Category Archives: racism

The Ungrateful Refugee

 

 

 

I listened to an interesting interview with Dina Nayeri the author of the book The Ungrateful Refugee. I have not read her book.  I hope to. She is a refugee from Iran who came to the United States at the age of 10 with her mother and a sister. Her father stayed behind and her mother supported the two girls on her own as  he rarely sent money to help.

She asked an important question: Just because she is a refugee who became a naturalized American citizen does that mean she has to give up the right to criticize her country? Other Americans are allowed to do that? Why not her?

Recently Donald Trump criticized 4 American Congress women of colour all of whom are  American citizens. In fact 3 of them were born in the US.  After he made comments suggesting that they go back to where they came from, he said what he really meant was that if they did not like it here they should go back. “If you re not happy here you can leave,” he said.  I suspect that many people agree with that. But are they right?

As Nayeri said, by such actions, Trump, and those who agree with him, are trying to separate immigrants from US born citizens. Lets call them native citizens. He is really saying these citizens who criticize their adopted country are second-class citizens. No one denies that native citizens have the right to criticize their country. Free speech is fundamental to being an American (or Canadian) citizen. Why not citizens who were born elsewhere?

We have to remember as well that the old refrain, “Go back to where you came,” is a common racist trope used since time immemorial as a way to tamp  down the immigrants, or refugees, or anyone who is “other,” or anyone who is unlike us. Particularly this has been used against people of a different color. It is a racist trope. Do we really want to endorse such?

When Nayeri escaped Iran with her mother and sister they fled first of all to Dubai, then to Italy, from where they became asylum seekers in the United States. Eventually they were allowed to get asylum in the United States and in time became American citizens. She was grateful for the help she got.

However, Nayeri was signaled as a very young child that she was different. She was an outsider. She did not belong there. Other kids called her mean names.

She reacted by trying to be the perfect immigrant. She had to be “the best refugee possible.”  She felt she had to over achieve in order to belong. As Nayeri said in an article in the Guardian, “We were never comfortable. We kept squirming inside our own skin, trying to find a way to be ourselves while satisfying all the people who wanted us to transform instantly into them.”

She responded to these pressures  by getting tough. She became a “kick ass” martial arts athlete.  It was hard. She had to put up with a lot. As she said, “I loved winning at a male sport. I was still angry about so many things – hijab, the Islamic Republic, the fat old church men who made high-school football players feel like gods while they shamed women who dared to want too much. I survived on egg whites and water-packed tuna doused in vinegar and mustard, salted baked potatoes and watery fruit.” In time she got straight A’s in school and became a national Tae Kwon Do competitor all in an effort to get accepted into Harvard University. She did not quite make it. But she got into another Ivy League school—Princeton. Not a bad second choice.

In my opinion any citizen should be free to criticize her country. After all that is the only way countries get better. They are never perfect. Even if we love them and love the way things are now, we should be able to criticize them and hope to improve them. No country is perfect. Every country should welcome criticism. Every country should welcome refugees and that means giving them the right to speak up.

Toni Morrison on Hate

 

 

I have still not got over Toni Morrison’s  novel–Love. It is that disturbing. The novel is actually much more about its opposite. Hate. It is about a specific kind of love—love that is transformed into hate. How can that happen?

Morrison has a fine understanding of hate. She described how the Cosey girls fought over the coffin of Bill Cosey, the patriarch of the family , until one of the women, L (does that stand for love?) restored order. But the hate lived on. Hate is darn hard to destroy. Morrison described the haters this way: “their faces as different as honey from soot, looked identical. Hate does that. Burns everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.”

The novel is deeply imbedded into a racist society infused with white male dominance, even though there are very few white characters in the novel and none of them is a major character. The natural product of such a society is that the dominated black males turn to dominate those  “beneath” them. And of course that is only other non-whites.

The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey a 52-year old black man who rapes an 11-year old black girl with the consent of her family. The girl is so young and ignorant that she “grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” And as so often happens, the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”

Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends—end up competing for a 52-year old man, entirely unworthy of either of them, and the two become transformed into enemies in the process. They learn to hate.  “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Can you imagine a hate that is “almost holy”? Even the holy is turned perverse in a world ruled by hate and dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks.  That is the world that is a product of hate and in such a world even the holy turns evil.

Heed and Christine had a hard time maintaining their hatred for each other. Hate does not come easily and it is difficult to maintain. As Morrison said, “Like friendship, hatred needed more than physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself.” They had “bruising fights with hands, feet, teeth and soaring objects…once–perhaps twice–a year, they punched, grabbed hair, wrestled, bit, slapped, never drawing blood, never apologizing, never premeditating, yet drawn annually to pant through an episode that was as much rite as fight. Finally they stopped, moved into acid silence, and invented other ways to underscore bitterness.”

