April 22, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last week, I was teaching the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Great Chinese Famine in my Modern China course. One thing that struck my students was that this wasn’t really a famine, it was a manufactured crisis. The granaries of the People’s Republic of China were full, and yet, Mao and his underlings refused to open them up. Rather, this was an attempt by Mao Zedong to remake the Chinese countryside and peasantry, to increase industrial output, and to modernize the nation. This came in the wake of a purification campaign in the country in the early 1950s, as the Communists attempted to stamp their imprint on the nation.
As we discussed the manufactured nature of this famine, and we discussed Mao’s insistence on ideological reform of China, something struck me. Famines are rarely just that, famines. They are often manufactured crisis. One of my students is a interested in the Soviet Union and Russian history in general, and he noted that the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 was a man-made one, too.
This led to a discussion about ideology, reform, and the costs of absolutism, though both of our examples were communist. But then I thought of the Irish Famine. Like China and the Ukraine, the Great Hunger was a manufactured crisis. And, of course, the United Kingdom was, in the mid-19th century, the most powerful nation the world had ever seen.
In both China and the Ukraine, famine was the result of collectivization, but this was not the case in Ireland. There, famine came because the potato crop failed for several years, beginning in 1845, due to a fungal infection. But the failure of the crop became a humanitarian crisis due to the policies of the British government.
Charles Trevelyan, the assistant Secretary of the Treasury, was very clear in his response to the Famine He termed the Famine an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’ But he wasn’t done, he also stated that ‘[t]he real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’
And thus, as a devotee of laissez-faire liberalism, Trevelyan was slow to respond to the Irish crisis, seeing it as a gift from the Almighty. And while he was only a civil servant, ultimately, he was backed by his political bosses. That this was so was acknowledged by Tony Blair when he was the British Prime Minister in the late 90s. On the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Famine, he issued an apology for the role of the British government in the Famine.
The Great Hunger of Ireland was a manufactured crisis, and as Irish food continued to be exported to Great Britain, the Irish starved. The United Kingdom, thus, is no different than Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union.
And so, famine is often used as a political tool, as a means of forcing reform on a recalcitrant population.
And Sir Charles Trevelyan, knighted for his ‘services’ to Ireland, along with the leadership of the UK at the time, most notably Lord John Russell and even Queen Victoria, fit right in there with Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin.
April 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
The current issue of Foreign Affairs is about nationalism, and its resurgence around the world. The base assumption of all the authors in this edition is that nationalism is a conservative movement, tied to white supremacy, racism, and strongmen like Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin. The basic argument is that the resurgence of nationalism, and all it entails, is a response to globalism and the rise of a class of cosmopolitans who, the argument alleges, feel at home anywhere. Thus, everyone else, the ‘somewheres’, who have a sense of connection to place are mad.
First, this is a ridiculous dichotomy. The actual real cosmopolitans, the ones who are at home in Istabul, Mumbai, and Tokyo, are the 1% of the world. The bulk of people who are alleged cosmopolitans actually tend to have deep connections to place as well. They are connected to where they live, their neighbourhoods, their towns and so on.
But this discussion of cosmopolitans vs. the non-cosmopolitans actually obscures more than it clarifies. Like all theories that attempt to put human behaviour into neat little boxes, it fails.
And this is because the basic assumption of this argument is that the non-cosmopolitan nationalist is not connected to a wider community, one beyond the borders of her nation. And it also assumes that the leaders of these movements are not in constant contact with each other. That Donald Trump and Nigel Farage don’t have a connection, that Steven Bannon isn’t globe-trotting, trying to convince Italian conservatives that the biggest evil in the world is Pope Francis.
Of course men like Trump, Farage and Bannon have international communities. One is the president of the most powerful nation in the world, one is the former leader of a major British political party, and the last is the man who stands behind their ilk, helping them get elected.
But the argument presumes that Trump’s supporters, Farage’s voters, and Viktor Orbán’s fans are not also connected in a globalist sense. The internet and social media have seen to this. There are linkages across international boundaries between nationalist and conservative movements in Europe and North America.
In other words, these reactionary movements are just as internationalist as the liberal world order they’re attempting to take down. They can’t not be, this is a co-ordinated attack on what these nationalists and conservatives (because they are often the same thing) distrust, dislike, and fear in the liberal internationalist order.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a globalized era, and even if we wrap ourselves up in the Union Jack and talk about bringing jobs back to Bristol, or we prefer our government to open our border for more refugees, we live in this world. The ideological struggle for the soul of the world reflects this as much as it did during the Cold War.
