Friday, June 22, 2007

War Resisters and Tactical Choices

Yesterday evening, I went to hear, speakers organized by the local chapter of the War Resisters Support Campaign.

According to its web site, the WRSC

is a broad-based coalition of community, faith, labour and other organizations and individuals that have come together to support U.S. soldiers seeking asylum in Canada because they refuse to fight in the illegal war in Iraq.

The Campaign works on two fronts: we support the material needs of war resisters when they arrive in Canada; and we campaign to persuade the Canadian government to provide sanctuary for U.S. war resisters.

The speakers at the event last night were a 22 year-old war resister from Florida and the national coordinator of the WRSC, who himself came to Canada as a resister of the Vietnam war many years ago. The person who emceed the event was a former president of the local labour council.

There were a couple of events of this sort shortly after I moved to Sudbury, but I didn't manage to make it to either of them, and I have read a bit about it before, but this was my first chance to encounter the WRSC directly. I probably don't need to say that I completely support the goals of the campaign and agree that there needs to be some political solution found that would allow U.S. war resisters to stay in Canada indefinitely. Interestingly, the coordinator of the group shared that they had recently been lucky enough to slip a question into a poll being done by a major polling company in Ontario, and something like sixty-four per cent of Ontarians also agree, with only twenty-seven per cent thinking we should ship 'em back to the U.S.

The event itself was pretty good. It started on time and didn't go late, which might not sound like much but it is rare enough for activist events that I noted and appreciated it. I wish the resister who was present had spoken at a bit more length, but it was definitely interesting to hear what he had to say. Unfortunately, there were a few highly politically questionable things said at the front of the room -- for better or worse they went unchallenged, by me or anyone else. I asked two questions in the fairly lengthy discussion period, one asking for clarification of consequences to the resisters if they are sent back, and the other seeking some elaboration of what kind of action the WRSC was looking for beyond the less accessible but still important lobbying and legal work that they are doing.

The reason I am writing this, though, is because the event made me reflect on the kinds of choices that we inevitably have to make in the course of social change activity, and in particular the tactical, strategic, and ethical dimensions of decisions that we make around how we present ourselves and how we frame our issues.

In what I have observed and heard about the WRSC's activities, there are at least a couple of areas which would involve such difficult balancing for me. For one thing, the campaign makes use of the reservoir of uncritical smugness among liberals, left-liberals, left nationalists, social democrats and others about Canada being in some sense politically superior to the United States. I've written about that plenty before and won't go through it all again right now, but it is a stance that drives me crazy and that, even when it has some minimal basis in policy positions and political practices, the differences are usually small and the smugness still functions to make it harder for Canadians to examine more critically our own society's functioning and our own role in the world. I get the sense that this left nationalist smugness might have come out a bit more heavy-handedly last night than is the WRSC's deliberate intent, but I can't imagine how the campaign could not be counting on making some political points by at least passively appealing to that sentiment, which exists among a fairly broad cross-section of the Canadian public.

(An interesting aside is the fact that the dislike of Canada by the U.S. far right and the smugness of Canadian liberals both have a long history connected to the issue of Canada giving shelter to people fleeing the U.S. From the mid 20th century to the present, those people have been draft dodgers and war resisters, but in much of the 19th century they were escaped slaves. However, even in the 19th century, the self-image derived by white Canadian liberals from this activity was largely detatched from reality. For one thing, before slaves fled the U.S. to come to Canada -- after slavery had been abolished in the northern states but before it had been abolished in British North America -- there was a period of time when there was a small but real flow of African people to the U.S. from the colonies that later became Canada to escape slavery. More importantly, if you look at the conditions in which Black communities lived in Canada in the 19th century, it's not pretty -- segregation in many places, poverty, broken promises from the Canadian colonial governments, racism of all sorts, and so on. Refuge "under the lion's paw" was a sufficiently unpleasant experience that huge numbers of African-descended people returned to the United States after the Civil War was over rather than remain here. But evidence of how unwelcoming a place Canada actually was didn't stop white Canadian liberals from feeling smug and superior. It is also interesting to note that when the Trudeau government was making arrangements for the benefit of draft dodgers and others wishing to avoid participation in the U.S. slaughter of the Vietnamese people in the '60s and '70s, participants in the African American freedom struggles of the same era who sought refuge here were shown no welcome whatsoever by the Canadian state and often dirty trickery was used to return them to the U.S. government that was attacking them.)

