Thursday, May 22, 2008

"Why isn't there war in Sudbury?"

One of the glories of being a parent is having to come up on the spur of the moment with answers to questions that you would never yourself have thought to ask. The title of this post is one such question asked of me the other night by L, who is a few months shy of five years old.

We had been reading Why War is Never a Good Idea, a book-length poem for children by renowned author Alice Walker. It is wonderfully written and gorgeously illustrated, and both the visual and textual aspects of it are done in such a way that they clearly name the horror of war while leaving plenty of space for adult readers to answer the questions of child readers in ways that avoid being overwhelming and respond to where the child is at.

L had lots of questions. Many had to do with interpreting the text and the images, and I did my best with those. He also asked where wars were happening right now, and I talked a little bit about Iraq and Afghanistan, including mentioning Canada's involvement even if that isn't an observation that is likely to mean a lot to him at this point. I'm sure he has little concept of those places except perhaps as names encountered when looking through the children's atlas we bought for him, which he sometimes likes to do at bedtime, and as general indicators of "not here." Another question, and one which I anticipated, was whether we were likely to experience war here in Sudbury. I reassured him that it was, thankfully, fairly unlikely.

Then he asked why we were unlikely to have war in Sudbury. Which is a pretty obvious question when you think about it from the position of a four year-old's stage of learning about the world. It's only when one's mind is clouded by the unthinkables and the of-courses of grown-up education and indoctrination that this becomes a surprising thing to ask. The asking and the answering of this question are a brilliant entry point for talking about lots of important stuff.

In response to L, I stuttered and stumbled and eventually said a few things, but now I want to try and get my thoughts on the matter down in a more ordered way, but hopefully including basic ideas that could be easily adapted to the needs of a four year-old questioner as well as more sophisticated justification for those ideas.

  1. We are lucky. This has to be the first answer, I think. It's not an answer with a lot of obvious politics to it, but it gets at the idea that, contrary to the ways this question might get spun by some on the right, the absence of open warfare in North America has nothing to do with virtue on our part.

  2. The people who benefit the most from war also benefit from having places that are unlikely to experience war, because it gives them a safe place to be. Or, in more adult terms, one of the features of capitalist social relations that make them so robust in the face of the suffering they cause to humanity is the ways in which they distribute that suffering. There is nothing historically inevitable about the details of how this works, and it has varied at different points in capitalist development, but certainly in the current era a key feature is the ways in which (mostly) white (mostly) settler middle classes and "respectable" working classes in the rich countries are (even in this era of neoliberalism) appeased with certain kinds and levels of benefits in return for near complete buy-in to current social arrangements. This provides a stable base for capital accumulation and for predation by capital on the majority of humanity, including most of the vast numbers of people outside of the so-called First World as well as indigenous and non-indigenous racialized peoples within the rich countries and segments of the white working class as well. One of the ways that this manifests in this era is a certain shallow version of peace within rich nations, presented in a way that makes it seem the essence of liberal democratic capitalism rather than a highly context dependent perk that not only obscures but also depends on war and so-called "economic" violence that kill huge numbers of mostly poor and working-class racialized people every day across the majority of the globe.

  3. In Sudbury today, we may not have the kind of open warfare that is in that book, but we have a lot of people who still get hurt today by things that got set in motion by events that looked a lot like it. The war in the past and the hurt in the present both happen for much the same reasons as most wars happen. In the more grown-up version of the argument that systematic violence actually does happen here in Sudbury, even if it is not organized like open warfare, I suppose it would be technically possible to go down what to me is a very legitimate path by pointing out how current social relations are inherently violent -- that is, they depend on harm and suffering -- in all sorts of ways even locally here in Sudbury, but I'm not sure I'll take that as far as one probably could. But it is a much smaller leap to point to the ongoing colonial harms experienced in everyday ways by indigenous people in Sudbury -- harms which have their origins in historical war and conquest in the service of greed and profit, and which are actively maintained by settler institutions and many everyday settler activities, also often in the service of greed and profit (and in the service of the psychological and social wages of white supremacy, too). So Sudbury as we experience it today is the product of war in the past and a very local, everyday, often not terribly visible but still terribly hurtful contemporary continuation of that violence.

Anyway, I'm sure there are a lot of other ways to answer that question, but these three points are my first stab at it.

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