Sunday, August 31, 2008

CBC Framing of Gustav Validates Distortions About Katrina

Even as I worry for people living on the Gulf Coast, I'm disgusted by this coverage by CBC. The story has been changing over the course of the day, but here are the current first few paragraphs of the CBC website's coverage of Hurricane Gustav, which is set to hit the U.S. mainland tomorrow or Tuesday.

With Hurricane Gustav just a day away from making what could be a damaging hit on New Orleans, the mayor pleaded with residents to leave the Louisiana city and announced that those who stay face a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Mayor Ray Nagin said 1,500 police officers and 2,000 National Guard troops will be patrolling the streets of the city, which on Sunday took on the eeriness of a ghost town as thousands of people heeded a mandatory evacuation order.

City and federal officials are clamping down on New Orleans to prevent the kind of lawlessness and chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

"Looters will go directly to jail. You will not get a pass this time," Nagin said. "You will not have a temporary stay in the city. You will go directly to the Big House."

The key thing to getting at the politics of how this story is written is to keep in mind that everyone will be reading it with some sort of reference to the destruction of much of New Orleans three years ago by Hurricane Katrina. In that tragedy, a powerful hurricane (though potentially less powerful than Gustav) combined with social circumstances to kill a lot of people, put many more through some pretty horrible circumstances, and destroy neighbourhoods that the powers that be have refused to recreate in any way that will welcome back the majority of those displaced. They key social causes of the disaster were idiotic capitalist development of wetlands that destroyed natural flood protections, chronic underfunding of human-made infrastructure that would protect against flooding, and the lack of and unwillingness to deploy public resources to allow people living in poverty (mostly African American) who lacked resources to evacuate on their own to get to safety during key moments just before and just after the storm.

After a brief moment of mainstream shock and outrage at all of this, the narrative of the dominant media did its best to sweep the human causes of the tragedy under the rug. The more systemic critiques of the causes never really reached the light of any mainstream day anyway, but questions of race and class were briefly permissable, though the extent to which that moment could be used was limited by the almost complete lack of available concepts and language in mainstream U.S. media discourse to usefully deal with such things. And the moment was quickly defused by employing two narratives to confuse, distract, and deceive. The first completely erased the role of capitalism-induced poverty and government malfeasance by claiming that the vast majority of those trapped in New Orleans could have evacuated but chose not to. The other manufactured a furor about supposed looting, which depended on and reinforced the racist construction in the dominant white imagination of African Americans as inherently criminal. Though further investigation that never received as wide circulation as the initial fuss discovered that claims of looting were grossly exaggerated and that much of the "looting" was actually people doing what they had to do to survive, the image of "lawlessness and chaos" unquestioningly relayed by this CBC story has persisted in the public imagination.

Now take a look back at those paragraphs I quoted from the CBC story, or even take a look at the whole thing. The lead, through emphasizing the mayor's "pleading" and the "mandatory evacuation order," constructs leaving the city or not as solely about choice. Then you have several paragraphs devoted to anti-looting measures.

I wouldn't necessarily expect any mention of the ongoing capitalism-driven destruction of the natural environment that historically mitigated coastal flooding. But there is not a word about what has or has not been done since Katrina about the human-made anti-flooding measures. There is not a word about what supports have been given to people living in poverty to evacuate the city, with appropriate contrasts with last time. In fact, there is not even a mention that the city is in many ways a different place now than three years ago because of the ways in which developers and government officials have colluded to ensure that the destroyed neighbourhoods, which were predominantly poor and working-class and mostly African American, are recreated in ways that are more useful to capital and that are excluding many of the people who originally called them home.

This coverage by CBC is really gross, and disrespectful to those killed and displaced by Katrina.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Coverage of Walk4Justice Passage Through Sudbury

Here is the article from the Sudbury Star:

Justice, closure at heart of walk
by Denis St. Pierre, Sudbury Star

With the finish line of a cross-country journey in sight, a group of aboriginal activists is as adamant as ever in its demand that governments address the deaths of an estimated 3,000 women during the last four decades.

