1. Vaudevillians in the Monashees

Getting to Room Temperature is a one-person play about my mother’s polite quest for euthanasia. The main and only character is a lot like me, but we decided to hire a real actor, Robert Bockstael. We did several test presentations, and the response was excellent. We were accepted at Ottawa’s 2016 undercurrents festival, where we broke attendance records and got great reviews. We then took Room Temperature to a small festival in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Success in Canadian theatre means having a “midsize theatre company” buy one’s production (the script, actors, set, etc.: the whole show) or buy the rights to produce the script. Either would typically result in a two- to four-week run in a 200-seat theatre.

Theatre companies were uninterested. But the artistic director of a community cultural centre in the Okanagan Valley, who had read about the play on Facebook, wanted to buy the show, and she also had interested colleagues in other B.C. towns. Community cultural centres, typically, buy one performance and stick it in a 400- to 600-seat theatre. While “theatre companies” present or produce theatre, “community cultural centres” rarely produce anything but present a bit of everything – mostly music and musical plays and standup comedy. Room Temperature – “a hard-hitting, sentimental and funny one-person play about dying” – is not their usual fare.

In March, we did nine performances over three weeks in six B.C. locations: on the Gulf Islands, in the Interior and in a Vancouver suburb.

It was fantastic. We crossed oceans and mountains. We performed in cavernous auditoriums and, on the Gulf Islands, in rustic community halls. We were vaudevillians in the Monashees. Audiences laughed and cried and more than half the audience stayed for talkbacks. They, along with hospice and palliative care workers, told us: you got it exactly right. The tour was lucrative and fun and gratifying.

In Toronto, I described the experience to colleagues. The response was amazement and admiration: “You escaped the professional theatre circuit.” “You did a play on a topical and important issue.” “You connected with actual people.”

All that brought to mind my column in the last issue of Inroads about how the meaning and practice of political theatre has changed over the years.1 We used to care about content; now our concern is “the participation of ‘target groups’ (e.g., women, Aboriginals, visible minorities). In the case of target groups, this redefinition of ‘political’ was enforced by arts funding bodies.”

Recently, in the Globe and Mail, J. Kelly Nestruck wrote, “Following a couple of years of programming in which Tarragon, a Toronto contemporary theatre, has fallen short on representing the diversity of contemporary Toronto, this season could be seen as a step forward.” Artistic Director Richard Rose explained the change in his theatre’s programming: “Obviously, the priorities within the Canada Council have changed, so we’re trying to acknowledge that.”2

Tarragon is perhaps Canada’s most important theatre (measured in new plays that have had subsequent productions). Its artistic director confesses that he changed his theatre’s mandate because a government agency told him to. And there’s not a whimper.

In his 2007 history of modern music, Alex Ross writes, “To the cynical onlooker, orchestras and opera houses are stuck in a museum culture, playing to a dwindling cohort of aging subscribers and would-be elitists who take satisfaction from technically expert if soulless renditions of Hitler’s favorite works.”3 Yes, that’s pretty cynical. But artists must from time to time entertain such negativity. To transpose Ross’s aphorism to midsize and small Canadian theatres: artists work for dismal wages to perform technically proficient, obscure plays for an artistically pretentious sector of the upper middle class.

Since the election of Donald Trump, we’ve been asking ourselves, “How do we breach the cultural divide?” Maybe the simplest answer is: get out of the big cities. Big cities are the home of liberalism and formal experimentation and government-enforced cultural diversity. Big cities are the home of theatre companies. Big cities are where we talk among ourselves.

Small cities and suburbs are the home of community cultural centres and Trump supporters. And that’s where we took our sweet story about a mother and son, our fairly sophisticated (I hope) exploration of death in the rich countries, and our discussion of assisted suicide. This is what we said about Canada’s most famous anti–assisted suicide campaigner:

Here’s what Margaret Somerville gets wrong. She thinks we’re in danger of going from a world in which God decides when we die, to one in which strangers decide. But in fact we’re long past God deciding. Science and society have extended our lives, not God. If Somerville wants God to decide, we’ll have to get rid of not just the vaccines and penicillin, but – let’s admit it – the unions and public health care and the welfare state. And we’ll have to go back to dying at 40 instead of 80.4

All in all, it seems an important message to carry across the cultural divide.