Both of them ultimately realized that neither one could leave. They were married to each other in a dark perverse marriage. They both had “an unspoken realization that the fights did nothing other than allow them to hold each other.” That is what undying hatred is all about. It bonds the two in unholy matrimony. “There in a little girl’s bedroom an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”

 

Toni Morrison’s “Love”

 

I came to appreciate Toni Morrison late in life. That is a pity. But at least I did it. I finished her book, Love, just a couple of days before she died.

Love  is one of the best novels I have ever read. Of course, I think I have now said that about every one of Toni Morrison’s novels that I have read. She was a brilliant writer. When I started to write this review I said, “she is the finest living novelist.”  The only writer I could think of to compare her to was  Marilynne Robinson. Both of them were astonishing writers.

Loveis a difficult read. I was half way through the novel when I realized I had to start over from the beginning. I was missing too much. I had not caught on to enough. I hate to start over, but sometimes I just have to do that.

Though difficult, the novel, like any great novel, rewards the effort to understand it. That does not mean the reader has captured it. Far from it. It cannot be captured. But the reader can be captured by it.  the novel is about 2 “love” stories.  But they are hardly ordinary love stories.

The novel is a story about women and how they relate to a powerful man. The novel is told through or from the point of view of those amazing women and centres around a horrid incident at its core. Ultimately it is about the violence and its consequences inflicted on one of the women–but really all of them–by that strong man at the centre of the novel. It is a violence that is as unredeemed as it is chilling.

The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey—“the Big Man who with no one to stop him, could get away with it and anything else he wanted.” He is a 52-year old man who can molest an 11-year old child with impunity and then marry her to make it ‘all right’.  her 12 year old friend saw this as a  “real betrayal,” by her “friend who grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” She was only 11 and did not know better so she “grinned happily.”  After all the adults who loved her would not abandon her to such a ravishing would they? Yes they would. As so often happens the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. She concludes, “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”

Heed the Night, as she is called, has learned that this world into which she has been thrust by her family with the connivance of his family, is a terrifying world where evil catches fire and is doused with sugar creating a sickening black “caramelizing evil.” It is a world haunted by perverse love. It is impossible for her to escape, so Heed became “grown-up nasty.” How else could this have turned out?  Christine, Heeds friend, who is 12 years old, and is one of those women who betrayed Heed  and ends up with a mother-in-law who is her friend but younger than she is. Of course as Christine says, “most people married young back then (the sooner a girl was taken over by a man, the better.” In the end we learn a bitter black truth in which “the problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge–how to escape the sweetness of its rot. So you can see why families make the best enemies. They have the time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer.” That sweet caramelized evil.

Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends–competing for a 52-year old man are transformed into enemies. They learn to hate. Only hate is natural in this most unnatural world. “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Even the holy is turned perverse in a world so infused with dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks.  The topsy-turvy world is a product of hate where even the holy turns evil. “There, in a little girl’s bedroom, an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”

There is another “love story,” if the first can be called a love story. This is a passionate love story. Young lovers this time. Such love should be pure and innocent. It is the story of Junior and Romen. When Roman sees Junior, “she seemed to him as beautiful as it is possible for a human to be.” It starts out innocent, but nothing in the novel is innocent for long.  In such a world how could it be different? All the principal characters in the novel are African-American. Of course, all are victims of white dominance and oppression that transforms their lives in the most ugly way imaginable. Mainly that oppression is entirely overt, but it is real. It curdles all love into caramelized evil where love is transformed into hate. Perverse love is the bastard child of oppression.  As Women says, Junior “plays hard, that’s all. I mean she likes being hurt…She didn’t just like it. She preferred it.” And Romen in response, was “cold, unsmiling, watching himself inflict pain and suffer pain above scream level where a fresh kind of joy lay.” No wonder that when in the abandoned hotel she undresses for him she keeps on her socks, then ties one around his neck and into the other inserts her foot and “the foot she slipped into the sock looked to him like a hoof.” His innocent passionate lover becomes the devil incarnate–caramelized black evil again. After all,  “A dream is just a nightmare with lipstick.” And he becomes her “Sugarboy.”

In the novel family is as twisted and s curdled as love. Junior is assaulted by her uncles (“the howling uncles”) who are “idle teenagers whose brains had been insulted by the bleakness of their lives, alternated between brutality and coma.” They are the products of a racist society.  The uncles threatened to turn Junior over to another old man–Vosh. This woke her up. The threat was real. As she thought, “the possibility that it could happen, that she could be handed over to the old man in the valley who liked to walk around with his private parts in his hands and singing hymns of praise, jolted her up from the floor, out of reaching hands and through the door.” For Junior prison is a reprieve from the maniacal madness of family. Prison is better than life with her family!