"We want to see a public inquiry into the deaths of all these women, because they deserve it," Gladys Radek, an activist from the Gitksan Nation in British Columbia, said Sunday in Sudbury.

Radek is one of the organizers of Walk for Justice, a 4,700-kilometre trek that began in Vancouver on June 21 -- National Aboriginal Day -- and is scheduled to end Sept. 15 in Ottawa. The walkers, most of whom are aboriginal women, are commemorating and demanding government action on the deaths and disappearances of 3,000 women in Canada in the last 40 years.

About 80 per cent of the murdered and missing women are aboriginal, noted Radek, who lost her 22-year-old niece in British Columbia in September 2005.

Many of the walkers are family members or friends of murdered or missing women who need "justice, closure and accountability," she said.

The walkers, who were scheduled to leave Sudbury today on their way to Toronto, hope to arrive in Ottawa by Sept. 15 to coincide with the start of the fall session of Parliament.

"We are bringing a message to Parliament. We have over 3,000 names," said Bernie Williams, another organizer of the walk. "We are bringing the message that these are crimes against humanity."

While the walkers' goal is to arrive in Ottawa at the start of the next parliamentary session, there appears to be a possibility that the government will not reconvene at the time, if Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls a fall election. But such prospects have not deterred the walkers, said Williams.

"We are not going away," she said. "We are coming back in four years, to do the same walk again. This is very serious work for us."

The walkers were welcomed to Sudbury on Sunday by a group including members of the local aboriginal community, social activists, labour leaders, Laurentian University students, Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas and other New Democratic Party politicians.

The group gathered on the Laurentian campus for speeches, prayer, a smudging ceremony and a dinner, then spent the night at the university's student centre.

I don't know anything about the Walk's itinerary from here, but it you live in southern Ontario it is probably worth looking around on the web for it -- if it is coming to your city, please support it!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Review: Casting Out

[Sherene H. Razack. Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law & Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.]

It is a difficult thing to have a useful, grounded discussion about what has really changed since September 11, 2001. Any attempt must happen in the shadow of the media-amplified trumpeting in that day's aftermath that everything had already changed when the planes hit the towers, a claim forcefully advanced by the Bush administration and supported by most of the liberal and right-wing of the political class in North America in ways that served to seize the moment of collective pain and uncertainty and direct it towards support for various reforms strengthening regimes of ruling and further concentrating power. A lot of commentary that has followed from more critical sources has also felt at least a little off to me, too, whether it has reacted by overemphasizing the (admittedly very important) continuity of the workings of power in the world before and after that fateful day or whether it has taken advantage of the commonsense that some sort of discontinuity had occurred to make points for new-seeming, radical-sounding academicking. Though it is not without things that could be enhanced and expanded, I think Casting Out is an important attempt to think through in a grounded way one kind of shift that has been happening in Canada and in the West more generally, and to inform activist practice that favours anti-racist feminist political change in the early 21st century.

Razack takes a case study approach to look at some of the ways in which Muslims have been targeted in the West, usually in ways that continue trends from before 9/11 -- both immediately before and with roots in the entire project of European colonial domination -- but with enhanced intensity since then. The cases she examines are the security certificate law in Canada, which has been used primarily in recent years to subject Muslim men of colour to secret trials under threat of deportation that in many instances is likely to lead to torture; the photographically celebrated sexualized torture of prisoners by U.S. troops in Abu Ghraib prison in recolonized Iraq; the general appropriation of mainstream feminism and feminist language by empire, as exemplified by three recent books; laws in European countries that are ostensibly about preventing 'forced marriages' in Muslim communities; and the so-called "Sharia debate" about proposed Muslim use of regulations in the Canadian province of Ontario allowing faith-based arbitration in some situations, which had been used by some Christians and Jews since 1990.

