Monday, February 27, 2006
There are times one simply has to leave the blogosphere behind and enter the real world, if through circuitous routes and odd back doors. A couple of days dog-mushing can do that.
For my American friends: no, this is not downtown Ottawa. It's near South River, in Algonquin Park. Rank beginners we are, but we'll be back for the five-day run next February.
One last point: it's not just moving effortlessly along watching the scenery. It's hard work every inch of the way, and I have 639 sore muscles to prove it. Anything happen while I was away?
Monday, February 20, 2006
I wonder, for example, whether the UCC would have raced so quickly to weigh in if the editors and publishers of the Standard and the JFP had been UCC members in good standing? That seems improbable, doesn't it? In view of the United Church's admitted history of anti-Semitism, I'd like to ask James Sinclair and Bruce Gregersen on behalf of all Canadians whether it's a coincidence that they feel so progressive and so comfortable in judging people with names like Richard Bronstein, Ezra Levant, and Kevin Libin guilty of presumptive "racial hatred" where no evidence exists. Surely the question whether the UCC regards public Jew-bashing as marvelous sport for an idle Friday afternoon is at least as fair as the UCC's own letter is.
The UCC is the bastard grandchild of the faith of my fathers.
The other day the United Church of Canada stated the obvious: publication of the anti-Muslim cartoons in Europe, and now in Canada by Ezra Levant of the Western Standard and the Jewish Free Press, "has little to do with freedom of expression and much to do with incitement to racial and religious hatred....The answer to your question of 'why publish such cartoons' we believe is simply racial hatred."
It would appear that National Post superstar Colby Cosh has taken the brave plunge to become another one of Ezra Levant's defenders, albeit by a side route: the United Church of Canada is, in his hands, a useful foil. Levant's low style is reproduced faithfully here, as the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps.
Let's have a look at the more spectacular claims in the quotations above, and judge Cosh's credibility on the basis of his own words.
To begin with, the conscientious act of contrition by the United Church in 2003, confessing historical complicity with the Christian church as a whole in anti-Semitism, is now being used by Cosh in a grossly sinuous manner to denigrate the United Church of Canada and to accuse it implicitly of continuing anti-semitism. I would dispose of that by urging readers to follow the link that he so helpfully provides. Joe McCarthy would be proud of Cosh's disingenuous juxtaposition. It's in a grand tradition.
Cosh, however, doesn't stop there. According to him, criticizing Levant and the JFP editors is--wait for it--"Jew-bashing." Certainly he attempts to make his claims ironically, stating that they are the moral equivalent of imputing race-hatred to the cartoon-publishers. But this comes off as rather lame and suspect. Anyone who reads the Western Standard can just feel Levant's visceral hatred for the Muslim Other. He delights in vicious and unfounded attacks, one of which I have blogged about here. The man is clearly an extremist, and frankly not worth defending--unless his defenders have their own axes to grind.
Levant, and the publisher of the Jewish Free Press, don't get a pass from justified criticism because they happen to be Jewish. To suggest such a thing, even to score a cheap debating point, is devious, not to mention stupid. (No one has attempted, at least to date, to slander critics of the Jyllands-Posten's editors as "anti-Danish," for example.) Cosh's broadside is in fact merely the latest instance of the neo-MacCarthyite smear tactic of deploying words like "anti-Semitism" to attempt to discredit and silence critics of Israel, supporters of the Palestinian cause, or even those who merely deplore gratuitous insults spewed at ordinary workaday Muslims.
Sorry, Cosh, it won't wash. You're trying to have your cake and eat it too. You're arguing motive here, admit it. And your slagging of the United Church in the second comment reproduced above simply reveals the penchant of conservatives to use insult when rational argument is unavailable. "Bastard child?" Ah, your mother wears army boots. Nyah.
Today's Globe and Mail jumps on the fashionable denunciation bandwagon today, claiming that there couldn't possibly be a racial motive behind the gleeful and repetitive publication of the blasphemous anti-Muslim cartoons, heavens no, that the Jyllands-Posten had no idea that it would create the reaction it did, and that other papers were only re-publishing them for news interest or to defend freedom of speech. Pull the other one, fellas. The only real question before us is whether the publication and endless re-publication of the cartoons were exemplars of religious hatred or racial hatred, or both.
I would argue, in fact, that it's most likely the last. "The Muslim," as already noted, has been created in the Western popular imagination as the Other, whether a racial Other or a religious Other: the two are in any case conflated. The popular notion of a Muslim combines a taken-for-granted extremist religious fervor with clearly racialist imagery of swarthy Arabs with unmistakeable facial features in caricature, much like the anti-Semitic cartoons that played a role in the rise of Nazism. (Check out "Muslim" on Google images to get a sense of what I mean--fast-forward to the more run-of-the-mill editorial cartoons).