The world of love is no paradise. “People with no imagination feed it with sex–the clown of love. They don’t know the real kinds, the better kinds, where losses are cut and everybody benefits. It takes a certain intelligence to love like that–softly, without props.”

One of Morrison’s novels is called Paradise. This is certainly no paradise. But it is real. It is the product of a profoundly racist society where those at the top dominate with impunity and those at the bottom  accept the dominance while “grinning,” because they don’t even know anything better.

The US coughs and Canada catches cold

 

Some ask why I talk so much about the United States. “What about Canada?” The fact is that the United States is a very important country. It is not just in economics that the claim “The United States coughs and Canada catches a cold,” is true. It is also, sadly, often true in social matters too. So I will continue to comment on what happens there, but never forgetting that usually Canada is in the same position, though as a junior partner.

Recently, on the August long weekend, 2 mass killings occurred in the United States. One in Dayton Ohio and the other in El Paso Texas. After the killings, Donald Trump uttered some fine words, clearly saying that racism and hatred were unacceptable. His words could not be faulted as in other cases, but were his words adequate for the moment? Democratic rival Cory Booker called them “bullshit soup.”

As Alexander Burns pointed out in the New York Times, “President Trump faced intense new criticism and scrutiny for the plain echoes of his rhetoric in the El Paso gunman’s anti-immigrant manifesto.” According to Burns, “Democratic challengers blamed him explicitly for giving succor to extremists.” The leading Democratic contender at the time, Joe Biden, said Trump was guilty of trying “to encourage and embolden white supremacy.” Another contender, Elizabeth Warren, captured the situation well when she said that Trump had repeatedly been “amplifying these deadly ideologies.

What is clear is that Trump is no innocent bystander here. In recent weeks he has been loudly speaking out at rallies about 4 American Congresswomen of colour that they should go back to the rat infested countries from which they came. This was so even though 3 of them were born in the United States. I am not sure what a trope is or a dog whistle, but it is clear that such statement have made over and over again by blatant racists in the past.  Then at rallies he basked in the glow of hearing his audience loudly chant “Send them back; send them back.” In such circumstances “amplifying these deadly ideologies” is hardly an exaggeration. That is exactly what he has been doing.

In contrast to that, President Obama has been the voice of empathy and dignity. This is what he said, as quoted in the New York Times,  former President Obama wrote, “We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments, leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as subhuman, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people.” That is exactly what we should do–reject them.

The fact is that Donald Trump is not really the issue. The real issue, I submit, is that the United States, with Canada following right behind, is a country deeply infused with violence. It takes very little to light that fuse. Almost any crackpot can do it. I believe this is the legacy of a racial bias that runs so deep and came so early to that country and to Canada that it  led to genocide against the original inhabitants of this hemisphere and the subsequent enslavement of African people numbering in the millions in the US and less in Canada. Then we added male supremacy and visions of human superiority over all of nature to that already toxic stew is. It is hardly surprising that we are in a lethal mess. It is probably inevitable.

Is America a generous Country?

Is the US as generous as it thinks it is?

 

By now it is an old saw, but a country must be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable people, not by how it treats its real estate tycoons. The powerful always do just fine looking out for themselves.

Marilynne Robinson one of America’s best and most thoughtful novelists one said she always thought America was generous country. Is it? Now she has her doubts. So do I.

Recently there have been deeply disquieting reports of the treatment of young children in American detention facilities at the US border. Few people are more vulnerable than they are. These were asylum seekers, not immigrants. That is an important distinction that many people fail to make.

The reports are about mistreatment of these young children arising out of reports of deficient clothing and hygiene, and inadequate food for them while their parents make claims for refugee status.

One child claimed she had not been able to shower for 3 weeks. Another had no toothpaste or tooth brush. Are these trivial?

American and international law requires that asylum seekers be housed in “safe and sanitary conditions.” That seems fairly simple and fair.

A recent videotape of a judicial proceeding in the US 9th District Court in which the Judge was asking a very uncomfortable government lawyer,” If you don’t have a tooth brush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, its not safe or sanitary. Wouldn’t every one agree with that?” The government lawyer could only stammer futilely in reply. She looked completely bamboozled. After that video went viral, the US Detention Commissioner resigned in embarrassment.

Christiane Amanpour interviewed Warren Binford a private lawyer and a Professor of Law at Willamette University in the US,  on the issue. Binford had recently visited the facility where this occurred in Clint Texas near El Paso where we were driving a few months ago. Officials had removed 250 children from the facility because of the bad publicity. Later they moved most of them back.