During that era, from 1945-91, two opposing, internationalist, camps fought for global supremacy. We all know that American-backed liberalism won. And despite Francis Fukuyama’s embarrassing claim that this saw the end of history, the conservative backlash was in motion by the mid-90s, though its articulation took longer to develop, into the 2010s, our current decade.
And so now, the two opposing, internationalist camps fight for a world that is either liberal, cosmopolitan, and internationalist in nature, or one that is illiberal, nationalist, and just as internationalist in nature.
March 7, 2019 § Leave a comment
Canada’s media is beside itself right now over a case of politics within the cabinet of the Trudeau government. The problem begins with SNC Lavalin, ostensibly an engineering firm headquartered in Montréal. About a decade ago, it did some skeezy things in Libya. SNC Lavalin, however, is no stranger to skeeziness. The issue arises from something called a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), which, under Canadian law, allows the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PSSC) to essentially allow corporations to plea bargain their way out of a spot of bother. It would appear the the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wished this current mess for SNC Lavalin to go away via a DPA, though the then-Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould refused to do. She has complained that she felt pressured to alter her decision, which she refused to do. This has been denied by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former Principal Secretary, Gerald Butts. And through it all, Trudeau has managed to keep his trademark calm, upsetting Canadians who want him to at least acknowledge some wrong-doing.
But, despite both the Canadian and the foreign media’s best attempts to make this look like something, the fact of the matter is, we have two versions of a process, and at worst, Trudeau looks like a jerk. Nothing illegal happened here. This is not corruption. What Wilson-Raybould described reads to me as little more than business-as-usual Canadian cabinet-level politicking.
But all of this obscures two, if not three, larger issues at hand here. The first is the dual portfolio of Minister of Justice and Attorney General in Canada. The two roles appear to be contradictory, as this person is both responsible for the Department of Justice as well as being the Chief Federal Legal Advisor. As well, this portfolio is ultimately responsible for legal enforcement at the federal level in Canada. In other Parliamentary democracies, such as the UK and Australia, these two roles are separate, and in the UK, the Attorney General is not technically part of the cabinet. While politicking of the sort Wilson-Raybould has, as far as I can tell from my own research, is part and parcel of Canadian government, the time has come to split the two roles.
Second, and perhaps the greatest problem is the influence of corporatism in our politics in Canada. The idea of a DPA, or an equivalent, has been part of American law enforcement since the 1980s. In the UK, DFAs have legally been in place since 2015; in France, since 2016, and Australia in 2017. In Canada, Bill C-74 became law in 2018. But, what this did was formalize an already extant option used by the PSSC. Legal scholars tend to prefer the idea of a DPA, especially in the case of multinational corporations and the difficulties of carrying out corruption inquiries on this level, to say nothing of the massive amount of money and resources such an investigation requires.
Taken on that level, of course, a DPA makes perfect sense. But, what this kerfuffle over SNC Lavalin currently shows us is how much influence our major corporations have in our politics and legal enforcement. It would appear that our Prime Minister, who is also the Member of Parliament for Papineau, a Montréal riding. And where is SNC Lavalin based? Montréal. So, the optics aren’t good. The PMO was lobbying for a DFA to protect SNC Lavalin from the cost of a conviction, which is a 10-year ban on federal contracts. And while it is not surprising that a powerful MP from Montréal would wish to intervene and save SNC Lavalin from prosecution. But, once again, the optics are not good when that MP is also the Prime Minister.
But there is this corporate influence. And it’s not like the main opposition party is any better. During the long nine-year reign of error of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, there were countless instances of corporatism, from selling out Canadian Crown Corporations to foreign corporations, to striking down oversight of corporate behaviour. And whilst our third party, the New Democrats (NDP) have never come close to forming a federal government, the party has been the government in several provinces, multiple times (in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario). Despite the NDP’s leftist claims, its behaviour in power shows it’s no different than the Liberals or Conservatives.
In other words, corporate influence in Canadian politics is real, powerful, and dangerous for our democracy.
And this leads me to our third problem: our media. Canada’s media is highly centralized, consolidated, and corporate. The daily broadsheet newspapers in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Montréal (in English, anyway), and Ottawa are owned by Postmedia. Postmedia also owns the tabloid newspapers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Ottawa. In other words, the newspaper market in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa is monopolized by Postmedia. Postmedia also owns nearly every small-town newspaper in the country. And finally, the company also owns The National Post, Canada’s second and largely ignored national newspaper.
