Ottawa abortion fight

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Pro-clinic protest.jpg

I was privileged to attend a several-hundred-strong gathering at the Human Rights monument in Ottawa last evening. The demonstrators were there to protest the benign neglect of the Ottawa Police Service and City Hall as women are consistently bullied, yelled at and even spat upon by “pro-life” fanatics at the Ottawa Morgentaler Clinic on Bank Street.

In an earlier post, I wondered aloud why it was that the Chief of Police and the Mayor of my city were claiming that nothing could be done because of the Charter of Rights and inadequate by-law language. Those claims are palpably false. Court injunctions, and provincial legislation in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador, have kept anti-choice harassers away from the vicinity of abortion clinics, and have proven robustly Charter-proof. This, in fact, is settled law by now. Nothing is stopping the City from enforcing the existing by-laws or, if necessary, drafting new ones. It was good to see the experts weigh in on this.

Meanwhile, my own Councillor, David Chernushenko, was regurgitating the police and mayoral talking-points, and likely some other Councillors were doing the same, but not all of our municipal representatives are keeping their arms folded and hanging back. Councillor Catherine McKenney, in whose ward the clinic is located, has been pro-active on the matter: as the popular outcry has increased, she (and the Mayor, who could hardly say no) have asked for a legal opinion:

Can the City Clerk and Solicitor provide Council with legally enforceable options to allow the City to ensure that people providing or seeking counselling or medical procedures at any clinic or medical provider in Ottawa will be able to provide or access those services free from harassment, threats or intimidation and in a manner that respects their dignity and privacy.

The options should include new or amended provincial legislation (such as the creation of “bubble zones” that have been done in the Provinces of British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador) and/or new or changes to the City’s own by-laws.

At the demonstration, Councillors Jeff Leiper and Tobi Nussbaum flanked McKinney in silent support as she spoke.

I caught sight of an old friend who had been part of the 1970 Abortion Caravan. “47 years later, eh?” I said to her.

This is not 1970. Pro-choice sentiment is mainstream. The bullying of vulnerable women in downtown Ottawa has created a rising wave of public disgust. I suspect that the Mayor and the Chief of Police have grasped by now what their indefensible inaction has unleashed.

There will be more chapters of this tale written over the few days and weeks. There will be no going back.

Photo Credit: Jean Levac/ Postmedia News

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I hear banjos

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“Paddle faster!”

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Police Ottawa.jpg

A recent column by the Toronto Star’s Heather Mallick indicates that the pro-choice struggle is far from over. It’s not the law getting in the way at this point, although in New Brunswick that has been the case until recently, and in some measure remains so. The issue these days is access, hampered by too few abortion facilities and by the ceaseless intimidation of vulnerable women by “pro-life” fanatics.

First, the good news: no, abortion clinics are not closing as Mallick mistakenly claims: indeed, thanks in no small part to my late friend Wendy Robbins, access is actually improving, if far too slowly. But the fetus fetishists are a live, malignant force, and can be counted upon to create misery wherever they appear.

On university campuses they show up with large gory pictures comparing abortion to the Nazi Holocaust. They shove their propaganda through letter slots. And they can also be observed within spitting distance of abortion clinics—despite “bubble zone” legislation in BC and recently in Newfoundland and Labrador that is supposed to force the harassers to remain some distance away from clinic property. Elsewhere, a patchwork quilt of by-laws and court injunctions has helped to keep them at bay—but not always effectively. In Fredericton, they are building an anti-abortion office right next door to the newly-reopened abortion clinic.

And then there’s Ottawa.

A city by-law is supposed to keep the harassers across the street from the Bank Street clinic. But somehow they have gained impunity, marching unimpeded right in front of the clinic doors to intimidate clients.

The Ottawa Police Service appears to be acting in complicity with them. Calls to the police have achieved nothing. In fact, according to the clinic’s director of operations, the cops have threatened clinic staff with arrest for daring to complain. Since when is a citizen subject to arrest for reporting lawbreaking to the police? Something smells malodorous here.