To put the issue in perspective for us, Professor Binford pointed out “most of these children have family in the US. 86% of the children in such facilities in the US had parents or other family members or sponsors in the US. These children don’t even need to be in government care. For those 14% of children we need to have standards set for what “safe and sanitary” means. For the other 86% they need to be returned to their families, so that their families can care for them and make sure that they are fed, clean, and treated with the appropriate level of loving kindness that all children deserve.” Echoing the judge, wouldn’t we all agree with that?

Surely this is clearly true for detained children in the richest country in the world. Countries like Uganda and Turkey that have far more refugees than the US does can do it and they are much poorer countries. Why can’t the US do it? Or is it not as generous as it thinks it is?

Lawyers like Binford were given access to such facilities as a result of an earlier lawsuit brought in the 1980s. For the last 20 years teams of experts have been visiting such facilities and reporting back to the court about what they saw. They have also been directly from the children as well. The team went public (whistle blowers again) after visiting a facility only intended for 104 adults in facilities that, according to Professor Binford, are “notoriously squalid and inappropriate for children at all and they handed us a roster of children who were on site that day and there were over 350 children in this border control station. We were horrified!  We immediately scanned the list and learned that over 100 of these children were young children, infants,, toddlers, preschoolers, and school age children.”

InWillamette Weekshe was quoted as saying “They are worse than actual prison conditions…It is inhumane. It’s nothing that I ever imagined seeing in the United States of America.” According to the Willamette Week, “They found a 10-year-old tasked by guards with taking care of a 2-year-old, children sleeping on cold concrete floors with inadequate bedding, inadequately treated flu and lice outbreaks, and children who hadn’t bathed in weeks, despite the fact the government had been warned weeks before of a scheduled visit.”

Binford also reported that they saw children “begging for food” because they were hungry. Her group identified a “child mother” who was there with her infant children. Many of the children were dirty and had matted hair and were crying. “They had not been given any fruit, or vegetables, or milk for the entire time they had been there. They were given instant soup, instant oatmeal, frozen burritos, and it was the same food every day, day after day. They described sleeping on cold floors, which was why they said they were so tired. They were sleeping on cement blocks. Some were sleeping on mats provided but the mats were too few so they were describing 6 children sleeping on a mat in order to protect as many children in the cells as possible from the cold floor.”

Even though Officials refused to give the team of inspectors a tour of the facility,  later they found out children were being kept in a warehouse without windows. There  they discovered 15 children quarantined for an influenza outbreak, but no one was actually caring for them. They also found children subject to a lice outbreak who were given 2 combs to share among them, something that should never be done. When one of those combs disappeared, the children were punished by officials taking away their bedding! One entire cell of children was forced to sleep without bedding as punishment.

According to Professor Binford, “There were just horrific circumstances everywhere we looked.” Things like that make conditions in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist look good in comparison.

I ask: is America a generous country? I know large numbers of refugee claimants have been showing up at the American border and they are having a difficult time. Why then don’t they allow the children to stay with their families and sponsors? Why pay significant sums to keep them in clearly inadequate government facilities? It makes no sense at all, unless there is something much deeper and sicker at stake here—like racism!

 

Cultural Relativism

 

If you want to understand Indigenous People you should know something about anthropology. Sadly, I know little about anthropology. Of course, as faithful readers of my blog know, absence of knowledge has never stopped me from offering my opinions. Today is no exception.

I have said that to understand the relationship of the invaders of the western hemisphere to the Indigenous people cannot be understood without realizing the arrogance and superiority they felt to indigenous people.

Franz Boas, sometimes called the father of modern Anthropology was perhaps the first anthropologist to poke holes into the false sense of superiority of the west. He was interested in how beliefs and convictions coalesced into something he referred to as culture. He thought this was a valid organizing principle. So does Wade Davis another eminent anthropologist. Boas, appreciated, as very few of his fellows did, that cultures of the west had a lot to learn from indigenous cultures.  As Davis said of Boas, “Far ahead of his time, he sensed that every distinct social community, every cluster of people distinguished by language or adaptive inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy and its promise.”

