It’s probably not a secret around here that I take a more libertarian approach to free speech issues than our master the Dawg, heh. One of the reasons for this has been slowly revealing itself in the alarming growth of right-wing populist parties in Europe. The reasons for this increase are very complicated and not due to a single factor or even a small set of factors, and I won’t discuss the full reasons here. I will say, as an aside, that I wish it were due to a single factor, because that would leave me with less of a sense that there are fell gears locking into place …

But what I would rather talk about is the evolution of communications that the European right has undergone. Even Germany, with its history, has a far-right party well within striking distance of entering the Federal Diet in the next elections. Germany, however, has very strict laws against hate speech and even a way to disqualify entire political parties for overstepping the grounds, particularly via its internal secret police, the Federal Agency for the Protection of the Constitution.

But what has happened over time is merely that right-wing political parties have evolved to be able to use a vocabulary that conforms technically with the restrictions placed upon them, but still tread on precisely the themes that the hate speech laws were supposed to render inaccessible — Blut und Boden nationalism, conspiracism over minority takeovers, natalist panic, and so on. The truth is that if someone wants to say something that touches on those themes, they’ll find a way using ordinary, banal language. Linguistic relativism only gets you so far: yes, ideas do have a life of their own outside of the specific capacities of a language to express them.

Instead, the European mainstream center and even the would-be populist left is unable to utter the counter-spells required to abjure the right-populist verbal compulsion. I am convinced in part that it is because they have not really faced the evolutionary pressure that comes from having to confront far-right ideas directly. Even the German Greens suffer from a strange inability to articulate the obvious reasons why, e.g., niqab bans cause in the long run more problems than they solve — unless one is actually planning to free oneself “physically” from the Fremdkörper wherefrom the uncomfortable strangeness seems to emanate.

Then consider countries which don’t have such a guilt complex — which has protected Germany from the full far-right onslaught — like France or the Netherlands, and yet have somewhat stricter attitudes than, say, the USA, about speech and social peace. There is then no impediment on the semiotic evolution of the right into bourgeois acceptability, and still little pressure on the other parts of the political spectrum to evolve in response. In France, the far right is able to appeal to French republican laicism in contexts that make it unambiguously clear that they don’t really mean the neutrality of the state.

And perhaps it is too early to say, but the very fact that a Trumpian figure such as, well, Trump can become the mouthpiece of white rage instead of a smoother talker, the very fact that anti-racism in the USA has a sharper language, seems to validate the promise that true, minimally fettered free speech leads to a similar evolution of the vocabulary against hate. That is, facing hate openly, up-front impedes this semiotic evolution. Regardless of whether Dawg and fellow travellers might think me naïve for continuing to believe in it.

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On neo-Maoism

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Mao red criticism.jpgThis year is the fiftieth anniversary of the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao Zedong to root out “bourgeois tendencies” among the Chinese population. This purity-fest went on for a decade, at enormous cost. China’s schools were shut down, and the nation’s youth, one vast vigilante group known as the Red Guards, were set loose upon the older generation. 1.5 million Chinese perished: millions more were imprisoned, tortured and publicly denounced as enemies of the people.

The man in the photo above, wearing a dunce cap that lists his alleged crimes against the masses, is Luo Zicheng, a Communist leader in Heilongjiang Province. He is taking part in a a ritual form of public humiliation called a “struggle session.” It was a grotesque caricature of the criticism and self criticism that had informed revolutionary practice previously. Anyone working within a movement for social change would agree that the latter is plain common sense. What we see in the photo is not.

This approach to differences on the Left is not dead, by any means. “Pas d’ennemis à gauche” has been replaced by “Pas d’amis à gauche.” Groups fighting for human rights, liberation and social transformation create silos instead of bridges: their behaviour is that of rival cults, not engines of social change. Instead of solidarity, they fetishize “allyship,” a repulsive locution that effectively comes down to endless critique of other progressives, based upon toxic identity politics, that effectively paralyzes collective action and makes long-term mass movements all but impossible.

I have written about this crisis of inaction before, and I won’t repeat myself here—at least very much. But I’m going to tell a little story—not in the way of a complaint, but as an instructive example of what I’m talking about. The personal is the political, or so I’m told, so I’m following in a grand tradition, even if I’m not a member of an oppressed group.

