The recent brouhaha over whether or not the practice of “yoga” represents cultural appropriation is a deeper swamp than I care to wade into at the moment, thanks. I’ve been helping a friend in dealing with his own crisis of political correctness and cultural appropriation.
My friend is a poet, writer, singer, and incidentally my old English teacher. He’s also the leader of a popular regional barbershop quartet, and it was in that capacity that he contacted me.
His ensemble is preparing their Christmas setlist, and one of the jewels of their repertoire is a lovely four-voice rendering of Mel Torme’s Christmas Carol. You know the one:
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack frost nipping at your nose; Yuletide carols being sung by a choir, And folks dressed up like Eskimos…”
You see the problem? So did he. “We don’t want to offend anybody,” he explained. “But those ARE the words. You’ve got some Inuit friends. Would you mind quietly asking whether they’d find that offensive?”
So I contacted an Iqaluit friend, a modern, sophisticated, well-traveled young Inuit entrepreneur, and asked what she thought. Her verdict: you could get away with it in Alaska, and even with older folks in the Western Arctic. “But,” she said, “Any Inuk from West of Inuvik and younger than sixty is going to find that word demeaning. I hate to say it, but I’d tell your friend not to use it.”
I passed the word on to my friend, who glumly accepted the recommendation.
He is, however, a poet as well as a singer, and within a day had come up with a very imaginative workaround. This Christmas, his ensemble WILL be performing “The Christmas Song”, proudly edited to reflect our culture of heightened sensitivity. The new lyrics:
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, it’s colder than a witch’s tit; Yuletide carols being sung be a choir, and folks dressed up like Inuit…”
Crisis averted. What could possibly be objectionable about that?
Readers will recall my earlier comments on the post-election “survey” by the bruised Old Democratic Party. Well, the results are in!
I publish this, in its entirety, without comment, other than to report that tears are running down my cheeks—but from grief or helpless near-hysterical laughter, I cannot tell. Sometimes, I am reliably informed, the two spring from the same source.
At last count, more than 24,000 Canadians participated in our election survey. Thank you for your honesty and insight.
Our team spent some time this weekend reading through the comments, and putting together these results to share.
Health care topped the list of issues you care most about. 97% said improving health care with more doctors, affordable prescription drugs, and better access to home care is important. We agree.
You also shared that jobs, childcare, electoral reform, the environment, and building a Nation-to-Nation relationship with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples are important to you, and they will continue to be top priorities for the NDP moving forward.
On the key question of how you’d like to see Tom Mulcair and the NDP work with this new government, 78% asked us to work with the government on issues we agree on, but hold them to account as the progressive opposition.
In this election, the Liberals made ambitious promises, but they still don’t have a plan to reverse Stephen Harper’s cuts to health care, give 100,000 hard-working Canadians a raise, or bring in affordable childcare and more quality spaces. And they won’t ask the largest, most profitable corporations to pay their fair share.
We will continue putting those issues front and center.
While the majority agreed on these priorities, we respect the opinions of those who disagreed. We’ll look for ways to incorporate your feedback to shape the plan going forward.
A critical, international climate change conference is set for later this month, and the government must establish firm targets to reduce carbon pollution. Parliament will resume shortly after that and our NDP team has a key role to play.
I for one have no illusions about ISIS. I think this article sets the matter out in the detail required. Jeremy Corbyn would have preferred that Osama bin Laden and now “Jihadi John” had been put on trial rather than summarily executed. I would like ISIS to be extirpated, or, failing that, deported from the planet. Both of us may dream of what would be preferable to what is. But we live in the real world where dreams alone will not do. And yet we need to hold onto them, or we stand for nothing.
Those who mocked Corbyn for musing about trials that could never happen are the very same people who imagine that complex global relations can be fine-tuned with bombs.