Each culture provided an opportunity that every one who contacted it would be well advised to pay attention to it and learn from it. Ideological blinkers are never helpful. Boas is seen by many as the originator of modern cultural anthropology and for good reason.  He looked at cultures without bias and without suffocating feelings of superiority. Boas wanted to learn from people he met. He was not there to teach them. He was not there to save them, he wanted to benefit from their stored ancient wisdom. That attitude was extremely unusual in its time. Boas worked among many people including the Inuit of Baffin Island, the indigenous people of the west coast of North America and in every case made sure that his students kept an open mind. Boas ensured that his students communicated with the indigenous people they met in the language of those people. He asked them to participate as much as possible in the lives of those people they studied.  As Davis said of Boas,

“Every effort should be made, he argued, to understand the perspective of the other, to learn the way they perceive the world, and if at all possible, the very nature of their thoughts. This demanded, by definition, a willingness to step back from the constraints of one’s own prejudices and preconceptions. This notion of cultural relativism was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against the orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, and ever since, anthropologists have periodically been accused of embracing an extreme relativism.”

That does not mean we have to abdicate from making judgments. That does not mean we can’t cherish the good from our society too. Lets cherry pick the best from each world. Lets just not be blind to the good fruit from our kin. When we make judgments, lets make sure that they are informed, based on reasoning not wishful thinking, or worse, no-thinking, and free from bias. In other words we should always try to be ideal observers.  We owe that not only to them, but to ourselves.

One day Boas in the cold winter of 1883 was caught in a dreadful snowstorm in northern North America. It was the mother of all blizzards. Temperatures dipped to minus 46º C. That would even impress people from the prairies of Canada like me. Boas and his group understandably became disoriented in the storm. For 26 hours in the freezing cold there was nothing he could do to help his men. He left himself and his entire crew to the care and custody of the local Inuk companion and their dogs. Eventually the Inuk guide led them to safety and the men survived, though half dead when they arrived. They were nearly frozen to death and nearly starved. The next day Boas wrote this in his diary,

“I often ask myself what advantages our good society possesses over that of ‘savages’ and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down on them…We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We highly educated people are much worse, relatively speaking.”

Boas opened the eyes of anthropologists, but many more. Many people came to realize we have a lot to learn from others. Our hubris must be put on the shelf.

Boas  explored the idea that random beliefs could coalesce into what he called “culture.” Boas was among the first to promote the idea of culture as an organizing principle of anthropology.

Boas became the leader of modern cultural anthropology. He studied with an open and unprejudiced manner how human social perceptions are formed and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. I would say Boas was the father of modern cultural anthropology and also the father of the sociology of knowledge.

Boas insisted that his students learn and conduct their research in the language of the place and even participate in the lives of the people that they studied. These were revolutionary ideas at the time.  Davis said of him, “Every effort should be made, he argued, to learn the way they perceive the world, and if at all possible, the very nature of their thoughts.”

Of course this required his students to set aside their preconceptions and actually look at, and listen to, the people they were studying. Prejudice had no place in their science. One had to look skeptically at one’s own cultural preconceptions in order to avoid being enslaved by them.

This led Boas to his revolutionary idea of cultural relativism. According to Davis, “This notion of cultural relativism was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, and ever since, anthropologists have periodically been accused of embracing an extreme relativism.”

This does not mean that all cultures are equal. It does mean that all cultures merit respect. It does mean that all cultures have something to teach us. It does mean that cultural arrogance is misplaced. As Davis said,  “In truth, no serious anthropologist advocates the elimination of judgment. Anthropology merely calls for tis suspension, so that the judgments were are all ethically obliged to make as human beings may be informed ones.”

Boas wanted to see the world through the eyes of his subjects. He wanted to walk in their moccasins. He practiced radical empathy, not arrogance. That is the attitude we need to understand Indigenous issues. Not arrogance. Not a sense of superiority. Empathy is much more helpful.

Sociology of Knowledge & the “Discovery” of the Americas

The story of exploration, “discovery,” conquest, and colonization of the western hemisphere By Europeans is incredibly important and incredibly interesting. The explorers were astonishingly brave. They sailed towards what many people thought was the edge of the world where they would fall off. Yet they did it. They plowed ahead no matter what the dangers. They were brilliant in their adaptions. Yet, also importantly, there was a dark side to the impact of conquest and colonization. That dark side, in my view, grew out of the soil of the Original Sin. Often it showed the utter brutality of the conquerors. The Christians, for examples, seemed profoundly barbarian.

We must always remember that all “knowledge” is coloured by ideology. This is what the sociology of knowledge is all about.  We see the world through the invisible lens of our own beliefs and presumptions. It is very difficult to avoid this. As Wade Davis in his brilliant book The Wayfarers, said “Knowledge is rarely completely divorced from power, and interpretation is too often an expression of convenience.”

The study of anthropology was born out of a deep attitude of superiority, as did so much of “knowledge.”  People believed in an evolutionary model in which 19thcentury men like Herbert Spencer saw that societies developed in a linear progression from savagery to barbarism to civilization.