A few days ago I wrote a short article about the racist killing of a young First Nations man, Colten Boushie, by a farmer in Saskatchewan. It was published by, who will not be asked to publish this piece. In it, I referred sarcastically to the RCMP as “historically renowned for its even-handed treatment of First Nations people.” The problem was, as it turned out, that some folks didn’t get the sarcasm, and read this literally. Others got it, all right, but fretted that still other folks might not.

I can well understand the indignation that would follow such a misreading, though, so once I encountered the reaction (both at the site and on its Facebook page), I stopped shaking my head and inserted a footnote. You would think that might have ended the matter. Ha! Not on your nelly.

The neo-Maoist denunciations followed swiftly. To a claim by a First Nations woman that FN people don’t get sarcasm, I responded with a couple of FN links that indicate the opposite; I agreed, though, to place the footnote. But a stream of invective followed, both from her and from others whose aggressive, sneering self-righteousness was not a joy to behold. The adage “You are only offended if you want to be” sprang to mind. They wanted.

They didn’t argue: instead, they spewed gratuitous insults with an admixture of bizarre misreadings of nearly every word I said. In answer to the snarky question, “Are you only writing for Settlers (capitalized)?” I responded, truthfully, that I write for readers. It would never occur to me to segment my readership by “race” or ethnicity. But that, among other responses of mine, was held to be disrespectful, offensive, etc., etc., ad nauseam. One young imbecile asked (sarcastically!) whether I wanted a “hero cookie.” The hole I was digging just got deeper and deeper. You can probably find the whole thing over on Rabble’s Facebook page, but no link from me.

I stopped digging just before before I disappeared. Reasoning with the unreasonable, as I yet again discovered, simply fans the flames of unreason. But matters didn’t end there, either. The trolls took their quarrel over to itself. I asked my editor to remove my own comments from the thread, which he did. Apparently this thing has now dribbled into Twitter as well, although I don’t do Twitter. It’s alleged that I’m silencing them. Could have fooled me.

Anyway, this in a nutshell is how easy it is for anti-racists to sidebar an article about racism. But wait! Matters didn’t conclude with an inconclusive sic et non about sarcasm and settler-colonialism.

I am reliably informed that other complaints have been made as well: specifically, about my use of the word “lynching” and the phrase “Say his name,” referring to Colten Boushie. Apparently Black people are alleged to hold proprietary rights in both cases. How dare I apply either to the racist killing of a First Nations man? Wasn’t lynching a mechanism in the Deep South to keep the Black population docile and fearful? Of course it was. But it wasn’t used only against Blacks, as the ghost of Leo Frank would agree: and I raise this only because no one seems to object to the term when applied to him. Nor is mobbing to death as a tool of racial oppression unknown in other countries. And why the blazes should the name of Colten Boushie not be memorially invoked by a plain English phrase, simply because he was First Nations and not Black?

There I go. I’m arguing again. I shall cease.

But there are lessons aplenty to be learned from all this. When a member of an oppressed minority speaks, white folks better listen—but not uncritically. We should not accept every word uttered as gospel before which we must meekly abandon all discussion and submit. Oppressed people are not monoliths: in fact, it’s a common racist device to pretend the opposite. If we want to change the world, or even a small corner of it, we desperately need discussion, questioning, debate, active listening, and openness among all of us. That can mean disagreement, even rancorous disagreement sometimes, but with an end in view: deeper understanding, closer comradeship, eyes on the prize.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was neither great, nor proletarian, nor cultural, nor even a revolution. It tore apart a nation and deeply traumatized its people. But its methods do seem eerily familiar these days. Let’s find some new ones.

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Papik.jpgOne might have thought that Canadian health administrations would have learned something from the horrific death by neglect of Brian Sinclair in 2008. He had a treatable bladder infection, but was left for 34 hours to die in a Winnipeg emergency room due to racist assumptions by the nursing staff.

But lessons, when it comes to First Nations and Inuit, just don’t seem to sink in. Racism has just claimed another victim, this time in the Northwest Territories, under remarkably similar circumstances. This time, it was an Inuk man with a stroke, Hugh Papik, but he was seen as just another drunken Native by nursing staff at the Aklavik Health Centre, and was ignored to the point of brain death.