We—that is, the state to whom we are subject(s)—disapprove of the governments of other countries, with exquisite selectivity. We join the invasions. 1.2 million men, women and children in Iraq alone were liberated from life. As now confirmed by what I would think is an impeccable source for the bien-pensants, that exercise was largely about oil after all. Iraq: now the bedrock for ISIS. Libya—a bloody mess, waiting to coalesce into yet another T-1000. Afghanistan—falling backwards, the naked brutality of the now ISIS-infected Taliban met by American hospital bombing, burning patients in their beds.
But we keep on keeping on. Sowing dragons’ teeth is all we know. The very clichéd definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
So here’s John Gormley. The reaction to his call for death to anyone saying “God is great” in Arabic must have surprised him: he apologized, using that well worn formula, “if [he] offended anybody.”
And then there’s that spouting hysteric Terry Glavin, pro-refugee without a doubt, but doing his best to set the conditions for millions more. His Twitter avatar once showed him wearing an AK-47—one sincerely hopes that the safety catch was on. A man of sixty, carrying on like this: “War to the knife, & the knife to the hilt,” ironically borrowing a quotation from the Missouri pro-slavery movement. And this: “[T]here is only one decent and proper liberal way forward in this struggle: unapologetic, unceasing, merciless, pitiless war, until victory.” Setting aside the jarringly out-of-place”liberal,” he sounds like he’s channeling Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself.
Against a seventh-century theocracy macerating in genocidal yearnings, the joyful infliction of torture, mass rape as a religious exercise and the restoration of slavery, we have hyper-macho posturing in the dailies that, at this juncture, is not merely irritating, but dangerous. How do we wage this pitiless war? I’d suggest the task is many times more difficult than extracting a psychopath like Jihadi John from his lair and giving him a proper trial. But the chickenhawks who are more than willing to send young folks to war haven’t a clue. Bombs. More bombs. Boots on the ground.
Please, put these merciless, pitiless guys on the front lines. They’re straining at the leash.
So anyway, here’s my friend and rabble.ca editor Michael Stewart, trying to inject a little reason into these overheated conversations. I don’t necessarily agree that ISIS can be talked to, unlike the Taliban; they are a unique breed of polecat with no interest in anything but our deaths. But an attempt is made here to change the frame of the discussion, to take the long view, to engage, however tentatively, in the “patient labours of peace.”
Read the comments. That’s what we’re up against. Gormley and Glavin are very far from alone.
But there are things about Canada that I hope will never change, for all of that. We have read, in the aftermath of the Paris massacres, of a Muslim woman treated rudely in a grocery store; of arson in a Peterborough mosque; and the beating of another Muslim woman, picking up her children at school, by a couple of cowardly hoodlums. Everywhere, hearts sank. Mine leapt up. For all of the previous government’s attempt to whip up the lynch mobs over the niqab issue, for all of the human sympathy—and its companion, rage—over the Paris hecatomb (and for some, the mass murders in Beirut and Baghdad), there have been three reported incidents. In a country of 34 million, where nearly a third voted for he who shall not be named, where crowds of know-nothings fill up the talkshow lines with noise and jam the on-line comments threads with their vicious, stupid, hateful nonsense.
Three incidents. Followed by massive outcries from the decent, an outpouring of material support, communities rallying round.
Go on, you hoarse-voiced, chest-beating pundits urging slaughter to put an end to slaughter. We’re better than you are.
Memo from Anne McGrath, National Campaign Director, “Canada’s New Democrats,” asking me to participate in a “survey.” Extracts:
Since just last week, more than 10,000 Canadians have taken this survey on the election and what to focus on moving forward.
Before we finalize our next steps, I’d like to know what you think.
The more we know about your priorities, the better we can help bring the change you want after a decade of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
What do you mean by “we,” Anne?
Anyway, a mere five minutes of my time is considered sufficient to let the NDP know what I think. I am asked to rank, on a scale of “Very Important” to “Not Important,” better health care, a more secure environment, affordable childcare, electoral reform, full-time job creation, and so on. The NDP agenda, in other words. Nothing wrong with it, I hasten to add.
I am then asked if there are additional issues to be added to the wish-list, and if I have any “other thoughts about the election.” “Other” is good. As though filling out this push-survey is thinking, in any serious sense of the word.