In time anthropologists learned a lot more and abandoned the error of their earlier ways. As Davis, reported,

“Such transparently simplistic and biased interpretation of human history, though long repudiated by anthropologists as an intellectual artifact of the nineteenth century, as relevant today as the convictions of Victorian clergy who dated the earth at a mere 6,000 years, has nevertheless proved to be remarkably persistent, even among contemporary scholars.’

Davis gave a powerful example of this in a  Canadian book, Disrobing the Aboriginal History: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, that ridiculed the very idea that the original inhabitants of the Americas had anything useful to offer to the Europeans they encountered. Here is what that book said, “Never in history has the cultural gap between two people’s coming into contact with each other been wider.” The profundity of this ignorance is astounding, and I will have a lot to say about how wrong this idea was as we meander through this issue. That does not mean the idea is not common and deeply pervasive.

It is pervasive because it is deeply embedded in the ideology of supremacy that grew out of the fundamental sin–White Male Human Supremacy has been the implicit underlying ideology of the west for centuries. It cascaded through the generations. It blinds everyone under its influence, both the alleged superiors and the presumed inferiors. Everyone has been infected. It makes the privilege invisible.

For generations indigenous peoples have been taught they are inferior. For generations white people have been taught they are superiors. And likewise, men are superior, and women inferior. Or that Christians are superior to all others. And finally, and still largely underappreciated, that humans are superior and animals and nature inferior. These attitudes are so pervasive that it is almost impossible to dissent. These assumptions are invisible. They imbue nearly everything that happens in the west. Any dissent from the predominant ideology is automatically seen as irrational if not insane. As Herbert Marcuse noted, dominant groups rarely acknowledge anything that undermines their dominance. They just don’t see it.

Members of the dominant group do not even see their privilege. This is just who they are.  Only those who relentlessly try to act like ideal impartial observers with fellow feeling and are armed with critical thinking skills are able to extract themselves from the influence of the dominant ideology and even then, only with great difficulty.

Slaughter by Divine Right

Things have been getting strange. Nearly every day it seems like the crazies are winning.

For a number of years Myanmar has been wracked by murderous attacks against a Muslim minority group of Rohingya people. Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country with a significant Muslim minority. The UN states that the Rohingya people of Myanmar are among the most persecuted people in the world at this time. Myanmar security forces have driven the Rohingya people  off their land, burned down their mosques and committed widespread looting, arson and rape of Rohingya women.

There have been a lot of mass shootings recently involving religious groups from around the world.   We read about a shooting in a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017 where 6 worshippers were shot and killed while 19 more were injured. The lone gunman opened fire just after evening prayers.

In October 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg Pennsylvania 11 people were murdered and 6 more injured by a gunman. This was the deadliest attack against the American Jewish community in U.S. history. The massacre was an unprecedented act of violence against American Jews—but it is by no means the first time that anti-Semitism has manifested itself in deadly violence against Jews in the United States.

In March 2019 there were 2 consecutive terrorist attacks at mosques in Christchurch New Zealand during Friday Prayer. The gunman who came all the way from Australia, launched two consecutive attacks that began at one mosque and continued at an Islamic Centre.  This case was also distinguished by the fact that the gunman live-streamed his first attack on Facebook. 50 people were killed and another 50 injured. These were the deadliest mass shootings in the history of New Zealand. The 28 year old gunman was described as a white supremacist and part of the alt-right movement that many Christians in America support. Just before the shooting he played “Serbia Strong” a nationalist song celebrating Radovan Karadžić who was found guilty of genocide against Bosnian Muslims.

In April 2019, on Easter Sunday, 3 Christian churches across Sri Lanka and 3 luxury hotels were targeted by  suicide bombers in series of coordinated suicide bombings. Approximately 253 people were killed and another 500 people injured. This attack was believed to be in retaliation to the shootings in New Zealand. This is the fact caught my eye. Sri Lankan government officials said the attacks were carried out by Sri Lankan citizens associated with National Thowheeth Jama’ath a local militant Islamist group with suspected foreign ties. The group was  previously known for attacks against Buddhists. The direct linkage between the two attacks was questioned by some experts. Yet these were clearly coordinated slaughters by a group of extremist Muslims apparently in retaliation for the recent attacks of the mosque in Christchurch New Zealand.

Then a couple of days ago, 6 months to the day after the slaughter at the synagogue in Pittsburg, there was another attack near a synagogue in California  where a man shot 4 people and killing one of them.  The suspect who turned himself in posted an 8-page manifesto online in which he boasted about being from “European ancestry” and expressed hatred of Jews.  He even said he had taken inspiration from the New Zealand mosque shooter in March of this year.

