Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Review: “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

A new book by a favourite author is always a treat. I had an audio credit from Kobo, so I did not even have to wait for the library or the paperback. So far so good. 

I love Barbara Kingsolver, both as an author and as a human being. She is one of the few writers whose books I will reread. Her writing is beautiful and often lyrical. From the very beginning her books have been about more than just characters unfolding in private life. In the words of the author herself: 

“My interest is human behaviour, and the complex ways we do or don’t come 

to terms with ourselves, our societies, and our habitats.” (From an interview in Psychology Today)

I like that. These days I have little interest in fiction that ignores economic and historical reality. The intersection between the individual and the collective is what holds my attention. 

First, a word about the voice performance. This is an important factor in an audio version.  Barbara Kingsolver reads her own work. Her voice is pleasant, her reading OK, but she is no actor. In particular the voice she gives to the 19th century botanist Mary Treat, a real historic character, is a hesitating whine that does not jibe with the feisty non conformist that the book portrays.

Otherwise the novel is off to a promising start. 

The family at the heart of the story has fallen on hard times, in spite of being well educated and spending decades doing all the right things. Mom Willa used to be a successful writer for magazines. Those things in print with the glossy ads that you bought every week, remember them? Her magazine has folded. Dad Iano is an academic who has been chasing tenure from one college to another.  When he finally achieves security the college itself closes on him.  Dad lands an entry level job in Philadelphia at the same time that Mom inherits a crumbling Victorian house in Vineland, New Jersey. The couple relocates to Vineland, a town with an interesting history. They are already encumbered with Iano’s ailing father, a bitter Greek immigrant. In short order they are joined by their college drop out daughter and the newborn baby of their son. Four generations, one entry level job, five dependents.

Next chapter: Moving-in day in the same location by a different family but more than a century earlier. Newly married Thatcher Greenwood has accepted a job as science teacher in the Vineland School. His family consists of his wife Rose, her widowed mother and her teenage sister. Looking across the street Thatcher observes the scandalous sight of a middle aged woman lying prone in the grass, apparently studying something.

She turns out to be Mary Treat, a real historical figure. Mary was a self taught botanist who corresponded with the great scientists of her day including Charles Darwin. From then on chapters on the lives of the two families alternate. 

I found this structure irritating. Until we get to the very end, when 21 century Willa develops a fascination with Mary Treat, the only overlap between the two strands is concern for the house. One just gets into one story line and is then whisked away to the other. 

Barbara Kingsolver often uses her novels as a platform from which to hold forth on topics dear to her heart. It works better some times than others. In this novel it works in the chapters set in the nineteenth century. The reader learns effortlessly about the history of Vineland, the biologist Mary Treat, the resistance to the teachings of science and the flora of the Jersey Pine barrens. Kingsolver is at her warm, lyrical best when she describes natural wonders.

I felt irritated by the same ploy in the twenty-first century. The characters feel one dimensional and mere tools for expounding on the horrors of declining capitalism. Barbara, I love you. Next time you want to write some articles, just do it, you don’t have to build a novel around them.

Some more reflections on collective guilt.

Why did it take me so long to figure this one out? 

That whole thing of  people of colour (I dislike that expression but never mind) telling us pinko whites that we are all racists, and us liberals denying it, and then that makes us even more guilty somehow? And even worse, the final upshot of all this über 'wokeness' is that we feel less comfortable with anyone other than people like ourselves, which is precisely what we don’t want, because we want to be able to just see people as individuals, right?

It finally dawned on me that both sides are right, they are just using different definitions of the loaded term.

If I vehemently declare that I am not a racist, I am using the narrow definition, as formulated in an earlier post: Racism is a philosophy that considers certain groups of people inferior to others, and wants to organise society to reflect and reinforce that inferiority. 

When someone accuses all people of privilege of unconscious racism, they are using a wider definition. They are talking of the way we go through daily life, coming from our own experience, not recognising the many ways in which we are lucky. 

When we are blessed with a functioning pair of legs we do not think of the lack of wheelchair access every time we step over a curb. Does that make us “ableist”? (Another jargon word I thoroughly dislike.)
I say it does for instance if the issue comes up in a municipal election, and we vote against creating more accessibility because it will raise taxes. Otherwise, we are just being human.

