Israeli security forces are seen as they enter Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during prayer, May 7, 2021. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf, Andalou Agency.

This past January, a major and respected Israeli human rights organization published a new report on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories titled A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid. It was a long and detailed explanation of why B’Tselem now believed that “the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group.”

Around the same time, the International Criminal Court ruled that it had jurisdiction in territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Two months later, Chief ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced her decision to open an investigation into possible war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision “undiluted antisemitism,” while the U.S. State Department said the ICC had no jurisdiction in Israel/Palestine. The European Union stood by the ICC but the decision was condemned, to varying degrees, by Austria, Lithuania, Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Canada.

Then several things started happening all at once:

  • For years, Muslims observing Ramadan had been gathering in the evening at the square by Damascus Gate, one of the entrances to Jerusalem’s Old City. This year, for no apparent reason, police barricaded the square.
  • Daily protests were taking place in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah where, for many years, Palestinians have been evicted from their homes to make way for Jews. Israel’s High Court of Justice was about to pronounce on the most recent eviction efforts.
  • Human Rights Watch offered its views on Israeli apartheid in a report called A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.
  • Meanwhile, Jews were preparing for the annual Jerusalem Parade, which celebrates Israel’s 1967 capture of east Jerusalem. Hundreds of Israeli fascists were already marching through the streets, chanting “Death to Arabs.”
  • Thousands of people were celebrating the end of Ramadan on the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount). Police were deployed in large numbers and at one point fired stun grenades into the al-Aqsa Mosque, where hundreds of people were gathered.

Palestinians were winning on several fronts: police finally reopened the square by Damascus Gate; Israel’s High Court of Justice announced it would delay its decision on Sheikh Jarrah, meaning the evictions, too, were delayed; police announced changes to the route of the Jerusalem Parade, and then its cancellation. One journalist commented in Haaretz on “the fearlessness of the young Palestinians and their willingness to confront the police, even at the risk of injury or arrest.” Another wrote in Middle East Eye that “a new generation of Palestinians is rising under (Netanyahu’s) nose, which no amount of skunk water, tear gas, and sound grenades will stop.” Others compared this new generation of Palestinians with protestors who gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

That’s what the month was like: international reports about ordinary Palestinians standing up against Israeli overreach and police violence; and condemnations of Israeli apartheid and a possible trial at the International Criminal Court. It was several bad weeks for Israel’s reputation. The protective shell of Jewish victimhood was cracking, if just a bit.

Then Hamas saved the day. It’s always the same. Two men are fighting, an Arab and a Jew. A cop breaks it up. “How did this start?” asks the cop. The Jew points at the Arab and says, “It all started when he hit me back.”

There are conflicting stories. Initially, it seemed, Hamas had announced it would fire rockets at Israel unless police were withdrawn from the Haram al-Sharif, and then Hamas fired rockets. But who knows? Maybe Israel fired something into Gaza first. Who cares?

What’s clear is that Hamas has succeeded in stealing the spotlight and that international commentary is now about Jewish victims and Israel’s right to defend itself. Defenders of Palestinian rights have effectively been silenced. Many entirely ignore Hamas; some apologize for Hamas: one Palestinian commentator understood Hamas’s “frustration and rage.” Another said that people tend to be a little “fixated on what Hamas says and does.” A Jewish Israeli criticized Hamas for undermining the “nonviolent struggle.” But this isn’t about violence versus nonviolence – it’s about resistance versus terrorism.

It’s time for Hamas to renounce immediately and forever all attacks on civilians. Pending that, it’s time for Palestinians and those who support them to cut Hamas off. Even if it’s true that “Israel started it,” even if the media are biased, even if Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority (PA) are corrupt and compromised, and even if you believe there is some ethical excuse for sending rockets in the direction of civilian targets, you have to face the fact that it is a suicidal tactic and that, intentionally or not, terrorism is a subversion of the struggle for Palestinian justice.

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody. Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2020. 352 pages.

In 1992, at a theatre party, a young woman holding a pretend microphone announced, “Hello, everyone. Our question tonight is ‘What is poststructuralism?’ Mr. Milner, can you tell our listening audience, in under 60 seconds: What is poststructuralism?”

There were a dozen confused people in the room. I spoke quickly:

“It’s complicated. Poststructuralists believe that we can’t actually communicate through language. The effect is, since writers can’t communicate, they go for style – pretty writing that doesn’t mean anything.”

“Can you give an example?”

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.”

The English Patient had just won the Governor General’s Award. There were audible gasps.

I was talking about postmodern fiction. Making fun of postmodern academic writing was, 25 years ago, a small industry. There was the notorious “Sokal affair” of 1996: New York University physics professor Alan Sokal wrote a deliberate parody, complete with impenetrable writing, myriad references and footnotes, arguing that the laws of physics have political implications and do not apply equally to all people. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was published in the prestigious academic journal Social Text. Sokal admitted to the hoax and generously offered, “Anyone who believes the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my (21st-floor) apartment.”1

The Journal of Philosophy and Literature’s annual Bad Writing Contest stipulated that entries must be “non-ironic. Deliberate parody cannot be allowed in a field where unintended self-parody is so widespread.”2 Judith Butler (first place, Bad Writing Contest, 1998) complained in the New York Times that the contest “targeted left-wing scholars.” Editor Denis Dutton defended his journal: “At this time bad writing is the stronghold of the post-structuralist left.”

Poststructuralism can be attributed, at least in part, to the disappointments of Marxism. The economic contradictions of capitalism were supposed to radicalize the working class and lead us to socialist utopia, but instead we got two world wars, the Nazis and Stalinist Russia. Marxists like Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and members of the Frankfurt School concluded (in their different ways) that the capitalist state – through its control of the “superstructure” (education, media, religion) – was undermining the revolutionary potential of the working class.

Enter Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and a host of others. The ruling elites always manage what we believe. Knowledge is always ideological and has always been “socially constructed.” In Catholic theocracy, “knowledge” was revealed in the “Bible” as interpreted by priests. In modern bourgeois societies, “knowledge” was to be “discovered” via “science” and “reason,” but these too were made-up stories. Which meant, if I understood correctly, that physics is no truer than astrology and Darwin is no better a guide to nature than Genesis.

I wasn’t buying it.

After a thirty-year gap, I returned to university to study avant-garde theatre. All the younger professors – younger than me – were Theory aficionados. In researching my thesis, I learned about the symbiotic relationship between indecipherable avant-garde artists and incomprehensible poststructuralist theorists. Soon, I was sure, avant-garde art and Critical Theory would die their self-inflicted and irrelevant deaths.

Now, two decades after that, it’s clear that poststructuralism’s children are still kicking. Recently, a close friend shouted at me when I said “Aboriginal” instead of “Indigenous.” Another friend informed me, as if I were ignorant beyond belief, “Black people can’t be racist.” I blame poststructuralism. But how did we get from Foucault to my friends’ odd behaviour? That’s what Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay try to explain in Cynical Theories.

Early in the book, Pluckrose and Lindsay assure us of their commitment to gender, racial and LGBT equality and make clear their preference for liberalism, which they describe as “political democracy, limitations on the powers of government, the development of universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression, respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion.” Liberalism is best thought of as a “framework for conflict resolution.”

But, they say, liberalism and modernity are at great risk from both “far-right populist movements claiming to be making a last desperate stand for liberalism and democracy” and “far-left progressive social crusaders (who) portray themselves as the sole and righteous champions of social and moral progress.” The threat from the far right is pretty clear. But are the “far-left progressive social crusaders” a genuine threat to liberalism?

Pluckrose and Lindsay take us from poststructuralism (philosophy), to applied poststructuralism (political theory) to reified poststructuralism (political action guided by Social Justice scholarship). “It” goes by many names: poststructuralism, postmodernism, Critical Theory, Theory. When writing about poststructuralism and its descendants, Pluckrose and Lindsay always write Theory with an uppercase T.

Since its beginning, Critical Theory has been guided by two “inextricably linked core principles” and “four major themes.” The core principles are:

  1. The postmodern knowledge principle: radical scepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to “cultural constructivism” – that “knowledge” is always socially constructed.
  2. The postmodern political principle: “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.”

And the major themes:

  1. The blurring of boundaries: Blurring boundaries is the postmodernist’s favourite sport. Different poststructuralists staked out their areas of specialty, exploring and calling into question boundaries between science and art, natural and artificial, low art and high, health and sickness, sane and insane, male and female.
  2. The power of language: For poststructuralists, language is inherently unreliable and “cannot represent reality or communicate it to others.” There is no real meaning: a writer’s intended meaning carries no more weight than a reader’s interpretation. Language has inordinate power to create (false) categories such as race and gender. “Deconstruction” means looking for contradictions, inconsistencies and hidden meanings.
  3. Cultural relativism: We can’t judge another culture because we are doomed to judge it by our standards.
  4. The loss of the individual and the universal: The individual, too, is a product of language. The universal is an effort to force dominant discourses – about nature or morality – on everyone.

Poststructuralism was immediately embraced by literary studies and the arts. Even though “postmodern Theory’s high deconstructive phase burnt itself out by the mid-1980s,” it didn’t die; it “matured, mutated, and evolved” and the two principles and four themes have remained pervasive and culturally influential as Theory diversified into distinct strands.

Critical Theory became explicitly political in the late 1980s, just when liberal movements had seen 20 years of remarkable legal and political progress toward racial, gender and LGBT equality. Still, racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes survived, and postmodern political Theory developed to confront not legal discrimination but attitudes.

Frantz Fanon’s 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth “set the stage for postcolonialism and postcolonial Theory.” To Fanon, “colonialism represented, above all else, a systematic denial of the humanity of colonized people … Edward Said, the father of postcolonial Theory, took inspiration from Fanon’s depiction of the psychological impacts of having one’s culture, language, and religion subordinated to another.” The downside is that postcolonial Theory, “with its disparagement of science and reason as provincial Western ways of knowing … impedes the progress of developing (countries. The) claim is not only factually wrong, morally vacant, and patronizing; it is also negligent and dangerous.”