Each case study had its own particular interest for me. I was particular happy to see the one on security certificates, because I have been involved a little bit in organizing against the certificates and this is the first lengthy treatment I've seen of them as part of a book (though I've seen them mentioned in passing in a number of others). Razack explores several of the cases in greater detail than I've seen done elsewhere, especially that of Hassan Almrei. Her purpose is not to make final determinations of fact, which would in any case be impossible since so much about the proceedings are kept secret by the Canadian state. Rather, she uses the case details to demonstrate how this set of facts -- mostly circumstantial and based on the targeted men fitting a very general profile -- only becomes a plausible basis for indefinite detention and potential deportation to torture if a racist understanding of West Asian/North African/Muslim men is also informing its reading by spies, lawyers, judges, and the general public.

One difficulty that I sometimes have with Razack's work is in following the path she takes from the immediate circumstances she describes to her conclusions. Generally speaking, I get a lot out of her characterization of whatever immediate circumstances are of concern, I find her conclusions useful and challenging, and her writing is certainly not in the tradition of high academic obscuritanism. Still, I just don't always find it easy to follow how she connects the dots. I suspect this mostly has to do with lack of knowledge on my part. I know there are limits to the extent to which academic writing can consider the reading needs of the non-specialist while still obeying the mandates of the discipline, but it can still be a little disappointing. In this book, I found the chapter on Abu Ghraib, with its focus on the political significance of the soldiers documenting their sexualized sadism of racialized men, to be a particular example of this difficulty for me.

Razack's general thesis focuses on the way in which three figures play a central role in Western discourse about Muslims at this point in time: the "civilized European", the "dangerous Muslim man", and the "imperilled Muslim woman." It is through these figures, which permeate the dominant commonsense in North America, that gender gets used as a tool of racist and imperial domination. The later chapters in the book probe the ways in which racist and imperial oppression on the one hand and patriarchal and fundamentalist oppressions on the other -- all real dangers -- get constructed as practical opposites, where only by embracing one can you oppose the other. It is quite powerful to read her write about her own pain and uncertainty in seeking space to contest this destructive dualism.

She also argues that race-thinking remains central to discourse and social organization in the West, and that "exception" is being increasingly used as a tool against Muslims and other oppressed peoples. The idea of the state of exception comes from Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben, who presents it as the creation in law of spaces or situations that are explicitly oustide of the law, that are legally lawless. A prime example for Agamben is the concentration and death camps of the 20th century. Razack points out that exception has always been part of colonialism -- the creation of space in law in which the supposedly universal norms do not apply for one reason or another -- and the recent increase in its use is not something novel but just the current motion in a very old pattern for European legal systems. Specifically, in present-day North America and Europe, basic signs of Muslimness are enough to cast people out of supposed universals, whether that is in law, as in security certificates, or other less formalized but equally damning ways.

A final section that I found particularly interesting, in light of my recently completed chapter on religion, was her discussion of secularism in the final chapter of the book. She used language that is a little different than I probably would, but what she said boiled down to the idea that historically in Europe and currently around the globe "secularism" functions as an ideology that bolsters the power of the state by disguising its functions in various forms of domination under the role of neutral arbiter accepted by all who have loyalties in other spheres that might compete and/or lead to conflict.

There are things that could have been developed more fully in this book. In particular, I deliberately read Casting Out in light of Sunera Thobani's Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada and Nandita Sharma's Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of 'Migrant Workers' in Canada, both of which I have recently reread for a little writing side-project that I will get into in earnest in the coming week. It seems to me that Razack is presenting some compelling evidence for current shifts in relations of white supremacy in Canada and globally, and it would be useful to have those put in the context of the earlier shift towards the multiculturalist variant of white supremacy described by Thobani, to get a more complete picture of continuity and change at this moment in histroy. As well, Thobani's strong, insistent foregrounding of the colonial dispossession of indigenous nations on Turtle Island and its continuing relevance for all anti-racist struggle in this part of the world is also missing from this book. And I think the power of Razack's argument would be enhanced by Sharma's explicit articulation of the complex relations among race, nation, and state practices. This is particularly true as I think there is some potentially interesting stuff that might emerge from juxtaposing the details of their respective discussions of mechanisms for legal exclusion, Sharma for people forced into the category of "migrant worker" since the early '70s and Razack for Muslims particularly since 9/11.

