it"s crucial for those with a critical perspective to highlight that this train -- contemporary U.S. society -- is barreling forward toward disaster, no matter who"s punching tickets.

I'm sure I could find more, but those are just some of the saner voices I've run across in the last few days.

And it doesn't mention elections of any sort, but here is an awesome poem by rabfish that is powerfully politically grounding if you happen to have momentarily mistaken the real-but-small difference between Democrats and Republicans (or Liberals and Conservatives) for what actually matters in the human experiences calling us to transform the world.

And finally, found via this post at Bitch | Lab, here is an essay by recently deceased feminist Ellen Willis mounting an important critique of the lowest common denominator, end-the-culture-wars economic populism advocated by certain progressive elements of the Democratic Party, including notables like author Thomas Frank of What's the Matter With Kansas? fame.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Upping The Anti #3 Released

The third issue of Upping The Anti is out! Looks like it has lots of good stuff on the Six Nations struggle, Haiti, Latin America, the struggles of the Zapatistas, and more -- and also a book review by yours truly.

Here is a paragraph from a FAQ they wrote in the lead-up to this issue, to give you a flavour of what it's all about:

We are interested in publishing articles discussing and critiquing various aspects of revolutionary politics concerning the various anti-capitalist, anti-oppressive, and anti-imperialist practices and politics occurring within the Canadian state today. In the editorial of our first issue we outlined the general purposes of the journal, and identified a number of questions and issues we are interested in further examining and discussing in journal. (Such questions and issues include the following taken from our editorial "What do we mean by terms such as oppression, capitalism, imperialism and revolution? How can we build and connect labour, anti-racist, feminist, queer, and anti-capitalist movements and perspectives? What can we learn from the successes and failures of anti-capitalist activists in the anti-war and anti-globalization movements? How do we understand capitalist social relations, and what social forces might give rise to real alternatives to capitalism? How should anti-capitalist activists connect with working class struggles both within and outside the labour movement? How can revolutionaries organize in ways that maximize our effectiveness but that don’t replicate old patterns of elitism, domination and sectarianism? What can we learn from different strands of Marxist and anarchist theory as we grapple with these questions?”) The editorial committee will prioritize publication of articles that address these questions and build on them.

Here is the table of contents:


Letters to the Editor

Editorial: Growing Pains

Aijaz Ahmad: The Anti-Imperialism of our Times

William Robinson: Latin America vs. Global Capitalism

AK Thompson: Making Friends with Failure

Isabel McDonald Haiti: Adventures in Colonialism

RJ Maccani The Zapatistas: Enter the Intergalactic

Jen Plyler How To Keep On Keeping On

Roundtable on Six Nations Tom Keefer: Six Nations Overview and Context

Interview with Brian Skye

Interview with Jan Watson

Roundtable: AJ Withers, Stefanie Gude and Josh Zucker

Book Reviews

Scott Neigh: The Sociology of Confrontation- Caelie Frampton et al. (eds). Sociology for Changing the World: Social Movements / Social Research

Yutaka Dirks: After the Storm Dan Berger. Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity

Sharmeen Khan : Guilty Indulgences Inga Muscio. Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society

If you live in Vancouver or Toronto, you can go to a launch party on November 23rd or November 16th, respectively. The material will eventually be posted online, but not for some time, so read here to find out how to get your hands on a copy.

Monday, November 06, 2006

'Twas The Night Before Midterms...

Okay, so, I was not going to post a single word about the U.S. elections that happen tomorrow. I do have a sort of morbid fascination with the whole process, however marginally relevant I might hold it to be to actually making the world a better place, and I do kind of halfheartedly follow what's going on. But that's no reason to inflict this disorder on anyone else. Except I think I will, ever so briefly. Please note that this post has been written quickly and worded incautiously and contains overgeneralizations; you have been warned.

First, the inane predictions: the Dems will retake the House but not the Senate, though it'll be close, and they will make some handy pickups in governorships. A century after it might have been meaningful for it to happen, the U.S. will get its first ever self-identified socialist in the Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Yay.