Mallick’s article, and its consequent social media uproar, have wrung a promise out of Ottawa’s glad-handing Mayor Jim Watson to investigate. A Watson sceptic, I’m not holding my breath. But let’s stay tuned.

UPDATE: Both Mayor Jim Watson and the Chief of Police have washed their hands of the matter. “It’s a grey area,” “But the Charter of Rights,” “We can’t enforce our own by-law,” that sort of squeaking can be heard from City Hall and the cop shop, while clinic staff admit they have been driven to the breaking-point by the continual harassment.

“Go get a court injunction,” says the pathologically risk-averse Mayor Watson, helpfully. Those injunctions to create “bubble zones” around abortion clinics to keep the “pro-life” predators away have been successfully sought elsewhere—in Toronto, for example—and the zones are now law in two provinces. They have proven to be effective and able to withstand Charter challenges. But here’s the thing: the Ottawa by-law that restricts picketing to the other side of the street in effect establishes just such a bubble zone. Yet the Mayor and the police chief whine and weep and claim their hands are tied.

Here are a couple of suggestions. First, test the existing by-law: enforce it, make arrests, lay charges. If the harassers find a legal hole in the wording—here’s a thought, wait for it—write and pass a new by-law. (Damn, I must be some sort of genius to have thought of that.) To repeat: we already know that bubble zones are Charter-proof: a by-law having the same effect would be as well.

By doing nothing, both City Hall and the police are taking the side of the harassers. Get hold of your city councillor, jam the Mayor’s phone lines, step up, be heard. Make their lives miserable until something is done. Join any clinic-approved demonstrations and chase the harassers away from the doors.

Push has come to shove. The public bullying of women in Ottawa must be stopped. If the cops and City Hall refuse to act, then citizens will have to do their jobs for them.

UPPERDATE: (April 25) Legal experts shred Ottawa City Hall cowardice.

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Class, religion, economics

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Right now the biggest news in Europe is the Turkish referendum, whose ballot-counting is going on as I write this. The referendum is for a constitutional change that will favour the office of the Turkish presidency, currently occupied by the dyspeptic Erdoğan, who has stuffed Turkey’s prisons with journalists and judges. The full implications of the referendum and the associated constitutional change, expected to be a Yes vote (probably narrow), are disputed, but in a nutshell, it eliminates some of the distinctions between the executive and the legislative branches, and creates a much more powerful presidential office. Some people in Western Europe and the Turkish opposition consider it to be a step directly into Erdoğanist dictatorship.

A good summary of what is going on is available at this Foreign Policy article, which casts the “narrow” conflict in terms of the role of the bureaucracy:

In order to get things done in government, elected politicians traditionally were obliged to constantly bargain with the groups that composed this “bureaucratic oligarchy.” Most of Turkey’s political trends, such as the Leftists or Nationalists, have long had their natural networks in the corridors of the state, and would leverage them to get things done. The prime minister would be from one of these groups and be responsible for the day-to-day business of government. The president would always represent the Kemalist order and oversee the senior cadre of the Constitutional Court and senior military officials. The basic rhythm of government was not one of formal checks and balances, but tension between the president and prime minister.

It’s important to understand that prior to Erdoğan, much of Turkey’s public also did not experience Turkey as a democracy in which they had full rights. There was an underlying class conflict part of which was realized as a conflict over public religiosity. In the minds of western media, and in particular Western European society, the religious dimension of the conflict overshadowed all other aspects of it: the Kemalist elite were generally regarded as heroes holding a backwards “Islamist” Anatolia at bay using French-style laicism.

For the supposedly backwards Anatolians, the world had a completely different character: an urbanized, Europeanized elite ignored and neglected economically, dangling a chimera of acceptance in exchange for agreeing to sell away their heritage. Under Erdoğan, women’s participation in the economy and politics, went up, leaving the secular elites seeming like macho poseurs demanding that pious women disrobe before they could go to school. (They also apparently had “persuasion rooms” at school to browbeat and humiliate girls from religiously conservative backgrounds into taking off their headscarves.)