The sketches that caused offence were originally directed against a minority group--in Denmark, in France, you name it--which, like other minorities, is not in much of a position to fight back. They don't have newspapers. They don't have wads of cash to take out advertisements. They are expected, essentially, to suck it up--just another insult that the majority have the "right" to deploy, but by all means call it "free speech" or something equally noble to dress it up and make it respectable. Denmark contains a traditionally homogenous population--the Romans didn't even succeed in invading it--and immigration has not been welcomed by everyone. It is ruled today by a fairly right-wing government, and immigration has been on the political front burner for some time. Ditto France. That, and nothing else, is the context for the establishment media's publication of the scurrilous cartoons.
The Globe and Mail's disingenuousness on this issue is fairly plain. However, it abstains at least from hysterical shrieking about anti-semitism; the editorial must have gone at least into second draft. I expect I must, in view of Cosh's own scurrility, commend the editors for their admirable restraint.
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
The Kinsella challenge
As just about everyone in the Canadian blogosphere knows by now, Jean Chrétien’s footsoldier-in-exile, the aging punker Warren Kinsella, is suing Ottawa writer and amateur palaeontologist Mark Bourrie.
Mark has counter-claimed for abuse of process, and from my point of view he has reason on his side. The Kinsella suit looks frivolous and vexatious to me. Kinsella has threatened to sue a number of other bloggers in the past, but Bourrie is the first person to stand up to this egregiously narcissistic bully.
I have personally contributed $100 to the defence fund. If 100 bloggers do the same, that should be of major assistance in delivering the ass-kicking that Kinsella so richly deserves. Besides, it will help Mark hold on to his world-class fossil collection.
See you at Mark’s victory party.
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
As I write, a Forum sponsored by the International Women's Rights Project is taking place on Parliament Hill, to celebrate "Canadian women's historic constitutional victories--learn about constitutional opportunities and challenges in developing countries--and then brainstorm across national and generational boundaries, to develop new forward-looking strategies for action." The Forum has received generaous support from the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives. The conference was opened yesterday by the Honourable Josée Verner, our new Minister of International Cooperation.
Less than twenty-four hours before the Forum opened yesterday, 271 registrants were told that they had been de-registered. Co-signed by the Forum Chair, Marilou McPhedran, and The Forum Coordinator, Lindsey Dalton, the letter read:
You are receiving this email because our appeals to the Sergeant at Arms at the House of Commons to increase the space for the Forum that begins tomorrow have been rejected. Registration for the forum has exceeded the space allowed by the Sergeant at Arms by almost 300.
Every effort has been made to facilitate the involvement of a range of participants from all over Canada. However, we encourage you to share in this historic forum by watching it broadcast live on CPAC on the 14th and 15th of February. The proceedings from the forum and background materials can be accessed through both forum websites: www.adhoc2.org [This one doesn't work--DD] http://www.adhoc2.org and www.takingitglobal.org/livedrights.
We are truly sorry for inconvenience and disappointment but the matter is out of our hands. If you have not received a confirmation from Marilou McPhedran of (sic) Lindsey Dalton, you will not be allowed past security to enter the West Block.
Needless to say, this generated a lot of concern. It's difficult to unmake travel and leave arrangments at the last moment. But, on further inspection, there appears to be more to it.
Many of the registrants had registered early last month. They had been told, on-line, that they had "successfully" registered. Well, if the organizers received word at the last minute from the Sergeant at Arms, the matter really was out of their hands. If they had overbooked, waiting for positive word from that official, that was perhaps less acceptable. But now, it appears, a screening process was used to pick and choose among the registrants.
Here is what a Co-Chair of the Women and the Law group at Queen's University had to say, in part:
We have made financial commitments for arranging transport and accommodation for the 30 members of our Women and the Law group who had intended on participating in the conference--leaving us with less than 24 hours to react will certainly finds (sic) us in a difficult situation both logistically and financially.
While this matter appears to be out of your hands, I ask why was proper notice not given earlier?
We had registered as a group prior to the conference deadline following a conversation with Ms. McPhedran in which I was instructed that for so long as we register as a group that evening our registration would be secured. Some of our members have been confirmed and others declined--yet we all registered simultaneously (same date, same time). Furthermore, members of our group who had registered independently several weeks before the deadline have also been declined registration. I would like to know how it was decided that we would not be able to attend the conference as it does not appear to be on a first-come, first-served basis. [emphasis mine--DD]
And so would I.
[Declaration of interest: the applications of my step-daughter and partner, who had applied well before the deadline and had been told that they had "successfully registered," were also declined.]