If I felt alienated from the Old Democratic Party after the election, this idiotic gesture finishes the job and ties an orange bow on it. The High Command, still very much in charge, is just running a plebiscite here: the “survey” is nothing more than a “Yes” ballot, a flabby attempt to gain further confirmation that it did nothing wrong.
What a patronizing gesture, what a flick of lordly contempt.
To be sure, the plebs are permitted to offer those “other thoughts.” But how will they be correlated and tabulated? More important, what consideration will they receive? How will they be fed into the onanistic deliberations of the committee of inquiry the High Command is presently conducting? They will have no more effect than those of phone-in callers on a talkshow.
The survey will sustain the High Command’s illusions until the report of the inquiry comes out in January. And the latter will find, I can guarantee, that no serious errors were made, and that, as a commenter here put it, the NDP, like the Toronto Maple Leafs, did really well in the second period.
Reflection? Self-criticism? Hey, that’s for losers.
The land was empty. We turned it into a prosperous economy, with world-class technology and high living standards for everyone. Look at all those despotic states—why does no one ever criticize them? Why are we always singled out?
In my commentary from now on I shall endeavour not to use the name of the previous head of government. Nor to use any images. I would hope folks might respect this in the comments, but this is a fairly open blogsite, and I don’t insist upon it. The Romans were on to something, though.
We have endured nearly a decade of devastation—of environmental protection, of scientific inquiry, of Parliament, of the rule of law, of basic civility and decency. We have been ruled by a comic-opera government, a motley crew of fools, jackals and yokels, urged on by the gutter media and their patrician cousins.
It’s been like waking from a nightmare this week. Everything I, my parents and my grandparents prized about this country was up for destruction—or auction. Fellow citizens were spied upon, harassed and stalked for daring to be critical of the government. Some of us were threatened with loss of citizenship, even if born here: no right to appeal, and with an endlessly flexible definition of the word “terrorism” to enable the powers that be to pick and choose among us. It was a more and more openly racist government, colour-coding its citizens, sometimes even exiling them. For that despicable regime, anger was better than love; fear was better than hope. Sado-politics were the order of the day, exalting cruelty and hatred to the status of supreme Canadian virtues.
Then we open our eyes, and sunlight is streaming in through our windows. We shudder with relief, trying to shake off the remaining vestiges of a deeply troubled sleep.
Perhaps—as is likely—this has only been a dream within a dream, and we have yet to wake. The sunny days have only just begun. Perhaps it’s all style, with the same content—we’ve been down that Liberal road many, many times. The new Finance Minister is a Bay Street multimillionaire. Former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, a dangerous threat to Canadian civil liberties, but praised to the skies by the new Prime Minister, sits in the ranks—if thankfully not in cabinet. The Prime Minister himself seems like a big pleasant kid, too easily open to manipulation by savvy backroom handlers. This was only an election, after all, not a revolution.
But even the most cynical among us—let’s be honest—felt a ray of hope yesterday. It’s a good feeling. We should savour it. We have had nothing like it for ten years, and we’re due—even if it’s just a glorious magic show of fairies, unicorns and sparkle dust, from which we emerge, still smiling, into the streets of winter.
Having weathered the cloud of brightly-hued little sugar-locusts on Saturday, and sent them away satisfied, I chanced upon this video, which is not, I swear, something from Monty Python, but the real thing.
The man on the right, a protester unhappy with the way the Manchester police had been dealing with anti-fracking protests, has been doing stand-up street comedy. In this real-life skit, he wore a plastic bobby’s hat and a pig mask—and was arrested on “suspicion of impersonating a police officer.” Way to go, Officer Plod. A fair cop, some might say.
This real-life bit of Theatre of the Absurd made me reflect on costumes, and their various and sundry social uses. There has been a lot in the news recently about costumes deemed “inappropriate” for Hallowe’en—blackface, redface, sexy nurses and even sexy PhDs, and on and on.