I can approach a police officer without fear because my experience has led me to see the force as a helpful part of my community. This is privilege, yes. I should be aware of that and I am. But imho it does not make me racist, unless I support a police officer who has wrongly targeted a POC. And so on. 

The question of reparation for historical wrongs is a separate topic. First this.

The first duty of privilege is to recognise itself. Privilege needs to acknowledge that it has benefited from a long history of  oppression. Privilege needs to acknowledge that it owes as much  to luck as to merit. 

That, I am willing to do. Calling myself all kinds of -ist or -phobe and going through life groveling in apology for crimes I had nothing to do with I am not. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Review: The line becomes a river: dispatches from the border by Francisco Cantú.

Every now and then one comes across a book that one wants to put into the hands of every politician, every citizen with a hint of influence. “The line becomes a river” by Francisco Cantú  is such a book. 

Well written, thought provoking and heart wrenching, it is the story of the son of a Mexican American mother who becomes a border guard, then an advocate for a paperless Mexican friend.

The author’s mother grew up in the USA and needed half a lifetime to get over feeling ashamed of being Mexican. She was a park ranger near the Mexican border. The border, he writes, is in his blood. 

During his years as a border guard he enjoys the camaraderie with fellow agents and the thrills of an active job in the great outdoors, but is deeply affected by the human tragedies he witnesses. The desert is hell. Migrants who cannot keep up with a group are left behind to die of thirst and exposure. Even if they manage to make it across the border migrants may be held prisoner in drop off houses for ransom by family in the USA. Every hardening of the border tightens the grip of organised crime. Francisco tries to provide small acts of kindness wherever he can. At least he speaks the language and knows the culture. Eventually the stress becomes too much and he quits.

The last part of the book concerns the tragic case of one Mexican family. Diego Martinez has lived in the USA for thirty years, since he was 11 years old. He is an exemplary citizen, member of a church, loving husband and father of three boys ranging from 8 to 15. He quit drinking when his first son was born. He has never been in trouble with the law. His employer says he is the best worker she ever had. At some point he goes to Mexico to be with his dying mother. Returning proves to be a nightmare. He makes it across the border but is caught. In spite of a good lawyer and the passionate pleas of his family, employer, church community and friends his application for leniency is denied and he is deported. At one point the wife receives phone calls asking her for ransom money. She pays up, but there is still no sign of her husband. The blackmail had been a hoax. The story ends with mr. Martinez still in limbo, still in Mexico near the border, still determined to make it home to his family no matter what the cost. 

Shortly before reading this book I had listened to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, part of his Revisionist History series. Highly recommended by the way. Gladwell makes the point that migration patterns changed in recent history. Back when crossing the Mexican American border was easier Mexicans, especially young men, would go to El Norte for a few months to work, then go back home. Families mostly stayed in Mexico. Once crossing the border became costly both in terms of money and danger it made more sense to stay put in the USA and to eventually smuggle the family in as well. Present policies mainly benefit organised crime.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

100 % right is never an option

Many of the world’s greatest horrors have occurred because some group or visionary was aiming for perfection. No ideological side has a monopoly on this. This is not a left or right, religious or secular ideology thing.  We have had the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution’s Terror, the Holodomor, the famine due to forced collectivisation in Ukraine, the cultural revolution in China, the killing fields in Cambodia, the horrors of the Taliban and Islamic State.  All had their share of horror, all were aiming for a perfect society with no deviation from the ideal allowed. 

There is a tendency, especially in the USA but spilling over into culturally related countries, to aim for ‘zero tolerance’ of certain evils. Sexual harassment, spousal or child abuse, bullying and offensive language for example. Guess what. It won’t work. Life happens in shades of grey, not in clear contrasts of black and white.

Now please do not mistake this for endorsement of sexual harassment, domestic violence, bullying, racial slurs or other evils. I am against them, OK?  Sadly it looks like we have to spell such things out these days. Critiquing the excesses of a thing is not the same as critiquing the thing. 