The other choice by the WRSC that I would find difficult to abide by is the decision to keep their work and their message very tightly focused. From what I understand, they try to avoid talking about Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, though that did happen a fair bit last night. They are not keen on other issues being visible in their events, even, from what I understand, to the extent of discouraging announcements about upcoming community happenings on related themes. There is no effort to link the plight of war resisters to other struggles around status and borders, such as those being waged by No One Is Illegal groups in a number of cities across the country. I get the sense that they particularly don't want to be associated with tactics and analyses that might risk making the WRSC come across as less 'respectable' in the eyes of 'ordinary Canadians' (whatever that means).

I'm kind of divided about this. On one level, my gut reaction is to dislike it. I mean, groups have to have a focus, and I think it's silly to be dogmatic about what a group must already 'get' and support before deciding to participate beyond very basic and vague similarities in values, but up-front decisions to avoid talking about certain things, to avoid making linkages that present themselves, to place such single-minded emphasis on "respectability" rubs me the wrong way. It seems to cut off potential for broader movement building and for various kinds of growth and learning, and all of those things are important to me when I'm involved in social change activities. Moreover, the notion of "respectability" smuggles in all sorts of potentially oppressive baggage -- do we want to start from a place of reaffirming all of that stuff?

On the other hand, I can also see the position that the point is not to perform some sort of narrow vision of political perfection, it is to win a specific issue. So you do what you need to do to win. There is broad, if passive, support for the goals of the campaign among the Canadian public, and it does make some sense to maximize the chances of turning that passive support into a victory of some kind. I can see the argument that, say, modest changes in how the campaign structures its events will not do much of anything practical to bring an upsurge in broader movement activity, but they might be enough to nudge media coverage in directions that have costs in terms of public opinion, so why take risks with the potential that exists for a narrow but very real victory? Why risk turning the public perception of the issue into something that might mean that, say, a conservative Liberal representing a rural southern Ontario riding might feel unable to support it? Why risk fragmenting the broad coalition that is the underlying support of the campaign?

And when I look at issues that have the same shape in different contexts, my reactions vary. For example, I remember when I lived in Los Angeles coming across some analysis written from the perspective of someone who wants revolutionary social change but who was very critical of the tendency for the sectarian marxist grouplets to try and outdo one other with maximalist programs that might help them recruit a few more militants because they sound oh-so-radical but that do little or nothing to build a broader movement that might actually move society in the directions that they want. Instead, they should restrain their impulses to spout off in ways that sound radical but serve little purpose beyond their own sectarian recruiting, and actually pay attention to building the movement in which they are operating. I can definitely agree with that.

On the other hand, you sometimes might hear people be critical of basic elements of other people's dress and deportment at demonstrations as something that could alienate potential supporters and hurt the movement. And I'm not talking about debates over things that I would see as being substantive questions, like the political significance of streetfighting in a given instance, for example, but just about older liberal types being critical of younger people who do things like yell. And wear ripped clothes. And walk on the street even though we -- gasp -- didn't arrange beforehand with the police. And have piercings. I have no patience for that, and even if it could be demonstrated that such dress and deportment issues might turn a few potential supporters off -- and I'm not sure it could -- I would still have no patience for it.

I could go on but I don't think I will. This actually ties into some important broader arguments about how movements develop and how social change happens, and I don't have the time or inclination to get into that now. It is also something that it is very dangerous to address in the abstract, disconnected from actual circumstances and actual potential consequences. Sometimes, I think, it makes sense to hold back, even to hide self to a certain extent, for the sake of a movement achieving a goal. Other times, it does not.

In general, my gut feeling is that it is important to actively preserve space for different experiences and analyses in most types of social movement groupings, but that it is not useful in the long run to insist on not talking about certain things as the primary tool to do that. And in general, while I can see the value of narrow focus and strict framing to achieve a particular, winnable goal, I think my own preference is to devote my energies to spaces which encourage participation from multiple analyses and standpoints but which do so by an openness to dialogue, to linkages, to being associated with the supposedly disreputable.


Anonymous said...
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Red Jenny said...

spammers. lovely.

Anyways, good post. Definitely something on my mind lately, especially after reading this the other day.

BTW, Scott, there's something for you here

Scott said...

Hey RJ!

Sorry about that's gone now...

Thanks for that link...I've only had a chance to scan it so far, but I will definitely be reading it in depth, and perhaps writing about it.

And thanks for the Thinking Blogger award!