Ah, wad some power the giftie gie us,
to see oorsels as ithers see us. . . .
I was recently contacted by Robin Koerner, who runs an excellent site called www.WatchingAmerica.com. He asked me to check the site out, I did, and I was impressed enough to add it to my blogroll. Over to Mr. Koerner:
My name is Robin Koerner, a Brit in NYC, and I am cofounder of the unique site, www.WatchingAmerica.com, which translates foreign news about the U.S., to enable Americans (and all English speakers) to read what is being written about them and their country throughout the world. Much of our content is available nowhere else in English. Our attempt to break down the final barrier to understanding – the language barrier – has attracted the attention of mainstream media (such as USA Today, dozens of other US papers, BBC, and various talk radio stations), since we launched about a year ago. We are generally considered now an A-list media site, mentioned and listed along with the NYT, BBC, CNN etc. What is put out in other countries in English for Western consumption often differs markedly from what is being written in the native languages. Accordingly, Watching America offers a unique window into world opinion. We have no political agenda or position.
Although we want to gain a mass readership, and are growing fast, our most exciting visitors include, on the one hand increasing numbers of university students as we appear as required reading for various courses, and on the other, pretty much all of the U.S. government departments, and in particular the CIA and State Department.
The two cofounders and around 30 translators work as volunteers, and we still have a long way to go until the project becomes self-supporting. One of the many great articles about our site can be found here.
I urge readers to check this site out. It's one modest step towards mutual understanding, and a tremendous source of information as well.
"The NDP is sick," shrieks Cherniak from his hospital pallet:
Why does the NDP exist? What is their purpose in Canadian politics? Should a political party be celebrating because they won less than 10% of the seats in the House of Commons? Should a political party be kicking out lifelong members because they do not adhere to party policy?
1) To promote a corruption-free, patronage-free, social-democratic agenda in Canadian politics. 2) See (1). 3) 29 seats is not insignificant. Even the old Progressive Conservative party was 27 seats short of that once upon a time.
Should a political party be celebrating because the group most opposed to their ideology is now in government?
It isn't. It's celebrating the downfall of the most sleazy, corrupt and values-free party in Canadian history. Jason Cherniak's party. I'm not making this up.
Should a political party be kicking out lifelong members because they do not adhere to party policy?
What, are we talking Carolyn Parrish here? Or is Cherniak being hypocritical? Nah...you think?
What is the purpose of the NDP?
Asked and answered.
I will admit that I am personally biased on this.
I never would have guessed.
Some readers might have noted that I have no NDP bloggers on my link list. This is not because there are no good NDP bloggers. It is because I do not tend to have much time for the NDP. I have never liked the party, but my real problems began with the 2004 election. I contacted the Young NDP and tried to set up a non-partisan youth registration campaign. The response was that my timing was "convenient" and that they were not interested.
Imagine that. They didn’t want to work with Cherniak? But who would, except other Liberal brown-nosers?
I thought it was convenient because there was an election - I still do not know what the heck they meant. Did they really think that the Young Liberal goal was to hurt the NDP by registering new voters? That is just one small example.
Overall I just find the NDP to be a waste of a political movement.
But it's the Liberals who are circling the bowl.
The difference between the party and its members is actually a perfect example of the problem. I know a lot of people who vote or consider voting for the NDP. They are mostly good, idealistic people who are trying to improve the world. The problem is that they have been siphonned [sic] off from the rest of politics.
Anyone know WTF Cherniak is blathering on about here?
They vote for a party that can never win because some of that party's policies have become policy over time.
Funny how "Cherniak logic" [tm] doesn’t seem to apply to the NDP governments of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, British Columbia and the Yukon.
They have gone for the argument that somehow losing on principle is more important than truly obtaining the opportunity to change Canada. That used to be the clarion call of the Reform Party.
Better "losing on principle" than winning with none.
As a blue-Liberal, I am somewhat torn on this. The NDP also includes a lot of people who I prefer to have on the outskirts of the real political debate. They are the people who throw rocks at police, take over condemned houses and support some "right" of suicide bombers to kill innocent Israelis. If all of these nut jobs are held together in one insignificant party, then the Liberal Party might be stronger in the long-run.
When in doubt, smear. Typical Liberal. Newsflash, Jason: nothing can make that cesspool called the "Liberal Party" stronger, in smell or in any other way.
The problem is that these extremists are still pulling away too many good people. The problem is that as much as the NDP cannot win, it is not an "insignificant' party. It is party [sic] that took just enough anti-Conservative votes to ensure that the Conservatives would win in January. It is the party that put forward a campaign based on little other than a game-show host as leader.