My objection is to policies of zero tolerance. When the slightest infraction is pounced upon by overzealous enforcers of an ideal an old tyranny is being replaced by a new one. Repeat:  Scale  has to be taken into account. A mild summer breeze and a devastating hurricane are both wind. 
Are they the same? Careful with that continuum argument.

The area of child rearing for instance is rife with dilemmas. Poor North American  parents!
Somehow they are expected to protect their children from all possible harm, emotional or physical and deal with conflicting advice from an army of experts with or without credentials. Somehow Western culture went from “spare the rod and spoil the child” and “children must be seen but not heard” to worrying the tender little psyches will shatter if they ever hear the word NO, or have to concede that competitions have both losers and winners.
In some cases child protective services get called in when children are allowed a level of freedom that was normal not long ago. There is no consensus, no proverbial village.

When a tragedy occurs, as is inevitable in the human condition, the finger pointing starts. 
People don’t like to admit that life is precarious and we are not in control. They like to believe that the tragedy that befell the neighbour could not possibly happen to them, because they themselves would never ....whatever.  When our firstborn died the day after birth of a congenital malformation our hippie friends were eager to blame my modest intake of coffee, a substance they avoided. Meanwhile the glowing beauty of someone’s toddler was credited to the fact he had been conceived on acid. I kid you not.

Then there is the realm of politics. Somehow we expect the Powers That Be to keep us safe from zealots and madmen, yet not infringe on our privacy.  We expect a social safety net but hate to pay taxes.  We expect safety standards for food, water  and construction but get frustrated by red tape.  In all these areas finding balance is key. 

Anyway, getting it 100% right is not an option. 
But here is what we can do: we can decide in which direction to make our mistakes. 

I resolve to make my mistakes in the direction of openness over closeness, love over discipline, individual freedom over the obsessive search for safety, and free expression over ever shifting notions of political correctness.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Doughnut theory of life. A brief reflection on psychotherapy.

With all respect to mrs Gump, life does not resemble a box of chocolates. Life is more like a doughnut. What makes a piece of bakery a doughnut? The hole in the middle. 

This post owes much to the rich symbolic language of astrology, perhaps the oldest form of psychology. Readers familiar with astrology will recognise Saturn. Every human life has a basic lack, an area of insecurity, a place where things do not  flow effortlessly. Nobody, even the person with the most charmed life, gets it all. Such is the human condition. 

Jane has security and a happy family but suffers from ill health. Peter  has been blessed with a robust constitution, makes a good living with enjoyable work, but suffers from loneliness.  Paul lives perpetually on the edge of financial ruin with all the stress that entails. Mary has a good life now but is haunted by demons from earlier trauma. John seemingly has it all but can find no meaning to life, feels hollow inside and takes to drugs. And so on in endless variations. That place of lack is the hole in the doughnut.
That is all obvious and what does it  have to do with psychotherapy?

Disclaimer first. I am content with my life and have never felt the need for therapy.  I have no right to judge people who benefit from it and that is not the intention here. This critical reflection refers to excess.  
I have been preoccupied with questions of scale and balance lately, perhaps in reaction to the increasing polarisation of public discourse. Criticising the excess of a thing is not the same as criticising the thing itself.  It appears one has to spell that out. 

It seems to me that, like many good things, therapy can be overdone. People can get stuck in it. This is where the doughnut hole comes in. 
“Know thyself “ has been sound advice for a long time. Knowing oneself requires a good look at the troubled place within. We all have one. But therapy can get people to spend too much time looking at the hole in the doughnut of life. The client may end up identifying with the hole, spending precious time and life energy mapping the exact shape and size of the hole, socialising with people with similar holes, feeling  misunderstood by anyone whose inner empty spot has another shape. 

Yes,  the inner void demands to be acknowledged. There may be a time for therapy, and a time to gain support from others with a similar life wound.

 But after a good look at the doughnut hole I would rather focus on the cake. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

On the importance of defining terms

Communication between people or groups can be tricky at the best of times, but it becomes near impossible if each party has a different idea of the meaning of a term.