The Winnipeg case shocked the nation—for a while. But in the NWT, authorities are trying to brazen it out:

A spokesperson for the nurses’ employer, the N.W.T. Department of Health and Social Services, says it has already reviewed the incident, and won’t be taking any further steps.

“The CEO of the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority has reviewed the matter and she is confident that appropriate clinical practices were followed,” spokesperson Damien Healy wrote in an email to CBC.

“There is no further follow-up review being considered.

Just another aboriginal death. Not even worth a review. Then this:

“We can assure you that we take these concerns seriously,” Healy said.

He may as well have spat in the family’s face.

Truth and Reconciliation? Dream on. Racism is still killing people, whether by direct action or neglect. Perhaps a good place to start the repair-job Canada so sorely needs would be to purge it from our public institutions. But judging from the official couldn’t-care-less reaction to one more needless death, this time in a part of Canada where indigenous people actually outnumber whites, there is little reason to feel optimistic.

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The lynching of Colten Boushie

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Sask racism.jpg

I’m going to stretch a point here in my use of the word “lynching,” which refers to an extrajudicial killing by a mob. Only one person actually shot 22-year-old Colten Boushie. But we know that even in the deep South, the crowds of crackers and clodhoppers who exulted in the sadistic killing of Blacks were not all physically involved in the hanging, shooting or burning alive of their victims. Most watched, applauded, and had their pictures taken with the bodies of their prey.

The murders themselves didn’t happen without a context. The mobs existed before the killings, and persisted afterwards. They consisted of local white society, rotten to the core with racism, erupting from time to time into orgies of hatred and cruelty. Latent or active, the mobs were always present.

The comments captured above, from some of the backwoodsmen of Saskatchewan, are, then, familiar. They were found on a site attempting to raise money for one of their number, Gerald Stanley, the one who blew away a young First Nations man for the crime of seeking help to fix a flat tire. Their words suffice to introduce them to the wider world of civilization, such as it is. After the killing, the racist mob’s ranks swelled in the virtual world. A mob is a mob, and these knuckle-draggers are part of it, even after the fact. A high-tech lynching of a dead man is continuing even as I write this, more obviously the case than was the hearing that Clarence Thomas complained of.

“That’s what you get for trespassing,” the killer’s wife reportedly said to the surviving kids in the car. The Stanleys were obviously a match made somewhere, but I suspect not in heaven.

There’s a GoFundMe for Boushie’s family to help with a traditional funeral.

The local white farmers are going to have a fund-raising steak dinner for the killer, too. One can well imagine what the conversation will be like.

The RCMP, historically renowned for its even-handed treatment of First Nations people*, lost no time issuing a press release that by all accounts could have been written by the killer’s yet-to-be-named defence lawyer. Here’s a pretty good analysis of the wording. The Mounties dropped a heavy suggestion that the occupants of the car were there to commit theft, and indeed the survivors were all taken into custody—and then released, with no charges laid. But the RCMP is saying that they could be laid. Or might be.

At least the cops charged the farmer with second-degree murder, though. So that’s something.

Colten Boushie. Say his name. And may justice be done. This is, after all, 2016, even in rural Saskatchewan.

*Anyone here miss the sarcasm? Just curious. I’m getting mildly tanned for this comment elsewhere.

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Sh*t just got real

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BDS label.jpg

A sticker affixed to a container of hummus in a supermarket in Vaughan, Ontario, has sparked a full investigation by York Regional Police after an assistant manager searched through 24 hours of security tapes without being able to identify the culprit.

“I was looking for someone who looked like they were doing suspicious behaviour…I wanted to find a face, but I couldn’t,” he said.

The label was associated with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which presses for Palestinian human rights to be respected by Israel.

According to the Canadian Jewish News:

York Regional Police Sgt. Kelly Bachoo said the force’s district criminal investigations bureau is working with officers from the diversity, equity and inclusion bureau on the case.

“We currently are investigating the matter…as a mischief. At this point, the investigation is ongoing, and no charges have been laid.”

Thornhill Conservative MPP Gila Martow said this isn’t something that should be taken lightly.

Reports of K-9 units and police helicopters combing the immediate area may be exaggerated.