When in doubt, smear. When you have no argument, attack a person’s physical appearance and style. I will not mention here that tired old Liberal leader with the above-his-level-of-competence demeanour. I'm above that sort of thing.
It is the party that refused to work with Young Liberals in 2004 on a non-partisan youth registration campaign.
Liberals are simply never "non-partisan." There’s no money in it.
The NDP response to this last election has finally put me over the top. The joyous reacting to less than 10% of the seats was embarrassing.
What should they do--go into mourning? The NDP gained seats. Guess which party didn’t? Want some sugar with those sour grapes?
The positive reaction to a Conservative government was unprincipled.
Listening to a Liberal talk about "principle" is embarassing. But in any case, the positive reaction to the turfing of a profoundly corrupt spoils-distribution machine was entirely principled.
Now, the Stalinistic removal of a life-long member of the party for advocating strategic voting has proven that the extremists really are in charge.
Hargrove was removed through a democratic procedure for actively campaigning for another party during an election campaign. Go read the NDP constitution, prepare some counter-spin about Carolyn Parrish and get back to me.
(“Stalinistic?” Is Cherniak really this blitheringly stupid? Could be.)
I do not want the NDP to merge with the Liberals because the NDP has too many extremists who I would rather not work with.
At last--a point of agreement. I do not want such a merger either. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. Although, in the case of the Liberal party, it’s hard to find the dogs.
I do, however, think it is time for reasonable NDP supporters to reconsider what their political goal is.
No, thanks. Patronage, corruption and power for its own sake don’t appeal to us. Sorry.
There are certainly enough of them to help us Liberals mend some of our worst ways.
Cherniak's party is simply beyond repair. You can't put a shine on excrement.
Friday, February 10, 2006
Of free speech, hate and hypocrisyIn this corner, "free speech" as an alibi for causing offence and discord in our own communities and around the world. In the other, those who argue that respect and decency should, at least sometimes, prevail; that "freedom of speech" is not an absolute, that freedom does not mean license.
I am, no surprise, in the latter corner.
The denizens of the right half of the blogosphere claim to believe that people should have the right to be grossly insulting and offensive. But in Canada there are many exceptions. Libel, slander, defamation, hate propaganda and blasphemy (of the anti-Christian sort) are all illegal. Shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre is an offence against public order. Beware the invocation of absolutes: they are inevitably trotted out when other arguments fail, to blur an issue, to defend the indefensible.
I invite the Right to attempt to make the distinction between the vile Danish cartoons and the antisemitic caricatures that once infested the popular press at home and in Europe. They will not be successful, of course, because no such distinction exists. The Muslims are simply today's Jews--baiting them is plain fun, and objections can always be countered by invoking the right to "freedom of speech."
But how deep is the Right’s commitment to that freedom?
In fact, the hypocrisy of the Right on the cartoon issue is simply breathtaking. They have never, ever, believed in an unqualified freedom of speech. They have supported, either actively or through silent complicity, the shutting down of dissent or opinions that they don’t happen to like. They get strategically red in the face about antisemitism, using that label to smear critics of Israel, but Muslims are fair game for their visceral hatred.
Hatred? You bet. The re-publication of blasphemous cartoons in the blogosphere may indeed be a violation of the Criminal Code of Canada:
319. (1) Every one who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of
(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or
(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.
(2) Every one who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group is guilty of
(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or
(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.Will the RCMP investigate? Not likely, unless enough noise is made. Like the Jews in the first half of the 20th century, Muslims are expected to suck it up in silence: "As for peace-loving Muslims who are offended, well, too bad. Being offended is the price of freedom ."
Behold the triumph of "freedom of speech," in all its tainted glory.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
For the Conservatives not to use all legal parliamentary precedents to their advantage because of concerns over principle and optics, will only ensure the return of power to a Liberal Party proven to have no such reservations. Kate McMillan, SDA
Calgary’s blue-eyed boy, Stephen Harper, rode into weak power with a minority last month, partly on the basis of his promise to clean up government. On his second day in office, he showed what he was really made of, appointing a non-accountable Senator to the troubled post of Minister of Public Works and Government Services, and welcoming a Liberal into the Cabinet fold all of two weeks after the election.
The voters in Vancouver-Kingsway who put a Liberal in because they wanted to keep the Conservatives out were taught a short, sharp lesson in what “Canadian democracy” is all about. So, too, were those voters across the land who bought into Harper’s promise of government accountability. But feelings of betrayal and a looney will get you a cup of not-very-good coffee these days. A sufficient number of Canadians put Harper on the horse, and now, our system being what it is, we’ll just have to suck it up for a couple of years. "A dictatorship punctuated by elections," someone once described that system, and so it is.