Take the word socialism. 
When I hear it I think "Norway", a democratic society with high taxes but a huge social safety net, overall a good quality of life, and the freedom to protest or change government if so desired.
If you think "Soviet Union", a totalitarian government with no room for dissent, we can hardly have a meaningful conversation till we clear that up.

A while ago I expressed my frustration with women who brag about how strong they are, how they do not fit into traditional roles, while insisting "I am not a feminist".
Meanwhile their life has been made possible by decades, nay centuries! of struggle by feminists.

It turns out we have different definitions of the term.

My involvement with feminism, such as it was, dates from the sixties and seventies. I had been ahead of the curve thanks to the influence of my mother and to Simone de Beauvoir, who I devoured at age 18. When the larger movement burst forth I was already married to a man who shared my egalitarian ideals, at least in theory. I never went to meetings or organised protests. I just read the books, subscribed to magazines big and small, and talked with friends. Feminism infused my thinking and I felt myself to be part of the movement. Back then I occasionally felt a twinge of unease at some of the more extreme utterances, but figured that every movement has its fringe.

When I say "feminism" I mean humanism. I think of extending basic rights to 52% of the population. I think of true partnership, of Marlo Thomas singing "Free to be You and Me." I think of the early twentieth century writer Rebecca West who said: "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat."

I stopped reading the magazines and did not pay much attention in the eighties. I was busy raising children and chickens. I got tired of seeing the broad based movement devolve into hair splitting and squabbling over what we now call identity politics. Apparently that only got worse.

On Facebook I expressed frustration with free strong women saying "I am not a feminist". This led to this input by a friend of my daughter's generation.

"When I was in college, the feminist thought was combative. It ranged from "restrict that job or position to females only" to actual publications that direct women how to sabotage their male cohorts in order to advance yourself. All of that hit me as horrifically wrong and I would also say, "No, I'm not a feminist."

Now I see! If one's experience is with a bunch of humorless strident fanatics aiming for revenge and waiting to pounce on the slightest politically incorrect utterance, I can understand why one would wish to avoid both the association and the label. The friend again:
"Years later I can say I'm not THAT kind of feminist. It's about balance and equality, not excluding one gender to benefit the other."

Amen to that. Let's end this with a shout out to all the excellent men out there who truly support equality.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

On sproinking, old warriors and turbulence.

The world today is full of people who have had good reasons for being mad as hell for a long time, and they are not taking it anymore.

This is a good thing. We still have a long way to go before this planet resembles the peaceful, egalitarian paradise depicted in Star Trek, The Next Generation. We had to wait for TGN. In J.T. Kirk's days a woman could not become captain of a star ship. (An episode was devoted to portraying a woman who resented that fact as a monster who lost Jim's love by denying her own feminine nature.)  I will never give up the hope we might get there one day. Right now the chance doesn't look great but let's leave that for another time. 

This post is about the trouble that arises because progress for social justice is made unevenly. Let's take being gay, or generally queer, as an example. Please don't get me started on the PC list of initials, and substitute your own oppressed group of choice.

In liberal cities like Vancouver, Toronto or San Francisco it is quite In to be Out. In some circles a regular man or woman may be expected to identify as 'cis'. The photo below is Canada's Prime Minister at the Toronto Pride parade. I love that picture, but does this look like oppression?
But wait! Before we declare this particular struggle won, imagine being the gay son of a conservative family belonging to a fundamentalist church. You love your family and your community but you can no longer deny your nature. Coming out takes courage. It may mean tough choices. A while back I was reading about Hutterites. According to their website a gay Hutterite faces three options: a deep dark closet, a lonely life of celibacy, or leaving the life giving community.
Meanwhile being outed in Uganda or Saudi Arabia can get you killed. See what I mean about uneven progress?

A metaphor. 
Think of the energy of an oppressed group as a coiled spiral, like a Jack in the Box. What happens when the lid that kept Jack down is removed? SPROINK! Don't stand too close, you will be hit in the face. I coined sproinking as a verb, to describe the energy of freshly liberated groups. Think also of the over the top zeal of the freshly converted. People tend to mellow out after a while. The SPROINK! energy is exhilarating for the members of the group, but may be bewildering, threatening or just irritating for others.  