This book is a useful tool for thinking through how social relations in Canada and in the West more generally have shifted in the last seven years, and also how they have been quite consistent over the last five centuries. It also provides important insights for thinking about how empire and oppression (and resistance to them) might shift further in the coming years.

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

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Walk4Justice in Sudbury

If you are in Sudbury tomorrow, please come out to support the Walk4Justice, a group of indigenous women walking across the country for the over 3000 women who have gone missing or been murdered in the last forty years.

Here is the text of a community announcement about the event:

Community Announcement
Walk4Justice in Sudbury August 24-25 Update

SUDBURY, ONTARIO, August 21, 2008. - Walk4Justice is a group of Indigenous women walking for the over 3000 women who have gone missing or been murdered in the last forty years in the northern part of Turtle Island (Canada), the majority being Indigenous women. Walk4justice will arrive in the Sudbury area this Sunday August 24th between 11am and noon.

● We are asking Supporters to gather to greet them at the Whitefish turn off at the intersection of Highway 17 and Regional Rd. 55 at 11:00am (all times are approximate and check with Gary at 523-2205 or Carole at 562-6215 to confirm). Supporters will then walk with them towards Sudbury. The walk can be intermittent (walk/ride in a car). Once the group gets into the City, they stop walking and drive in so as not to disturb traffic. If you need a lift to get there or if you can transport other people out to this location please contact Gary or Carol.

● At 1:30 pm supporters will meet them at the main entrance to Laurentian University on Ramsey Lake Road and walk together to the welcoming ceremony at the Tipi in the courtyard behind the Classroom and Arts Buildings. The welcome will include smudging, drumming, a prayer, and several speakers. This will be followed by a community feast. The walkers will be staying at the Student Centre at Laurentian University overnight and will be participating in a breakfast at the N’Swakamok Friendship Centre on Monday morning from 8-10am. They will be leaving Sudbury to walk towards Toronto at 10am on August 25th. If you can assist with any of these activities please contact Gary or Carol.

A number of indigenous and non-indigenous groups and individuals in the Sudbury community have come together to support Walk4Justice. This includes Sudbury Against War and Occupation, Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre, Women’s Ad Hoc Steering Committee, YWCA Sudbury, the Sudbury and District Labour Council, Canadian Labour Congress, White Bear Singers, Native Student Affairs at Laurentian University, Students’ General Association at Laurentian University, N’Swakamok Friendship Centre, White Buffalo Road Healing Lodge, New Democratic Party, Canadian Auto Workers/Mine Mill Local 598 and United Steel Workers Local 2020. Across the country the Walk4Justice is supported by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Amnesty International and many other organizations.

Walk4Justice started their walk from Vancouver June 21st and are making their way to Ottawa. As they go from community to community the walkers are remembering those who are missing, gathering their names and their stories. On September 15, they will rally on Parliament Hill to demand a response from the federal government to the violence against Indigenous women. Walk4Justice is calling on the Federal Minister of Justice, the Attorney General of Canada and the British Columbia Attorney General for a full public inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

For more information contact : Gary Kinsman (523-2205) or Carol Hughes (562-6215). E-mail:

And if you don't live in Sudbury, check around on the net to see if the walk is coming to your community!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Petition Against Arms Show in Ottawa

Please sign the following petition from the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade calling on the City of Ottawa to respect a 1989 city council motion that responded to extensive mobilization by anti-war and peace activists and banned war-related trade shows from municipal property. Two arms shows in the next two years are currently booked into municipal property in Ottawa.

Here's some background:

The "US Embassy Defense & Security Exhibition" (Sep.30-Oct.1, 2008), goes against an Ottawa Council motion of 1989 that "city facilities not be leased to ARMX or other such arms exhibitions.”