Now for the cynical reflection. I think what I am looking forward to the least after tomorrow is the smugness that will be radiating from liberal and progressive Democrats -- smugness that will be entirely missing the point. Don't get me wrong, I think a popular reaction against the nutters who have been running things down there since 2001 is a good thing. I also get frustrated by the "Dimes Worth of Difference" crowd that refuses to see any difference whatsoever between the parties. There may be no relevant differences in terms of foreign policy beyond styles of management for U.S. imperialism, but there are enough small but non-trivial differences in terms of domestic policy for oppressed and exploited constituencies to make the difference worth more than a dime. That is precisely why the trap of electoral politics is so effective: there are differences (even if they are small and even if they function to drain energy from autonomous social movements) that can make small but real changes in terms of death and suffering. The problem, much as I observed in the concluding part of my six part series on the Canadian federal elections earlier this year, is that without a significant upswing in social movement mobilization, things will be worse in two years or four years than they are now regardless of who wins -- what is at stake in this election is the rate (and, to a limited extent, the nature) of that worsening.

What can be useful in deciding how enthusiastically to treat this shift in the political winds in the United States is to ask why it has happened. And it has happened because the specific coalition that brought Bush to power has run into difficulty. None of the religious right, the fiscal conservatives, or the neocons are exactly happy with what's going on right now. As well, enough of what the Bush gang has actually been doing has pierced through the intentionally cultivated fear among the general public to cause a certain amount of disapproval. The demonstration of poor imperial management skills in Iraq have managed to turn both significant elite sectors as well as much of the public against the Bush regime. And the specific nature of some of the scandals that have hit the Republicans recently are such as to take some of the punch out of the Christian right grassroots.

Then look at the other side. The Democratic Party itself has no particularly inspiring policy positions, even on the domestic front. A few fringe candidates notwithstanding, all they have ever claimed to be is better managers of empire, not opponents of empire. And the joint is still firmly in the grip of the neoliberals, even if some progressive media outlets have been crowing with excitement about a handful of insurgent primary victories for progressive against Democratic Leadership Council stalwarts. One place there does seem to have been real improvement even since 2004 is in the para-party organizations like MoveOn and Progressive Democrats of America. This is likely to start making up some of the imbalance in terms of the political "ground game" that has, outside of a few labour strongholds, massively favoured the right since the '90s. But because these organizations are tightly linked to the party and not autonomous, there are serious limits in how much space they will be able to create for significant shifts in progressive directions.

If you look at movements that are actually autonomous of the party but that might see the party as useful for furthering their goals, the landscape is not particularly encouraging. Given that most of my information comes from mainstream and white-dominated alt-and-indy media sources, I don't claim to have a whole lot of insight into the state of movements in racialized communities -- I'm particularly interested to know how the Latin@ movement has evolved since its crest not long ago. But the labour movement is treading water, the anti-war movement has disappeared. Mobilzations around things like voting machines have shown some life, but fairly narrowly. The general state of progressive and radical movements in the U.S. that are autonomous from the Democratic Party still seems to be pretty low, with no signs of a pending wave of factory occupations or an outbreak of barricades. Please correct me if I'm wrong. (Please!!)

So that's what's happening. The Republicans are falling apart for very specific reasons, some of which will not be replicated in the next election cycle and others which may or may not be. There are no indications that their scary social movement-like base will be much weakened once the scandals of the moment are forgotten -- which means, of course, they will remain much stronger than anything liberals or lefties can mount. The Democrats, beyond the limited improvement in strength of their para-party organizations, are bland and showing no signs of lurching leftward, with no signs of autonomous organizing that will be strong enough to make them.

When real domestic gains have been made under Democratic presidents, in the '30s and then in the '60s, it has been because of powerful autonomous social movements that the Democratic Party could not ignore. Those conditions do not currently exist. The Dems picking up seats tomorrow will not create those conditions. Only people organizing autonomously of the party will create those conditions.

End of rant.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Two Tier Health Care

In much of his writing, Noam Chomsky makes frequent use of paired examples, a simple but powerful device. Often, this takes the form of taking two historical events that occured at roughly the same time and that, from the perspective of elementary human morality, carry roughly the same weight. The striking difference in how the two instances are treated in action and discourse eminating from U.S. state relations and from the dominant media are used to draw conclusions about foreign policy and about the reporting of foreign policy.