To their considerable credit, a number of right-wing bloggers aren't willing to let go of their principles so easily. But perhaps it is indeed all about power. As Kate McMillan so charmingly puts it: "[Y]ou're goddamned right it's about power. This is politics. It's not the Special Olympics." If this is indeed the case, as it so clearly was with the disgraced Liberals, then the voters never did matter, elections are simply a means to an end, and, if they can be supplemented by grossly immoral political acts, all the better. Enter Nicolo Machiavelli.
As a student of The Prince, I happen to believe that Machiavelli has been unfairly portrayed in the popular mind. He was a brilliant state strategist, cutting through the rhetoric, the appeals to faith and honour and principle and so on, to the Realpolitik of it all. He helps us understand, at least to some degree, the current geopolitical scene, and probably current Canadian politics and political culture. His question was simple: do you want to come out ahead? Do you want to win? Then here’s what you have to do, Sire. It isn’t pretty, and it sure isn’t democratic, but it’ll get you where you want to go, and keep you there.
Now, this is actually description disguised as advocacy. Whether we like what Machiavelli has to say or not doesn’t really matter. It’s how things work, at least at present. Words like "democracy," "accountability," even "principle," have their uses to sway the public mind, but can easily be supplanted by other words if necessary: "leadership," "efficiency," "pragmatism," and the like.
Is Stephen Harper another avid reader of Machiavelli? You decide:
Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.
[A] wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them. Nor will there ever be wanting to a prince* legitimate reasons to excuse this nonobservance.
[I]t is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.
[I]t is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.
One prince of the present time, whom it is not well to name, never preaches anything else but peace and good faith, and to both he is most hostile, and either, if he had kept it, would have deprived him of reputation and kingdom many a time.
--Nicolo Machiavelli, "Concerning The Way In Which Princes Should Keep Faith," The Prince
I for one don’t hold to a too-absolute notion of "principle." I've seen too much of that sort of thing in the past: people trying to ford their way through unfamiliar waters using principle, and only principle, as a guide. But there are some political values that one gives up at a considerable price. Honesty is one of them. Democracy is another. The abandonment of either for reasons of expediency corrupts the body politic, as years of Liberal rule should have taught all of us by now.
That Harper is following on this sordid path isn’t particularly surprising. Canadian political culture has, in truth, never been particularly honest or democratic. Even in the heady early days of Reform, policy wasn’t made democratically, despite the grass-rootsy nature of the movement: it was decided by a small inner circle with their eyes on the long-term. The question is whether an alternative is even possible. If so, nothing less than a transformation of political culture is needed.
At present, the pundits bemoan low voter turnouts, “apathy” and the like. A 2003 poll in the CCPA Monitor indicated that only 28% of Canadians think citizens have any political influence; 28% have confidence in Parliament; 13% have confidence in our political parties; and only 25% trust the federal government to do the right thing.
This is precisely the sort of thing that gladdens the hearts of those who would rule for the sake of ruling. Public cynicism and apathy are the handmaidens of corruption. No wonder the major parties are lukewarm on electoral reform, for example. Implementation of some kind of proportional representation would ensure that few votes are wasted: the House of Commons would more accurately reflect the electoral landscape. That might encourage more involvement by ordinary Canadians in the political process, and with more involvement comes more public scrutiny.
But we need to go further than that, much further. The very notion of "politics" needs to be fundamentally democratized, built and maintained from the bottom up, leadership made accountable on a daily basis, and involvement encouraged, not by empty rhetoric, but by results. Building new "machinery," like recall petitions and an elected Senate and rules against floor-crossing won't do it. Those are just new hurdles for the unscrupulous to jump.
People need to know that they matter in the political process, at all levels of government. Telling them that they do is not enough.
I invite discussion. _________________________________________________
*Nor to some of the prince's advocates, it appears.
Sunday, February 05, 2006
The penny drops"Thousands of Muslims rampaged Sunday in Beirut, setting fire to the Danish Embassy, burning Danish flags and lobbing stones at a Maronite Catholic church as violent protests spread over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
"The Danish foreign minister said: 'enough is enough.'
" 'Now it has become more than a case about the drawings: Now there are forces that wants a confrontation between our cultures,' [Per Stig] Moeller said. ' It is in no one's interest, neither them or us.' "
Bravo. But, regrettably, too little, too late.
Saturday, February 04, 2006
Having had a little more time to reflect on the international cartoon controversy, I think it may be advisable to add some sober analysis to my earlier visceral reaction to Muslim-baiting in the media and the blogosphere. Not that I take anything back. The gleeful publication of the offensive cartoons, ostensibly in the name of "freedom of speech," or as a blow struck in the so-called "clash of civilizations," was and is nothing more than a privileged assertion of superiority. It was a deliberate slap in the face to millions, most of whom are out of sympathy with the more egregious forms of Islamic extremism. It proved nothing to them--nor to me--about freedom of speech. It reiterated, rather, who has the power and who does not, both in Europe and in the Middle East.