Then there are the Old Warriors. The age refers more to the battle than to the soldiers. This is the folks splitting hairs and looking for microaggressions after a movement has been largely successful. They may overlap with sproinkers.

I am reflecting on this in the winter of 2018. The media have been buzzing with the news of one mighty man after another falling from grace due to past sexual misconduct. 
I did a blog on this topic a few years ago during one such scandal concerning a popular CBC man. Much of it is still relevant.

This vague term "sexual misconduct" can be used for a wide variety of misbehaviors. |

Should withholding job opportunities unless sexual favours are granted really be on the same page  as a drunken grope at the office Christmas party? 

While it is high time the former is taken seriously, I would like to think that the latter can be dealt with on the spot with a slap and a firm DON'T. I recognise I have been lucky in my personal experience and may be hopelessly naive as a result. I also recognise we are looking at the slippery slope. The drunken grope may be evidence of a toxic climate in which blackmail is possible. Many small acts can add up to a climate of intimidation. When does one make a fuss? And then there is the real danger that even the proverbial slap can have repercussions. I just stumbled upon this.

Margaret Atwood wrote a much discussed article in the Globe and Mail that I posted to Facebook with the comment: "I fear rule by mob, even if the mob consists of my kind of people. I fear orthodoxy and dogma, even if they originate in a philosophy I subscribe to."

I also worry about throwing out precious babies with the bathwater.
Yes, we need history books to include the stories that have been previously ignored. But I would hate to see the canon of Western civilisation tossed out because the texts were written by rich white men. In their time they were the only ones with the leisure to study and reflect.

More on the whole group/individual thing in the next post, but just this: When  previously disadvantaged groups finally get a measure of justice, there is always a danger that relatively harmless individuals of the previously privileged group get a rough deal. 

Here in Canada we just had a tragedy involving the shooting of a young First Nations man by a white farmer. The behaviour of the police who went to the young man's home to inform the bereaved family is without excuse. Racism is real. 

The white farmer who shot the young man was acquitted by the all white jury. At first glance it seemed like a clear cut case of outrageous racism. My first reaction was to post an item on it with the comment that this was Canada's equivalent to the Trevor Martin case and sign "Justice for Colten" petitions. Google Colten Boushie. 

But then my conservative friend Ken "buzzsaw" Cyr sent me some articles published in conservative sources that questioned the simple narrative of "drunk native kid blameless victim, white farmer guilty racist." It was not that simple. For the record, these articles were written by First Nations people. I finally told myself the world will keep turning if I do not have a firm opinion on the matter.

I am just hoping we can make social change without creating fresh victims in the process. I worry about a mentality where the end justifies the means. I hope more of us can keep a relatively cool head, keep trying to separate truth from falsehood, and continue to think independently instead of following a herd, any herd. 

Related posts:

Monday, December 18, 2017

On immigration and mayonnaise.

Once upon a time, in a house on the border of Murcia and Almeria, a woman named Catalina Andreu showed me how to make mayonnaise. First, you make your base. Vinegar, egg, salt, maybe mustard and or garlic. Then comes the tricky part: incorporating the oil. This has to be done in a slow trickle while stirring vigorously. Add too much at once and the oil goes one way, the vinegar base the other and they are both useless. Her words. I remember her saying "un lado, otro lado." These people were smart peasant farmers who knew how to stretch our rudimentary Spanish by simplifying their language.

Now, with our modern kitchen blenders the cure for a failing mayonnaise is simple. Stop adding oil for a moment, then give the works a vigorous buzz. The oil will incorporate, everything becomes smooth and you can resume trickling more oil.

Mayonnaise seems to me the perfect metaphor for the dilemmas surrounding immigration. When too many newcomers pour into an established society at once, integration becomes more difficult. Any harmonious society has a certain degree of cohesion, a baseline of common mores and values. 

I am not saying that there should not be people at the fringes, those are usually the more interesting ones. The ones on the edge, the pockets of 'others'  keep a society from stagnating. But there has to be a centre to be a fringe of. Without a central mass we get mere chaos. Think of the endlessly warring city states of Renaissance Italy that inspired the peace loving Machiavelli to write his cynical instructions for a successful ruler. 