Yet Hallowe’en costumes are “let’s pretend.” The phrase is “dressed up as,” and I’ve seen marvellous pretence, both first-hand and on the Internet. But I can understand the grown-up political sensitivities—the objectifying nature of “pretending to be” Black, or Aboriginal, or imitating (non-satirically) a member of the Israel Defence Forces. There’s a whole host of costumes to which we might take exception today, including the aforementioned gender stereotypes. One simply has to let one’s darker imagination roam: someone will sell a costume for it.
And yet, from a kid’s perspective, it’s all innocent. Children are taking part in a time-honoured door-to-door ritual, exploring their imaginations (with parental assistance), acting out something they are not. I find myself wondering how we could ever bridge the divide between groups of people without exercising that same sort of imagination. Listening and observing are essential in that enterprise, but knowledge by itself is not enough—we need to put ourselves, however imperfectly, in the Other’s place. Without that informed imaginative leap of empathy, the Other remains objectified. Yet in an era of identity politics, one attempts to do so at one’s peril. “Walk a mile in my moccasins,” goes the adage—but don’t try it today.
The nub of the issue is that costumes can also be what people are. So-called national dress, and ceremonial regalia, are costume. By donning these, people join their community: they become what they are signifiying, and this is by no means just a matter of wearing something or other (see, for example: niqab). When others merely play with it, it can cause resentment—although, well, please. At its worst, appropriating this dress from oppressed people is an expression of white privilege—stealing the appearance without paying the historical (and current) dues, an unwelcome, ironic misappropriation. (I don’t hold with the “cultural appropriation” notion, by the way—all culture is appropriation.) But sometimes, especially with children, it’s a step into the unknown, into the wonder of being someone else. How do we encourage that imaginative capacity, while being mindful of race, class and gender dynamics?
As for donning a white hood or the uniform of this oppressor or that, though, nuh-uh. That’s parental neglect at the very least. Intolerable.
I confess that I don’t know how to draw all of this to a neat, tied-with-a-bow conclusion. So let me close where I began—with the bizarre event in Manchester. On one level, it’s pretty simple. The police officer was insulted by a costume deliberately meant to mock people like himself. He was supposed to be the one with power and authority, yet here he was, the butt of laughter. Obviously irony-blind, he fumbled around for a way of exercising his power, something he could charge the offender with, and unfortunately chose “impersonating a police officer,” only ratcheting up the amusement.
But the underlying point is this: people don’t like to be impersonated, whether in mockery or in superficial play. It is rarely a case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, but an affront instead, witting or unwitting, to whom and to what they are, objectifying them, and too often trading in “funny” stereotypes that make things worse.
Because the cop was a (white, male) person with delegated state power and the privilege that accompanies it, we can laugh easily—at least, I did, if only because of how that power was so ineptly exercised, almost satirically. Such laughter is subversive. Those without such cultural capital, however, have a much harder time of it; their imitators are the ones with both privilege and power, and the imitative act is itself an exercise of both. Catalogue ethnic, racial and gendered Hallowe’en costumes under microaggressions, then, by all means. But, for the reasons indicated, we need to cut the kids a little slack, and reserve our serious discussions for the adults.
[Full disclosure: I own and wear a Basque boina and the larger txapeldun, and a comfortable Borsalino rabbit-fur fedora. No apologies. —DD]
“[There were] no serious and devastating errors. There were certainly moments where I wish other decisions had been made, and I take full responsibility for that. On the other hand, I think the NDP went in in a position that we’d never been in before. I think we emerged from this with a lot of hope about where we can go from here.” ~Anne McGrath, NDP National Campaign Chair
Making the best of a bad situation is one thing, and, in the recent aftermath of a crushing defeat, perfectly understandable. But telling us that it’s not all that bad a situation after all, and that no “serious and devastating errors” were made, is quite another. In a word, it’s dishonest—intellectually, morally, and in fact.
It’s this kind of thing that makes me wonder why I ever got involved, even tangentially, in party politics.
The facts are ice-cold and clear. The NDP started out the election campaign as the leading contender, with 37% of the decided vote in August. It ended up in third place. It dropped from 103 seats to 44 in the House of Commons. Its share of the popular vote dived from 30.6% in 2011 to 19.7%.