With respect to the publication of the cartoons per se, I find strange bedfellows indeed: the White House and Westminster. But we all know the politics of that. Both the US and the UK are hunkered down in Iraq for the long haul, and this sort of thing can make the natives even more restless. It is a Globe and Mail editorialist, likely Marcus Gee, to whom we must turn for an unintended but masterful account of power relations.
"Their wild overreaction," the title trumpets. Let's take a look at this reaction, then. In Europe, it has consisted of letters, demonstrations, calls for boycotts, demands for apologies--all the usual panoply of dissent that is supposedly accorded a kind of legitimacy in Western nations.
In the US, we have seen fundamentalist Christians organize bonfires for Beatles records, call for a boycott of Disneyworld, harass advertisers, force TV programs off the air (The Book of Daniel being only the most recent example), and in general make a nuisance of themselves. But we have seen few if any thundering editorials, no deliberate fanning of these flames by the media, no chest-beating in the blogosphere. During the years of news stories we have had to endure about pedophile priests, as one astute letter-writer in today’s Globe pointed out, we have seen no cartoon of Jesus Christ committing sodomy with a child. (What reaction does one suppose that would bring?)
The former, naturally, are held to be speaking for all Muslims. The latter, though, are just a handful of fanatics--right?
In any case, there is clearly more to the current imbroglio than the publication of some cartoons, blasphemous though they might be. Freedom of speech is not the issue. Religion is not the issue. These are just clothing worn by power. What does this publication and seemingly endless re-publication signify in that respect? Why are people insisting on doing this?
First, because the publishers can: because their targets, in the grand scheme of things, are powerless. Publication in this case is a plain exercise of power. The Muslims in Denmark, where the cartoons first appeared, had no comeback other than protest. They are largely an underclass in that country, they don’t own national newspapers, they don’t have any clout in the Danish Parliament. Their religious beliefs can be openly, sacrilegiously mocked with impunity. If they complain, they are piously told to grin and bear it. This is a liberal democracy, and offending people is a right. If you don't like it, get the hell back where you came from.
Secondly, because this is all taking place in a global context, in which a war has been framed since September 11, 2001 between "terrorists" and "the civilized." This binary was best summed up in Bush's "If you aren't with us, you're against us" speech after 9/11.
At this point, a context needs to be set.
What is a terrorist?
A terrorist is a violent person without access to warplanes, battleships and the very latest in weapons technology. A terrorist is a fighter who is not a member of a regular army. A terrorist is never part of an invading or an occupying force. A terrorist is fundamentally in a losing cause, or at least a cause that is less than promising, which explains the suicide bombings. Terrorists, indeed, are desperate people, and their etiology is well described by Franz Fanon:
The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the
frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it
is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted by
go-betweens, the spokesman of the settler and his rule of oppression. In
capitalist societies the educational system, whether lay or clerical, the
structure of moral reflexes handed down from father to son, the exemplary
honesty of workers who are given a medal after fifty years of good and
loyal service, and the affection which springs from harmonious relations
and good behaviour -- all these aesthetic expressions of respect for the
established order serve to create around the exploited person an
atmosphere of submission and of inhibition which lightens the task of
policing considerably. [...] In the colonial countries, on the contrary,
the policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their
frequent and direct action maintain contact with the native and advise him
by means of rifle butts and napalm not to budge. It is obvious here
that the agents of government speak the language of pure force. The
intermediary does not lighten the oppression, nor seek to hide the
domination; he shows them up and puts them into practice with the clear
conscience of an upholder of the peace; yet he is the bringer of violence
into the home and into the mind of the native.
The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone
inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the
service of a higher unity. [...] No conciliation is possible, for of the
two terms, one is superfluous. The settlers town is a strongly built
town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly lit town; the streets
are covered with asphalt, and the garbage cans swallow all the leavings,
unseen, unknown and hardly thought about. The settler's feet are never
visible, except perhaps in the sea; but there you're never close enough to
see them. [...] The settlers' town is a town of white people, of
the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame,
people by men of evil repute. [...] The native town is a hungry town,
starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town
is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town of wallowing in the
mire. It is a town of niggers and dirty Arabs. The look that the native
turns on the settler's town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it
expresses his dreams of possession -- all manner of possession: to sit at
the settler's table, to sleep in the settler's bed, with his wife if
possible. The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler
knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on
the defensive, 'They want to take our place'. It is true, for there is no
native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press  38-9.