The paired example I wish to draw upon is much smaller in scale, closer to home, and slightly different in purpose. Chomsky often uses paired examples as a way to gain insight into the causes of the differential treatment between, say, massacre X and massacre Y, in a way that disarms the specious liberal apologetics that often accompany U.S. complicity in such things. I, on the other hand, could make much the same point as I'm making here just by talking about how wrong it is for a toddler to have to wait so long to have a basic health need attended. However, the paired example landed in my lap, so I will use it.

My example has to do with teeth -- namely teeth belonging to L, who is the pre-schooler that fills my days, and teeth belonging to E, who is L's one-year-older cousin.

A couple of weeks ago, L had several instances of hitting the roof and crying intensely while chewing. His first visit to the dentist back in February or March did not actually result in the dentist getting much of a look into his mouth, and an unscheduled visit to a dentist when we were out of town during the summer was mainly focused on some surface decay around an area on his front teeth that had been damaged earlier. After this chewing distress happened a few times and we were able to establish from him that it was his teeth that hurt and he wasn't just biting his cheek or something, we decided to take him in to our family dentist as soon as possible. The dentist got a better look this time -- despite regular brushing, all of his back teeth were seriously decayed. Our dentist called over to a paediatric dental surgeon also in the downtown, and he wanted us to go over and see him that same afternoon. We did. He prescribed anti-biotics and booked an appointment to actually do the surgery, which would require a general anaesthetic. It was originally scheduled to happen three months from now, though we were told we were being given high priority for cancellations. In the week following that appointment it became much more necessary to manage L's pain -- sometimes acetominophen and ibuprofen got the job done, but other days they most definitely did not. A visit to the paediatric dentist this past Tuesday did not yield any new tools for pain management. Then, this past Thursday morning, we got a call that there had been a cancellation for Friday. We followed the pre-op orders, arrived on time, waited nervously, and soon enough L had one tooth pulled, three partial root canals, and some sealent applied. (We also took some relief from our parental guilt at letting things reach this stage at the paediatric dentist's bemused comment that he had never seen teeth that shape before.) It is only two days later, but L is doing much better, and is happy to be able to eat "smooth and crunchy food!" (as he anticipated excitedly the morning before the surgery). We have to go back for another session in December to finish cleaning things up, but everything that was causing pain has been taken care of in slightly more than a week since we first noticed the problem.

I don't know as many details of E's case, but I do know the most important ones. For one thing, it was her top front teeth rather than her back molars that were the problem. I can't provide a technical picture of differences in severity between the two cases, but I have no reason, given the work that ultimately was done, to believe that E's situation was any less severe. Yet she had to wait three months to even get an intial appointment with a paediatric dentist. And she had to wait something like eight months after that to get the surgery done. Over this time, the nerves in the affected teeth eventually died, so it was not like she was in serious pain for that entire time. All four teeth had to be pulled.

What could explain these significant differences in experience?

Well, I can't dismiss the possibility that there are local differences in the availability of services. We live in different cities, and that can make a difference when it comes to access to medical care from a specialist. However, I find it hard to believe that the service situation in Sudbury is that much more generous than is to be found in the southern Ontario city E lives in -- northern Ontario has a longstanding reputation of lacking medical professionals of all sorts, and in fact the job that brought my partner to this city exists precisely because of government efforts to address some of that lack. So I don't think this is the answer.

But, really, I don't actually need to think very hard about this question; I know the answer. The answer is that we, L's immediate family, have good dental insurance, cash on hand, and regardless of the actual non-traditional elements of our practices we have at least the appearance necessary to qualify the family for "picket fence privilege" in the eyes of others. My sister -- E's mother -- was, on the other hand, living as a single mother on welfare at the start of E's ordeal. By the time E's surgery actually happened she was, if I am remembering correctly, in a partnership and off welfare, but certainly the former status would have played a big role in setting the course of events.