  1. The Walmart effect

Canada and the United States have lost quite a few jobs in manufacturing, and almost all unskilled, nonunionized work pays less than it used to. People blame computers, free trade or immigrants, or all three. But there might be a simpler, proximate cause.

Sam Walton opened the first Walmart in 1962. By 1990 Walmart was the largest retailer in the United States and in 2000 its worldwide workforce reached one million. According to Wikipedia, “Walmart is the world’s largest company by revenue, according to the Fortune Global 500 list in 2016, as well as the largest private employer in the world with 2.3 million employees.”

In Wal-Mart: The Bully of Bentonville, Anthony Bianco suggests that there are many secrets to Walmart’s success.5 It was, for example, a pioneer in the use and development of technology, setting the pace for stock management and “just-in-time” delivery. In 1987, Walmart developed its own private satellite communication system – the largest in the United States.

As resistance to its expansion grew, the company sought to reshape its image. In 2010, Walmart committed $2 billion to ending hunger in the United States and, soon after, declared its commitment to sustainable agriculture, local farming and providing affordable, high-quality and healthy food.

There was one point, however, on which Walmart would not budge. From the start, Walmart insisted on the lowest wage package possible. It paid minimum wage or slightly above. It forced employees to work split shifts. It kept work hours and length of employment below the level at which statutory benefits and income security would kick in.

Keeping pay down meant keeping trade unions out. On the very few occasions in which employees successfully organized, Walmart reacted brutally. A month after being forced to sign a first contract with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), representing workers in Jonquière, Quebec, the company shut the store.

Not surprisingly, Walmart’s low-wage strategy influenced most of its retail competitors. But it wasn’t just retail. Before Walmart, suppliers set prices. When Walmart grew powerful enough to make offers that could not be refused, suppliers too were forced to cut costs – by reducing wages, replacing workers or going offshore.

How does one measure the impact of Walmart’s low-wage strategy? How does one compare that with the impact of technological change, free trade and immigration? I have no idea. An interesting project for an economist, no doubt.

But here’s some wisdom gained from hindsight: We should have put a lot more effort into helping the UFCW’s organizing efforts. We should have sat down in front of Walmart distribution centres instead of G7 meetings. It should perhaps have been the left’s absolute priority.

All that might be closing the barn door long after the horses have fled. But here’s another thing:

When you talk to these people, they are still bitter about the trade issue, furious about what was done to them. They worked their butts off for Bill Clinton, and look what he did to them. Then they worked their butts off for Barack Obama – they turned over their treasury to the Democrats and they went door to door – organized labour had one demand to Barack Obama … they wanted “Card Check,” to make it easier to organize a union … Do you think he got that passed when he had both houses of Congress? He did nothing. He just let it die.

So here’s something else we might do to reach out to those who might vote for a Canadian Donald Trump: Make it a lot easier for people in the private sector to join a union.

Continue reading “Across the great divide”

To live outside the law, you must be honest.
— Bob Dylan, “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” 1966

It happened that my wife and I were discussing sixties music one day in October. Her parents, longtime CCF-NDP activists, had listened to Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. I suggested that her parents selected their music according to their politics. Whereas I, a half-generation younger, selected my politics according to my music – chiefly, the songs of Bob Dylan.

The next morning we learned Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. For three days, Jennifer and I listened to “early” Dylan: his first seven LPs, recorded between 1962 and 1966. I’d been a fan since the release of the third of these, The Times They Are a-Changin’, in 1964. I was 14.

I didn’t just listen to Dylan. I learned to play the guitar in 1968, and within a couple of years I’d memorized the words to perhaps 50 of those early songs. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that those songs laid the foundation for the person I am. There is, for example, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan’s anthem to equality and humility and the difficult lesson of learning you’re just like everyone else:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you? …
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.
How does it feel?

There’s this from “To Ramona”:

I’ve heard you say many times
That you’re better than no one
And no one is better than you.

From “Chimes of Freedom”:

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
And for each and every underdog soldier in the night
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

From “My Back Pages” (rumoured to be Dylan’s farewell to “the movement”):

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school.
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow.
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.

From “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”:

I started out on burgundy
But soon hit the harder stuff;
Everybody said they’d stand behind me
When the game got rough,
But the joke was on me,
There was nobody even there to bluff;
I’m going back to New York City
I do believe I’ve had enough.

