Friday, April 29, 2016

Let's Pause and Reflect on the Outrage at Canada's Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia

There is something heartening about just how much mainstream public outrage there is at the decision of the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau to finalize approval for the massive sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding liberal (and Liberal) mythologies that downplay and deny it, Canada has a lot to answer for (1, 2) when it comes to war, militarism, and empire -- from our founding on the basis of conquest and genocide; to our significant past and present of profit-making (and wage-earning) based on manufacturing machinery of war and death; to our support of or active involvement in overthrowing elected governments; to participating actively not in all, but in many, US-led imperial military interventions that have brought death and chaos to civilians. So, believe me, any active outrage at Canadian complicity in war and militarism is very welcome.

At the same time, there is something suspiciously selective about this outrage. I know that those who are most involved in this issue in grassroots ways are quite clear about their outrage at all manifestations of Canadian complicity in war, militarism, and empire, not just this one. I also know that there are features of the Saudi regime's behaviour that are distinct and that deserve to be specifically named and deplored. But why is Canadian complicity in the Saudi regime's oppressive violence met with an outrage that is expressed and resonates far more broadly than, say, outrage at Canadian complicity -- both direct and through all sorts of support (including arms sales) to the US -- in the horrific violence inflicted on the world by the Western bloc? (And why does even the act of making that comparison no doubt come across as ridiculous to so many Canadians?)

There's a lot going on there, I think. The violence and harm done by the West (including Canada) is organized quite differently than the brutalities of the Saudi regime. (Though, frankly, the brutalities of the Saudi regime definitely count towards the Western tally, as there is no way the House of Saud would've lasted as long as it has if it was not propped up by the West.) The violence and harm done by the West is also treated quite differently in the mainstream media, and much of it is ignored, so it shouldn't be a surprise to us that people regard it differently. But both bound up in those things and functioning independently are white supremacist and colonial reasons as well. The image of "barbaric" brown men has been a staple of the Western imperial imagination for at least a couple of centuries, so it's no wonder that violent, oppressive behaviour by them can be named more easily and evokes a more powerful response among many white Canadians than the substantially more impactful violent, oppressive behaviour by us. And it is also central to the imperial imagination that violence and harm done by us and by our allies is by definition at least given the benefit of many doubts if not automatically assumed to be justified, whereas violence and harm done by them -- and despite still formally being an ally, the Saudi regime has definitely fallen into enough disfavour with enough elite opinionmakers in North America to at least provisionally count as them, even without the racial, cultural, and religious othering in the mix -- is much more easily recognized as a problem.

Now, pieces like this that respond to some progressive or left initiative by saying "But what about...!" can sometimes feel like a form of posturing, and their impact can tend towards the demobilizing. I really don't want to be doing those things. So I want to be clear that I'm not saying we shouldn't be outraged by the Canadian sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, or that we shouldn't do whatever we can to stop it -- we should, and we should. I also want to be clear that the question I'm raising is more than one of individual political rhetoric or choices, though it is that as well -- this flows from how the issues and the imagery and the ways we have readily available to us for responding to them are socially produced and organized. It's not just about us fish; it's about the sea we swim in too.

What I am suggesting, though, is that we pause for a moment and reflect. What does it mean that our quite reasonable and valid political goal -- stopping this arms deal, as we should stop all arms deals -- is getting a boost in this case from these larger oppressive narratives (and the social relations they exist in conjunction with), and therefore is also reproducing and reinforcing them? What do we need to be doing and saying differently, to take this into account and respond to it in politically responsible ways? How do we need to be framing Saudi crimes differently? How do we need to be framing Canadian, US, and broader Western crimes differently?

I have no easy answers to these questions, but I don't think we're doing anyone any favours by failing to ask them.

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