Ideally the receiving society should be able to slow down the flood of incomers until the previous wave of immigrants has made itself at home. Stop adding more oil. Let Time, that great blender, do its magic. In the recent (post indigenous holocaust) history of North America this has happened many times over. Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans have all been looked at askance until they became established. In the present day Vancouver, B.C. is adjusting to becoming an Asian city.

Unfortunately slowing down the flow is not always possible. In times of upheaval due to wars and natural disasters desperate people will continue to flood into safer places.

This phenomenon is as old as humanity. History lesson from Dutch elementary school, where we had to learn dates by heart. They stuck. The year 400 read: "The Great Migration. Our country inhabited by Frisians, Franks and Saxons." The word for the migration, "volksverhuizing", literally "people's move" the same as that used for a move from one apartment to the next. My childish imagination pictured an orderly procession of horse drawn U hauls. While much attention was given to Attila the Hun, the driving force behind all those tribes moving West, not much was said about the experience of the people in place when the Frisians, Franks and Saxons who became our collective forebears showed up. 

Receiving societies face horrible dilemmas no matter how they respond. Most people are decent at heart and want to rescue the fleeing stranger. But when a trickle of individual families becomes a flood that threatens to overwhelm the host society things become tricky.

I have no easy answers. Overall, I prefer being opening and welcoming to closing the gate behind me now that I am in. 

However, on this topic as on so many others we need to be able to hold frank conversations without immediately ranging ourselves in ideological camps. We need to stop cherry picking stories that confirm our chosen viewpoint and ignoring the other ones. People of any group are a mixed bag.

Can we please admit that both xenophobia AND  large sudden influxes of newcomers are a problem? Can we please listen when the people in the neighborhoods where many newcomers settle run into problems without dismissing them as racists? We have seen what happens when people feel dismissed. It is not a pretty picture.

Can we please admit that there is a danger that our cherished social safety nets might become overwhelmed? Of course the funding of social safety nets is a complex issue in its own right, but let's not get side tracked.

Racism is present and real. Racial profiling by police is disgusting. So is seeing a possible rental disappear the moment a person of colour (I hate that expression) appears for a look. Boo! Hiss! 

But think of the social and psychological problems faced by returning veterans from the host society. Now look at an influx of large numbers of traumatised young men from a culture that gives them a sense of entitlement. Thinking of Europe here. Could that just possibly cause some problems? Can we please ask that question without being labeled anything?

Repeat. I have no easy answers. But I do know that finding the best possible answers has to start with asking questions, including  tough and unpopular ones.  

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Eye witness accounts from Charlottesville.

These posts appeared on Facebook. I am saving them here in order to be able to refer to them easily.

A FB post by Lisa Moore, who was at Charlottesville during the tragedy, protecting people from harm from the white supremacists:
I'm seeing a lot of posts about "both sides" and "all around violence."
Not one single person who was actually there has said this.
You know why? Because we saw it. We were there. We aren't relying on heavily edited and, in some cases, biased media footage.
We did not show up to fight. We did not show up to give them attention.
Our "side" is not buying bus tickets and coordinating carpools from out of state to invade other people's hometowns.
Our "side" did not hide caches of weapons at specific drop points around someone else's town.
Our "side" did not gather together in groups specifically in minority neighborhoods to terrorize the residents while brandishing weapons and shields.
Our "side" showed up to say NO MORE.
No more turning our heads. No more looking at news footage and sighing and shaking our heads and saying "such a shame in 2017."
And yes, some of us ended up fighting. Some of us bled, and some of us went home with someone else's blood on us.
The video documentary [I assume the HBO/Vice documentary] going around shows an incredibly pleased, smug, triumphant white supremacist who declared this weekend a victory for them.
He promised more rallies.
He gleefully promised more deaths.
If that is not worth showing up to condemn, then I don't know what is.
Yesterday I walked in a small group of other people to Heather Heyer's memorial.
As we approached a neighborhood, we came upon a house with two black girls playing in the front yard. One was perhaps six years old.
She froze and called to us "Are you KKK people?" as the other little girl ran inside. I responded "No honey, we aren't going to hurt you."
A little girl. In her own yard, in daylight. That is why we showed up. And that is why we will continue to show up.
In response to the president's comments, I have made this post public.
Also, the president claims that the counter protestors did not have permits, while the alt-right did. Fake news. We had two. My husband Nathan was one of the permit holders for McGuffey Park that day.