To Erdoğan’s core supporters, the Kemalists were doing this in order to gain a kind of superficial acceptance from a Europe that would never actually accept them properly — such is the experience of those who settled in Germany, France, and so on. To Erdoğan’s core supporters, a Yes vote and the further empowerment of Erdoğan, the Man Who Was There For Them, is also a kick in the teeth of a hypocritical, lecturing Europe. Erdoğan himself knew this and deliberately provoked crises with European leaders. European leaders knew this too, but for various reasons (among them, yes, Islamophobia) played along.

The layers of conflict in this referendum and the events preceding it are too many to disentangle in a quick blog post. Class. Religion. The Europeanization of European politics, which, despite everything, Turkey is very much a party to. The conflict in Syria. The Kurdish conflict. All knotted up in a country that can’t help but be “strategic”.

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Bull_edited-2.jpg In the beginning was Bowling Green, a small, cobble-stoned park in the heart of Wall Street.

Then came Charging Bull. A rare example of capitalist guerilla art, it was created and installed in 1989 by sculptor Arturo Di Modica as a tribute to “the strength and power of the American people”. Whatever you think of its significance, it’s undeniably a beautifully crafted work, and is one of the best-known public monuments in Manhattan. You have to be a pretty grim ideologue to suppress a surge of childlike delight when you see it onsite.

Then came Fearless Girl, a work funded by an investment fund and installed with the city’s permission. It deftly inverts the entire meaning of Charging Bull, and creates a charged space that energizes the whole square. It’s a fascinating inversion on many levels. The “Fearless Girl” is a “tribute” to women’s power, but it’s also an advertisement for a Wall Street firm whose ticker code is SHE (get it?) The newly neutered “Charging Bull” celebrates the power of capitalism, but was actually the more radical work: Di Modica paid for it himself, smuggled it into Bowling Green and installed it without authorization. It was impounded, removed, and only re-installed in the face of public outcry.

Di Modica is understandably pissed at the way his work has been trumped. But it’s happened; and Bowling Green as a whole is now a new work, incorporating both sculptures, their original and re-conceived meanings, and the space itself.

I personally like public art that allows the observer a little space for interpretation, and although I thought The Bull was fun, it was obvious and polemical. The Girl is no less polemical, but it adds a clever layer to the story.

So why stop now?

I propose a movement to encourage artists to create additional works for the square that will raise the discussion to ever higher critical levels until Bowling Green is completely jammed with sculptures, all of which comment on and reframe all previous sculptures in a delirious Borgesian explosion of meta-metameanings. The process will cease when there is no further space in the square for (a) sculptures, (b) additional interpretation, and/or (c) people.

I humbly present my contribution to the experiment, and will be launching my crowdfunding campaign shortly. (Thanks, Sooey, for the inspiration!)

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Syria missile attack.jpg

Syria—or the “Syria” we’re presently trying to understand—poses an age-old problem: How do we determine what happens over the horizon?

Analysis, of course. After weighing the facts. Drawing reasonable conclusions. Well, hold on a moment.

Whence come those facts? Mostly from the media. On rare occasions, from visiting the place in question ourselves, talking to people there. But from them we receive shards, fragments of data. Talking to another person we are already getting mediated news. As for the media themselves, they are not telescopes: they are filters. Observations have already been selected and narratized by the time they reach us. Stories, already assembled, that we need but read and absorb, and see the world as we are bid.

No, “bid” is too strong. It smacks of conspiracy and cabals. There is agency behind it. Put it another way, then: we are invited to see the world as it is constructed in story and myth by people across the horizon. Even the most honest of them, witnessing or encountering witnesses to brute events, are seeing them through a web of their own preconceptions, and arranging what they see to make sense of them. There is not, nor can there ever be, a “true” recounting of those events. The various tales invite themselves in to our own web of preconceptions, the world that we ourselves construct.

And so, Syria. A poison gas attack. A missile strike on an airfield. The social media, and the mainstream and less-than-mainstream media, immediately lit up—but did not enlighten. I read deep into the evening. Almost everyone sounded delusional. Drums were beaten mechanically, as though by robots. Opposition arose, like nervous twitches in nearly lifeless bodies. Veils were torn away, and replaced with others.

