Friday, May 06, 2011

At Last We Have a Left Wing: A Canadian Election Reflection

"Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society."
- Michel Foucault

On May 2, 2011, after three consecutive minority governments in seven years of attempting to gain power through failed and wasteful elections, Stephen Harper alas wore Canadians down and his Conservative Party took majority control of the nation's government. Similar to the bigoted Rob Ford's recent mayoral victory in Canada's largest city of Toronto (albeit without any support from the "city" of Toronto and entirely relying on the suburban areas outside the city recently classified as the "Greater Toronto Area"), the equally-removed Albertan Harper's Conservative Party was found in contempt of Parliament -- which is what sparked the election in the first place. The irony that they now hold majority office is surely lost on no one.

Never mind that Harper wants to Americanize Canada by implementing mandatory minimum sentences for petty drug offences and building American-style "super-jails" while reducing personal income taxes (ultimately leading to the privatization of government services -- a practice which even American prison officials have begun to abandon due to its complete and utter failure). Never mind that Harper wants to purchase fighter jets from Lockheed Martin and pump $39 billion into military ship-building. Never mind that Harper is acting on behalf of the Evangelist Christian right in dismantling abortion rights. Or cut corporate taxes. Or allow increased individual donations to political parties (with the reward of tax breaks). Or continue to abandon evidence-based policymaking with the removal of mandatory long-form census. All of these platform items are presently abstract bits of political and electioneering rhetoric which Harper may or may not turn into reality.

But what is tangible is the power we all have as citizens, which includes the potential to affect meaningful change and powerful resistance to an out-of-touch government.

The thing that is irking me about left-leaning Canadians who wonderfully got out to vote this time is the "sore loser" effect by saying things like "What was the point of voting at all cos the Conservatives won anyways," or "I'm going to move to America" (America?!?! Seriously? Are you fu*%ing kidding me?!?!?), or something equally sour and retreatist. Canada's lack of activist spirit sometimes gives me ulcers but often propels most of the activist-based work I have done throughout my entire adult life.

First of all, you didn't lose! You helped the New Democratic Party win 102 of 308 seats, 65 more than they held in 2008, and give the left a much-needed and much-welcomed presence on Parliament Hill. Jack Layton and the NDP are the official opposition for f&%k's sake, which is a tremendous step in Canadian political history and affords the left the opportunity to be more powerful than it ever has been under any otherwise right or centre-leaning Liberal/Conservative regime, particularly with a lame-duck post-Chretien Liberal Party acting as opposition. That means your votes actually accomplished something: they gave you representation in Ottawa!

Second, you're acting as though it's some kind of travesty that the Conservative Party won when the reality is Canada is a nation that has a long and well-documented history of conservatism, bigotry, colonialism, violence, genocide, and organized and institutional racism. I mean, come on -- "explorers" and "settlers" murdered thousands of Native Canadians, annihilated their cultural, social, and medical lives, and sent generation after generation to residential schools where they were raped by priests and told they were worthless pieces of sh*t unless they embraced Christianity, the English language, and rid themselves of every bit of their ancestry -- and once they did that, they would still be plagued with alcoholism and mass imprisonment.

And the Opium Act of 1908? Building the entire Canadian Pacific Railroad on the backs of underpaid Chinese immigrants and when they were done, creating laws against opium use (which was primarily done as a post-work leisure activity amongst Chinese labourers) and saying "Thanks for building our railroads, now f*&k off and go to prison where you belong"?!?! I don't know where this delusion that Canada is somehow a liberal mecca emerged; our nation's history is chock full of violence and oppression, and this history has directly affected the present. Stephen Harper is hardly un-Canadian -- he is carrying forth a legacy of conservatism that has plagued Canada since its inception (of course this path hasn't been linear, and we do have many progressive-thinking leaders like Pierre Trudeau to thank for bringing civil rights into Canada's collective thought).

Third, it's this sort of, "Well I'm just gonna pack up and move," fickle patriotism that gives Canadians the reputation around the world of being bland, polite, non-offensive, pushovers. Seriously: in 2005 Ian Bush gets shot in the back of the fu*%ing head under police custody in Houston, BC for no apparent reason and when the officers stand trial and are acquitted, Canadians shrug their shoulders and go "Oh well, can't win 'em all." But when the Vancouver Canucks lose the Stanley Cup to the New York Rangers in 1994, thousands upon thousands descend into downtown Vancouver to riot and loot Robson Street.... Something tells me Canadians' priorities are completely out of order -- one thing I will always give Americans credit for is their ability to get angry for the right reasons; the response to the Rodney King beating (and subsequent police officer acquittal), and the Civil Rights riots indicate that one thing we can learn from our southern neighbours is how to get pissed off about things that actually matter.

So before you write off your own country, Canadians, keep in mind that your power and responsibilities as citizens aren't limited to going to a poll every couple years and writing and "X" on a ballot. We can all be much more effective as citizens if we saw complaining simply as a means of venting and strategizing, and used our frustration as a springboard to action; to get out and actively do something to help our country. Stand up for what you believe in. Take a pay cut and go and get a job with a non-profit. Volunteer to support someone who's on parole, or working to get clean. Help out at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. I've had the great fortune of working closely with people who are, or have been, activists or politically-involved, and damn near everyone is ecstatic that youth got out and voted this time, that Canada now has a strong opposition party, and have recognized that Stephen Harper may have a majority now but he is still only as powerful as we let him be. Remember that we elect people to represent us, and when they don't, the last thing we should do is allow it to continue. Never mind "winning" an election; if we sit idly by, that is when Stephen Harper has truly won.