Here in Sudbury at the initial family dentist appointment to which I took L, we were told that there were two options for the surgery: We could have it done in a hospital or we could have it done at the clinic of the paediatric dentist we ended up seeing. The former would be covered by Canada's socialized medical insurance, but the waiting list is close to a year. The latter would have a somewhat shorter waiting list (3 months, as it turned out) but it would have to be covered by private insurance, except for the anaesthesiologist, who might be covered by private insurance but would more likely have to be paid in cash -- insurance and cash that my sister did not have. It is impossible to know for sure what factors were at work that helped us get to see the paediatric dentist for an intial look on the same afternoon as our visit to our family dentist instead of three months later, and in getting top priority for a cancellation, to cut the wait for surgery from 3 months to 1 week. Certainly basic human kindness was at work, and I don't want to disrespect that. But things like having good insurance and having a family form that can perform dominant versions of privileged normalcy can be huge in getting those kinds of breaks, too. As well, I know enough from my work with the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty and other anti-poverty groups in other cities to know that people living on welfare often get treated very differently by health professionals than people with access to financial resources associated with being "middle-class." I obviously can't know whether that dynamic was at play in either of the situations discussed here, but I know it is very common.

This, then, is two tier medical care: It is determining how long a toddler will have to suffer with sore teeth, and how likely it is that those teeth will be saved or lost, based on what kind of job and how much money their parents have, with potentially some influence from the family form of their parents as well.

I'm extremely glad that the worst problems with L's teeth have been taken care of, but this is a really disgusting situation. I cannot imagine the state I would've been in early last week if I knew that it was going to be close to a year before he could have his teeth fixed.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Review: Sex Wars

[Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter. Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture, 10th Anniversary Edition. New York: Routledge, 2006.]

I don't often write about sexuality on this site. It is certainly something I am quite aware of as a component of my personal journey, and I have long had at least some appreciation for how powerful but misunderstood a role it plays in broader politics and in social movement functioning. But, good little post-Presbyterian that I am, I tend to default towards silence on the subject. Even as I have regularly posted book reviews here, a disproportionate number of books that have ended up in my personal "read but not reviewed" category have been related to this topic. But not this one.

I got this book from my partner as a sort of belated birthday present. She saw one of the authors, Lisa Duggan, speak on the politics of marriage while we were living in Los Angeles, and absolutely adored her. She subsequently got one of Duggan's other books from the UCLA library, and I read, liked, and reviewed it. So I was happy to receive this one.

Duggan is a feminist and a historian of queer communities and movements. Nan Hunter is a feminist and a legal scholar who concentrates on queer issues. This book is a collection of essays by one or the other or both of them (occasionally with another co-author) written over the course of about twenty years. It is a reworking of a book first published ten years ago; the current edition has been updated to include newer essays and a current chronology of the role of sexuality in U.S. politics since 1966.

The essays cover a number of fairly distinct areas. The oldest material originally functioned as interventions in the struggles around pornography and censorship among U.S. feminists in the 1980s, on the anti-censorship side. I have tended to engage warily with material from the intra-feminist wars on sexual topics because people I know personally hold very strongly conflicting opinions on these issues, because the debates have been so vicious at times, and because material from all sides is very able to push my buttons pretty powerfully, both in good ways as important political challenges and bad ways as triggers for unhealthy personal "stuff", all of which is a lot of emotional work. I braced myself in this instance, plunged in, and was kind of disappointed. The material was quite specifically produced to oppose the municipal ordinances co-sponsored in several cities by right-wing groups and a subset of radical feminists in the early and mid '80s, but it does not engage as fully as I had hoped with the related issues that go beyond those very specific attempts at regulation.

Perhaps the least directly interesting-to-me material is the essays, mostly by Hunter, dealing with the evolution of the legal treatment of queer people and relationships in the United States. It's important stuff, but I read quite a bit of related material with a Canadian focus about two years ago so it wasn't a completely new area for me, and I didn't find this briefer treatment of laws in a jurisdiction I do not inhabit to be terribly exciting.

There were some interesting essays by Duggan on queer history -- not so much actual works of history themselves, but essays on the doing of queer history. I quite liked those but wished for more depth.

The essays I enjoyed the most were those, mostly by Duggan, which were interventions into political debates within and about queer movements. I remain a little disappointed by her apparent lack of passion around her proposals for a new agenda related to marriage -- or perhaps what is lacking is not passion but rhetorical fluorish -- but I have to admit she is much more practical about it than anything I might have written before I read her stuff. I think my favourite piece in the book was her essay on the intersection of class and queer politics using the murder of Brandon Teena (widely known because of the film Boys Don't Cry starring Hilary Swank) as its focus. She has written elsewhere in more depth about the inherent interconnectedness of class politics and the so-called "culture wars" in the U.S. -- I think that analysis is very important and I hope she returns to the subject in future writing.