“About time!” “It’s about oil!” “US hypocrisy—it condemned 100,000s of thousands of Iraqi kids to death.” “Let’s follow up with boots on the ground! Think of the babies!” “Trump has shares in Tomahawk!” “Kids are dying every day in Yemen—Trump and Trudeau are OK with that!” “The rebels did it—false flag operation!” “War by America is always a disaster!”

I even agree with some of that. Libya and Iraq were left in ruins by the US. Yemen is a continuing human tragedy on a major scale—one which Canada may well have a hand in, and certainly the US does, supporting one of the most monstrous regimes in the region (Saudi Arabia). The US hypocrisy over Syria is, indeed, stifling, overwhelming, searing—like sarin gas. Asked about the up to half a million Iraqi kids who died thanks to sanctions, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “We think the price was worth it.” Saudi savagery in Yemen knows no bounds, and children are dying at a rate of about one every ten minutes: not a peep out of the US or Canadian governments about that.

A single death—or even a few dozen—is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

I didn’t see real discussion after the missiles flew: I saw unconscious reflexes playing against other reflexes. It was as though everyone was sleepwalking through their lines. And in the background, people choking to death. Missiles exploding against the night sky.

Finger-pointing: Assad did it. No, say his backers, by the remorseless logic of cui bono he couldn’t have. The problem is, the counter-narrative is even less believable. Syria is convulsed in agony. 400,000 dead in the past six years. 6.6 million internally displaced persons. Five million refugees. Population of Syria before the war was 22 million. Now, it’s 16.2 million.

All this so al-Assad and his torture regime could cling to power.

But Trump, being the Ubu Roi that he is, cannot possibly be right about anything, including this pinprick missile attack, about which both the Russians and the Syrians appear to have been forewarned. Much of the Left says so, anyway, without firing a synapse. So does the alt-right, but there you go. Strange bedfellows. And meanwhile Hillary Clinton is calling for a wider incursion. Our Prime Minister, whose Minister of Foreign Affairs was urging caution a scant few days ago, has gone all in for Trump. Two sides, one bed. Snoring, tossing and turning, talking in their sleep.

No Ishmael I, rising above the fray with a fully awake narrator’s all-seeing eye. I’m in the web as well: how could it be otherwise? So I don’t want to offer yet another highly speculative account. My opinions on what happened and why it happened are irrelevant. The missile attack on Syria could have had any number of motives: it was no doubt overdetermined. But perhaps it might serve as a wake-up call to the world, made suddenly aware of the lethal possibilities that lie ahead.

The combination of an unstable US President and an unpredictable, bloodthirsty dictator in Syria should worry everyone, including the cold calculating machine inhabiting the Kremlin. It’s not a matter of whom to blame, or why or how this all happened. There is now new impetus and good reason to find a constructive way out of the Syrian quagmire. If that missile strike was only a shot across the bow, or even just a theatrical exercise by Trump to impress the rubes—and not the opening salvo of yet another bloody American adventure—some good may come of it.

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That Cst.Daniel Montsion of the Ottawa Police viciously beat an unarmed Somali man who died in front of horrified onlookers is not in dispute. He treated a number of eyewitnesses to a gruesome display of violence, assisted by Cst. Dave Weir. He did so with “brass knuckle” assault gloves , worn by an undetermined number of Ottawa cops with no vetting process in place.

Montsion is one of the highest-paid members of the Ottawa force (he pulled down a sweet $163,251.09 in 2014). He has form, as the British say: on a previous occasion, he panicked when dealing with a Somali man, and the judge in that case did not accept his version of events. Ottawa’s police “union” claims that race is not a factor in the brutalization of Abdi.

Montsion has now been charged with manslaughter, after an investigation by the province’s Special Investigations Unit. His colleague, unaccountably, has been cleared of all wrongdoing. The SIU is infamous for whitewashing the bad conduct of police officers in Ontario: of 3,400 investigations looked at by the Toronto Star in 2010, only 95 criminal charges were laid and only 16 convictions obtained. But even when it functions as it should, the SIU has only limited powers in any case, rendering it all but toothless. Nevertheless, in this instance serious criminal charges were laid. After all, there was a whole slew of witnesses, and videos as well.