Solid reasons have already been given for this mega-plummet, and I have nothing more to add. A bizarre variant of strategic voting certainly played a considerable role, where an “ABC” strategy, “vote Liberal where they’re strongest, vote NDP where they’re strongest” became simply, “Vote Liberal”. But the NDP could barely have done more to sabotage its own cause if it had done so deliberately. A sharp economic turn to the Right, by a leader who embraced Thatcherism in the past. Public purges of pro-Palestinian human rights activists. A colourless, vapid, don’t-scare-them-off campaign waged when the electors were hungry for real change.
The NDP didn’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory; it slowly winched it out. Don’t take my disgruntled word for it. NDP strategist Bill Tieleman says it all, in far more detail, right here.
Now, what do we get in the aftermath? Drowning NDP partisans, clinging madly to that anchor named Tom Mulcair. Rationalizations, feeble excuses, piss-proud faux-triumphalism through the tears—“44 seats, second-biggest showing EVAH,” reminding me of Orwell’s chocolate ration story.* Anne McGrath’s delusional (Tieleman’s word) let’s-pretend silk purse waved madly in the air.
In fairness, the hapless campaign director is not alone. Here’s Mulcair’s “special advisor” Brad Lavigne: “Mr. Mulcair ran an incredibly strong campaign and had the support of a good number of Canadians for, I think, 55 of the 78 days, so a lot to be proud of.”
Good grief. Are these people listening to themselves?
Carry on sewing, folks. You have a ways to go.
*The new ration did not start till tomorrow and [Winston] had only four cigarettes left. For the moment he had shut his ears to the remoter noises and was listening to the stuff that streamed out of the telescreen. It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grammes a week. And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be REDUCED to twenty grammes a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours?… Was he, then, ALONE in the possession of a memory?
…is in order. I was pretty rough on the folks who switched from orange to red on October 19. But I might have been too hasty in assuming it was just a mindless stampede.
A look at what is now going on in Portugal makes me somewhat more sympathetic to their reaction. The hypothetical parallels are instructive.
Left parties won a majority in the recent Portuguese elections, and they proposed an informal coalition government led by the Socialist Party. But the President (similar in role to our Governor General) decreed that a minority right-wing party that had previously held power would form government again, because it had won the most seats. And the left parties, he noted, had not run as a coalition.
Veteran political commentator David Climenhaga was all over this story, while the Canadian media, for whatever reason, have chosen to black it out.
Could the same thing have happened here if Harper had won a plurality of seats? If so, a non-confidence vote would have been required to topple Harper, and, after that, new elections might have had to be held if Governor General David Johnston, hand-picked by Harper, refused to pull a King-Byng. All this might have merely forestalled the inevitable, but not necessarily. We should remember Michael Ignatieff’s betrayal in 2009 that saddled us with Harper for another six years. What would have kept the Liberals from working out a deal with Conservatives rather than the NDP, which is precisely what happened in 2009?
There are more unknowns here than I was willing to accept during the final days of the campaign. I still believe that a majority of Liberal and NDP seats would have prevailed, sending Harper packing. But as the example of Portugal shows, this was not necessarily a slam-dunk.
We have a Liberal majority now. I predict a lot of disappointment among the orange-to-red set. They jumped too soon. But maybe not entirely without calculation.
My favourite pro-oil/anti-Muslim/pro-tobacco/anti journalism propagandist, Ezra Levant, is now calling on the Government of Canada to rename the airport in Calgary as “The Stephen Harper International Airport.” (No, I’m NOT going to link: your finger might slip and you might accidentally join the petition.)
Ezra is proudly Conservative, and a fierce defender of tradition, especially as regards the way women dress for citizenship ceremonies. Thus he MUST know that in Canada, you need to be dead before we name an airport after you.
I think we have just been vouchsafed a shocking insider’s glimpse into the lackluster nature of the Conservative campaign, and Mr. Harper’s dazed, glazed and slightly waxy appearance in its final weeks. And just before Halloween, too!