Without our compliance, he is powerless.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

How Many Deaths...

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is not my place to comment on whether Osama bin Laden was indeed behind the tragic attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City on September 11, 2001; nor to argue whether or not weapons of mass destruction indeed existed as justification for the subsequent American attacks on Iraq. There are plenty of articles, books, and "intelligence" on such matters, and anyone with a library card and an internet connection can draw their own conclusions. However, there are certain elements in recent developments of the West's culture of violence that elicit some of the most primal and ultimately disturbing images of lack of human compassion and de-sensitization to violence.

On April 30, 2011, Canadians flocked in hordes to television sets, sports bars, and the Rogers Centre in Toronto (with a sellout crowd of 55,000) to observe the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The following evening, May 1, 2011, their American counterparts descended by the thousand on their nation's capital and other significant sites of historical and cultural significance across the United States to rejoice in the murder of Osama bin Laden. Observation without context of giant crowds cheering "USA! USA!" may as well have implied that the World Cup or Olympic gold medals had been won. But in many ways, response to the slaying of bin Laden, America's 21st century Antichrist, is just another manifestation of the good, old-fashioned American past-time of turning violence into sport. The "score" was settled when news broke that bin Laden had been killed -- never mind that the bloodshed of 9/11 and the resulting war in Iraq can never, ever be resolved by the murder of one man (or murder period).

Three-thousand Americans died in the 9/11 attacks. In response to 9/11, the George W. Bush-led war in Iraq has resulted in the loss of over 100,000 Iraqi citizens' lives. Did Americans cheer about that? Well, sort of. However, can we hold Osama bin Laden morally and singularly responsible for all of these deaths combined? Especially in light of so much ambiguity, confusion, and dubious American connections around bin Laden, al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Afghanistan, the opium trade, the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and the Taliban? Or even for how the American administration responded militarily to 9/11? In legal terms, a reasonable doubt can be shed on bin Laden's guilt for the totality of 9/11 and the Iraq war with which he has been seemingly held solely responsible. However, right-leaning Western media is presenting the death of bin Laden as some kind of Biblical affirmation; as though the death of 3,000 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis (not including soldiers who have lost their lives since 2003) have all somehow been vindicated and equalized in the face of the death of one solitary -- and lest we forget, Muslim -- man who had been elevated to demonic status through the course of a decade of mystery?

Herein lies the paradox of America's Judeo-Christian revenge philosophy: bin Laden's death will not bring 3,000 Americans back to life. Similarly, George W. Bush's decision to attack Iraq in response to 9/11 and have 100,000 Iraqi citizens die would not be somehow vindicated for Iraqis if Bush were to meet a similar fate. Anger and revenge are simply stagnant emotions; they produce nothing but more violence, hate, fear, and intolerance. Nothing productive. Nothing forward-thinking. Nothing progressive. And no resolutions. The son whose father died at the World Trade Centre still doesn't have a father. And Osama bin Laden's death would not bring an ounce of "justice" if the execution of Saddam Hussein and 100,000 innocent Iraqis already hadn't. The propensity for revenge through violent measures (on the macro and micro levels) is a self-perpetuating cycle that permeates the Western cultural narrative in an age when societies are too multi-faceted (or at least enhanced in their awareness of geography) for such simplistic polarizations as good/evil, sinner/saint, Christian/Muslim, us/them, "eye for an eye," and so forth. Many Westerners ascribe to an archaic and reductionist Old-Testament ethos of revenge and binaries that is not adept to deal with 21st century diplomacy and multiculturalism. There is no black and white, only shades of grey.

Regardless of who Osama bin Laden was, or was characterized to be, it seems deplorable to celebrate the fact that someone is dead -- and not just dead, murdered. Seeing placard-carrying mobs hording the streets in major urban centres to host spontaneous festivities in honour of the murder of another person is nothing more than a sad reflection on a culture embedded into a military-industrial complex and its accompanying simplifications and anachronisms around so-called enemies who become nothing more than "the other team" in a sporting event. America kicked Iraq's ass 100,000-3,000 but that wasn't enough; they had to take out the big guy, or else all of those other murders weren't worth anything. Especially disturbing is the propensity to place such significance upon the death of someone who was essentially a figurehead; a manufactured image of Islamophobia; a scapegoat and displacement of misdirected American anger. Terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, whom American well-to-dos have vowed to exterminate (and in many cases, also helped to create), still exist, and have continued to do so whether Osama bin Laden died in 2001 or 2025 -- remember, he has essentially been powerless and in obscurity for nearly a decade. All we are left to ask in the end is: now that bin Laden is dead, can the West move beyond 9/11 and into more peaceful avenues at global relations, or was bin Laden simply another pawn-like casualty in a much larger war that would be moving forward with or without him?