The system itself, from top to bottom, is sharply biased in favour of the police, affording them near-impunity. Besides the SIU, there is the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), established in 2007 as a police oversight body for Ontario. “Oversight” would appear to be the operative word. Absurdly under-resourced, OIPRD received a total of 2,742 misconduct complaints in 2015-16, screening out 1,469 at the get-go. Of the remaining 1,273, 1,100 were referred back to the police forces involved, who are under no compulsion to act on them. 8 were referred to a different police service, and 165 were retained by OIPRD for investigation.

OIPRD has only 13 investigators on staff, including former police officers, and there are only so many hours in a day, so the screening process is necessarily extreme. But the winnowing doesn’t stop there. Of 2,103 allegations received in 2015-16 (there can be more than one allegation per complaint), 1,924 were found to be “unsubstantiated.” (These figures include the results of OIPRD investigations and those conducted by police forces to whom complaints have been referred.)

Verily, Ontario police officers must walk on water.

Even when rare cases do make it to court, the protective mantle persists. A “cozy” relationship with Crown Attorneys is not unknown. And when police officers are found to have lied under oath, they don’t get charged.

On the political side, things are no better. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson wouldn’t even deign to make a statement after the killing of Abdirahman Abdi. He did invite himself to the family funeral, though, for a photo-op. It was a disgraceful abdication of leadership by Ottawa’s chief magistrate. * As for Ottawa City Councillor Eli El-Chantiry, who heads up the Ottawa Police Services Board, he has never been more than an advocate for the police.

Daniel Montsion was released into the community without even having to face a bail hearing, extraordinary special treatment that was facilitated by El-Chantiry and very likely Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi.

Ottawa police officers have now taken to wearing wristbands in support of Montsion. Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof tells us not to worry none: “This is just about expressing their support for a colleague. It’s a very difficult environment that we’re in, in policing.”

“We are scared of the police,” says the Ottawa Somali community. Perhaps we should all be.

A pre-trial date of May 1 has just been set. Montsion did not appear, only his lawyer, and he is not planning to attend the pre-trial hearing either. He is currently relegated to a desk job, on full salary.

The conviction rate for Ottawa police officers charged after an SIU investigation? Zero.

[This piece is now up at Ottawa Life.]

* I am reliably informed by the publisher of Ottawa Life, Dan Donovan, that this is incorrect. In his words, “This was being reported by many media outlets, but further checking showed it was not true. Mayor Watson was away on vacation at the time of the incident (not in the city). His staff did make contact with a number of people including the family and then the Mayor himself privately spoke to several members of the family and some community members. The family invited the Mayor to the funeral because they felt it was important that he attend and that it would be important and appropriate for him to attend. He did not invite himself. We have independently confirmed this.”

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On empathy

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Emmett Till.jpg

I am running a risk by reproducing a work of art that is presently causing no end of controversy: Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” (2016).

Context is crucial, so here it is. The painting is of a 14-year-old Black boy, Emmett Till, tortured and lynched in 1955 by white thugs in Mississippi after a white woman lyingly accused him of flirting with her. They were acquitted by an all-white jury. His mother insisted that her child’s body be displayed in an open casket so that others could see for themselves the stark reality of racism in America. Photos of his grotesquely disfigured face, transmitted worldwide, played a pivotal role in launching the American civil rights movement.

Flash forward to the Whitney Biennial, where Schutz’s painting has been on display. The problem is that she is a white woman, and this has produced a flood of hostile criticism in this era of identity politics, with some not only demanding that the painting be removed from the exhibition, but destroyed.

The usual lines have been quickly drawn. On the one hand, identity-silo activists who consider the subject off-limits for a white person. On the other, fierce defenders of free artistic expression. I’m not mustering up much sympathy for the polemics of either side. Yet, unlike the recent Niki Ashton brouhaha, a textbook example of political vulgarity, there are arguments here that are subtle and worthy of close attention.