The “blurring of boundaries” is central to Queer Theory, and the more radical the Theorist, the blurrier the boundaries. Pre-Theory gay activism appealed to universal liberal principles of shared humanity, but “Queer Theory regards the very existence of categories of sex, gender, and sexuality to be oppressive … and is radically sceptical that these categories are based in any biological reality.” Queer Theory is “arguably the purest form of applied postmodernism. It underlies much trans activism and makes an appearance in multiple forms of Social Justice scholarship.”

Pluckrose and Lindsay accept Critical Race Theory’s contention that race is a social construct. For example, tribes abound and are important social divisions in the Bible, but skin colour is barely mentioned: “In order to justify the abuses of colonialism and the kidnapping, exploitation, and abuse of slaves, their victims had to be regarded as inferior or subhuman … Perhaps most importantly, this was done by emerging forms of scholarship in what we would now call the social sciences and natural sciences.” With most of the glaring, legal inequalities between Whites and Blacks removed, postmodern Theorists focused on “microagressions, hate speech, safe spaces, cultural appropriation,” etc.

Prominent Black feminists brought attention to the Whiteness of feminism. Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the initially modest concept of intersectionality in a 1989 scholarly law paper, but it was soon expanded to include more than race and gender:

Trans men, while still oppressed by attitudes towards their trans status, need to recognize that they have ascended to male privilege and amplify the voices of trans women, who are seen as doubly oppressed, by being both trans and women. Gay men and lesbians might well find themselves not considered oppressed at all, particularly if they are not attracted to trans men or trans women, respectively, which is considered a form of transphobia and misgendering.

Critical Race Theory and intersectionality are centrally concerned with ending racism by making everyone more aware of race at all times. Racism is always taking place and the activist’s job is to find it: “The member of the marginalized racial group is said to have a unique voice and a counternarrative that, under Theory, must be regarded as authoritative.” Everything the marginalized individual interprets as racism must be accepted as racism.

Liberal feminists demanded that men and women be treated equally in such things as the right to vote, own property and access to employment. In the 1970s, university-based Marxist feminists connected patriarchy and capitalism and argued that capitalism must be overthrown to end patriarchy. Then came postmodern feminists who argued that it was the existence of categories – feminine and masculine, then female and male – that oppressed women. “As Theorists incorporated aspects of Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory and, particularly, Critical Race Theory through the concept of intersectionality, the resulting feminism tended to “focus on identity in the form of race, gender, and sexuality.” By 2006, feminist scholars no longer understood “patriarchy” as the literal “rule of the fathers,” but instead as, “in Foucauldian terms, vague notions of male dominance permeating every discourse.”

Intersectional Theory resulted in the virtual disappearance of economic class, replaced by the concept of social privilege – initially White privilege, but soon extended to other identity categories, such as male, straight, cisgender, thin, able-bodied, etc. White feminists are expected to include, but not appropriate, “the experiences of women of color, providing space for them to be heard, and amplifying their voices – without exploiting them or becoming voyeuristic consumers of their oppression. These kinds of impossible, contradictory, double-binding demands are a persistent feature of applied postmodern Theory.”

Disability activism began in the 1960s with the liberal aim of increasing disabled people’s access to the opportunities available to the nondisabled. Disabled people were considered people with some form of disability, but according to “dis/abled” scholarship, disability is imposed upon people by society. Dan Goodley, author of Disability Studies: Theorizing Disableism and Ableism, “considers diagnosing, treating and curing disability as cynical practices, dependent on corrupt ableist assumptions and upheld by a ‘neoliberal system.’”

Although feminist scholars have long written about pressure on women to be thin, fat studies became a scholarly field quite recently: “Within fat studies, it is common to address negative attitudes towards obesity alongside racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disableism, and imperialism.” Poststructuralism and “feminist science” are used to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that nutrition plays a significant role in health and that obesity “is strongly correlated with early death.” Fat activism could play a valuable role by fighting discrimination and prejudice against obese people but, by “descending into radical social constructivism, paranoia, and science denial … fat studies is currently among the most irrational and ideological forms of scholarship-activism in identity studies.”

In the final three chapters, Pluckrose and Lindsay summarize Social Justice scholarship, look at what happens when Social Justice scholarship leaves the university to become “Social Justice in action” and suggest alternatives to Social Justice ideology. I would suggest several recurring themes of Social Justice scholarship:

  1. Radical scepticism coexists with radical overconfidence: “We now have Social justice texts … that express, with absolute certainty, that all white people are racist, all men are sexist, racism and sexism are systems that can exist and oppress absent even a single person (who is) racist or sexist.”
  2. All ways of knowing are equal. In the view of “research justice,” there is “a moral obligation to share the prestige of rigorous research with ‘other forms of research,’ including superstition, spiritual beliefs, cultural traditions … and emotional responses.”
  3. Some people know better than others. “Standpoint Theory” tells us that one’s position within a social power dynamic “dictates what one can and cannot know: thus the privileged are blinded by their privilege (while the oppressed) understand both the dominant position and the experience of being oppressed.”
  4. Power is systemic: “In Marxist thought, power is like a weight, pressing down on the proletariat. For Foucault, power operated more like a grid, running through all layers of society … Power is a system we’re all constantly participating in.”
  5. Race and gender don’t exist but Social Justice activists must look for them everywhere.
  6. “Thou Shalt Shut Up.” Social Justice educator Barbara Applebaum writes, “The mere fact that they can question the existence of systemic oppression is a function of their privilege.” According to Social Justice scholar Alison Bailey, disagreement is “willful ignorance.” According to Robin DiAngelo, Whites can’t tolerate even a minimum amount of racial stress and defend themselves through “the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving.” If you express anything other than “This is great – I’m learning so much!” you’re guilty of White Fragility. You can’t disagree, you can’t be silent, and you can’t leave.
  7. I’m okay, you’re privileged: “It is profoundly ironic that a movement claiming to problematize all sources of privilege is led by highly educated, upper-middle-class scholars and activists who are so oblivious to their status as privileged members of society.”

Pluckrose and Lindsay point to several ways in which Social Justice scholarship is harmful:

Academics have been fired or denied tenure for crossing intellectual lines visible only to Social Justice scholars (for example, Rebecca Tuvel and Bruce Gilley).

“Universities are among the best, and ideally the least biased, centres of knowledge production,” but “Social Justice scholarship and ethics completely displace reliable and rigorous scholarship into issues of social justice.”

Social Justice scholars “teach students to be skeptical of science, reason, and evidence; to regard knowledge as tied to identity; to read oppressive power dynamics into every interaction; to politicize every facet of life; and to apply ethical principles unevenly, in accordance with identity.”

Social Justice’s focus on race, gender, etc., crowds out practical and measurable approaches to health, education, crime, the environment, poverty and equality.

Social Justice scholars train students to work in a Social Justice industry worth billions of dollars: “According to a major job search website in the United Kingdom, equality and diversity jobs are especially common in the Equality and Human Rights Commission, professional associations, the Law Society, schools and universities, the police, large private sector companies, local authorities, trade unions, and the Civil Service.”

Inside and outside the university, focus on race can be beneficial. In my field, Canadian theatre, it’s led to the hiring of more Indigenous, Black and Asian actors and managers, and will lead to the production of more plays by Indigenous, Black and Asian writers. But would this have happened in the absence of Social Justice scholarship? Perhaps more slowly, but yes: Canadian theatre and the world have been moving toward greater inclusivity for decades.

Outside the university, where few people have heard of Foucault or Butler, what remains of Social Justice scholarship? Language is considered extremely dangerous. The first language rule is: if you’re not Black, never say the “n-word.” There used to be no embarrassment attached to saying the word when reading aloud from a classic novel (or when writing an article like this), but suddenly people started losing their jobs for exactly that. When did that happen? There are many derogatory words for ethnic, religious or national groups – kike and spic, for example – but Inroads and I needn’t fear retribution for writing them out.

Social media have made people far more vulnerable to condemnation for minor offences. It doesn’t help that some of the enforcers are complete idiots. A Black security guard in the United States broke his school board’s zero-tolerance policy on racial slurs when he told a student not to call him the n-word. The security guard was fired – and rehired only after an enormous outcry that included an offer from Cher to cover his legal expenses. Consider, too, the treatment of Lindsay Shepherd by professors and staff at Wilfrid Laurier University.3

How serious is all this? Compared to what, nuclear war? Are these anecdotes unfortunate, rare incidents, or are they the tip of the iceberg? How many people have to lose their jobs to make it a serious problem?

Right-wing populism is a bigger problem than Social Justice activism, but Social Justice activism can help conservative extremists get elected. What do you expect to happen when you tell millions of well-meaning, fair-minded people that they’re racist? What happens when you tell high school dropouts stocking shelves at Walmart that they benefit from White privilege? Judging by the amount of time right-wing populists like Tucker Carlson spend warning Fox News viewers that Social Justice warriors and cancel culture are taking over America, they must think there’s an audience receptive to that message.4

Pluckrose and Lindsay oppose banning or removing public funding from courses rooted in postmodern Theory. “We cannot fight illiberalism with illiberalism,” they say, but we must speak out; if those on the right are the only ones challenging Social Justice excesses, then right-wing extremists will gain support:

You don’t need to become well versed in Theory and Social Justice scholarship … but you do need to have a little bit of courage to stand up to something with a lot of power. You need to recognize Theory when you see it, and side with the liberal responses to it – which might be no more complicated than saying, “No, that’s your ideological belief, and I don’t have to go along with it.”

Don’t leave home without…

A few things with which to arm yourself in preparation for a scrap with Social Justice activists:

  • Areo, an online journal, edited until recently by Helen Pluckrose
  • Counterweight, a liberal humanist organization, founded by Helen Pluckrose, which provides resources for people in trouble because Critical Social Justice is being imposed on them in the workplace.
  • Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker: An excellent compilation and investigation of liberalism’s many successes.
  • Glenn Loury, John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes: Three articulate, brilliant and moderate Black scholars. Hundreds of hours of stimulating entertainment on YouTube.

Continue reading “You’re Privileged, so Shut Up”

Photo: Parti Conservateur du Québec Flickr.

