Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Glorifying terrorism

If this stupidity becomes law, the terrorists have won--and even the foregoing statement might result in criminal charges.

What's a "terrorist?" An Israeli settler shooting olive harvesters in Nablus? The guerrillas who eventually won the American War of Independence? Hungarians throwing Molotov cocktails at Russian tanks? The French Resistance? Nelson Mandela? The Stern Gang? The Nicaraguan contras, supported by Ronald Reagan? The Afghan mujahideen? The Taliban? Islamic militants beheading schoolgirls? Just the latter two? All of the above, and more? Just the ones who aren't freedom fighters? Which ones are they?

What's "glorification?" Erecting a monument? Calling terrorists "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers?" Praising the French Resistance in the same breath? Celebrating the Fourth of July? Giving Nelson Mandela the Nobel Peace Prize? Calling the slaughter of hundreds of Lebanese civilians "a measured response" to the capture of two Israeli soldiers? (Can the actions of states be deemed "terrorist? Can supporting those actions be deemed "glorification?")

Second-last question: if legislation is seriously contemplated, will it provide clear answers to the above questions--and many others like them? And the final one--just how cranio-rectally impacted are the Liberals and Conservatives on this House of Commons committee?

UPDATE: (March 28) Damn, I'm forgetting my manners. H/t to Kate.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Ugly Rumours

The rumour around here (Let me be very clear; I am not suggesting that the rumour is true. I am only stating that it is out there) is that Jason Cherniak has been connected with NAMBLA, a notorious pedophile organization.

What, did I say something wrong? [
Attempts to look as innocent as a 27-year-old Liberal lawyer.]

UPDATE: (March 26) Jason's non-apology may be found here. Others have righteously parsed the hell out of it. It isn't even offered to the right person (Olivia Chow) or to the NDP. Count me as one of the unimpressed.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Harper and Dion join forces

What do Liberals and Conservatives have in common? They are both Big Business-driven parties, with fundamentally the same agenda, and sharing the same contempt for the working people of this country. Nothing demonstrates that more clearly than Stéphane Dion's spiking of Bill C-257--the anti-scab bill that would have prevented the use of strikebreakers in federally-regulated industries. With help from their Liberal allies, the Conservatives defeated the Bill last night by a vote of 177-122.

Dion's support of strikebreaking turned around a caucus that, until he became leader, was set to pass the Bill. Indeed, the vote in the House of Commons last October was strongly supportive. But furious lobbying by corporations had its obvious effect. The final vote followed a decision by the Speaker that amendments to permit essential services in case of a strike were out of order (a suspect ruling, praised by the corporate sector, which provided the rationale for the Liberal flip-flop).

The essential services issue was, of course, a smokescreen. No such amendments were needed, because legislation covering essential services already exists in Section 87.4 of the Canada Labour Code:

87.4 (1) During a strike or lockout not prohibited by this Part, the employer, the trade union and the employees in the bargaining unit must continue the supply of services, operation of facilities or production of goods to the extent necessary to prevent an immediate and serious danger to the safety or health of the public.

Anti-scab legislation has been in effect in both BC and Quebec for many years, with none of the dire consequences that business lobbyists in Ottawa were claiming would result from the passage of C-257. Two right-wing premiers, Jean Charest and Gordon Campbell, have made no moves to repeal the legislation, and have stayed out of the public debate.

Dion, caving in to the Big Business sector, has now earned his anti-labour stripes. Will it be enough to attract the support of the corporate media in the upcoming election?

Friday, March 16, 2007

The eyes have it

Parti Québécois leader André Boisclair is in hot water, if I can be forgiven the use of an undoubtedly racist metaphor. Referring to students at Harvard, where he was pursuing a master's degree, he said:

I was surprised to see that on campus, about a third of the undergraduate students had slanted eyes [
yeux bridés]. They're not going to work in sweatshops. They're people who will later work as engineers, managers, and will create wealth. They're people who will innovate in their countries. There is ferocious competition in the world today.