Art does not exist in a vacuum, but in a context. The situatedness of art is a serious issue. Here, a piece of art about Black suffering is brought into being by a white person, in a society virtually defined by hierarchies of racism, domination and oppression. The work acquires value, both culturally and of course as a (potential) commodity. But all of this value is at a considerable remove from the person (and by extension the group) portrayed. Members of that group are objecting to being relegated to mute material that generates value for others. It feels, in a word, like exploitation.

It’s a compelling position. But on the other hand, the painting itself is evocative; the brutal inhumanity portrayed draws in the viewer regardless of the “identity” of the artist. As a visual text it has entered a public space, open to continual interpretation and shifting contexts, divorced from its creator. We still think of authors, their intent, even who and what they are, as hovering over their work somehow—Derrida’s “metaphysics of presence.” But the painting, in a very real sense, is everyone’s property now. No painting is finished when the artist puts down their brush.

It’s not out of bounds to express concern about how a painting’s value is generated, who benefits and who does not. We can easily determine the privilege inherent in notions of “free expression” used to counter the critics. Art isn’t sacred and untouchable. It has its own political economy. But does any of the opposition to the creation and display of this product make the painting itself intrinsically worthless?

The story of Emmett Till needs to be told and re-told. His fate has been, and continues to be, replicated too many times over. Black lives matter, but in contemporary American society that is anything but a given. The painting is another re-telling of the American racist narrative, one that has visceral relevance in this Trumpian era.

Do we not need to share these stories and perspectives across lines that have themselves been imposed by racism? Any one perspective will be incomplete. But empathy braids them together.

What is this empathy? The ability to imagine being someone else. It’s a shaky foundation for social cohesion, to be sure, but it’s all we have. Whites cannot know what it’s like to face unremitting racial oppression on a daily basis. On the micro scale, one person cannot know what it’s like to be another person. And yet our imagination reaches out, searching for the common ground, aligning with, if not duplicating, the perspectives of others. President Bill Clinton has been widely mocked for his comment to an AIDS activist, “I feel your pain.” But he was both right and wrong: he could not possibly feel this person’s actual pain. But he could imagine feeling it, and express a solidarity that runs deeper than an abstract statement.

I’ve always liked this anecdote from the Zhuangzi:

Zhuangzi and Huizi were crossing the Hao River by the dam. Zhuangzi said, “See how free the fishes leap and dart: that is their happiness.” Huizi replied, “Since you are not a fish, how do you know what makes fishes happy?” Zhuangzi said, “Since you are not I, how can you possibly know that I do not know what makes fishes happy?” Huizi argued, “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know, it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know what they know. The argument is complete!” Zhuangzi said, “Wait a minute! Let us get back to the original question. What you asked me was ‘How do you know what makes fishes happy?’ From the terms of your question, you evidently know I know what makes fishes happy. I know the joy of fishes in the river through my own joy, as I go walking along the same river.”

And so too we feel the pain of others as we go walking along the same river. Expressing it should unify us, and yet in this era it proves to be a source of division. Empathy is even seen in some quarters as predatory. I have no solution to offer, only a deep pessimism about the direction in which we are heading. Last word to the painter:

I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother. Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.

UPDATE: (April 8) Getting to know Dana Schutz. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/10/why-dana-schutz-painted-emmett-till

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To the left™

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The political fashion trend of the times: if someone—anyone—from an oppressed group criticizes a cis-white progressive activist, we need to apologize and move on. Because of colonialism, patriarchy, sexism and racism, we white folks on the Left have it coming.

Well, yes, in fact we do. As readers of my recent article on Yusra Khogali can attest, I for one recognize and accept the anger of oppressed people, and have no defensive criticism to make of it. But I do think that this is separable from the substance of the expression of that anger. I can defend Khogali without having to discuss, much less accept, her off-the-wall theories about melanin. I can be pro-feminist without agreeing that men were a mutation caused by the sun’s radiation. And I can be progressive without swallowing the notion of “cultural appropriation,” a notion that is highly problematic, to say the least.