What do all of these events have in common? Violence? For sure. But violence of a particular sort. Violence in favor of or against a particular religion.  This is deeply disturbing. Have we entered the era of religious world wars?  They are happening everywhere.  What is happening here?

One of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, seemed to understand it best. As he said in his great poem “The Second Coming” which he wrote nearly exactly 100 years ago:

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

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. 

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

 

The Second Coming!

Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

Although this poem presages a “Second Coming” in the poem it is a nightmare. Just like the Roman World was shocked by the arrival of Christ, Yeats suggests, our world will be shocked and rocked by the new arrival. It will happen he suggest, about 2,000 years after Chris was born. About now in other words. It will be a “rough beast” that slouches toward Bethlehem waiting “to be born.” It will “trouble our sight”.  It will loose another “blood-dimmed tide” and may drown “the ceremony of innocence” once again. As the narrator of the poem seems to fear, it will no doubt wreak havoc and terror.

Is this the terror that is approaching? Is the beast moving its horrifying  “slow thighs?” Things are falling apart and the centre no longer holds. “Mere anarchy” is loosed upon the world. Why “mere” anarchy? The Extremists are taking over. The religious wars are back again. The rest of us are doomed.So it seems.

As I have said elsewhere, when religion leads to hate it is no longer religion. What we have is actually a toxic brew of hate and racism. All of these are inimical to genuine religion, but find fertile ground in the soil of pseudo-religion.

Some people (too many people) seem to believe that they have the divinely granted right to slaughter other people as a result of having been issued a licence to kill by their personal revengeful god. How can this be? Where do we go from here?

Black Face

 

Recently we have learned about Blackface as a result of the controversy over revelations that the current Democratic governor of Virginian, was photographed about 30 years ago for his Medical School Yearbook, with his face in “black face.” His face was painted black. What made it worse was the photograph of the student next to him wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood.  The Governor handled it in a clumsy manner. First he apologized, then the next day he thought it was not a picture of him at all, but he admitted that on anotheroccasion he was in a dance contest where he imitated Michael Jackson and had a little bit of shoe polish on his face.

I really don’t think politicians should be hanged out to dry for dumb things they did in their college years, for then most of us are in big trouble. Who did not do stupid things in the days of youth? Now that does not excuse egregious behavior like US Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault for example, but we have to give youth, even college students, some slack. I know I need some.

One of the factors in decided whether or not to “forgive” the conduct is contrition. The perpetrator must demonstrate remorse and that he/she has learned to be a better person since the incident occurred. However, I am not sure that the Governor appreciated the seriousness of what he had done. I know that I did not understand it properly until recently. I had seen it occasionally years ago on televison and never thought it was a big deal. The key is, I did not really think about it

CNN host Van Jones recently interviewed 2 academics on the subject of what they called “Black Minstrelsy”.  I had never heard that expression before.

From the three of them I learned that you have to know a little of the history of black minstrelsy or black face to understand the issue.  Starting in the 1830s already it was common for white actors and performers to paint their faces black in order to entertain white audiences by caricaturing blacks. Typically the African-Americans were caricatured as stupid, lazy, and silly. They continued racial stereotyping and discrimination. They were not “merely” entertainment. They were more than that. They were part of a pattern of discrimination.

The white actors would use grease or shoe polish or burnt cork or anything handy to create stereotypical characters like ‘Mammy’ or ‘the trickster’ or ‘thief’ to make African-Americans the subject of their comedy routines.

What whites did not realize, or if they did what they did not care about, was that this was awfully demeaning to the African-Americans. The practice  clearly denigrated them. Really it denied them their humanity!  And that really is the point. It robbed an exploited group of their humanity. Frankly, it was deeply racist.  Many of the audience members, including myself when I watched it on television, were not aware of the denigration, or chose to ignore it as irrelevant. The best that we who watched it can hope for is that we wee ignorant. The entertainment though was very popular.

According to the academics, it is deeply engrained in American society. They said it was the first form of popular entertainment in America. As Professor Rae Lynn Barnes, Assistant Professor at Princeton University said, “they were meant to humiliate African-Americans.” In particular it was often done to humiliate black women, a double exploitation.

Dwandalyn R. Reece of the National Museum of African American History was asked by Jones how she reacted when she first saw black minstrelsy and she replied that she had a “visceral response”. It was painful and humiliating. That is the key. We have to realize how our actions affect others. We have to walk in their shoes.  Not just the shoes of our friends who can easily laugh about it and don’t consider it “a big deal”. To us it is not a big deal. To African-Americans it often is a big deal. Reece felt sadness at the lack of empathy that made it possible for the whites to fail to understand why the images were painful to African-Americans.