From: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you;
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you;
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore;
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

From “One Too Many Mornings”:

It’s a restless hungry feeling that don’t mean no one no good,
When everything I’m a-sayin’ you can say it just as good.
You’re right from your side, I’m right from mine.
We’re both just one too many mornings an’ a thousand miles behind.

And there are Dylan’s stories about the American underclass as told in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, “Ballad of Hollis Brown” and my personal favourite, “North Country Blues”:

Come gather ’round friends
And I’ll tell you a tale
Of when the red iron ore pits run plenty,
But the cardboard-filled windows
And old men on the benches
Tell you now that the whole town is empty.

Of course, none of this means Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. I’m pleased, because I think we artists are too prone to celebrating the obscure. As for those who fear that the selection committee has damaged by stretching too thin the category “literature,” let me quote Dylan’s friend and colleague Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
— “Anthem,” 1992

The Nobel committee made a crack and let in a bit of light.

When Canadian theatre was born in the late sixties, it had, like the decade, a left-wing and nationalist temperament. There was no funding for the arts at the time, and there were a total of six Canadian plays in existence, so if you were going to found a theatre company dedicated to the production of Canadian political plays, you had to be obstreperous – which might be an apt description of the era’s artistic directors and theatre companies like TWP, Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre, Globe Theatre (Regina). There was one Canadian playwright – George Ryga – so, not surprisingly, a lot of the early plays were collective creations. And the target was a general audience, not theatre artists, of whom there were too few to fill a Volkswagen van.

That’s the theatre world I entered when, in 1976, I started working with Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company. Founded a year earlier (we were a bit late to the party), GCTC was dedicated to producing Canadian and political plays. “Canadian” meant written by Canadians, and “political” meant, to us, political parties, history, social issues. It was pretty broad, but not borderless; “the personal is political” and “everything is political” were not GCTC slogans.

In the beginning, GCTC productions came from Canada’s small repertoire of political plays: Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe; Carol Bolt’s Buffalo Jump; The Mummers Troupe’s Company Town; Sharon Pollack’s Komagata Maru Incident. When these ran out, the company commissioned plays or its members wrote collectively or individually. Slowly, GCTC’s work was being recognized, especially after a 1982 tour of Sandinista!, a collective creation about the Nicaraguan revolution.

I was made resident playwright about then, and my annual contribution was always explicitly political: Zero Hour (the CIA in Central America), Cheap Thrills (poverty), Learning to Live with Personal Growth (poverty again), 1997 (the future of work).

It wasn’t long, however, before the theatre world passed us by.

In those early years, GCTC was a “collective”: everyone was paid the same, and all full-time staff were members of the board. We had an artistic director, but also an “artistic direction committee,” which voted on the season. These structures were seen as more or less important by various members at various times; but we all understood – well, let’s say most of us understood – that what made GCTC political was not what happened offstage, but the content of the plays. We were willing to compromise on everything but that.

Increasingly, however, out there in the broader theatre world, “political” had come or was coming to mean other things: “formal experimentation” or the manner of creation (e.g., collective creation or improvisation), or the participation of “target groups” (e.g., women, Aboriginals, visible minorities). In the case of target groups, this redefinition of “political” was enforced by arts funding bodies, and in the case of formal experimentation and manner of creation, by artists on juries.

The explicit political content that GCTC specialized in back then has been largely abandoned. Such plays still get written, of course, but they’re seldom produced. Consider plays like Michael Healey’s Proud (2012), George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor (2013), Tommy Taylor’s You Should Have Stayed Home (2010), my own Facts (2010), or The Public Servant (2015), a collective creation from Common Boots Theatre (whose artistic director, Jennifer Brewin, and I are married). All (especially mine!) are intelligent, funny and provocative plays on important political/social subjects. All these plays have been successful with audiences and reviewers, but not with Canada’s artistic directors.

3-1Facts’ domestic journey is not untypical. It has enjoyed international success: it toured Palestine and Israel in Arabic; it ran for a month in London, England, to sold-out houses and rave reviews; and I believe it is still running in rep in Istanbul in Turkish. In Canada, however, after a successful premiere at GCTC, it has been self-produced and produced by United Players, a “community theatre” in Vancouver. Reversing centuries of cliché, amateur theatre companies are now more adventurous than our professional theatres.