Toronto’s major daily broadsheet, the Toronto Star is owned by Torstar, a major media company. Toronto is also home to the Globe & Mail, which bills itself as Canada’s national newspaper. The Globe is owned by the Woodbridge Company, which until 2015 owned the Canadian Television network, or CTV. Woodbridge is the primary investment firm of the Thomson family, one of Canada’s wealthiest families. The Globe is also the Canadian newspaper most closely aligned with Bay Street, Canada’s financial district in Toronto. The National Post,
The only major Canadian city that is served by a largely independent press is Montréal, where the two major French-language dailies, La Presse and Le Devoir fall outside of these larger Canadian firms. Presse is owned by a social trust. La Presse also no longer publishes a physical paper, it has been entirely online since 2017. Le Devoir is owned and published by Le Devoir Inc. But Montréal’s other French language paper, the tabloid Journal de Montréal, is owned by Québecor, one of the largest media corporations in Canada.
Québecor also owns most of Québec’s media, including the TV broadcast network, TVA. It owns Vidéotron, the primary cable, internet, and cellular service firm in Québec. TVA Publishing is the largest magazine publishing firm in Québec. It also publishes books under Québecor Media Book Group. And finally, it owns Canada.com/Canada.ca, a major on-line news site that covers the entire country of Canada.
Meanwhile, BCE Inc. owns CTV, as well as Bell, which is one of the largest cable/satellite TV providers in the country, to say nothing of cell services. It also, interestingly, owns parts of both the Canadiens de Montréal and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the two biggest hockey teams in the world. Rogers, the other major cable provider in Canada, also owns a cell service, one of the largest magazine publishing firms in Canada, a large chunk of Canadian radio stations.
In short, our media is corporate, deeply and widely, except for the newspapers in Montréal. We also have the state-owned broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so it is technically independent, as it is arms’ length from the government. But the CBC’s problem is it tries to be too many things to too many different people. The Société Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French language service, suffers from many of the same problems.
And our independent news sites, outside of La Presse and Le Devoir, are essentially partisan outlets, preaching to the converted.
So, with our government beholden to corporate interests, many of which are the same interests which own our media, we have a very deep and serious problem. And, of course, this is not what our political parties are talking about. The Liberals, obviously this isn’t something they’ll touch right now. The Conservatives will, of course, score as many political points as they can off SNC Lavalin, but they’ve down the same thin in power and will do again. And, then there’s the NDP. This should be the chance for embattled leader, Jagmeet Singh, to take a stand and talk about the influence of corporations in our media and politics. But, nope. He and his party are too interested in scoring cheap political points from SNC Lavalin, which, of course, suggests the NDP would be no different in office.
Meanwhile, Canadian democracy suffers.
February 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
This came through my feed on Facebook a few days ago. It’s worth re-posting and it’s worth a deeper commentary. The United States was founded upon slavery. Fact. The Founding Fathers included slave owners. Face. The Founding Fathers didn’t deal with slavery in the Constitution. Fact. The Civil War happened because the South seceded over slavery. Fact. The Southern response to Emancipation was Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan and segregation. Fact. Desegregation only happened because of the intervention of the Supreme Court. Fact.
But. None of this is a Southern thing. Slavery initially existed in the North as well. But even after the North banned slavery, it benefited from slavery. The American industrial revolution began in Lowell, MA, due to the easy availability of Southern cotton. The North got wealthy, in other words, on the backs of Southern slaves. The North countenanced slavery.
After the Civil War, the North countenanced segregation. The second Ku Klux Klan emerged in Atlanta, true, but it operated all over the country. And, following Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools, the North was affected, most notably during the Boston Busing Crisis in the 1970s.
But even with the official end of desegregation with Brown v. Board, it’s not like segregation went away. Schools today remain very segregated across the United States due to the outcomes of racism, poverty and housing choices. In fact, one of the outcomes of the Boston Busing Crisis. The busing ‘experiment’ in Boston ended in 1988, by which time the Boston school district had shrunk from 100,000 students to only 57,000. Only 15% of those students were white. As of 2008, Boston’s public schools were 76% African American and Hispanic, and only 14% white. Meanwhile, Boston’s white, non-Hispanic population in 2000 was 55% white. White Bostonians pulled their children out of the city’s public schools and either enrolled them in private schools, or moved to the white suburbs.