Each one was thus personally responsible for the death of that victim.
To work means to work for the death of the settler. This assumed
responsibility for violence allows both strayed and outlawed members of
the group to come back again and to find their place once more, to become
integrated. Violence is thus seen as comparable to royal pardon. The
colonized man find his freedom in and through violence. This rule of
conduct enlightens the agent because it indicates to him the means and the
And last, but not least:
At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the
native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it
makes him fearless and restores his self-respect. Even if the armed
struggle has been symbolic and the nation is demobilized through a rapid
movement of decolonization, the people have the time to see that the
liberation has been the business of each and all and that the leader has
no special merit. [...] Illuminated by violence, the consciousness of the
people rebels against any pacification. 
These long quotations need to be understood as entirely relevant to today. Fanon was writing about Algeria, but in fact much of the "Arab world" was colonized in the last century: Morocco, Syria, Jordan. Lebanon, Tunisia, Libya. Such fictions as "Iraq" and "Kuwait" were colonial inventions. The Arab Peninsula was rife with puppets and puppet states during a century or two of great-power colonial chess. Intervention by the UK and France was the rule, right up to and including the Suez crisis.
In recent history, the United States has become the key interventionist power, with Britain as its junior partner. The casualties of this later phase have been enormous. The reaction of the West could be summed up, perhaps unfairly, perhaps not, in Madeleine Albright’s infamous response to the charge that "UN" (read: US) sanctions against Iraq led to the death of 500,000 Iraqi children.
"I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it," said President Clinton’s Secretary of State.
Put yourself in the place of a Middle East Muslim parent hearing that.
And no setting of context would be complete without mentioning Israel. Israel, as we all know, has been a staunch US ally from the start, and, with the protection of that superpower, has effectively colonized the West Bank. We hear much about the horrific civilian death toll caused by the suicide bombers. We hear less, though, of an even grimmer truth: the casualties suffered by Palestinian civilians far exceeds that of Israeli civilians. But, thanks to a handful of reporters, we do know about the West Bank water grab (80% of the water goes to the 10% of the people who have "settled" the region), the bulldozing of houses, the targeting of peaceful Palestinian olive-harvesters by the colonists, the shelling of a children's zoo in Ramallah, and so on.
The real meaning of the cartoons
Now, from this wider perspective, the publication of a few cartoons in the European press seems somewhat far removed and trivial. But of course the very opposite is true. From the point of view of Muslim Middle Easterners (and the Muslim community in other former colonies like Indonesia and Malaysia), this gesture of contempt is just adding insult to considerable injury, a little more salt for the open wounds of countless Muslim civilians caught at the wrong end of British, American and Israeli firepower. (And at the wrong end of "democracy," whatever that is. We have just seen, in practical terms, a demonstration of it: a squeaky-clean election in Palestine returned a party that the West doesn't like. Bad choice, silly Palestinians. Funds will be cut off, and we won’t recognize your choice. But thanks for playing.)
The cartoons, in other words, are a synecdoche. In Europe, they merely stand for power over the powerless. In the Middle East, they represent the whole of colonial and imperial oppression. All of the countless civilian deaths, the indiscriminate meddling and invasions, the destruction and waste and poverty that have been the godawful history of the Arab Peninsula, are summed up in this cavalier, casual flick of European derision. Those cartoons tell a truth, not about freedom of speech, not about liberal democracy, not about religion: they tell us, quite simply, who’s in charge on the world stage. And who isn't.
Back, then, to our outraged Globe editorialist. He is "disturbed" that Arab governments have had the nerve to protest:
The uproar underlines an alarming tendency in Islamic societies to lash out at the West at the slightest provocation. When a few simple drawings, however controversial, can trigger outrage from Cairo to Kuala Lumpur, it is clear that something is askew in the psyche of a civilization. To put it plainly, the Islamic world has a chip on its shoulder.
But our editorialist feels compelled to answer the question by trundling out an authority, Bernard Lewis, the "clash of civilizations" guy, who has it all taped. Those people, you see, inhabit "a twilight world of neurotic fantasies, conspiracy theories, scapegoating and so on." Unlike us civilized white folks, they lack the higher powers of reason and analysis. Their problems are, wait for it, their own fault. Here it all is:
In truth, most of the Islamic world's problems -- from economic stagnation to political paralysis, from the oppression of women to the poor level of education -- are homegrown. By and large, these societies have failed to come to grips with the modern world and as a result have fallen far behind much of the rest of the planet. Out of this failure to keep up springs a keen sense of grievance that does nothing to help them progress."