Now that we’ve had a close look at the United States and soon-to-be-former President Trump, how do our own right-wing populists measure up? Luckily, Canadian right-wing populists have provided us with evidence of where they stand in the form of three major speeches in recent months. On August 23, Saskatchewan MP and recently departed federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer bade farewell to party members:

The Liberals are all candy before supper … Then all you’re left with is a stomach ache and a serious case of buyer’s remorse … They believe that bigger government and more state intervention will somehow solve all the world’s problems. Conservatives fight for those who don’t have powerful lobbyists getting insider deals. We fight for the men and women who don’t have well-connected friends in Ottawa, who are too busy raising their kids and working hard to attend the cocktail circuit.

The Soviet bloc and eastern European countries all had the same rhetoric. Their policies were supposed to help the poor and promote equality – the exact same rhetoric that the left is using today, but all it caused was misery … It may be tempting to use the government to address the challenges society often faces, but once invited inside, the government is a terrible houseguest … After all, no one ever got shot trying to jump the wall into East Berlin or paddle the raft to get to Cuba.1

Long live comrades Stalin, Castro and Trudeau.

The people of Saskatchewan enjoy Saskatchewan Medical Services, Saskatchewan Government Insurance, SaskTel, SaskPower and SaskEnergy. You’d think Scheer would have noticed that, even with all those awful houseguests, Saskatchewan continues to have elections and – I know from personal experience – you don’t need to jump a wall to get out. Still, we’re told Donald Trump got good mileage, especially in southern Florida, out of comparing Joseph Biden to Hugo Chávez, so maybe Scheer isn’t as ridiculous as he appears.

In the provincial election held on October 26, Scott Moe led the Saskatchewan Party to its fourth majority government in a row, taking 48 of 61 seats and nearly 62 per cent of the vote. In his victory speech, Moe politely acknowledged the NDP (13 seats and 31 per cent). But he kept his most heartfelt declaration for the recently formed Buffalo Party of Saskatchewan, formerly the recently formed Wexit Saskatchewan Party (no seats and 2.65 per cent):

To those voters I want to say, “I hear you,” and I want to say, “This government hears you.” We share your frustrations and we share many of your objectives. We are not happy with the federal government either. You have my word that we will continue to stand up for Saskatchewan as we have always done. There is no government in Canada that has advocated more strongly against a federally imposed carbon tax than the government of Saskatchewan. Together with Alberta we have been steadfast in our opposition to Bill C-69, the no-more-pipelines bill, as well as Bill C-48, the no-more-tankers bill … So tonight, I offer you this: We will be unrelenting in defending our Saskatchewan industries and our Saskatchewan people. We’ll defend them here in Canada and we will defend them around the world. We will always stand up for a strong and independent Saskatchewan.2

The next day Moe clarified: “Saskatchewan should be ‘taking care of ourselves to the degree that we can.’”3

Question 1: On October 30, 2020, which Canadian political party leader said the following?

Private sector union membership has collapsed. In the 1950s, one in three private sector workers were union members. Today it’s closer to one in twenty-five.

Increasingly, especially for younger people, a job can be a dead end, an endless cycle of contract work, with no benefits, no security, no obligation on the part of the employers. Do we really want a nation of Uber drivers?

Free markets alone won’t solve all our problems. GDP growth alone is not the be-all and end-all of politics. The goal of economic policy is more than just wealth creation.

We need policies that build solidarity, not just wealth.

It’s time Canadians took inequality seriously.

___ Justin Trudeau (Liberal)                            ___ Jagmeet Singh (NDP)

___ Annamie Paul (Green)                              ___ Elizabeth Rowley (Communist)

___ Erin O’Toole (Conservative)

Answer: Erin O’Toole.4 Does it turn out the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada is some kind of Marxist-Swedophile?

Question 2: Which policies did Erin O’Toole suggest would help to promote equality?

___ Increase taxes on corporations                ___ Inheritance tax

___ Raise the minimum wage                                     ___ Job creation program

___ Make it easier to form unions                   ___ National housing program

___ Pharmacare program                               ___ Guaranteed income

Answer: None of the above.

Here are a few more things O’Toole told his audience:

Middle-class Canada has been betrayed by the elites on every level. Political elites. Financial elites. Cultural elites. These elites have only one set of values, centred on unchecked globalization, political correctness, while middle-class Canadians have had another set rooted on family, home and nation.

Full-time employment, a regular, steady salary, a pension, these sound straight out of a bygone era. A generation ago, married couples, with steady jobs and with homes they paid off before they retired, assumed their kids would flourish. Now we’ve come to accept those as quaint notions from a distant past.

Exploiting understandable concerns for the environment, want to implement vast green energy experiments and operate the sharpest leftward shift of the federal government since Pierre Trudeau.

In 2014, Canada’s National Research Council was hacked by China and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property appears to have been stolen. Think of this as your intellectual property: gone, to your competitor, at no cost and at no consequence.

O’Toole seems to have gone further than other right-wing populists in his use of left-wing criticisms of capitalist excesses. But his attack on the elites is standard populist rhetoric, as is his condemnation of “unchecked globalization” and “political correctness.” Then there’s the glorification of our idyllic past, the middle-class family and the military (“I was 18 years old when I joined the armed forces to serve Canada”).

Lessons learned

It’s become clear that a great many voters are willing to overlook a great many personal shortcomings if a candidate’s program suits. Trump’s behaviour is, of course, a clear example, as is Scott Moe’s shady driving record.5

Populist politicians are always supporting ordinary people against “Political elites. Financial elites. Cultural elites.” However, the strongest characteristic of liberal voters is not their economic or social status but that they live in cities. In the United States, city dwellers were most likely to vote Democratic, followed by suburbanites. There were fewer in small towns and fewer still in the countryside. It seems surprising that in these days of increased social media penetration and focus, the strongest characteristic of politically similar groupings is physical proximity. It’s interesting to note too that “Americans living in the predominantly red counties of rural America have the worst internet access in the country.”6

Canada’s Atlantic provinces lack big cities and are sparsely populated. They often elect Conservative governments, but they don’t elect right-wing populists. When asked if Prince Edward Island would support Saskatchewan’s court challenge of the federal carbon tax, Conservative Premier Dennis King was forthright: “In no way, shape or form should anyone suggest that we are joining , because we’re absolutely not … Islanders want us to work towards carbon neutrality. They want us to do it responsibly in a common-sense way.”7

For the populist right, domestic enterprise rules. As Moe promises, “We will be unrelenting in defending our Saskatchewan industries and our Saskatchewan people. We’ll defend them here in Canada and we will defend them around the world.” We’ll defend our Saskatchewan industries against taxes of all kinds, and against those fighting climate change and COVID-19.

It’s said that farmers will do anything to help a neighbour. I believe that is literally true. There seems, however, to be a reluctance to help a metaphorical neighbour – in the next town, province or country – who might be suffering from climate change, COVID-19, foreign wars, poverty or statistical racism. If we want to engage in honest discussion with supporters of the populist right, at least we know where to find them. We’ll probably want to choose our battles carefully.

Continue reading “Candy Before Supper”

“The world’s most valuable resource,” noted The Economist in 2017, “is no longer oil, but data.” According to the same publication, in 2019 “big firms spent $32bn … on cloud services” – “cloud services” being where our data are stored.1

Three books, all published in 2019, tell you more about data than you ever thought you wanted to know.

Edward Snowden, Permanent Record.
New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019. 352 pages.

Permanent Record is about Edward Snowden’s short but memorable career in American intelligence. He was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in 1983. He was a member, he says, of the “last undigitized generation, whose childhoods aren’t up on the cloud but are mostly trapped in analog formats like handwritten diaries and Polaroids and VHS cassettes, tangible and imperfect artifacts that degrade with age and can be lost irretrievably.”

His was also the first generation to be raised with, if not by, computers. His parents seem serious and devoted, descended on both sides from a long line of Navy personnel. Oliver Stone’s 2016 film Snowden makes its subject appear right-wing, at least in contrast with his girlfriend (now wife) who drags him to an Iraq war protest. In the book, Snowden and his parents seem patriotic in a “good citizenship” way. They don’t have strongly partisan views. Snowden joins the Marines, and later the CIA, to contribute to his country.

He tells an interesting anecdote that conveys, I think, the family’s politics. His mother loved giving him math challenges. She’d buy him books and toys if he could mentally total their prices. He had to add in the 3 per cent sales tax.


“Everything we buy, we have to pay three percent to the government.”

“What do they do with it?”

“You like roads, buddy? You like bridges? … The government uses that money to fix them. They use that money to fill the library with books.”

Some time later, she told him,

“They raised the sales tax. Now you have to add four percent.”

“So now the library will get even more books?”

“Let’s hope.”

One day, his father brought home a computer. Soon afterward, he could “dial up and connect to something new called the Internet”:

Internet access, and the emergence of the Web, was my generation’s big bang or Precambrian explosion. It irrevocably altered the course of my life … From the age of twelve or so, I tried to spend my every waking moment online … Gradually, I stopped sleeping at night and instead slept by day in school. My grades went back into free fall.

Snowden and education never got along, and eventually he found work using his computer talents. Then there was a news report “about a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center,” and then “a second plane just hit the other tower.” Snowden writes that he “accepted all the claims retailed by the media as facts … I wanted to be a liberator. I wanted to free the oppressed.” He thought he could best serve his country “behind a terminal, but a normal IT job seemed too comfortable and safe.” He wanted to work with the CIA or the National Security Agency (NSA), but he didn’t have the educational qualifications:

The more I read around online, however, the more I realized that the post-9/11 world was a world of exceptions. The agencies were growing so much and so quickly, especially on the technical side, that they’d sometimes waive the degree requirements for military veterans.

He joined the Army. That ended poorly, with multiple fractures in his legs and “administrative separation … only available to enlistees who’d been in the services fewer than six months.” He decided to follow the inevitable, by putting his computer skills to use for the government. After 9/11, they were desperate for people with computer skills. But by this time, the structure of government service had changed:

I was amazed to find that there were very few opportunities to serve my country directly, at least in a meaningful technical role. I had a better chance of working as a contractor for a private company that served my country for profit; and I had the best chance, it turned out, of working as a subcontractor for a private company that contracted with another private company that served my country for profit.

Snowden rose rapidly through the ranks. His job was to “make it technologically feasible for a single government to collect all the world’s digital communications, store them for ages, and search through them at will.” But gathering and storing data on U.S. citizens was illegal, and high government officials and top politicians were lying about it. In early June 2013, while hiding out in a Hong Kong hotel, he went public. He was not yet 30 years old.