The Public Servant was a major hit at GCTC (100 per cent attendance) and also, recently, in Toronto in a Common Boots–Nightwood coproduction, but no one else has picked it up. What is going on in the brains of artistic directors in Canada’s capital cities I can’t imagine.

3There is a counterexample: “Whether it is home invasions or bullying among young girls, few Canadian playwrights are as acutely tuned to contemporary issues as Vancouver’s Joan MacLeod,” wrote Robert Crew in the Toronto Star (November 14, 2013). Her plays do get produced. The Valley, for example, has been recently produced by Alberta Theatre Projects, the Tarragon, the Belfry, Prairie Theatre Exchange, Arts Club and perhaps others.

Many will claim that financial exigency demands light entertainment. Certainly, ever lighter entertainment is the first reflex of theatre boards and artistic directors when facing financial difficulty. However, the near absence of political theatre from the stages of Canada’s midsize and large professional theatres is not due to the tastes of audiences but to the tastes of artistic directors and the boards that hire them. (Our small companies, meanwhile, busy themselves exploring new forms.)

The newspaper, wrote American humorist Finley Peter Dunne (“Mr. Dooley”), “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” I think that would be a good goal for theatres. It’s a challenge bringing theatre to the afflicted, of course – and we should do more of that.

It’s less of a challenge to afflict the comfortable. In my experience, audiences want to be challenged. They want to hear provocative and strange and uncomfortable ideas, and to be stimulated to think in new ways. They want smart, funny, dramatic plays about the world they live in. They want theatre that’s about something.

But instead, our theatres bring comfort to the comfortable – that is, they provide light entertainment for the well off. And for that, theatres get government subsidy derived from taxation of the comfortable and the afflicted, both.

I think we have to do better.

This article first appeared in #Cdncult: Reporting and commentary about Canadian performance culture in Internet times (spiderwebshow.ca/cdncult). Volume 7, Edition 7: ART & POLITICS.

Years ago – maybe 40 years ago – I attended an all-candidates meeting for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party. I happened to be sitting next to a visiting Swede and after the debate I asked his reaction. As I remember, he was surprised at how “middle-class” the party was. I asked him to elaborate. He said the party seemed geared toward the middle class and not toward the poor.

That story has come to mind several times recently – as I was writing a column for the Winter/Spring 2015 issue of Inroads (“The left’s greatest gift to the political right”); as I’ve watched the militant and growing support for Donald Trump; during the celebration of Rob Ford’s life and mayoralty; as I witness Thomas Mulcair’s fall and the Leap Manifesto’s rise; and as I read the following in Paul Krugman’s generally positive assessment of Barack Obama’s presidency: “There are still some areas of disappointment – low labor force participation, weak wage growth.”1

Low labour force participation likely hits the same people most affected by weak wage growth: the bottom third of income earners, people who have given up looking for work and people who are working harder and longer for less money.

These are the people who make up a good part of Trump’s base of support. They also made up a good part of Rob Ford’s base. They seem particularly resentful of (1) refugees and immigrants, (2) people on welfare and (3) public sector employees. They see the left (in Canada) and liberals (in the United States) as overly sympathetic to those groups, and therefore they support the right.

Here’s a third-hand story. An American woman goes into a shop that sells devices for people with disabilities. There’s a basic wheelchair, which is free to people on social security, and a fancy wheelchair which is not. And she says, “This is how the poor get ripped off by government crooks. That’s why I’m voting for Trump.”

It’s pretty clear that she’s misinformed. A right-wing party is more likely to cut funding even for the basic wheelchair, and a left-wing party – despite its support for refugees, welfare recipients and public servants – is more likely to add coverage for the fancy wheelchair. The poor, in general, are likely to get better treatment from the left. In Canada, the NDP has led in raising minimum wages; in Saskatchewan, it brought in Canada’s first income support for low-wage workers.

So why aren’t the poor loyal to the left? Why do they seem increasingly to support right-wing populists like Ford and Trump? Perhaps they actually yearn for the freedom from oppressive government programs that neoconservatives and libertarians promise, but not likely.