As for housing, the Washington Post found last year, the United States is a more diverse nation than ever here in the early 21st century, but its cities remain segregated. Historian Richard Rothstein has found that the segregation of American cities was not by accident.
Then there’s the question of redlining, which was officially banned with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But all that means is that banks and financial institutions have become more clever at discriminating against African Americans and other minorities. And more to the point, those areas of American cities that were redlined when this was legal in the 1930s continue to suffer from the same prejudices today.
Slavery and the complete and utter failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War means that African Americans in the United States today live in the long shadow of slavery and institutionalized racism. So, while the meme above is correct that it was only in 1954 that segregation is outlawed, I would be a lot more hesitant about the green light African Americans have there from 1954 onwards.
February 13, 2019 § 1 Comment
You know what amazes me the most about this blog? That this is consistently my most popular post. It is almost five years old, and yet, every week, there it is either at the top of my most read list, or in close 2nd or 3rd. It’s not my most interesting post nor is the best written. But there you have it.
February 11, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last week, in writing this piece on white privilege, or white hegemony, I cited David Roediger’s excellent book, The Wages of Whiteness, and in so doing, I linked to the book on Amazon. I spent some time reading the reviews of the book, especially the 1-star ones.
Most of the 1-star reviews are predictable, complaining about how to point out how whiteness was created in the United States is racist against white people, or claim (clearly without actually reading the book) that the book demonizes white people or the working classes. It is hard not to call such responses racist at worst, or ignorant at best.
But one stuck out to me, because the author took a slightly different tack. It is worth quoting the review at length here:
A small but very significant difference in terminology prevented me from getting far with this book. Roediger refers to black persons as “Black” (capitalized) and to white persons as “white” (lowercase) throughout his entire book. This rather meaningful difference in terms is utilized in every single instance that a cursory glance through the text revealed these words appearing either as nouns or adjectives. Thus the white person is consistently devalued in contrast to the black individual, solely by the word used to designate him or her. Since this racial devaluation of the white indiviudal is the premise upon all of what follows is based, why bother to read further? Almost before the introductory sentence, we already have a good sense of the bias inherent in the whole book, a bias which puts the author’s fair reporting of facts or interpretation thereof into serious question. Is it just a stupid joke, or an example of white self-hatred, or both, that Roedinger would write nearly 200 pages making a case about how whites advanced themselves in the workplace by collectively devaluing blacks, while himself using language which consistently devalues whites?
First, I feel sorry for this reviewer for giving up so early into the book, but I suppose had s/he actually read it, it would’ve led to a different review, one much more predictable. But, ultimately, it is the same kind of review as the more predictable ones. It is just dressed up in fancier language. The fact that the reviewer argues that to capitalize black and not capitalize white devalues white people is an interesting one.
I have also had this question in the classroom, from students of various backgrounds, on the occasions I’ve either assigned the book or excerpts therefrom.
I think, ultimately, while I would be inclined to either capitalize nor, more likely, not capitalize, both, I can see a pretty simple argument for capitalizing black but not white. Black is generally a racial category in the United States. This is both done from the outside, but also from the inside. I don’t really see how, due to white privilege, an African American in the United States could not notice both this hegemony and their own difference from that hegemonic culture and, due to racism, be confronted with the fact that they might not be fully welcome to enjoy the benefits of a cultural hegemony due to the simple fact of skin colour.
On the other hand, because we live in a hegemonically white culture, most white people don’t think about these kinds of things. Those that do are either people like me, working from a place of anti-racism, or racists. But to the vast majority of white people, the colour of their skin doesn’t matter because it’s never mattered, because of their hegemonic place in our culture and society.
February 8, 2019 § 3 Comments
Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about Jordan Peterson, who I dismissed as a professional bore. A friend of mine shared it on his wall on Facebook and holy hell ensued. One commentator took great exception to my point that ‘frankly, you cannot claim there is no such thing as white privilege and not be racist’ and, oh-so-wittily demanded a citation.
I come at this question after spending most of my adult life working from a place of anti-racism, of insisting that we recognize our diversity and that we work to a world where none of this even matters anymore because it’s the de facto response to all things.