Fo Niemi, speaking for the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations in Montreal, found the comment "derogatory" and "racially offensive." The Chinese Canadian National Council has now entered the fray, calling the reference to slanted eyes disrespectful and trading on caricature. In a stroke, Boisclair has levelled the electoral playing field, it seems, placing himself right up there (or down there) with Mario Dumont's sleazy defence of hérouxvillisme and Jean Charest's opportunistic opposition to khumur in girls' soccer. But Boisclair has adamantly refused to apologize for any of this, and his electoral rivals, who live in their own glass houses, have wisely declined to throw stones.

Could this be simply a matter of translation? A little over a month ago, well before this controversy broke out, a francophone inquired
on an on-line forum:

How would you describe Asian people's eyes? In French we say they have "les yeux bridés". I've looked it up in different dictionaries and have found different adjectives: slant / slanting / slit eyes but don't know which one is really correct- I mean not offensive. Can anyone help?

Some other round-eyes made suggestions, but I think the answer to his last question is a clear No. And his first question unwittingly sets a trap.

"Asian" has come into political vogue to replace the Eurocentric "Oriental." But there are Asians and Asians, and not all of them possess the epicanthic fold. (That sounds reassuringly medical, doesn't it?) It is fair to say, though, that the overwhelming majority of, say, the Chinese and Japanese populations, possess this physical characteristic.

M. Boisclair apparently fell into a similar trap in subsequent comments: upon being asked why he was referring to Chinese students one day and Japanese students the next, he responded that he meant students from various Asian countries, presumably those inhabited by people with the aforementioned epicanthic fold.

I've been struggling with a few thought-experiments. Suppose M. Boisclair, returning to a university campus after several decades,was struck by the fact that half of the students in the engineering faculty were women, whereas the latter were scarce on the ground in relatively recent memory. Pleased at this turn of events, the PQ leader stated that he was "agreeably surprised to see so many students in skirts." It would be a little cack-handed, given that not all women students wear skirts, but would it be sexist? Given this imaginary context, I'd probably respond in the negative. Would he come under attack for sexism? I'm afraid I may know the answer to that one.

Imagine M. Boisclair visiting a medical faculty that used to have a quota system for Jews (McGill comes to mind). He notes, scanning the audience, that a fairly healthy proportion of people in attendance appear to be Jewish. He makes some comment to this effect, perhaps regarding yarmulkes, and is accused of anti-Semitism. Is he guilty of it?

Finally, our intrepid PQ chief is invited to a third campus, where he notes a very high proportion of students in the law faculty are Black. He refers to his delight at seeing so many dark-skinned people in the audience. Racist?

I've been checking my own feelings as I have been writing this, and I admit to some discomfort in each of these hypothetical cases. Why? Because, in our own culture (anglophone Canadian), it is impolite to make what my mother used to call "personal remarks." You don't draw attention to people's physical attributes or clothing if doing so is gratuitous. Certainly you don't, as Nancy Reagan once did, refer to "the beautiful white people" in an audience. But even leaving race out of it, you don't talk about "bodacious babes," or "fat people," or whatever physical category has attracted your attention, when you address a public meeting. This has nothing to do with any of the pernicious "isms." It's just, as my father used to say, "not done."

I suggest that it was breaking that rule that has made so many of us shift in our seats. Our discomfort, in other words, may be largely, if not entirely, unrelated to racism.
(I confess that I don't know if such a social rule exists in Québécois culture to the same degree, which may be the nub of the controversy here, given that most of the journalists asking questions about this event were anglophone.)

A University of Toronto sociologist does take the opposite view. George Dei, noting that "all Asians don't look alike," states:

Any time you use a physical attribute to label or describe a people you run the risk of racializing groups. The context in this case is, why does he have to say this to get his meaning across? If he wants to get across the fact that 30 per cent of students were Asian, couldn't he have come out and said it without referring to how they look?

I think he does have a point--group physical descriptors can obviously have that racializing effect--even if he undercuts his point at the same time. Boisclair was not simply referring to "Asians," as we know. He was using a physical characteristic as shorthand for more specific groups. He was not making the implicit assumption that all Asians look alike: but he was settling upon a physical element that the groups to which he was referring have in common.