The City has not hosted any such events since 1989 when the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade rallied thousands to Lansdowne Park to protest ARMX—Canada’s largest arms bazaar.

Secure Canada 2008: The US arms expo is part of a large military show called "Secure Canada 2008." It's sponsors are the US and UK governments, major US war-related industries, the top lobby group for US arms makers, the US Chamber of Commerce in Canada, and two Canadian magazines catering to the military-industrial complex.

CANSEC 2009: Ottawa has also leased municipal property at Lansdowne for an even bigger arms trade show in 2009.

We stopped them before, we can stop them again!

And the petition text:

We, the undersigned, call on the City of Ottawa to respect the commitment made by City Council in 1989 to ban war-related trade shows from municipal property by stopping "Secure Canada 2008," "CANSEC 2009" and all other such manifestations of the arms trade from taking place at Ottawa City facilities, including Lansdowne Park.

Sign it!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Support University of Sudbury Faculty Forced Out On Strike

Sorry for the long gap between posts. I've been out of town, and the last bunch of days it was without internet access, which was unsurprisingly but embarrassingly agonizing (though the rockin' cottage, the adorable wee neices, the great family-provided live music, the ample opportunity to read books, the hammock, and the view of Georgian Bay more than made up for it). Anyway, I'm back, though I may not get a substantive post up for a few days, since I'm on full-time kid-patrol for the rest of the week. In the meantime, here is a union fact sheet, released yesterday, about a strike here in Sudbury. (The University of Sudbury is a small institution federated with the larger and more widely known Laurentian University.)

"University of Sudbury" Local of Laurentian University Faculty Association - ON STRIKE
Fact Sheet #1 (August 18, 2008)

Why are we on strike at this time of the year?
  • Since Thursday, August 14, our collective agreement is no longer in force. On Friday 15, our employer has required each individual faculty member to sign a contract dictating working conditions and salaries.
  • If UofS faculty sign this contract, this will mean the de facto termination of our union, of our job protection, and of the working conditions that we have managed to obtain through hard struggle in the past years.
  • The employer leaves us with no other choice than to go on strike at this time of the year in order to protect our jobs. Our strike is not about bringing pressure to negotiate but rather is a defensive move to establish the existence and basic rights of unionized faculty.

What were the issues being negotiated?
  • Salaries - as of 2007-08, the average salary at UofS is about 25% below the average salary at Laurentian University faculty, which is itself below the provincial average
  • Teaching workload - UofS faculty have the highest teaching load in Ontario. At present, they have to teach 3 credits more per year than their colleagues of humanities programmes at Laurentian. Furthermore, fourth-year courses are taught as overloads.
  • Job security - in the course of negotiations, it has appeared that the employer does not want to protect tenure any longer and wants freedom to lay off tenured members. This would be the only university in Ontario to have that freedom.

Why is the salary issue important?
  • It will become increasingly difficult to attract and keep new faculty. UofS will become a stopover for faculty looking for something better.
  • It is an equity issue: it is unacceptable that UofS faculty, who are members of the Laurentian federation, be paid less than all their other colleagues for the same work.

Why is the teaching workload important?
  • Teaching is the main part of faculty’s workload, but it is not the only one. Another main activity of all university faculty around the world is research and publication of its results. At present, the teaching workload at UofS makes very difficult for professors to pursue a fruitful and productive research. As a consequence, UofS gradually loses its image of being a real university.
  • It is an equity issue: at present, our colleagues in the humanities at Laurentian teach 15 credits per year. We are asking a reduction of our teaching workload from 18 to 15 credits.

Why is the protection of tenure important?
  • Tenure is important because it allows academic freedom, which is the most basic principle of university life in the Western world. In Canada, a university that does not protect tenure loses its university status. Professors must be free to pursue their teaching and research activities without any threat of being laid off.

What effect will an unfair and uncompetitive settlement have on UofS students?
  • A seriously impaired quality of education.
  • Reduction in quality and quantity of research.