"Failure to keep up." That one, I admit, takes my breath away. Over two centuries we plunder, kill, invade and manipulate until just about all that people have left is their religion. Then we say, Boy, you sure are backward. What a bunch of losers!
As Prof. Lewis has written, "If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression." But "if they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavour, then they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major centre of civilization." "Abandon grievance and victimhood." Suck it up, Mustapha. Forgive and forget. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. Indulge, please, in collective amnesia. And maybe those loans might start coming your way. Why, you might even end up with a "major centre of civilization." You know, the way it was before the imperial powers moved in. Well, sure it is, once other countries get out of the region and stop killing people. Once Israel abandons its West Bank colony. Once the West stops giving the finger to justifiably angry populations and starts behaving in the civilized fashion that it piously holds up as a standard for others. Maybe then--only then--will better choices be made. In the meantime, keeping company with the various on-going interventions in the Middle East, Muslim-baiting in civilized Europe and North America will continue apace, some Muslims will rise to the bait, and the sanctimonious will say, once again, Look at those savages. Isn't it great we aren't like them? Why don't they at least try to be like us? Can't they take a joke?
"Abandon grievance and victimhood." Suck it up, Mustapha. Forgive and forget. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. Indulge, please, in collective amnesia. And maybe those loans might start coming your way. Why, you might even end up with a "major centre of civilization." You know, the way it was before the imperial powers moved in.
Well, sure it is, once other countries get out of the region and stop killing people. Once Israel abandons its West Bank colony. Once the West stops giving the finger to justifiably angry populations and starts behaving in the civilized fashion that it piously holds up as a standard for others. Maybe then--only then--will better choices be made.
In the meantime, keeping company with the various on-going interventions in the Middle East, Muslim-baiting in civilized Europe and North America will continue apace, some Muslims will rise to the bait, and the sanctimonious will say, once again, Look at those savages. Isn't it great we aren't like them? Why don't they at least try to be like us? Can't they take a joke?
Friday, February 03, 2006
Fire in a crowded theatreHere's a smooth move. Walk into a bar in the Southern US and shout "Bush is a moron! So is Jesus Christ!" Hell, do it in Calgary. Get out to Caribana in Toronto and start mouthing off loudly about "stupid n-----s." Chances are, someone might take offence, and express that offence in a fairly basic manner. Never mind that you did it, as you later sob to the media, to "test the limits of free speech." Even your friends would call you a damned fool, and so you would be.
But somehow it's perfectly reasonable and defensible for a right-of-centre newspaper in Denmark, the Jyllands-Posten, to publish cartoons mocking and ridiculing Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam. We have the right to offend, they trumpet. We have the right to offend, echo other newspapers, re-publishing the cartoons. We have the right to offend, squawk the right-wing bloggers, gleefully posting the cartoons as well. No terrorists are going to tell us what to do!
(Not that "the terrorists," by which many seem to mean simply "Muslims," give much of a darn about the blogosphere. It's a fairly safe bit of posturing: "Look at me! Aren't I brave? I'm doing it for freedom of speech!")
Most Muslims, of course, will be hurt and offended, and that will be that. A small minority, however, will react in conformity with the going stereotypes. And then the conservative pundits will nod wisely and say, "You do see what sort of world these people would compel all of us to live in, if they had the chance?"
"These people." "Those people." Where have we heard that before?
Well, sure, these crypto-racist mouth-breathers have the right, just like foolhardy souls have the right to wander into bars and shoot their mouths off. But they remind me of the driver who "died defending his right of way":
He was right, dead right, as he sped along,
But he's just as dead as though he'd been wrong.
Except that, in this case, they're probably safe as houses--it will be innocents abroad who are likely to suffer. For there will almost certainly be human casualties. Now the predictable consequences of this rash and foolish act have begun to occur: so far it's been demonstrations, boycotts and an armed occupation. But the flames are being fanned by assorted fanatics and dictatorial governments on one side, and recklessly stupid media and bloggers on the other. Spitting in the face of millions of people simultaneously will be bound to draw forth a few hard cases looking for an excuse to stick it to the infidel. What a bloody surprise.
From the publication of the cartoons last fall, this whole affair has unfolded with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, minus the catharsis. I, for one, had dared to hope that the matter would be confined to Denmark, where a devout Muslim minority was naturally hurt and did protest, but no more raucously that the Christian fundies have done on this side of the water, with their burning of John Lennon records and boycotting of Disneyland and the like. But no, lobotomized newspaper editors in Norway and France had to throw oil on the flames, and the bloggers have piled on, and now the battle is truly joined.
Way to go, people. Keep poking the monster through the bars with your pointed stick. Aren't you clever and principled? And people are probably going to die because of it.