I think I'm faintly disappointed by this book overall, but I don't think it really deserves that. I think I went in hoping to be blown away, and a collection of material written over such a length of time and on related but different topics just won't do that. It is an important resources and I'm glad to have read it. And glad to have reviewed it.

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

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Media Coverage of Churchill's Visit

On Monday, renowned indigenous scholar Ward Churchill spoke in Sudbury -- a rare visit for a small, out-of-the-way city like this, by a big name among lefties and radicals. Here is the (surprisingly good) write-up in the local daily:

Canada is still a colony to natives

Rob O'Flanagan

Sudbury Star, Wednesday, November 01, 2006 - 11:00

Local News - Be very suspicious of anyone who uses the intellectual term "post-colonial" to describe the present state of Canadian society, a prominent North American indigenous scholar and activist told a packed lecture hall at Laurentian University on Monday.

Colonization, he said, continues within our borders.

The author of numerous books, and a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Colorado/Boulder, Ward Churchill urged about 150 students to look outside the "white studies" perspective, and see through the eyes of the oppressed. While this country may have gained independence from the British Empire, the deeply ingrained racism and oppression towards native people - which was one of the driving forces of colonization - continues unabated in our time, Churchill argued.

A powerful orator and accomplished scholar, Churchill quoted the great French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who said colonialism equals genocide. A nation can not engage in colonizing without it having a genocidal impact on indigenous people - without it nullifying their culture, language, religion and way of life. Genocide can be committed, Churchill said, without killing a single person.

"Not one square inch of Canada exists in the absence of the appropriation of native land," Churchill said, adding the land was taken, in some cases, through coercion and fraud. Has anything really changed in contemporary Canada?

"Not one bit," he answered.

Native people in this country are largely confined to reserves, with police services and the courts used to "keep them in their place," he said. The entire country used to belong to them, and under ongoing colonial measures, they are not given what they are entitled to, he said.

Empire building of old, he said, was grounded in the belief the white Europeans were naturally entitled to own the lands and dominate the peoples they colonized. Canada was colonized by the British and the land's indigenous peoples were oppressed - treated as inferior and dehumanized.

Canada, like Australia and New Zealand, took its independence from Britain, but "there's been no decolonization of native people in Canada," Churchill said. White society, he said, remains rooted in "the natural ascension of white superiority."

While classic colonialism largely died out in the world because it was too difficult to sustain, it was not the only form of colonization, Churchill said. Under the old colonial rulers, lands like India and Africa were divided into states with no consideration for traditional tribal or ethic boundaries. Long after the rulers left, those artificial boundaries remained in place, perpetuating the colonial patterns and causing severe internal strife and bloodshed.

Churchill asked the audience to consider what the former colonies of Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada have in common. There was silence.

"White folk are in charge," Churchill said, a power structure that has been in place since the heyday of classic colonialism.

The "grimy realities" of life in this new state of colonialism, he added, are masked by terms like post-colonialism, post-industrialism and postmodernism - terms used by intellectual elites to "pull the wool over our eyes" and make us think that things have changed, when they really haven't.

Churchill's Sudbury visit was sponsored by several Laurentian departments, including the departments of native studies, women's studies and political science.

I suspect readers from the U.S. might be surprised to see this sort of coverage appear in a corporate daily newspaper owned by what is a fairly conservative chain. I can't say for sure, but I would imagine that it differs from the sort of coverage you might expect in many newspapers in the U.S. because the right-wing generated propaganda campaign against Churchill really hasn't penetrated Canada to the same extent, so there is probably not much pre-formed prejudicial consciousness among most middle-class white people in Sudbury about who he is. As well, there is a significant presence of indigenous people within the readership area of the paper in question -- the anecdotal evidence I've heard is that they, much like poor and working-class white people, don't really read the Star to any great degree, and are more likely to read the other regular paper in town, but they are present -- and I would imagine that among that population, Churchill's name is more likely to be recognized and likely to be regarded favourably. Hence the tone of this piece.

(From the Sudbury Star, found via GK.)