Can the university afford to offer faculty a fair and competitive settlement?
  • Judge for yourself: thanks to the dedication of its faculty, in the recent years the University of Sudbury has had the highest student enrolment of its history. UofS is in excellent financial shape.

The foregoing represents the situation as of August 18. Negotiations have broken down. However, faculty are eager to reach a settlement as soon as possible. Can the same be said of management?

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Review: Beyond Resistance: Everything

[El Kilombo Intergalactico. Beyond Resistance: Everything -- An Interview with Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. Durham, NC: PaperBoat Press, 2007.]

This is a slim volume put together by El Kilombo Intergalactico, "a people of color collective made up of students, migrants, and other community members in Durham, North Carolina." They say that their aim "is to create a space to strengthen our collective political struggles while simultaneously connecting these struggles with the larger global anti-capitalist movement" [vi].

The book has three parts. It begins with a short, smart Introduction by the collective that put it together. Then it has an extensive interview with Marcos, the masked public face of the Zapatistas. It ends by reprinting The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which as far as I know is the latest major statement by the Zapatistas about who they are and what they intend to do.

The Introduction presents some concepts that the Zapatistas have used in their writings and that El Kilombo Intergalactico has found useful in assessing their own relationship to struggle. The Zapatistas believe the world is embroiled in the Fourth World War -- after the two we all name that way plus the Cold War for number three -- which is not a war between states that will have identifiable winners and losers as the first three did, but a war between humanity and the "Empire of Money". Which is to say, a war between humanity and capitalism. Every day, humanity is attacked, fenced in, harmed, degraded by the various manifestations of the logic of capital. The face that Marx called "primitive accumulation" means ongoing direct violence and taking by force. Then there is the creeping expansion of market logic into ever more facets of life. And there is the extraction of profit from anything and everything. Wherever there are practices, logics, or any potential anchors to ways of being that are not totally subsumed by capital, there the battles of the Fourth World War are fought. In the course of this war, states are increasingly transformed along neoliberal lines, armies are turned increasingly on their own populations, and conventional politics -- the path to supposed change that forces you into the realm of state power -- is a trap.

They are particularly vehement that the logic of the state form, the kinds of practices that it imposes on you even as you try to subdue it and turn it to your own ends, cannot be avoided. They recommend practices of democracy that are grounded, lived, rather than the idealistic conception of democracy in which we are trapped in North America. They advocate understanding society by starting with and centring those at the bottom. This allows you to see clearly a difference they describe as being between "power" and "Power", which I have also seen characterized as "power-to" vs. "power-over." The key to creating change is not to struggle to win Power, but to get on with the business of exerting power to collectively create the lives and communities and societies that you want. If you are truly exerting power that is not fundamentally about exerting Power -- and many elitist 'alternatives' in rich countries that have no oppositional edge to them depend very much on Power for their existence, however much they might have internal logics that are non-capitalist -- then you will inevitably come into conflict with capital and those who enforce it. This democracy is built as a sort of praxis cycle that includes practices like encounters between those who might wish to make common cause, assemblies to govern things, the creation in the here and now of ways of doing things that we might wish in the other world that is possible, and rebellion.

The interview with Marcos has the flavour of all of the Zapatista communications that I've seen. It is both humble and grand, grounded and flying high. There is humour, some grim, some sly, and some the sort you expect from that older uncle who thinks he's sooooo funny. There is a richness to it, a fluorishing complexity, that is a world away from what North American lefty academics write when they want to come across as rich and complex -- that is, it is powerful ideas in simple words. It is accessible.