The U.S. cancelled Snowden’s passport while he was in transit through Russia. I was relieved to read that a year later his wife joined him. They’ve been there ever since.

It’s easy to admire Snowden; he was cautious and disciplined. Without mentioning names, he distinguishes himself from Julian Assange: “I disclosed the government’s documents only to journalists. In fact, the number of documents that I disclosed directly to the public is zero. I believe, just as those journalists believe, that a government may keep some information concealed.”

Snowden was heroic, but I have to admit I’m not as outraged by his government’s behaviour as he is. I oppose it in principle, but I don’t feel threatened by it. As the cliché goes, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.” On the other hand, Christopher Wylie’s Mindf*ck (sic) scared the shit out of me.

Christopher Wylie, Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America.
New York: Random House, 2019. 288 pages.
From undermining fanatics to organizing fanatics

Christopher Wylie was born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1989. His parents were doctors. He spent his high school years in a wheelchair as a result of two relatively rare conditions: “Not long after I discovered the computer lab, it became the one room at school where I didn’t feel alienated. Outside, there were either bullies or patronizing staff.”

He learned about webpages and JavaScript and other things I don’t understand. He “felt like a conjurer.” At 15, he spent a summer at Lester B. Pearson United World College, with students from around the world, and became interested in politics. That school year, he started skipping classes to attend public events with local members of Parliament. He asked questions and offered opinions:

It was liberating to find my voice. Like any teenager, I was exploring who I was, but for someone gay and in a wheelchair, this was an even bigger challenge … I began to realize that many of the things I was living through were not simply personal issues – they were also political issues. My challenges were political. My life was political. My mere existence was political .

He was brought to the attention of a local Liberal MP and offered a job in Ottawa. But first he spent

the summer of 2007 in Montréal, hanging out in hacker spaces frequented by French Canadian techno-anarchists … By then, with treatment, I could shuffle around without a wheelchair … Most hackers couldn’t care less what you look like or if you walk funny. They share your love of the craft and want to help you get better at it … My brief exposure to hacking communities left a permanent impression. You learn that no system is absolute. Nothing is impenetrable, and barriers are a dare.

When he arrived in Ottawa, Facebook was big and Twitter was growing, but no one in the Liberal Party knew what to do with them. The Liberals sent several people, including Wylie, to observe Barack Obama’s campaign. He was expecting to learn new media, like YouTube; instead he learned about data and “the modeling they used to analyze and understand that data.” He learned that “it was those numbers – and the predictive algorithms they created – that separated Obama from anyone who had ever run for president before.” With data on “age, gender, income, race, homeownership – even magazine subscriptions and airline miles” – you could predict whom people would vote for and what issues were most important to them, and craft messages that might sway their opinions:

For me, this was a wholly new way of understanding elections. Data was a force for good, powering this campaign of change. It was being used to produce first-time voters, to reach people who felt left out. The deeper I got into it, the more I thought that data would be the savior of politics.

He was eager to share what he’d learned. He had his supporters but, in the end, the Liberal Party of Canada didn’t want to spend the money on something they didn’t quite understand. Soon afterward, “The LPC was devastated in the federal election by the Conservative Party of Canada, which had invested in sophisticated data systems at the behest of its imported Republican advisers.”

In 2010, at age 21, Wylie left politics for law school at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He “flourished in London and soon gained a wide circle of friends.” He was soon tempted by an offer from the U.K. Liberal Democrats. It was the the only party to oppose the war in Iraq, he notes, but it was a poster on their office wall that finally lured him in: “No one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” It all makes for a very funny story – unless you’re a Liberal Democrat. Wylie provided an extensive and devastating report, and the party elected to shoot the messenger. In 2015, “the party was eviscerated, losing forty-nine of its fifty-seven seats in Parliament.”

He was ready for something new. A Lib Dem connection had suggested Wylie apply for a job with SCL Group, because SCL was “looking for ‘data people for some behavior research project’ involving the military.” After several interviews, Alexander Nix, an SCL director, “offered me a three-month contract to do, essentially, whatever I wanted … After all the agonies of dealing with the LPC and the Lib Dems, it was incredibly enticing to be given free rein.” In June 2013, he started at SCL.

Meanwhile, Wylie had started a PhD in fashion at University of the Arts London. Nix agreed to cover his tuition. SCL had contracts with the British and U.S. military. Wylie’s days alternated between “fashion models and cyberwarfare,” but it was models of another kind, “neural networks, computer vision, and autoencoders,” that attracted him:

At SCL we would watch countless numbers of radical jihadist propaganda videos, and we noticed that, beyond the violence of the clips that make it onto the news, there was a rich and well-articulated aesthetic to their style of content. Cool cars were showcased. There would be music … They tried to position their backward ideology as somehow modern or futuristic in a way that echoed the old Italian Futurists’ promotion of a fascism for tomorrow … These films were propagating a grotesque cult of violence and hate … Their style was self-indulgent and naively romantic, and it bordered on kitsch. Even terrorists have pop culture.

Around this time, in September 2013, I distinctly remember thinking, How cool is this? I get to work in culture, but not just for someone’s branding campaign. I get to work in culture for the defense of our democracy.

SCL was trying to undermine extremist movements. If you could get enough information on their members, you could sow discord: “The most susceptible targets are typically the ones who exhibit neurotic or narcissistic traits … because they are more prone to feelings of envy and entitlement, which are strong motivators of rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying behavior.” To find the most susceptible targets, you needed a great deal of data, more than you could sort manually. So you also needed algorithms to analyze the data. That’s what they did at SCL: gather truckloads of data and analyze it. They did it for military security; and then they did it for anyone who had the money to pay for it.

In Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s film The Great Hack, SCL CEO Alexander Nix is shown pitching the company by describing its work in Trinidad and Tobago:

There are two main political parties, one for the Blacks, one for the Indians. And they screw each other. So, we were working for the Indians, and we went to the client and we said we want to target the youth. And we try and increase apathy. The campaign has to be non-political, cause the kids don’t care about politics. It has to be reactive, cause they’re lazy. So we came up with this campaign which was all about “be part of the gang,” “do something cool,” “be part of a movement,” and it was called the “DO SO!” campaign. “Do so! Don’t vote!” … It’s a sign of resistance against, not the government but against politics and voting. We knew that when it came to voting, all the Afro-Caribbean kids wouldn’t vote because they “Do so!” but all the Indian kids would do what their parents told them to do, which was to go out and vote … Now the difference in 18- to 35-year-old turnout was like 40 per cent. And that swung the election about 6 per cent, which is all that’s needed in an election that’s very close.2

It was a young field and Wylie’s task was to develop it by gaining access to new sources of data and writing new algorithms to analyze them: “One unintended consequence of having large pluralities of citizens connected via mobile phone networks was that everybody could be traced, tracked, profiled, and communicated with.” There were “data brokers such as Experian, Acxiom, and niche firms with specialist lists from evangelical churches, media companies, and so on. Even some state governments will sell you lists of hunting, fishing, or gun licensees.”

A great deal of data came from Facebook, which used the data it gathered to sell targeted advertising but didn’t seem to care much who else used it and what they used it for. And when you joined Facebook, you gave them permission to access all your friends’ data too. Eventually SCL had information on hundreds of millions of people, and once they had 5,000 bits of information on you (everything you clicked or liked, every email you sent or YouTube you watched, every Google search you searched), so the claim went, they knew you better than you knew yourself.

The algorithms were about profiling. They’d categorize personality by:

ratings on five scales: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism … This sounds simple, but the Big Five model can be an immensely useful tool in predicting voters’ behavior … Obama ran on change, hope, and progress – in other words, a platform of openness to new ideas. Republicans, on the other hand, tend to focus on stability, independence, and tradition – in effect, a platform of conscientiousness.

Each of the Big Five traits are found in pretty much everyone. There’s also a:

“dark triad” of traits – narcissism (extreme self-centeredness), Machiavellianism (ruthless self-interest), and psychopathy (emotional detachment) – that are less common and maladaptive, meaning that those who exhibit them are generally more prone to anti-social behavior, including criminal acts.

In October 2013, Steve Bannon arrived at SCL, with truckloads of money provided by eccentric right-wing backers. When he first met Bannon, Wylie writes,

We talked for four hours – not only about politics but about fashion and culture, Foucault, the third-wave feminist Judith Butler, and the nature of the fractured self. On the surface, Bannon seemed utterly predictable – another old, straight white guy – but he spoke with a certain wokeness I hadn’t expected at all. In fact, I quickly decided he was kind of cool … He was no political hack, but a fellow nerd given permission to speak freely.

When Wylie joined SCL, he believed that data collection and profiling were being used for positive ends, to search out fanatics and prevent acts of terrorism. That changed soon after Bannon’s arrival and the creation of a new SCL subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica. CA continued to search out fanatics, but for different purposes. Bannon was out to organize fanatics. CA would create new Facebook pages “with vague names like County Patriots or I Love My Country.” As people joined these groups, CA would post videos and articles:

Conversations would rage on the group page, with people commiserating about how terrible or unfair something was. CA broke down social barriers, cultivating relationships across groups. All the while it was testing and refining messages …

Once a group reached a certain number of members, CA would set up a physical event. CA teams would choose small venues – a coffee shop or bar to make the crowd feel larger … People would show up and find a fellowship of anger and paranoia. This naturally led them to feel like they were part of a giant movement, and it allowed them to further feed off one another’s paranoia and fear of conspiracy. … The meetings took place in counties all across the United States, starting with the early Republican primary states, and people would get more and more fired up at what they saw as “us vs. them.” What began as their digital fantasy, sitting alone in their bedrooms late at night clicking on links, was becoming their new reality.

That’s one example of what you could do with a lot of data and the ability to select the people you want. But data and technical ability weren’t enough. Wylie describes CA’s work for the Leave side in the Brexit campaign:

The problem with Remain was that they completely failed to understand what they were up against. As Cambridge Analytica identified, provoking anger and indignation reduced the need for full rational explanations immunize target voters to the notion that the economy would suffer. neglected to stop and ask people what they thought the economy was in the first place. Cambridge Analytica identified that many people in non-urban regions or in lower socioeconomic strata often externalized the notion of “the economy” to something that only the wealthy and metropolitan elite participated in. “The economy” was not their job in a local store; it’s something that bankers did.