Here’s a typical headline from the NDP website: “Tom Mulcair will invest in the middle class by asking corporations to pay their fair share.”2 The poor could be forgiven for not knowing that for the NDP “middle class” includes the poor because it’s a euphemism for “everyone except the very rich.” If they read the fine print, they’ll learn that the NDP promises low-cost child care and a national drug plan. But they might be forgiven for thinking these are just more goodies for the latte-drinking elites.

It doesn’t help that the left has largely shifted its focus from class to identity politics: from the poor and relatively poor to women’s and LGBT issues, people of colour and Aboriginals. The poor – especially poor white males, of course – will see this as another indication that society and elites have turned against them. They see themselves as outsiders and give their support to outsiders. And if latte drinkers are appalled by the Fords and Trumps, that’s just more evidence that outsiders have made the right choice.

To the extent that they are badly educated, they will not recognize the political party that best serves their interest; and to the extent that they fail to recognize the party that best serves their interest, they will remain poor. I’m not suggesting that winning support from the poor will be easy for the left – only that it’s necessary.

Those difficult-to-like and difficult-to-reach outsiders are the exact people on whose behalf a social democratic party must work. As my Swedish colleague indicated, representing the poor – the bottom third, whoever they are – is what social democratic politics is about. It’s why we need a social democratic party in the first place: the political landscape is crowded with parties happy to serve the middle class.

Representing the poor and integrating them into society – through decent housing, transit, health care, income support, drug and alcohol treatment, care for the aged and especially education and work that is secure, healthy and fairly remunerated – is more than the ethical thing to do. We should now understand that if we fail, they will support Rob Ford or Donald Trump – or worse.

4_Box

Continue reading “Why do the poor support Ford and Trump?”

From CBC Radio 1, June 28, 2015:

HARRY FORESTELL: Thank you for listening. I’m Harry Forestell, sitting in for Rex Murphy on Cross Country Checkup. Our topic today: Should Canada accept more of the migrants and refugees trying to get into Europe. We’re interested in what you have to say … An email from Thomas Brawn in Ottawa, Ontario, very succinctly says, “Yes, we should accept migrants from everywhere. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants, ongoing guests of the First Nations.” 1

I laughed. If we really are “ongoing guests of the First Nations,” I thought, it’s pretty rude of us to invite hundreds of thousands of people into our hosts’ home.

Then, five minutes later, I learned I wasn’t the only one to have this thought:

FORESTELL: We have Kahn-Tineta Horn from Kahnawake, Quebec, on the line. Should Canada accept more of the migrants and refugees trying to get into Europe?

HORN: Canadians and yourself are saying that we should be accepting more people. I’m Mohawk. We’ve gone through a horrible, horrific genocide and now there are very few of us left and we are living in the worst conditions anywhere in the world, practically. No water, toxins in the water, the devastation of our environment, sicknesses and all kinds of health problems and we’ve just come through the residential school commission and Canada has committed genocide.

FORESTELL: So is dealing with those problems sufficient reason to not acknowledge other problems in the world and not try to deal with those other problems as well?

HORN: Well, don’t you think you should deal with the problems with us first?

FORESTELL: I’m saying, Can we do two things at once?

HORN: I don’t think so. These people are going to come over – I’ve spoken to lots of them. They don’t even know anything about us, they come here to help themselves to our resources. They’re even getting loans from the banks so they can buy our land, which we never even relinquished. They’re acting the same way as the Canadians, who by the way are refugees.

FORESTELL: So you don’t see any difference between traditional, historical empire-building and people who are so desperately in need of help they have nowhere else to turn. Who should look after them if not Canadians?

HORN: If you can’t even look after us, and we’re in desperate situations, how can you turn around and take care of these people? They want to be in on the genocide, they’ll come over here and they’ll help you with the genocide. Canada is built on genocide. That’s what it’s built on.

Of course, not all liberal Canadians are as idealistic, naive or politically correct (take your choice) as Mr. Brawn, and not all Aboriginal Canadians as militant or extreme as Ms. Horn. Still, I’ve recently attended several events in Ottawa, including at the National Arts Centre, at which a spokesperson “acknowledges” that we are on “unceded Algonquin territory.” OPIRG-Ottawa, whose mandate is “to bring together and build upon a broad-based community dedicated to social, economic and environmental justice,” announces at the top of every website page, “On unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin Territory.”2

Does that mean we should refrain from bringing refugees to Ottawa until its ownership is settled? What would OPIRG say?