The reason for this, I think, is that it flows from doing -- it is answering political questions with words that is integrated into answering political questions in actions. This makes a huge difference. And that really is the substance of the interview: Marcos talking about how the Zapatistas do things. Always just below the surface is the question, "And how do you do things?" It talks about the process the Zapatistas went through in figuring out the approach that was eventually embodied in the Sixth Declaration. It talks about how the Zapatista approach relates to things like geography and identity, with a strong emphasis on the ability of choices made in struggle to move beyond the inherited definitions of the past and on transformation through encounter with others. It seeks a politics that isn't based on our minimum requirements, on the minimum common denominator in which some sort of weak coalition can be forged, but on beginning from what we really want and on finding paths to unity that allow that. Then it goes on to talk about some of the practical creation of alternatives that the Zapatistas have done, including their autonomous municipalities and various grassroots services; some attention to the relationship between the individual and the collective (with the firm stance that the individual can only be realized in the context of a supportive collective); a look at the migrant justice movement in the U.S.; and a return to the staunch anti-political class stance exhibited elsewhere in the interview.

The basic political values exhibited here (and, again, in other Zapatista writings) speak to me. If my practice does not embody them, it is not because they do not speak to what I desire but because of my own context and my own frailty. There is a great emphasis on listening, on putting much effort into creating space to say, "This is me. Who are you?" They place great emphasis on seeing the connections between things. They imagine a unity across difference that values this not-sameness but seeks to transcend how power gives it force as difference -- through unity as political process based on the idea of identity as "I am this-and-more-than-this" rather than unity as assumption based on whatever ontological sameness that inevitably does violence to someone. They claim no blueprint, want no blueprint, but are committed to we are, this is where we are going, where are you going, and might we go there together.

One of the most interesting strengths of both the Zapatista approach to changing the world on the ground and to the way of seeing change that it requires of you is illustrated most strikingly for me by those who refuse to see it. There are left voices that I respect and know I can learn from in other ways that are utterly dismissive of the Zapatistas. They are, often, older Marxist men, and they see no alternative but seeking to take Power, to take the state, as a means to struggle against capital. They see their position as being ruthlessly practical, as dealing with the hard, unpleasant fact of the state's control of our lives, as using one of the few potential tools that exists for us. Yet to me they seem to be very disconnected from what actually goes on in the world. And I don't so much object to the criticisms they make of the Zapatista project as having problems, as being incomplete, as being imperfect, as having a certain pervasive tenuousness. All of that is true. What I object to is the self-deception involved in not seeing how their own preferred path is just as fraught, how the state form deforms their heroes and makes their project just as tenuous, and much more in danger of becoming the tool by which freedom is limited.

Perhaps the biggest question this book raises for me is what exactly it has to do with me. I like its principles, I like the actions it talks about, but when I think about what it might mean to apply them here -- or, to be truer to the spirit in which they are advanced, to learn from them as I walk my own path -- I feel at a loss. Is that because of where I am walking or is it because of some failure of imagination on my part? I don't know.

I mean, I know that rebellion is ordinary, and revolution an everyday thing. Yet the everyday sense in which all of us who live under capital live within-and-against, in which we assert our wholeness and therefore our opposition to that which denies it, if only for a moment, if only in this one specific way, seems so terribly fragmented in North America. I cannot help but think that walking from place to place declaring, "We are here. We rebel. Here's what we are doing," would get little more than blank stares, here. And yet I know that's not true, I know there are collective spaces in North America that cannot help but exist in collectively conscious rebellion, because it is necessary to survive. And I know even from that quite privileged realm, the blogosphere, that rebellion exists. Yes, vast numbers of the broad, formless "we" that claims to want better things for people are caught up in centring ways of shaping the social designed to catch our labour in ways that reinforce ruling regimes even when we win reforms, but there are also indications of many, many, mostly isolated people who are struggling in our own ways to figure out how to do in ways that respond to immediate need but do not get caught up in the state. And even if it looks different to be forging new subjectivities through the ebb and flow of struggle in the relatively privileged social segment of North America which produced me, that doesn't mean it isn't happening.

But if someone in a knitted mask were to come up to me and say, "We are here. We rebel. This is what we are doing. What are you doing?", I'm not sure that I could make a reply proportionate to either the question or the problems that all of us face. I'm not sure the spaces I inhabit have even reached resistance, let alone reached a place where we are ready to go beyond it.