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trump1_edited-1.jpg Because I KNOW Dawg is dying to get into this topic…

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abdi abdiraman.jpgTwo days ago, an unarmed, autistic Black man, Abdirahman Abdi, was beaten to death by police, right here in Ottawa, in front of witnesses.

I feel more uncomfortable than perhaps I should in writing this. Several weeks ago Ottawa police officers came to my aid during a violent family situation. They were professional in every respect: prompt, thorough, and restrained in their use of force.

Abdirahman Abdi, on the other hand, was killed after what has been described by witnesses as a savage beating by a number of Ottawa police officers after he had been handcuffed. Medical treatment was delayed. Police attempted, illegally, to seize the cellphones of witnesses who had been filming the assault. (I gather that their owners were having none of that.)

“They were really, really going at him and he was screaming,” said David Thyne, who said he watched the situation from his balcony across the street.

Abdi, 37, was cuffed when he was being beaten, Thyne said. “He was pleading with them to stop.”

Miriam Ali said she went outside after hearing screaming and saw a man lying on the ground.

“He was unconscious and he was sitting in a pool of blood…I came out here and he was lying on his front and there were just like five of six police officers on him,” she said.

Another witness recounted:

“I told the police he’s a crazy man….They hit, they hit, they hit, they hit everywhere. Then he was unconscious.”

And here’s yet another witness, Abdi’s brother:

“I heard the screaming, and then I come out and I see my brother lying down, police hitting so badly. Like, I’ve never seen something like that in my life,” Abdi said.

“All of them, they were on top of him. He was under [them] … they were hitting like [he was] an enemy. I’ve never seen something like that.”

Abdi, in fact, had been so badly beaten that he was dead on arrival at the hospital.

The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has been called in, which does not fill me with confidence. The SIU is a whitewashing outfit that routinely clears bad cops, even when the facts speak for themselves: Tasering an 80-year-old woman with dementia twice, for example, was held to be appropriate police conduct. The involvement of the SIU also offers a convenient out for Ottawa Police Services, who now refuse to comment or answer any queries about the killing because “the SIU is investigating.” Months will pass—then, based upon past performance, we can expect a quiet exoneration.

Was the killing racially motivated? That question, in fact all of the community’s anxious questions, are very likely to bounce off the blue wall. How can police be made accountable so that unarmed citizens cannot be beaten to death in front of witnesses with impunity? That’s the biggest question of all, of course—and it, too, may well go unanswered.

UPDATE: Const. Daniel Montsion and Const. Dave Weir should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law—or else law has no meaning. And the other officers who looked on should be regarded as accessories. But, as noted, I’m not optimistic.

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Smirking Toward Bethlehem

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trump.jpg “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

Well, at least now we know the name, and initials, of that rough beast.

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Kindergarten reunion

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Kindergarten class of 52 afternoons.jpg

How loose can the connections be that permit a social network to be called a network? Let me suggest a kindergarten reunion as the limit case.

Out of the blue a few months ago I received a phone call. John Baglow? Did you attend kindergarten in Richmond Hill in 1952? Why, yes. Would you like to attend a reunion of the Class of ‘52? You bet! But ask me why I so readily agreed and I’d have a very hard time explaining.

Why would the organizer, Bob Blanchard (in my class, by the way), dream up such a thing? Well, he gets together every year with a few friends from grade-school days—they call themselves the McConaghy Old Boys, the later name of the Richmond Hill Public School we attended. This year, when we’re all turning 70 or have already done so, he suggested a birthday party. But who would come? He proceeded to track down most of the Class of ‘52, both the morning and afternoon classes, and he included some grade eights too from McConaghy and from other schools that had opened later to accommodate the growing town population.

I arrived in Richmond Hill early, and so decided to test my memory by walking to my old house. I didn’t put a foot wrong. I passed the high school, now refurbished, and there it stood. Part of the woods I remembered still remained across the street. I was surprised at how long the walk from my old school was, the walk that I did every day when I was 4 and then 5.

The sun was unrelenting, and the humidity enveloped me like fog. I was suddenly tired, carrying a bag and wearing a seasonally unsuitable jacket. I took a picture or two, forgetting momentarily in the haze how to use my cellphone camera. A welter of memories, like a waking dream. The Ozarks hillbilly house next door (more below) had been replaced by a repellant, massive brick structure that might have seemed modern once. I had remembered stairs at the side of my childhood home, but I could have been mistaken. The inside of this WWII veteran’s house, judging from a realtor’s virtual tour, appears to have been transformed.