Niki Ashton is running for the leadership of the New Democratic Party on a left-of-Mulcair platform. For those unaware, she Tweeted a reference to a popular song by Beyoncé, *Irreplaceable,” specifically the phrase “To the left,” as in

To the left, to the left
To the left, to the left (mmmmmm)
To the left, to the left

Everything you own in the box to the left.

The song is about showing a boyfriend to the door. Ashton was punning on the phrase.

A group called Black Lives Matter-Vancouver took exception to this, calling Ashton out for “cultural appropriation.” She deleted the Tweet and apologized.

As some have pointed out, this is pretty minor in the scheme of things. In any case, Ashton is looking for support from progressive groups, and here she took the path of least resistance. That’s understandable, even defensible, in the heat of a political campaign.

But there is a wider issue at stake here—actually, several.

The first of these is how we deal with criticism and the taking of positions in Left ranks. “Call-out culture” is still in vogue, a kind of Maoist echo. Whatever happened to the respectful dialectic of debate, the open exploration of issues from differing perspectives, and the building thereby of a deeper solidarity?

An illustration: when I first became involved in the labour movement, my union tended to avoid “social issues” because they were felt to be “divisive.” There was little recognition that those divisions were already present among the rank and file, and that papering over them in the name of “solidarity” could only have the opposite effect. But those of us who felt that we should not only recognize but even celebrate those differences, while working to achieve a solidarity based upon the recognition that racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism were serious issues that needed to be addressed, eventually prevailed, at least to a point.

That took a lot of work. The first step in an as-yet unfinished process, one that has been going on for many years now, was to get people to debate and discuss the issues: to listen and be listened to. The issue was forced by strong groupings of women and various ad hoc ginger groups representing people with disabilities, LGBT, and racialized minorities, who pushed for substantial change within the union. Allies rose to support them. Major policy shifts were made over time.

That’s how engagement works. That’s how we grew our solidarity.

Refusing to face our differences would have merely avoided issues that sooner or later would erupt anyway. And the same sort of thing is at work, I suggest, when one major player refuses to discuss the matters at hand, but simply nods meekly. That builds nothing.

What I find even more bewildering is that some on the Left are defending the criticism itself. So, very quickly: “cultural appropriation” is a meaningless concept—all culture is appropriation. Cultural (or, as I would prefer, “social”) misappropriation is a real issue—fake “Aboriginal” costumes, for example. But that isn’t an issue here. Beyoncé’s song was written by Epsen Lind, Mikkel Storleer Eriksen, Shaffer Smith, Tor Erik Hermansen, Amund Ivarsson Bjoerklund, and Beyoncé herself. Four of the six collaborators are white. One could hardly imagine a worse example to reinforce a point about misappropriation.

As noted, Ashton bowed and moved on. If this was merely pragmatism, then so be it—let it go, by all means. But if this represented an actual organizing principle—termed by one commentator “rigorous solidarity“—then we have a serious problem. Because that “rigorous solidarity” sounds a great deal like the paper solidarity I was referring to above: proceeding as though in sweet harmony while, under the surface, our critical faculties, suppressed in the name of “allyship,” are bubbling and simmering. As a strategic approach, it’s staggeringly dishonest and ultimately doomed to failure.

It’s also great fodder for assorted right-wing pundits and knuckle-dragging commenters on news threads, who lose no opportunity to mock us for trying to negotiate the intricate maze of intersectionalism. The latter project is well-founded and necessary, of course. There is no other way forward if we want to build a mass progressive movement among diverse groups. But we—and by that I mean all of us seeking social change—need to talk more, not less.

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The Chrystia Freeland debacle

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I have never believed that the sins of the fathers (or grandfathers) should place a burden of guilt upon succeeding generations, so at first I found myself detached from the current Chrystia Freeland brouhaha, and even a little embarrassed that some of my political allies were making such a great to-do over it. So her grandfather, Mykhailo Chomiak, was a pro-Nazi Ukrainian collaborator—so what?


As it turns out, Freeland has quite an affection for the old man, whom she describes as someone who “worked hard to restore freedom and democracy to Ukraine.” And this is the person chosen by the Trudeau government to be our Foreign Minister, dealing with a nation that is still a bubbling hotbed of contending factions, ethnic hatreds, and alternate versions of history. Ukraine is a country where streets are now being named after Jew-killers, and where it is now illegal to refer to these butchers and their militias as anything other than heroes.