Kevin Higgs
Yesterday at 1:26pm
From a medic in Charlottesville who fears reprisal. :"I rarely post politics or anything else on Facebook .... But let me be clear. I was acting as a medic in Charlottesville. "Both sides"-ing about it is absolutely unacceptable. Content note: I'm going to get quite graphic here, because while I understand that there's quite a range of political viewpoints among my Facebook friends, I want to *get this point through to everyone whatever your politics*.
In the run-up to that weekend, some local counterprotest organizers' families were forced to flee their homes because of violent threats. Some of them had "bodyguards" - friends escorting them everywhere they went that week, even to the grocery store, work, all the mundane places that people go in their normal lives.
On Friday night, a torch-wielding mob chanting Nazi and other racist slogans (e.g. "blood and soil," "Jews will not replace us"), some doing Nazi salutes, surrounded, screamed "White lives matter" and "anti-white" at, a small group of college student counterprotesters who had linked arms around a statue and had a banner. They then threw fuel at them, beat them with lit torches, pepper-sprayed them, and punched them (including pepper-spraying a girl in a wheelchair). The police mostly stood by until the nazis were gone. A medic who was wearing a kippah (a Jewish skullcap) was followed in the dark by one of the nazis, and took it off after that so as not to be targeted. A university librarian who joined the students to try to protect them has now had a stroke. At some point that evening, the torch-wielders also surrounded a black church while chanting racist slogans. All of this not only hurt people that night but set expectations for how the white nationalists would behave the next day.
On Saturday morning, a line of clergy, along with a gradually growing group of other protesters, showed up outside the nazi rally (given the iconography, including swastikas, the Black Sun, and fasces, and the chants, of involved groups, I don't have a problem using that word, don't let anyone fool you into thinking these were mainstream conservative groups that are being described hyperbolically), facing militia movement members who were carrying assault rifles. There was shouting back and forth, and a small early fistfight where a nazi punched a nearby counterprotester who spilled coffee on him. Nazis were screaming antisemitic things at rabbis in the clergy line, and chanting "blood and soil" in response to the clergy singing "This little light of mine." At one point, some clergy did a peaceful blockade of one of the park entrances, which was forcibly broken by an incoming white nationalist group with skulls painted on their shields.
The heavy bidirectional fighting, though, mostly got going after a group of counterprotesters nonviolently blocked the way of an oncoming group of white nationalists, who broke through the blockade with clubs and heavy shields. Some people defended themselves as the white nationalists kept charging and swinging clubs. After that, there were fistfights and club-fights breaking out all around, nazis pepper-spraying and tear-gassing counterprotest crowds, plastic water bottles thrown in both directions. A nazi group that didn't know where the entrance to the park was added to the street fights. Some clergy ran to shield vulnerable people with their bodies, and those clergy were protected by antifa-associated counterprotesters - multiple clergy/theologians have said that they would have been "crushed" and maybe killed if antifa had not protected them. This went on for a long time. For most of this, the police stood around. Eventually, they cleared both sides out of the area.
The town's synagogue is a short distance from the park. Throughout the day, nazis paraded by it doing the Nazi salute and shouting antisemitic slurs. The police had refused to provide a guard to the synagogue for some reason, so it had hired its own armed guard. There were threats of burning it down coming in. It had to cancel a havdalah service at a congregant's house that evening out of fear of attack.
The march that was attacked with a car by James Fields was that afternoon. What street fighting had happened was long-since over by then. It was a happy march, it was not fighting anyone. The car attack came out of nowhere and the aftermath looked like a war zone. It hit the front of the march as the march was going around a corner, and many people weren't sure what had happened at first, people were screaming about a bomb. In addition to the woman who died, many people had serious injuries. A medic who was hit had to have emergency surgery to not lose her leg. A 13 year-old girl and her mom were among the injured. The street was covered in blood. The firefighters and paramedics were great. The police, on the other hand, rolled in an armored vehicle and threatened the crowd of survivors with a tear gas launcher. Police officers ordered the medics who were performing CPR on the woman who died to leave her and clear the area. They refused, and bystanders negotiated with the police to leave them alone.
There were several other incidents throughout the afternoon where white nationalists/nazis/whatever were menacing small groups of wandering counterprotesters with their cars, swerving toward them on the sidewalk like they were going to hit them, that kind of thing, including after the car attack. At one point my medic buddy and I were about 50 feet ahead of such a group and heard screeching car sounds and screams, and ran back, thinking for a second that there had been another terrorist attack and that this time we were the only medics on site, but fortunately it was just a scare - the driver then "rolled coal" (intentionally emitting a dark cloud of exhaust) at the people on the sidewalk before driving away. There was also an incident at some point where a young black man was badly beaten by white nationalists in a parking garage.
There is no "both sides" here. I mean, first of all, there is no moral both sides because antifascists and nazis aren't morally the same, period. Disrupting nazis isn't the same as being one, period. But there was also no "both sides" even beyond that. Mutual street fighting primarily kicked off by an attack from the opposing side, doesn't compare to mowing people down with a car, to threatening a synagogue and a black church, to stalking someone for being visibly Jewish, to being part of a Nazi-slogan-screaming mob that surrounds and attacks peaceful college kids and could have easily killed one of them if the fuel thrown on a couple of them had been lit by one of the many thrown or swung torches.
Don't let anyone fool you into thinking the Saturday rally was starting out just a rally like others, but with racist assholes. The people organizing counterprotests, whose families had to flee town, would probably take issue with that. The black church and the synagogue, the synagogue congregant who had to cancel a religious/cultural ceremony out of fear, and the ones who had to leave the building in groups out the back entrance to avoid attack, would probably take issue with that. The people who were physically attacked, on Friday night, by those in town for the Saturday rally, would probably take issue with that.
Don't elide the difference in the questions of whether hate speech should be criminalized, and how communities and their supporters should protect themselves when people who are already threatening to kill them roll into town to rally and then physically attack community members before their rally while the police don't stop it. Don't invoke the Civil Rights Movement to elide it, or tsk-tsk people who were on the ground in Cville. The Civil Rights Movement had its Deacons for Defense and Justice, and similar groups. Just as importantly, many of the leading lights of the Civil Rights Movement were murdered. If you think the only valid kind of activism in response to racist hate is martyrdom, you need to at least think through the implications of that belief.
I did not have a good weekend and I have no interest in hearing comments about how, despite everything I saw and everything I said here, you think this is a "both sides" thing. If you find my activism unacceptable you are welcome to unfriend me.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Open letter to Justin Trudeau