I walked back to Yonge Street, turned up a mild slope I had remembered as a hill, and quickly entered a roomful of strangers. I’m shy in these situations, and find it hard to break the ice. But I was greeted by Bob Blanchard, and by Dave Barrow, the mayor of Richmond Hill, in mufti. The attendees, some 140 of us all told, found ourselves in a single space, the very gymnasium where my kindergarten was held in what was once the only school in town, and now, perhaps appropriately, was a seniors’ residence. A table-mate and I reminisced about the afternoon naps. The girls got nice soft, fluffy mats to lie on, the boys, thin green ones. A teacher had torn one of the former from my grasp. “That’s how I first realized that girls were different,” I said. And it was true.

Talking to others at the gathering, we recalled trick-or-treating everywhere, no anxious parents on sidewalks. There were few family cars at the time. The ice-man came two or three times a week. In the winter, the coal man emptied his wares down a chute into the basement, filling it with clouds of dust.

And the Guppys. Everyone I spoke to knew of them, but we lived right next door to them. Rusting cars in the yard. The father ran a blind pig, which accounted for the cars lined up on the streets on weekends. And Freddy. He picked on me, but I was assured he picked on everyone. He was a year earlier at kindergarten, and never made it to Grade 8. What, no truancy enforcement? Easier, one attendee said, to give that family a miss.

Mr. Guppy would bring in a load of topsoil every Spring, toss it in a pile, throw some seeds at it, and in the Fall, to everyone’s chagrin, he’d harvest the best veggies for miles around. Freddy, I was told, later became a garbageman—and was good at it, apparently, working both sides of the street on one pass-through.

Reminiscences. A network of time instead of space. What else would bind us? Some wore photos of themselves around their necks. I said that the only photo of me from back then was on a horse. “We all have those,” several exclaimed. A photographer at the time would take his horse around from house to house, and took photos of little Richmond Hill kids astride it.

“Look at the people here,” a man at our table said. “No multiculturalism back then.” And it was indeed a pale crowd, with a couple of Inuit*, one of whom came to our table and twice let us know she’d been adopted. “One Black family moved in to Richmond Hill,” said my former classmate. “The kid played amazing baseball. There was never any problem (with racism).”

I had wanted to apologize to the little girl whom I had teased to tears nearly sixty-five years ago. But I learned that she’d passed away five years earlier. She had rested at a funeral home a block or so from where we were. There would be no closure after all.

There were two Lindas in my kindergarten class. I knew the Linda I remembered had lived on Benson, around the corner from me, and one Linda did, but she had no memory of me. People ribbed me a bit when I talked about “playing house,” but that consisted of throwing a blanket over a couple of chairs and my mother bringing us puffed rice in bowls for a snack. I recalled suddenly that we had laughed about rhymes once.

The invitation to gather allowed us to add colour and definition to our fading memories, but it was a trap, in a way. Our lives were now caught between two bookends, the first few years of life and the last few. Everything in between had become hazy, compressed, foreshortened.

At times like this we realize how quickly our lives do run, and how what stands out is arbitrary, circumstantial, possibly meaningless. The narrative disappears, or is at least cast into shadow, as we re-live the very beginnings of our memories.

Why did we do this, why did we agree to it? No one there could put it into words that ran very deep. Perhaps we didn’t have to. It was something we wanted to do—something that fetched me from Ottawa, another from North Bay, still another from Winnipeg.

There was the attractive oddness of it, of course, but also a call, speaking to some kind of need. And so we gathered, in the background a pervasive melancholy: a time when we realize at last that we are old, resting on a high storey of a narrow tower of years, staring from the window at the ground so far below.

*I was later informed by Bob Blanchard that they were none other than John and Rosemary Mowat, adopted by Farley Mowat’s parents on his urging after he made a trip to the Northwest Territories to research a novel.

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To serve and protect

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Police v. woman.jpg

…whom, exactly?

American cops in Baton Rouge display their manliness. And I mean that without any sarcasm at all.

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