Pro-Brexit leaders knew that to win they would need to attract a few progressive voters:

One of the most compelling progressive arguments for Brexit was pretty simple … Under EU rules, migrants to Britain from countries like France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Austria did not need a visa to work and live in Britain. But migrants from, say, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, or Jamaica were required to undergo extensive screening and difficult immigration procedures … As the Remain campaign paraded around its “pro-immigration” messages to defend the EU, what many people of color saw was the tacit whiteness of that very message – that it really meant rights for some immigrants … And it was by identifying this bubbling resentment that the pro-Brexit movement managed to create a counterintuitive alliance between some sections of immigrant communities and cohorts of jingoist Brexiteers who wanted them all to “go home” .

One more example:

In August 2016, the football player Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the American national anthem to protest systemic racism and police brutality toward African Americans and other minorities in the United States. The fashion brand Nike, Kaepernick’s sponsor, stood behind the athlete, and a controversy ensued … Cybersecurity firms also identified fake Nike coupons originating from alt-right groups that targeted African American social media users with offers like “75% off all shoes for people of color.” The coupons were intended to create scenarios in which unwitting African American customers would try to use the coupons in a Nike store, where they would be refused. In the age of viral videos, this scenario could in turn create “real” footage showcasing a racist trope of an “angry black man” demanding free stuff in a store. So why would these disinformation operations target a fashion company and attempt to weaponize its brand? Because the objective of this hostile propaganda is not simply to interfere with our politics, or even to damage our companies. The objective is to tear apart our social fabric. They want us to hate one another.

By August 2014, less than a year after Bannon’s arrival, it all became too much for the one-time adviser to the Liberal Party of Canada. Two years after Wylie and CA parted company, Donald Trump became the GOP nominee: “If my hunch was correct, Cambridge Analytica was not only using the data tool I had worked on to manipulate American voters into supporting him, it may have been knowingly or unknowingly working with Russians to sway the election. … I felt sick to my stomach. And I knew I had to tell someone.” A few months after Trump’s election victory, Wylie went public. When he testified before the U.S. Congress, in June 2018, he was 29 years old.

Brittany Kaiser, Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower’s Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again.
New York: Harper, 2019. 400 pages.
The digital arms race

A second book about Cambridge Analytica has been published: Brittany Kaiser’s Targeted. Kaiser, who also has a background in progressive politics, joined CA around the time Wylie was leaving. Targeted doesn’t add much to Wylie’s story. Kaiser seems mostly concerned with explaining why she stayed at CA for four years. None of the three books has an index, perhaps an unfortunate result of the shift toward electronic books.

The three books together are an introduction to another world. It would be nice to think that companies and governments are tightening up rules and legislation to protect our private data, but my guess is that the increasing sophistication of our cybersecurity experts will be matched by the increasing sophistication of our hackers, in a kind of digital-evolution arms race. Snowden, Wylie, Kaiser and a host of others have myriad suggestions. I don’t mean to denigrate them, but they don’t make me feel safe from predators like the wealthy among us who will stop at absolutely nothing in pursuit of their ends. The outcome, if not their intention, seems to be an increasing number of failed organizations and states.

Back in March, declared as “false” rumours that U.S. representatives had used COVID-19 legislation to give themselves a $25 million pay raise. Who started and promoted the rumour?

Would a Cambridge Analytica clone incite Indigenous people to block railways in support of other Indigenous groups?

Did you know that your computer’s camera can watch you, even when the computer is off?

The irony is that while Bannon and friends are out to create distrust and paranoia in all of us, these three books (and a host of films) do exactly that in me.

Continue reading “The World’s Most Valuable Resource”

The University of Calgary closed its campus on March 13. Classes continued online, but our minds were elsewhere.

Initially, everyone seemed to accept Canada’s political and medical leadership. The usual complaints about Justin Trudeau were muted; British Columbia Chief Medical Officer of Health Bonnie Henry became a folk hero; there were even paeans of praise for Doug Ford. I was a bit suspicious: why was Ontario applying the same rules in Toronto as in Thunder Bay, where there hadn’t been a case of COVID-19 within 1,000 kilometres? But the media were a sea of cooperation and concern. “Flattening the curve” – so as not to overwhelm medical facilities – became the national, provincial and local refrain.

There was some dissent, but it was all about how the lockdown should have been earlier and harder. For example, on the April 10 episode of CBC radio’s The House, host Chris Hall interrogated Health Minister Patti Hajdu, and then Karina Roman welcomed several experts. In a half hour of grievance, there was not a single question about whether the lockdown might have been too harsh.1

Most common were government-supporting panic-mongers. CBC Ideas host Nahlah Ayed announced: “People are dying all over the world. Most are old, but many are young. Some were already sick, yet many weren’t sick at all.”2 Natasha Crowcroft, director of the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, announced on TVO’s The Agenda: “It’s killing young, healthy people as well as old people. It’s not just a question of, you know, a few people who might have been near the end of life anyway.”3

No one pointed out to Ayed or Crowcroft that while 2,022 deaths were reported in Quebec as of May 1, not a single person under 30 had died. In Ontario, with 1,121 deaths, no one under 20 had died.4 In both provinces, more than 97 per cent of the people who died were over 60 years old. The 3 per cent under 60 who died included people with “preexisting conditions,” but we’re not told how many. I was unable to find out how many healthy people under 60 have died of COVID-19.

Statements like Ayed’s and Crowcroft’s were ubiquitous and went unchallenged. If anyone said something like “almost all the people who die are old and frail,” someone rushed to assure us that “every death is a tragedy” and “young people are dying, too.” There were occasional articles about Sweden’s iconoclasm, but with headlines that rushed to announce that Sweden’s Relaxed Approach to the Coronavirus Could Already Be Backfiring ( and As Sweden’s Death Toll Mounts, Epidemiologists Urge Leaders to Ignore Their Own Public Health Agency (

But then, one day, everything changed. What happened first? Maybe it was other countries loosening their lockdowns, or Canadian premiers musing about opening things up. Maybe a critical mass of the population realized that we had successfully flattened the curve and hospitals were not inundated.

I don’t have great complaints about how Canada’s various governments handled COVID-19. It was new, and we were learning. And if we overreacted, we at least compensated people who lost their jobs or were otherwise hurt by the pandemic and government action.

I do complain that information wasn’t readily available. Only Quebec’s government site included death statistics by age. Sometimes it felt like we couldn’t be trusted with the facts and were being lied to for our own good. Sometimes it seemed like two sides were drawn: good people willing to shut down everything to save a life; and we the selfish, more concerned about money than health – as if there were no health consequences to the lockdown.

I listened to a half-hour interview conducted in mid-April with Johan Giesecke, Sweden’s former state epidemiologist.6 Maybe Sweden’s approach was wrong but, as Giesecke said, we won’t know for a year. He suspects that the lockdowns were not helpful (and destructive in many ways) and that the number of deaths will tend to even out among countries. He suggests Sweden and other countries erred by not protecting the most vulnerable – the elderly in large institutions and poorer immigrant communities (but those are hardly new problems). Giesecke sounds like what a public servant should be – low-key, honest, without talking points and not looking over his shoulder.

Did we worry too much about schools when our focus should have been nursing homes – as it is with the annual flu? Giesecke described this as a bad flu season.

Every year, more than 400,000 Canadians die; every month more than 30,000. Flu causes about 3,500 deaths in Canada each year.7 At the time of writing (May 7), 3,391 of us have died of COVID-19. A lot of nursing homes, a few meatpacking plants, and Montreal and its surroundings seem to be where the virus remains untamed.

Right now, there are a great many people who have positions to defend – that we did the right thing or that we were too soft. I think we did okay under the circumstances but, in the end, when we’ve had a chance to think it over, I think we’ll decide our focus was misplaced.

What will we do next time? Can we shut down the country every time there’s a serious run of the flu? As Albert Camus wrote, “But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.” Continue reading “We Did Okay, but Where was the Information?”

It is fair to say that Israel has long relied on the goodwill of the liberal democracies, but according to Robert Kagan in the Washington Post, it is now cultivating a new group of friends:

Since about the middle of 2015, the Israeli government has embraced Hungary’s avowedly “illiberal” prime minister, Viktor Orbán; worked to forge close ties with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, despite its limitations on civil liberties and legislation outlawing public discussion of Poland’s role in the Holocaust; warmly embraced Brazil’s right-wing nationalist leader, Jair Bolsonaro; provided a state visit for President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who once likened himself to Adolf Hitler… When Orbán and his party waged a campaign against Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist George Soros that was riddled with anti-Semitic content, and the Israeli ambassador in Budapest lodged a protest, the Israeli foreign ministry overruled him and declared Soros a legitimate target.1

Not that the liberalism of Israel’s old friends made much difference to Palestinians. The 50-year-plus annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza continue; more than 200 mostly peaceful, almost entirely unarmed Palestinians at the ongoing protests at the Gaza-Israel border that began in 2018 are gunned down through a fence by Israeli army snipers; and settlements spread like cancer. And what do the liberal democracies do? Nothing, really. At least with U.S. President Trump in charge, Palestinians are spared having to participate in pointless peace negotiations.

Ofri Ilani, in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, describes

Mounting international indifference to the suffering of the Palestinians, which in many cases morphs into hatred. The Palestinian people are becoming one of the chief victims of the new world order. And as a general rule, when it comes to them, the world really doesn’t give a fuck … International solidarity with the Palestinians has never been at such a low.2

It seems clear: the Palestinians cannot look for help to the international community. If Israel is to change, it will be up to them to make it happen.

The Palestine Liberation Organization has never rescinded the commitments it made back in 1993, when PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat wrote to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel in preparation for the Oslo Accords: “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security. The PLO commits itself … to a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations … The PLO renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence.”3

There have been “terrorism and other acts of violence,” but beyond the commitments affirmed in Arafat’s letter, the PLO has engaged in “security coordination” with Israel, which many Palestinians regard as “doing Israel’s dirty work.” The result has been more settlers and more settlements.