Some whites, like Megan Kelly, former Fox commentator and broadcaster, claimed that they put on black face to “honor African-Americans.” Really that is an absurd rationalization. Whites have to realize that by putting on blackface they are evoking memories of painful, dark oppression. They are not funny to African-Americans. How would we feel if we were in their position? That is what we must always consider.  It is not honoring anyone. It is bludgeoning them. As Van Jones said, “Half the time, we live in the United Shame of America.”

Interestingly, in a recent poll Virginians were asked if the Governor should be forced to resign. 47% of all Virginians said yes. But 57% of African-Americans from Virginia said no!

I am not sure that the Governor should be forced to resign. He should demonstrate that he has learned from this experience, but ultimately the voters in the next election should decide his fate. Let them decide if the Governor has the courage to run again.

I  want to add that Canada is no better. Soon I intend to blog about racism in Canada. It is just that living here in the U.S. for 3 months their issues keep coming up. Ours have to be dealt with too and I intend to blog about it.

 

BlacKkKlansman

 

 

 

The film BlacKkKlansman written by Spike Lee and others and also directed by Lee, is based on a memoir written by Ron Stallworth in 2014. The film is set in the early 1970s and tells the story of Stallworth who was the first black African-American detective in Colorado Springs. Amazingly Stallworth infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (‘KKK’) by posing as a white supremacist on the telephone. When face-to-face meetings were necessary his colleague at the Police Department, also amazingly, was  a Jew, but nonetheless stepped in to help out posing as Stallworth.  He showed up at meetings in the basement of a KKK member whose wife served cheese and crackers to those planning racially based attacks.

The portrait of the Klan members is not flattering. Their racism seems impossible. How could people have the crazy ideas they had? I kept thinking that Lee ought to have made a film about covert racism instead of the easy target of the KKK. After all there can’t be any racists like that anymore, I thought.  Yet the more I thought about the film the more I realized that is not true.  Many of the Klan members expressed views that seem to have come directly from Trump. They said that they just wanted American First and wanted to make it great again. By which of course they meant they white and non-Jewish.

Stallworth said the US would never elect someone “like Duke”, the leader of the Klan.  We as the audience experienced a hush at this point, knowing how in 2016 they did exactly that. Such racism is alive and “well” in the U.S as it is in Canada. Canada just picks a different target–indigenous people.

I was particularly affected by the racism of the women in the film.  One of the KKK members was affectionately hugging his spouse while she coos about how grateful she is that after all these years they are finally going to “kill some niggers.” She loves her husband for giving her this glorious opportunity. And then there were women watching a racist film at a Klan meeting who responded viscerally to a scene where a black man was lynched by a “brave” mob of whites. Watching it, as we cringed, she yelled, “String em up,” reminding me of how Trump’s female supporters would shout out at Trump rallies at the mention of Hillary Clinton, “Lock her up.”

The film ends with a shock. Lee included actual video footage from the 2017 Unite The Right Rally in Charlottesville where various white supremacists, including David Duke the Klan leader, marched the streets of the city Virginia. The march included self-identified members of the far-right, alt-right, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and others. The white supremacist marchers chanted racist and antisemitic slogans, carried semi-automatic rifles (Virginia is an open carry state), Nazi symbols including the swastika, and of course, Confederate flags. Many wore Trump “Make America Great Again” hats.

The footage of the rampage was shocking. It showed men violently attacking counter protesters and a car mowing down pedestrians. About 40 of the counter protesters were injured and 1 was killed. One of them was paralyzed as a result of the attacks.

Not that all the counter protesters were without blemish. Some of them egged on the supremacists. These days it is sadly not uncommon for Leftists to forget that people who disagree with them also have freedom of speech.

After that the film switched to a few of Trump’s reactions to the events. Trump did not clearly criticize the white supremacists, but instead said, “There were good people on both sides.” The two sides were hardly equivalent.

It’s not surprising that after Trump’s comments Duke the KK leader  responded by calling the protests “a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” After Trump’s subsequent tweets Duke thanked Trump for telling the truth and the fact that he “condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Anitfa.” Later when Trump did finally criticize the white supremacists, Duke reminded Trump to  “take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.” Duke knows a racist when he sees one, even if millions of Trump supporters either don’t or don’t care.

I was wrong.  This is  an important movie. Clearly such blatant racism is not a thing of the past. It is the “history of the present” to use an expression by Pankaj Mishra.

The film closed quietly with a simple but dramatic image: the American flag lying upside down, gradually turning from full color to black and white. As seems to be happening so much in America (and Canada too), many people don’t seem to see in colour any more. Everything is black and white. The extremes are winning. I hope I am wrong about that.