The unease that we feel about publicly mentioning people's physical characteristics at all may certainly be compounded by the explicit use of physical references by racists. Within that doubly charged context, an entirely innocent remark will almost inevitably receive a colouration that I cannot believe was intended by M. Boisclair, given the rest of the paragraph quoted, in which he actually seeks to dispel a common stereotype about "Asians." So he won't apologize, and other people will demand that he does, and we'll see how all this plays out.

In the meantime, what wide-ranging debates, what expansion of horizons we all miss out on when such inflated controversies are an ever-present possibility. While we are all watching our mouths, not to mention those of others, this sort of thing, and this, find odd corners and niches in which to flourish. Don't you wish--come on now, fellow progressives, admit it--that the whole world would afford us such wild and crazy freedom?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Feeding frenzy

O wonderful! O wonderful! O wonderful!
I am food! I am food! I am food!
I eat food! I eat food! I eat food!
My name never dies, never dies, never dies!
I was born first in the first of the worlds, earlier than the gods, in the belly of what has no death!
Whoever gives me away has helped me the most!
I, who am food, eat the eater of food!
I have overcome this world!

--Taittiriya Upanishad

After a week of feasting on each other, bloggers seem to be returning to normal. There's too much real news out there, after all. But in my peregrinations through the bizarre realm known as Current Events, through a thousand media lenses and filters, I re-discovered once more the ancient truth that came to light over the past few days: we are all food. And by "we" I mean every living thing.

Some menu items:

  • Tastes like chicken. Well, because it is chicken, although this all goes against the grain, in a manner of speaking. "Pasture? No thanks, I'm not in the mooood." What's next--tofu-eating tigers? The universe demands balance.

  • When dog bites man... it assuredly is news. My favourite part of this story? "Peter Krantz, who carried out the autopsy, said that it was not unusual for dogs to eat their dead owners in order to survive, although he said it was more normal behaviour in cats." "More normal?" Good grief, just how much household anthropophagy has been going on while we've been discussing the war in Iraq and the weather?

  • And speaking of pets... what goes around comes around. Nice doggie. Or, if you prefer, have a break. Have a Kit-Kat.

  • Birthday bash. Maybe these party-crashers should have had an invite. But they didn't have to bite his head off.

  • A fox guarding the henhouse? A bit like discovering that David Suzuki drives an SUV. Again, my favourite line: "'If indeed Ms. Dickerson does have ties to ostrich slaughterers, then it certainly seems dangerous to place any birds under her wing,'" said Matt Prescott, PETA manager of factory farming and vegan campaigns."
Back to our regular programming shortly. It's time for lunch.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Law 4

Asmahan "Azzy" Mansour, an eleven-year-old child, was recently thrown off a soccer pitch in Laval, Québec (by a Muslim referee), for wearing a khimār ("hijāb" actually refers to the entire modest dress of a Muslim woman). This head covering is allegedly in violation of the International Football Association Board's Law 4.

Reading this "law," however, one sees no prohibition of the
khimār at all, only of equipment or apparel that is "dangerous to himself or another player (including any kind of jewellery)." It is simply not evident that this head-covering poses any threat whatsoever to safety. In Ontario, the soccer association permits it; but the Québec association has a "no headgear" rule. In fact, a QSF official, Valmie Ouellet, claimed that a similar call would have been made had any other religion been involved. I wonder: would we have seen the "no headgear" rule applied to the yarmulke?

Despite all of the misleading headlines and blogchatter, IFAB did not uphold the Quebec ban. It didn't want to touch this one, in fact, with a ten foot pole, talking vaguely to the press after a regular meeting and scurrying away, refusing even to state whether the referee's decision had been correct.

All this fuss and bother seems rather odd, on the face of it, because girls in khumur play soccer at the international level all the time.
(The photograph here is of the Iranian national women's team receiving silver medals.) But not so odd if one sees this incident for what it is--a convergence of political acts. The khimār for young Muslim girls these days is as much a defiant statement of identity as it is a religious obligation. And Jean Charest's crude demogoguery, matching that of Mario Dumont, is simply playing to the Hérouxville crowd in the midst of an election campaign. The xenophobic undercurrents here carry us far away from an innocent soccer match.

"Azzy" Mansour is just a kid. But now she's the latest site of struggle in the on-going culture wars. Can we just get back to the game, please?