Since 2005 many Palestinians have been promoting the explicitly nonviolent call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).4 Not that they get any credit. Israel and the Israel lobby treat BDS as if it were a terrorist organization. Yosef Kuperwasser, Senior Project Director at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, writes in Tablet Magazine, “The aim of (the BDS) demands is the total annihilation of Israel as a nation-state of the Jewish people.”5

It would be the first case of a country being annihilated by a boycott. It seems Palestinians should not engage in violent resistance and they should not engage in nonviolent resistance either.

While the Israeli administration seems untroubled by anti-Semitism among its new friends, the Israel lobby has stepped up its campaign to label as anti-Semitic all criticism and critics of Israel. BDS is one example. Another is the vendetta against Jeremy Corbyn, British Labour Party leader and longtime supporter of Palestinian rights. On July 25, 2018, the U.K.’s three leading Jewish newspapers warned, in a joint editorial entitled “United We Stand,” that the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party would represent an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country.”6 Party activists and Corbyn allies Chris Williamson and Jackie Miller were ejected from the party, Williamson for suggesting accusations of anti-Semitism in the party were exaggerated, Miller for suggesting that Holocaust Day be shared with victims of other genocides.

Recently, the Israel lobby has been engaged in efforts to have countries and organizations adopt the International Holocaust Memorial Association definition of anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”7 The IHMA’s definition is vague and inept, but the bigger problem is the 11 “examples” attached, seven of which mention Israel.

Once a critic of Israel is labelled an anti-Semite, the focus, of course, shifts from the criticism to the critic. Given Israel’s new openness to illiberal and anti-Semitic regimes, one must conclude the target is not anti-Semitism but criticism of Israel. To date, the IHMA definition has been adopted or endorsed by the U.K., Austria, Scotland, Romania, Germany, Bulgaria, Belgium, Sweden, Lithuania, the Republic of North Macedonia, the Netherlands, Slovakia, the Republic of Moldova, the Czech Republic, Hungary, France and Canada.7

The more Palestinians’ commitment to nonviolence grows, the more brutal and antidemocratic Israel becomes, while efforts by the West to shield Israel from criticism intensify.

In 2004, in these pages,8 I argued that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians could not lead to peace. I asked: “Should the international community use force to compel the two-state solution?” I answered: “Yes.” I acknowledged that this was unlikely – but if chances were small then, they are nonexistent now. (As I write, the results of the September Israeli election are inconclusive, except for this: little will change for Palestinians in the territories.)

The Israel lobby has proven highly successful. It is assisted by the fact that, in the midst of current crises, from the rise of the populist right to the climate emergency, it will be harder for Palestinians to get the world’s attention. When asked recently about the UN’s intensified focus on the climate crisis, Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said it was important, “but from our perspective the fact that Israel is not being discussed (at the UN) is an achievement.”9

The international community has let the Palestinians down. It is evident that current Palestinian strategies are not working.

Martin Conboy (friend, colleague and Irish immigrant) said to me recently that Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement would not have happened were it not for Irish Republican Army violence against British soldiers and the Northern Ireland police forces. In the 20 years leading up to the agreement, some 1,800 soldiers, police and civilians were killed by the IRA. (The IRA considered British forces, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and members of the nongovernment Ulster Defence Forces legitimate targets. When civilians were killed by mistake, the IRA apologized.) Negotiations had been proceeding, without success, under various British prime ministers. When Tony Blair came to power in 1997, he was determined to end the violence. Blair asked the army for an assessment. They advised that the armed forces were incapable of defeating the IRA. Blair decided to force serious negotiations. The result was the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

South Africa was forced from the Commonwealth in 1961 and expelled from the International Olympic Committee in 1970. The PLO and BDS have no similar achievement. It is now clear that unless Israel suffers serious consequences from its 52-year-old occupation, it will not negotiate in good faith (or simply withdraw from the territories). The international community, it is clear, will not impose those consequences.

It should be noted that, according to many sources, the Palestinians have a right to armed resistance. The United Nations General Assembly, for example, in resolution 37/43 (1982) reaffirmed “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.”10

Israel would call any such resistance “terrorism” and we know how it would respond. The Israelis have no compunction about collective punishment: when a terrorist attack takes place in the West Bank, the IDF destroys the homes of the suspects’ families; from January 2009 to August 2019, for each Israeli killed by Palestinians, Israeli security forces killed 18 Palestinians11; at the Gaza fence, more than 200 Palestinians have been killed and 6,300 injured by live ammunition, in contrast with, as far as I can tell, five Israeli soldiers injured, none by live ammunition.12 That’s a casualty rate of 1,300 to 1.

But what else are the Palestinians to do in the absence of concrete action by the international community? In response to an untenable situation, we should not be surprised to find an increase in Palestinians’ spontaneous and suicidal violence, and a new strategy of violent actions that are disciplined and carefully planned.

Continue reading “If Israel is to Change, it will be up to the Palestinians”

If you had visited the Young People’s Theatre website on February 4, 2019, you’d have found nine different shows on offer. YPT suggests an appropriate age or grade range for each show: The Code, for example, is recommended for “Grades 8–12 | Ages 13 & up”; The 26 Letter Dance is appropriate for “JK–Grade 5 | Ages 4–8”; and One Thing Leads to Another is “for ages 3–12 months.” Months.

And this isn’t a one-time thing. One Thing Leads to Another premiered at YPT in 2016 and this year, after a YPT remount, toured four Ontario cities, Montreal and Vancouver.

One Thing Leads to Another is credited as “A Collective Collaboration by Maja Ardal, Audrey Dwyer, Mary Francis Moore and Julia Tribe.” Maja is a friend and colleague, and a very talented theatre artist with a long history of significant contribution to theatre. Also, I should admit that I haven’t seen One Thing Leads to Another. But I’ve read a bunch of reviews, all very positive. According to Toronto’s Now magazine,

The room’s floor is covered with carpet, blankets, cushions and toys; the actors first greet the parents, grandparents and infants with hellos, smiles and peek-a-boo games. The show itself, about 20 minutes long, starts in black and white, with sounds and visual cues passed between actors and audience. Dancing, hand-holding and some simple three-note, wordless melodies are also part of the production, which moves into colour with the appearance of silk flags and ribbons, bubbles, bells, hoops and different sized balls. Pattern and play are key to the staging. A large piece of long blue silk envelops the audience and later becomes water, flowers grow and kitchen implements become a mini orchestra.1

Theatre for babies is not unique to Canada. An article in the April 20, 2016, issue of the New Yorker described a Northern Irish production, “billed as an ‘immersive theatre experience for babies,’” presented by New Victory Theatre in New York City:

Eight infants attended the 10 a.m. performance of “Babble,” which was staged within a blue geodesic dome … The audience, young and old, entered the dome, which was lit inside in a soothing twilight blue … Then four young women in white lace dresses – they looked like maidens from an Irish meadow – stood up: “‘Babble’ is an adventure that’s been made especially for your babies, and so however they want to experience it is absolutely fine.” The show lasted twenty minutes. For the finale, the dome was lit up like a twinkling galaxy of stars. “Fly, fly, fish, fly, fly, high!” the performers sang. The babies lay on their backs, blissing out. The adults seemed just as placid.2

According to Rob Weinert-Kendt in a 2010 American Theatre article, shows for babies “have been a staple of European and Australian theatre for two decades.”3 Linda Hartzell, artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre, says she saw “a stunning piece in Denmark in 1990. It was for 35 toddlers who came in in their little snowsuits; it was magical.” Tony Mack, an Australian artist, suggests, “Theatre for the very young may well be on the cutting edge of theatre practice, as it asks such basic questions as, ‘What is theatre?’ and ‘What is a human being?’” Kim Peter Kovac, director of youth and family programs at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, asks, “Can we create a dramaturgy for babies?”

It seems to me that baby theatre is in its infancy. Thus far, it’s been theatre for babies. What about theatre by babies? And most baby theatre is about nothing. According to the Toronto Star, actors in One Thing Leads to Another “blew bubbles, hummed, played peek-a-boo, waved colourful silks, and banged on pots and pans.”4 Next it’ll be baby talk. Why not scripts with a little muscle? Why not My Battle with the Bottle? Or Travelling down the Birth Canal: The Musical? Or I Nearly Got Aborted! Based on a True Story. Another thing: why aren’t babies writing the reviews? None of the reviews even quoted babies – everything was through the eyes of adults. “He loved it so much he pooped his pants,” said one mother.5 That’s just demeaning. I’ve had the same reaction to several plays, and not because I loved them.

In early 2018 Talk Is Free Theatre, based in Barrie, Ontario, promoted a show called The Curious Voyage:

Talk Is Free Theatre (TIFT) presents Canada’s largest ever, intercontinental immersive theatre experience with The Curious Voyage, running Oct. 23 to Nov. 10, 2018 in Barrie, Canada and London, England. Taking place over three days, the theatrical adventure will provide a unique, personal experience for every audience member, surprising them with curious artistic encounters as they inhabit new worlds in Barrie, Canada and London, England. The experience culminates in a site-specific mystery musical (a well-known Tony Award–winning work), a story that extends and reflects the journey of the previous three days. $1,950 single / $3,600 double plus flights & meals.6

I repeat: $1,950 each, not including flights and meals; $3,600 for two.

The Curious Voyage is the brainchild of Arkady Spivak, artistic director of TIFT. There were eight separate three-day performances, each with a capacity of 36. The play attracted a fair bit of coverage: two articles in the Toronto Star, CBC’s Q, a three-part review in a blog called The Slotkin Letter,, the National Post, Time Out London. In an interview with Lori Wolf-Heffner, Mitchell Cushman, the Canadian who directed the mystery musical, explained the point of the exercise:

“I find that if you’re offering people an experience that they feel like they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives, then you actually start getting people’s attention. The hardest thing in theatre is to be anonymous,” he says. “There’s all sorts of research, especially for the Millennial generation, that people are spending less money on physical things and more money on experiences,” he says. He believes the time could not be better to offer immersive theatre, because it harnesses the power of the live performance.7

According to Karen Fricker in the Toronto Star, the production cost $650,000, which came “almost entirely from government grants, and private and corporate fundraising; only 4 per cent comes from ticket sales.”8 The expenses included “some 52 flights” for the producers, creative team and performers.