The very term ‘white privilege is heavily loaded. It does two things. First, it points a finger at white people. Second, it suggests to white people who have a difficult time due to class or gender or sexuality that they have something they generally consider themselves to lack: privilege.
White people get defensive when the finger is pointed at them. I know, I am a white person. The general defensive response from a white person is to claim that they have nothing to do with slavery, genocide of the indigenous, etc. And, moreover, this all happened in the past. But racism isn’t an historical exhibit in a museum, it’s still very real and prevalent.
And then there’s the question of class. Poor white people do not generally have privilege, that’s part of the problem of being poor. I grew up poor, and it marked me in certain ways, including a distrust of power and authority. And then there’s people like me who worked to escape that poverty. To say we have had privilege our whole lives sounds like a denial of our own hard work to get to where we are.
But calling out white privilege is none of this. For one, privilege (whether in terms of race, gender, or sexuality) is not a one-size-fits-all hat. It is relative. I always think of the Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, and his concept of ‘hegemony.’ Cultural hegemony, as Gramsci conceived of it, explained how and why the ruling class maintained power and why the working classes did not revolt. This means that the ruling class imposed its own world view, its own cultural mores, and so on on culture and society and normalized them. Thus, ruling class ideals were the normal, anything else was deviant. And thus, the union movement of the late 19th/early 20th centuries in North America was about accessing some of that hegemonic power for the skilled working classes. The union movement of that era was not about the overthrow of capitalism, but the amelioration of it, allowing these skilled working class men and their families to access some of the benefits of hegemony. But it was still a relative slice of the hegemony pie.
Privilege, as the term is used today, is pretty much the same as Gramscian hegemony. As I argued in this piece, we live in a culture created and dominated by white people. White people, in other words, are hegemonic. And, as David Roediger argues in his excellent The Wages of Whiteness, the process of racial solidarity was forged in the United States in the 19th century, the colour line was created through a process of essentially convincing the white working classes that while their lives may be difficult, at least they weren’t black. That is obviously a simplification of Roediger’s argument, but it is also the basics.
And so now, in the early 21st century in the United States (and Canada) we live in an increasingly multicultural, diverse world. Two of Canada’s three largest cities (Toronto and Vancouver) have minority white populations. Around 35% of Canada’s population is comprised of people of colour. South of the border, 44% of the American population is comprised of visible minorities. More than that, 50% of the children in the US under the age of 5 are people of colour. So the times are changing, but not quick enough, really. The fact we still use terms like ‘people of colour’ or ‘visible minorities’ reflects that.
So we still live in a white world. To me, this is blatantly obvious looking at the world around me. In Canada, indigenous men and women are continually assaulted by the police and private citizens. In the United States, it is African Americans who find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun with police and private citizens on the other end. More subtle forms of racism exist, like crossing the road to avoid black men. Or calling the police because an African American person is walking down the street. But racism also exists in other forms, against other groups. And all non-white ethnic groups are forced to live in a white world in the US and Canada.
To use another loaded term, this is white supremacy. For me, white supremacy isn’t the Ku Klux Klan or Richard Spencer (that’s just outright racist idiocy), it is simply the fact we live in a white world.
To return to my original point that to deny white privilege is itself a racist conclusion. Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes white privilege very well in a 2012 Atlantic article, where he writes
But I generally find it [white privilege] most powerful and most illuminating when linked to an actual specific privilege–not fearing sexual violence, not weighing one’s death against the labor of birthing, living in a neighborhood bracketed off by housing covenants, not having to compete for certain jobs etc.
In the other words, because I don’t fear being shot by the police due to my skin colour (amongst other things), I have privilege based on race. That neither I nor Coates fear being sexually assaulted on our walk home from work is privilege based on gender. And so on.
Thus, to wilfully deny that white people enjoy a certain hegemony in our culture is racist, because it denies an entire cultural framework. That cultural framework means I am far less likely to get harassed by the police if I wear my hood up walking down the street. It also means that white people are sentenced far more leniently for crimes than black people. It means that poor white people don’t get red-lined like poor black people by financial institutions when seeking a mortgage. And to deny that is not only wilfully ignorant, it is a product of that privilege, and therefore, racist.
But at the end of all of this, the very terms ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’ are, as noted, loaded. Spring-loaded, really. Thus, perhaps we should re-frame the discussion to centre around hegemony. That is far less likely to put people’s hackles up, to make people defensive from the start. And if we don’t start from a position of defensiveness, we’d be far more likely to get somewhere.