Some just throw up their hands and say the situation there is and was too complex to permit moral judgements. Others pick sides. But I cannot share in the apparent nostalgia for the past that leads some of my comrades to support the Great Russian chauvinist Vladimir Putin, while the continual whitewashing by the West of the ultra-right influence in Ukraine deserves unqualified censure.

We all know, or should know, that Russia delights in mischief-making and fake news—recent events in the US are proof of that. Nor could we expect any love on Russia’s part for the outspoken pro-Ukrainian activist Chrystia Freeland. So is this story just more Russian disinformation, as Freeland claims?

No, it isn’t, as it happens.

One salient point is the lengths to which Freeland has gone to present her grandfather as a mere victim. For example:

I’m…a proud member of the Ukrainian-Canadian community. My maternal grandparents fled western Ukraine after Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact in 1939. They never dared to go back, but they stayed in close touch with their brothers and sisters and their families, who remained behind. For the rest of my grandparents’ lives, they saw themselves as political exiles with a responsibility to keep alive the idea of an independent Ukraine, which had last existed, briefly, during and after the chaos of the 1917 Russian Revolution. That dream persisted into the next generation, and in some cases the generation after that.

This is an unvarnished lie. Chomiak did not flee in 1939. He moved to Cracow, the capital of the Nazi Generalgouvernement, to become chief editor of a pro-Nazi collaborationist newspaper called Kravivski Visti. He worked out of offices that had been emptied of their Jewish owners, and then, when the tide of war turned, he continued his work in Nazi-occupied Vienna. He presided over the publication of virulently anti-Jewish articles in 1943, under orders from the occupying Nazi forces, and his editors actively solicited them.

“We need serious articles that would reveal the harmful and disintegrative role of the Jewish element in literature, the press, art and philosophy,” an editor wrote to one author, who eagerly accepted his assignment. But several authors simply refused his invitation: one, in fact, was hiding a Jew in his home in Warsaw at the time. Indeed, there was a negative reaction from several Ukrainian intellectuals, who saw this collaborationist kowtowing for what it was. But the editors, according to the historian John-Paul Himka, a relative of Freeland’s, saw in this campaign of anti-Semitism an opportunity to promote Ukrainian nationalism.

No, Mykhailo Chomiak did not flee to the West after the Hitler-Stalin pact. He actively collaborated with the Nazis until the end of the war, and made his way to Alberta after that, where he died peacefully of old age in 1984. And Freeland, who collaborated on the Himka article, has known all this for at least two decades.

Some commentators, motivated by anti-Russian animus (not entirely undeserved, in my opinion), have gone so far as to excuse Chomiak’s conduct:

[T]he newspaper, Krakivs’ki Visti, was the only intellectual lifeline left to the people of the dismembered Ukraine at the time, and…Freeland’s grandfather, the journalist Michael Chomiak, had no control over the Nazi mumbo jumbo he was obliged to print as the newspaper’s titular editor.

One only needs to recall White Rose, or the countless resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied countries who were captured and shot, or tortured to death, and that morally lax position falls to pieces. Chomiak didn’t have to be chief editor of a pro-Nazi newspaper: he had a choice. Even Himka, who is generally sympathetic to the squeeze the editors of Kravivski Visti were in, concludes: “[T]hat more than submission to coercion came into play is suggested by the conviction on the part of the editors that they could use the series [of anti-Semitic articles] to promote the Ukrainian cause” —this, while Jews were being slaughtered all around them. As to the writers solicited for the vile articles that appeared, Himka writes of their “indifference to and even approval of the destruction of the Jews.”

Again, Chrystia Freeland is not responsible for any of this. But her cover-up of the facts is worrying, and her helming of Global Affairs Canada must be causing more than a few ripples in diplomatic circles. Dislike of Putin’s endless shenanigans shouldn’t blind us to the fact that, at least on occasion, the truth can be even more devastating than fake news.

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