In case you missed it the first time, the TIFT website informs us that The Curious Voyage will return:

On the heels of a triumphant premiere in London, UK, Talk Is Free Theatre’s The Curious Voyage, the innovative audience-specific immersive theatrical experience, will transfer to Toronto in spring 2020. The upcoming version of The Curious Voyage will offer two-day and one-day experience options created especially and uniquely for each individual patron, whereby who they are or what they each bring to the journey will influence the artistic outcome.9

We’re told that The Curious Voyage is made possible with the “generous support” of a few private sources and several government and quasi-government sources, including the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund, Bruce Grey Simcoe, Downtown Barrie, the City of Barrie, Tourism Simcoe County, County of Simcoe and the Ontario Arts Council.

But apparently there will be no remount of “Canada’s largest ever, intercontinental immersive theatre experience,” as this iteration of The Curious Voyage will be confined to this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Another item of interest: TIFT’s website informs us that this past January the company hosted the YPT production of One Thing Leads to Another.10

Back to the real question: Can we create a dramaturgy for babies?

I think we already have. In American Theatre, Weinert-Kendt tells us:

A few clear best practices have developed: Shows are staged in non-traditional spaces with cushions or blankets rather than proper theatre seats … Shows invariably begin with the performers already moving around the space and welcoming the audience. Official running times almost never exceed 45 minutes, though there’s often some time for unstructured play built in post-show, and cast sizes tend to be very small, not only for reasons of dollars-and-cents economy but because small children can only follow so many people at once. There are no sudden lighting changes.11

But can we create a dramaturgy for the 1 per cent?

I’m not sure. More experimentation is in order. Maybe Paris instead of London.

This is how some very bright and very talented professional theatre artists spend their time. And my peers on arts juries – i.e., other professional theatre artists – award them money for doing plays for babies and the superrich.

We artists like to claim that we are truth-tellers – “canaries in the coal mine.” Maybe that was true at one time. Today, artists might be ostriches in the coal mine; or maybe we’re not in the coal mine at all.

Continue reading “Ostriches in the Coal Mine”

1. From Oliver Burkeman, “Are things getting worse – or does it just feel that way?”, The Guardian, July 20, 20181

Participants were shown hundreds of dots in shades from deep purple to deep blue, and asked to say whether each was blue or not. Obviously, the bluer a dot, the more likely people were to classify it as blue. But what’s interesting is what happened when researchers began reducing the prevalence of the blue dots they displayed. The fewer dots that were objectively blue, the broader people’s definition of “blue” became: they started to classify purplish dots that way, too…

It’s been argued that we live in an era of “concept creep,” in which concepts like “trauma” or “violence” have stretched to encompass things no previous generation would have worried about. Hence the idea that certain forms of speech are literally violence. Or that letting an eight-year-old walk to school alone is actual child neglect. Or – to pick an example from the current contentious debate over gender identity – that to question someone’s preferred explanation for their experience of gender is to deny their right to exist.

Subsequent stages of the blue-dot study showed that … if you ask people to classify faces as threatening or non-threatening, then reduce the incidence of threatening ones, they’ll define more neutral faces as threatening. Ask them to classify research proposals as ethical or unethical, then reduce the unethical ones, and they’ll expand their definition of “unethical.”

As co-author Dan Gilbert put it, “When problems become rare, we count more things as problems.”

2. From Aladin El-Mafaalani, “Fighting at the table,” CBC Ideas, June 29, 20172

A hundred years ago there was not one single country that was a free land for all peoples independent of skin colour, religion, gender or sexual preference.

There was never before a time in German history when integration was as successful as it is today. For example, even refugees can expect language classes, labour market integration, an apartment, education and training. Today, an adult Syrian refugee who came to Germany in 2015 speaks better German than many guest workers who have lived in Germany for more than 50 years. In the 1960s and 1970s I would have given German integration policy a score of 2 on a scale from 1 to 10. Today I would give a German integration policy a score of 7.

But today integration policy is seen as the most important issue in domestic policy. For an area of policy which has become the most important, a score of 7 out of 10 is apparently no longer enough.

I believe we completely have the wrong idea about what integration is supposed to lead to. When integration or inclusion or equal opportunity are successfully implemented, they do not lead to a society which is more harmonious or free from conflict. On the contrary: the central effect of successful integration is actually a higher potential for conflict.

I describe the general integration process like this: First-generation migrants usually sit on the floor while the established citizens sit at the table. At this stage the migrants are happy just to be there. The second generation sit at the table and want a piece of the pie. The third generation, the grandchildren of the migrants, want also to have a say in what is ordered. And since a liberal and open-immigration country has a new first generation every year, as well as a new second generation every year, as well as a new third generation every year, the situation continues to grow in complexity.

When I went to school in the 1980s and 1990s, I saw many headscarf-clad women entering and leaving my school every day, but nobody cared. They were not German citizens, spoke hardly any German. It was seen as okay because these were just cleaning ladies. It wasn’t okay any more when the headscarf-clad women started becoming teachers, educating German children.

I don’t want to start a discussion about teachers wearing headscarves. What’s relevant to me in this context is that this conflict arose only because the integration process had been successful. Integration changes a society. Unsuccessful integration leads to deviance, social problems, crime. But successful integration leads to fundamental change and to conflict.

People often assume that racism decreases when integration is successful. This expectation is an illusion. If more people are sitting at the table, is racism automatically supposed to decrease? It’s not possible.

Conflicts are very, very important. Conflicts are energy – energy for development, for improvement, for progress. Conflicts which are managed in a constructive way can bring about wonderful things; destructive ways of dealing with conflict can lead to disaster.

3. From David Goodhart, “Liberals are set on a collision course with democracy,” Prospect, April 20183

Ivan Rogers has written: “If you evacuate many domains of public policy of any real element of choice at the citizen level … then the only way to voice opposition becomes to voice opposition to the whole system and to argue that it needs to be demolished rather than changed from within.”

So illiberal populism is the product of elite-led undemocratic liberalism or what I have called (in my book The Road to Somewhere) liberal Anywhere overreach. Anywheres – the large minority of educated, mobile professionals with confident identities based on educational and career success – have ruled in their own interest and called it the national interest.

And this is not just about the shift to an open, high-immigration, knowledge economy, which tends to benefit the better educated 25 per cent of Anywheres and often disadvantages the more rooted, less well educated, 50 per cent of Somewheres.

Almost the entire policy spectrum is dominated by Anywhere assumptions, at least in the UK: the huge expansion of higher education and relative neglect of technical and vocational education; the way in which cognitive ability has become the gold standard of human esteem; the way in which many forms of group attachment (national, local, ethnic) have been diminished; the declining importance of the private realm of the family and the downplaying of gender roles that many still value.

4. From The Current, CBC Radio, September 19, 20184

Sophia Gaston: Linked to this but also separate is this feeling that governments have somehow neutralized what we mean by liberalism to the point where it’s become an entirely accommodating force, so it’s seen to be bending to the force of other cultures, not asserting or affirming the values and traditions of the nation-state. So these concerns about immigration and the rise of populism have necessarily come hand in hand because immigration has become really an issue of democracy. People feel that governments have not been listening to them, not been true to their promises. So citizens who are highly concerned about immigration are much more likely to be susceptible to anti-establishment messages.

Elif Shafak: I think it’s okay to have fear. But my point is, it is not okay when countries are guided by fear. Because when we are guided by fear, we have made the worst mistakes, and human history is full of these mistakes. But it has been also a big mistake on the part of the liberal intelligentsia, intellectuals, to look down on people’s emotions. If I belittle other people’s emotions, including their fear, what I will be doing is to push them toward the lap of the far right, because that is one public space in which their emotions are not belittled.

Yascha Mounk: We see immigration and security coming top of opinion polls of problems in Europe, time after time after time.

Sophia Gaston: When I do focus groups in Saxony and around Dresden, where Pegida and AdF have their real hotspots, people talk about immigration, absolutely, but they talk about suppression of freedom of speech even more. And they say, “Everyone’s just trying to silence us by calling us Nazis.”

Cruising down the Canal du Midi

A few years ago, four of us cruised down the wondrous Canal du Midi in France. Our rented barge was about four metres wide and the canal maybe ten metres wide, but quite often you’d come to a bridge over the canal and the tunnel through the bridge was at most a metre wider than the boat. Steering was more complicated than at first apparent; it took time for the boat to respond to adjustments in the rudder, and you wanted to keep the adjustments small, because large adjustments would result in large changes in direction which would require more large adjustments and then many smaller adjustments – all accompanied by much chaos and laughter. The lesson was: get insurance, stay alert for tunnels (and narrows and oncoming boats), and start making small adjustments while you’re still far away.

That is my depressing metaphor for our current situation. With respect to major social issues like climate change or the rise of the populist right, we needed to start making small adjustments decades ago. And getting back on course will take decades, and there will be much chaos, though likely little laughter.

Continue reading “Much Chaos, Little Laughter”

Several weeks ago I received a Facebook posting from Kamel El Basha, a Palestinian friend who lives in East Jerusalem. It was a link to an article about a Lebanese film, The Insult, in which Kamel costarred. Kamel had won the best actor award at the 2017 Venice Film Festival!

Kamel, more than anyone else, was responsible for the production and tour of my play Facts in Palestine. He read it and immediately announced that his company, the Palestinian National Theatre, would produce it; he translated it into Arabic; and he performed in it. And we became friends. It has been a few years since I’ve seen him, but I still feel close to Kamel and his family.

I sent congratulations by email. A few days later, I heard back. The whole thing had turned into a nightmare. The film had been banished from the Days of Cinema festival in Ramallah in the West Bank.

From various sources, I’ve put together the story. The director, Ziad Doueiri, had made a previous film in Israel, which apparently broke the rules of BDS. The new film was shot in Lebanon, with no Israeli support, but Doueiri had not acknowledged or apologized for his earlier transgression.