Dear Mr. Trudeau,

When your election brought an end to the Harper regime I was among the many celebrating an end to an oppressive episode in Canadian history. I did not vote for you, but was part of the movement that encouraged strategic voting. I even wrote letters to NDP candidates in certain ridings, begging them to stand down in favour of Liberal candidates if that would defeat the Harperites.* 

We did this in the expectation that we would never have to do it again if you won.

I fully recognise that your powers to affect change are limited by realities over which you have little or no control. Canada is part of a complex world where transnational corporations wield enormous power. 

On this issue however nothing stands in your way. Changing the electoral system to one where every vote counts is still well within the power of a national government. You made it an issue. There is NO EXCUSE. There is only the impression that the Bay Street Liberals are back, just with better looks and some modern social values. There is the impression that the Bay Street establishment is confident they have regained their old role as Canada's default ruling party. The present system works in their favor and they would like to keep it that way. 


There is already widespread distrust in the whole democratic system. Blatant disregard of promises made encourages cynicism and apathy. This in turn encourages extremism, as we have just witnessed South of the Border. There is still time to put this issue on the front burner. 

P.S. Ditto for Bill C51 and the legalisation of marijuana issue. Stop back pedaling! At least call in your attack dogs who are still arresting people selling tomorrow's medicine today.

*Like former Progressive Conservative Tom McMillan I do not consider Harperites Canadian conservatives.