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

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Double Standard Brought To You By Canadian Colonialism

Recently I was involved in a conversation with an indigenous person who has had many years of experience responding to the desperate need found in most indigenous communities in Ontario, through working for and with state-funded nongovernmental organizations run by indigenous people and with a mandate to provide social services of various kinds to indigenous people within the Canadian state. They are what we knew as "Aboriginal community agencies" when I worked in the agency sector. I was blown away by what this person had to say about the extent to which such agencies are pressured to keep the people that work for them out of involvement in activities that their funders might not like. That is, out of anything resembling politics.

I mean, I worked for a white-dominated mainstream para-state social service agency for a couple of years, and I learned a lot about the ways in which funders control what such organizations can actually do. It is not pretty, and it is definitely an instrument through which hegemony happens. I think the Liberal Party of Canada deserves to be condemned en masse to an eternity of breaking large rocks into smaller rocks using only xylophone mallets for their role in creating the swell in homelessness in Canada in the late '90s and then cynically pretending to deal with the problem through inadequate, misdirected bandaid funding (some of which paid my salary, I'll admit). Though to be fair I know lots of people in lots of communities used that money to do important, even heroic, things that saved lives and reduced suffering, because it was what they had to work with.

But when I worked there, what we did off the clock was our own business. I'm sure there were limits to that -- that I could come up with scenarios in which my non-work political activities might have resulted in me being fired. Or, since the boss there was pretty intensely lawsuit-averse, that could have meant my contract would have been quietly not renewed. But most of those scenarios involve me being not just involved with radical politics but also being an idiot, or else the existence of an intensity of social struggle that has not come close to existing for the white-dominated radical left in this part of the world during my adulthood.

But according to the person I talked to tonight, Aboriginal community agencies are pressured by their funders -- that is to say, the settler state, for the most part -- with sufficient intensity that in many cases even showing up to the wrong event on your own time can get you into trouble, and a pattern of visible own-time involvement on the vaguely radical side is guaranteed to do so. Even granting that this may not be a universal experience, it says something that the way this was related was that it was just a fact of life.

This clear double standard makes me think of a story once relayed to me by a fellow young-middle-class-white-guy I was active with when I lived in another city. He told me he had been talking with someone we both had met a few times, a respected older Mohawk guy who, judging by what we knew about all the things he did in the community, was very much an activist, and was from a family that had a reputation as activists. This guy said, with a glint of grim humour and obviously making a point to my friend, "You're an activist, eh? You won't find any Indians who are activists, because they all end up locked up or dead."

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Fun With Colours

Hey all.

Just to let you know, at the suggestion of thwap, I'm going to be playing around with the colour scheme for the next little bit. Once it seems to have settled down, feel free to leave a comment with your opinion re. the aesthetics and the readability.

UPDATE: Well, that was unexpected. I ended up making more significant changes to the blog's appearance than I had intended, including breaking some stuff that I then had to put some time into fixing. But it's all better now, and I think I like this layout and colour scheme.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Writing About History

Red Jenny is writing about history. And what she's writing is definitely worth reading.

A snippet:

The past is often treated as the other of the present, as if it can be captured, but in truth it escapes our grasp. The infinite fullness and diversity of the vanishing present cannot be held onto, preserved, as the antiquarian would desire. It slips through our fingers. We can never capture the past in its rich livingness; we cannot make it present. Neither can we cram it into a single master narrative, to possess its essence or meaning. Its teeming complexity will overflow even the grandest monumental account.

We can never know everything that happened in the past – Nietzsche's superhistorical perspective notwithstanding – but neither can we be outside of history. Though the past has passed, its traces remain in the present. If I have a broken leg, it is because last week's event – say, falling out of a tree – is in some way present today. There is no standpoint outside of history, outside of human experience. As temporal beings, we are imperfect, finite, embedded in a particular history and culture. This contingency of our existence, rather than discouraging, is actually cause for hope. If contingent, it can be created otherwise. We can destabilize history's all-knowing narratives of power by starting with the limits. This opens new vistas. An imaginative source for re-presentation, history can be transformative. This is history in service of life.