What is BDS? According to its website,

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality … BDS Boycotts involve withdrawing support for Israel and Israeli and international companies that are involved in the violation of Palestinian human rights, as well as complicit Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions … 

The Palestinian BDS call urges nonviolent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law by meeting three demands:

  • Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
  • Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  • Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.1

I knew all that. But I also knew that, as the BDS website puts it, “BDS does not target artists. It targets institutions based on their complicity in Israel’s violations of international law.” Further, we are asked to “boycott and/or work towards the cancellation of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israel, its lobby groups or its cultural institutions. International venues and festivals are asked to reject funding and any form of sponsorship from the Israeli government.”

None of that applies in this case, so why is BDS boycotting The Insult? The answer seems to lie here: “(BDS) urges a boycott of … Normalization Projects. In the Palestinian context, normalization refers to any activity that creates the impression that Israel is a state like any other.”2 This is from a BDS statement: “Since Ziad Doueiri is still defending normalisation, then the screening of his film by Arab festivals — regardless of intentions — can only be seen as encouraging him to continue his destructive and normalising approach.”3

“Normalization” is, of course, wide open to interpretation. And here Doueiri is being punished not for a “normalization project,” but for “defending normalization” and a “normalizing approach.”

This is from a U.S. National Public Radio article:

“The BDS purpose is what?” Doueiri says. “Defend Palestine. When you go and you forbid a film where the main actor, a Palestinian guy (Kamel El Basha), won best (actor) award at Venice Film Festival — first time in history that a Palestinian actor win in Venice or anywhere else in the world, first time! — when the BDS, who are supposed to be protecting Palestinian rights, stop this Palestinian actor to present his movies in Ramallah, basically you’re screwing yourself in the head. It doesn’t make any logic.”4

I agree. There are times to enforce rules. But no rules were actually broken in the making of The Insult.

Then Kamel told me about The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, a Palestinian film directed by Muayad Alayan. Now touring international festivals, the film won the Hubert Bals Fund Audience Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam. Organizers of the Haifa Independent Film Festival, which features Palestinian and Arab films, decided not to include The Reports on Sarah and Saleem “after the BDS movement decided it had violated one of its principles when (Alayan) cast two Israeli actors.”5 Presumably hiring Jewish Israelis is evidence of a normalizing approach.

I support boycotting Israel — not only the settlements — and I support the boycott of Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions. The occupation is now 50 years old and Israel has proven itself unwilling to negotiate in good faith. Boycotts are nonviolent, and if the international community is unwilling to control the Jewish state that it created, it falls to the public to do something.

But I’ve been a reluctant supporter of BDS. I’ve tended, in my own private code, to write that I support “bds.” My problem has been the BDS demands, which I find complicated and vague. What is meant by “all Arab lands”? What if Israel were to build the wall to its own side of the green line? What does UN resolution 194 actually require? It was adopted in 1948. Would Israel comply if it accepted the right of return for those still alive who were forced out of Palestine/Israel, but not their descendants? While there’s an obvious logic in having a demand for each of the main Palestinian groups — those in the occupied territories, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and refugees in other countries — isn’t three demands a little cumbersome?

One big problem with complicated and vague demands is that they immediately set up conflict between hardliners and moderates. And the BDS website, with its multitude of pages, can support a multitude of interpretations. So “BDS does not target artists” — unless they’re engaged in “normalization projects,” or defend normalization projects, or have a “normalizing approach.”

According to its website, BDS was “inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement.” I participated in several demonstrations in front of the South African embassy in Ottawa, and I boycotted South African wine and oranges. I knew, too, that we called for sanctions against South Africa — as when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker forced South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961, or when South Africa was expelled from the International Olympic Committee in 1970. I remember that we objected to South Africa’s interference in South West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola. But so far as I remember, the only demand was an end to apartheid, which I would have described as people having different rights based on race or colour.

I checked with a friend who in the 1980s had been chair of a national “inter-agency anti-apartheid co-ordinating committee,” with representatives from various Canadian third world development groups like Oxfam and CUSO. I was correct, my friend said. The boycott had one demand: an end to apartheid.

The Palestinian situation is more complicated than was South Africa’s. There were no equivalents to the refugees or occupation. And although a case can be made that Palestinians in Israel live under an apartheid system, the most obvious elements are absent: Palestinians vote; they are members of the Knesset. You can even find an occasional Palestinian judge.

The BDS demands would benefit from simplification and clarity. The more demands you have, the more there is for people to object to. If I had to make the demands as simple and clear as possible, I would suggest: “End the occupation/End the blockade.” The logic is this: First, there will be no peace until Israel accepts that it does not get to keep the territories, just as South Africa had to accept that it would not get to keep apartheid. Second, in my 28 years of arguing for Palestinian rights, ending the occupation is the demand that people find easiest to understand and support.

Boycotts ask for people’s help and are the tactics of the weak, not the powerful. Israel doesn’t need to boycott; it can blockade. If you have the power, you can make as many demands as you like. The boycott of Israel requires the active participation of liberals around the world, and liberals are wary of targeting Israel because, to paraphrase Edward Said and/or Pierre Bourdieu, the tragedy of the Palestinians is that they are the victims of the victims of Holocaust.

The banning of The Insult and The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is the result of BDS complexity and vagueness, and a tendency among hardliners to enforce rules. Hardliners want to make the struggle deep rather than wide. Palestinian hardliners don’t have the power to enforce rules in Canada or Israel, so they enforce rules where they can — on Palestinians. Thus Palestinians, not Israel, become the target of BDS.

Meanwhile, The Insult — nominated for an Academy Award — is a seriously great film, and my friend Kamel’s performance is brilliant. Go see it. I hope his compatriots get to see it too.

Continue reading “Why is The Palestinian Boycott Targeting Palestinians?”

“We believe that the artists of our country do not want to perpetuate darkness.”
— Simon Brault and Steven Loft

In a recent Globe and Mail article, Simon Brault, director and chief executive of the Canada Council for the Arts, and Steven Loft, director of Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples, outlined the Canada Council’s response to “the question of the appropriation of Indigenous cultural knowledge and heritage.”1 Brault and Loft write,

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report highlighted repeated attempts at cultural genocide vis-à-vis this country’s Indigenous peoples. In doing so, it posed a historic challenge to every institution in Canada, including the Canada Council.

How will the Canada Council meet that challenge?

When artists and organizations seek Canada Council grants for projects that address, deal with, incorporate, comment on, interpret or depict distinctive aspects of First Nations, Inuit or Métis culture, they must demonstrate genuine respect and regard for Indigenous art and culture in their artistic process.

We won’t dictate a specific or prescribed way of demonstrating this, but we will expect some indication that authentic and respectful efforts have been made to engage with the artists or other members of the Indigenous communities whose culture or protocols are incorporated in any project for which Canada Council funding is being requested.

They elaborate in a CBC News article: “‘This isn’t about the council becoming the art police or limiting freedom of expression,’ Loft said. ‘I don’t think artists should be scared.’”2

But I am scared. Just telling artists they shouldn’t be scared is, of course, scary. What is genuine regard? How does an artist demonstrate it? How will a jury discern it?

According to the Canada Council website, “Peer assessment at the heart of its decision-making processes.”3 The applicant’s “peers” – i.e., other artists – discuss and rate an application. Money is scarce and grants are competitive, so it often takes only one low score to remove an applicant from contention. One juror – adamant, perhaps, that only Indigenous people should write on Indigenous subjects – can sabotage an application.

In the Globe and Mail, Brault and Loft hasten to reassure us:

The Canada Council defends – and will always defend – the free expression and artistic independence of the creators and producers of culture. At the same time, we are also formally committed to respect the histories, traditions, languages and contemporary practices of Indigenous peoples. These two commitments are not mutually exclusive.

Sorry, but they are. You cannot insist on “free expression” and “respect” at the same time. Brault and Loft seem to believe they can make the conflict disappear by asserting there isn’t one. Of course, there are reasonable limits to free expression – plagiarism and libel, for example. But it’s guaranteed that any controversial play will be seen as disrespectful by some people. Do we really want to sacrifice free expression for something as vague and subjective as “respect”? Brault and Loft use “respect” or “respectful” six times in the two articles. The word “risk” – until recently a mainstay of writing about the arts – does not appear. “Controversy” appears once, in the CBC article, and it’s assumed to be negative.

Supporting Indigenous Art in the Spirit of Cultural Self-Determination and Opposing Appropriation, a document available on the Canada Council website, tells us that Council

considers it normal to ask the artists and organizations applying for grants for projects that address, deal with, incorporate, comment on, interpret or depict unique aspects of the First Nations, Inuit or Métis culture, to show that they have respect and true regard for Indigenous art and culture in their endeavours.4

Incorporate or depict, sure, but deal with or comment on? Does the Council really mean that if I want to write anything to do with Indigenous people in Canada I will have to demonstrate not my knowledge or abilities or plans, but my good intentions?

Brault elaborates in the CBC article:

There’s an expectation that we will find in your application the description of your project, a demonstration that you really paid attention to make sure that … you’re not approaching your project from a colonialist perspective.

A colonialist perspective? Are they going to ensure that jurors are familiar with Frantz Fanon and Karen Stote? If a non-Indigenous writer – a settler – writes about an Indigenous issue, is that writing from “a colonialist perspective”? If a writer ignores entirely the history and present state of Indigenous people in Canada, is that a colonialist perspective?

And there’s more. “The conversation about cultural appropriation is not limited to Indigenous cultures,” according to the CBC article. So a grant application for any controversial project could be legitimately sabotaged by a single assessment committee member who genuinely believes or merely claims that the artist didn’t “demonstrate genuine respect and regard for … .” The result will be more caution in an already overly cautious herd of writers, boards, artistic directors, general managers and jury members.

According to Brault and Loft in the Globe and Mail, the change is “a continuation of the council’s journey toward decolonization and reconciliation.” Arts-funding bodies are funding more Indigenous artists and arts projects than ever before; this is as it should be. But what could be more colonialist than the assumption that Indigenous artists need government bureaucrats to protect them from their non-Indigenous colleagues? Could they not show a little faith in the peer assessment process that they promote and the jurors that they select?

“Art and culture have always been at the forefront of these kinds of discussions of rights,” Loft says in the CBC article. Well, maybe. But Brault and Loft are not artists; they’re bureaucrats. And they’re not leading a discussion; they’re threatening artists who don’t toe their line.

I don’t know how you step back from this authoritarian nonsense. Brault needs to resign.

Continue reading “Perpetuating Darkness”