The photograph

I am thinking about all that as Canada turns its attention to Syrian refugees, following the release of that genuinely painful photograph of a drowned three-year-old Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but that particular picture has generated a billion words. It might also have been the biggest nail in Stephen Harper’s coffin, yet again exposing him as unable to distinguish between humanitarian action and war. Among Mr. Harper’s recognized qualities is his lack of generosity, and even the most loyal among the Conservative base don’t want to believe themselves heartless. If he had simply said, “Yes, we will immediately begin a process of accepting 25,000 refugees and, if we are in a position to do so in the future, we will accept more.” But no, he kept saying they were doing enough and he kept talking about war, while the country faced up to its embarrassingly low, by international standards, rate of accepting refugees.

There has been a great deal of speculation about the fantastic power of that photograph, but I’ve heard no one say this: It worked, in Europe and America, because Aylan Kurdi looks middle-class. With his running shoes and colourful shirt and tidy haircut and apparent health, he is our son and we are his parents. He doesn’t look different or foreign – like all those desperate, hungry women in their hijabs. He looks like a boy on his way to play an organized sport at the community centre down the road.

For the first time, perhaps, we begin to understand what we, the West, have wrought on that civilization.

Treachery, hypocrisy, abject failure

According to Jewish-Israeli journalist Ari Shavit:

In the second half of the 20th century the United States and Europe contributed to stabilizing a post-colonial order in the Middle East. This order was rotten and corrupt. It was based on a shady deal of supporting dark regimes in exchange for a regular oil supply … But in the early 21st century the United States and Europe toppled the old Middle Eastern order with an insane war in Iraq, an idiotic war in Libya and indirect support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The result wasn’t an alternative order that stabilizes enlightened regimes and advances democratic values, but utter disorder. It was civil wars and fanatics’ wars and inter-tribal wars. The Western powers’ idealistic ambition – naïve, idealistic and cut off from reality – wreaked havoc in the last 12 years throughout the Middle East.3

And Palestinian-Israeli journalist Odeh Bisharat:

Qatar, a U.S. ally, is supporting the sadistic ISIS (Islamic State)4 … Saudi Arabia, of course, is the mother and father of the Wahhabi stream of Islam, which sees everyone except its own adherents as heretics deserving of death. By building on this movement, the House of Saud seized control of Saudi Arabia, supported by Britain. Later on, America replaced Britain … So even as America was ostensibly fighting for human rights all over the world, the Middle Ages prevailed in its own backyard, in Saudi Arabia.

As Saudi Arabia underwent incredible economic development, there emerged a fatal combination between billions of dollars and a horrific ideology of death, which brought about the current Arab disaster. But when the worst occurs, the leaders of the Gulf states, who are still supplying weapons and billions of dollars to these death cults, remain silent. Their money is safely stowed in Western banks.5

And then, of course, there’s Israel. In August 1990, after five months of occupation, a U.S.-led international force ejected Iraq from Kuwait. In its 48th year of occupation of the Palestinian territories, Israel remains the world’s largest recipient of U.S. aid. Hamas is condemned for firing largely ineffectual rockets in its fight against an Israeli blockade; but Israel “has a right to defend itself” when it kills thousands of civilians in retribution.

Treachery, hypocrisy and abject failure, from Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration until yesterday’s photo of our neighbour Aylan Kurdi lying in the sand. Continue reading “Thoughts inspired by Aylan Kurdi”

At the age of ninety-three and a half, my mother went for 30-minute walks. Then she took a turn for the worse. We went to the doctor. “Doctor,” she said, “I would like to die. Can you help me?” “No,” said the doctor, “and don’t ask me again.” After that, she frequently asked family members to help her die. She suggested going to Switzerland.1 We were concerned, but no one did anything.

She walked more slowly, then she needed a walker, then a wheelchair. She was often sleepy. She got a lung infection and was sent to the hospital. She refused to be admitted, went home with enough analgesic to keep her dopey and, three days later, died. The decline took seven months.

We die differently now, and we haven’t recognized it.

In How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter,2 Sherwin B. Nuland describes the autopsies of people who died at 85 and older. Their death certificates had reported cause of death as heart attack, stroke, cancer or infection – those were the big ones – but in every case the autopsy found that they were dying of other things at the same time. Their entire system was collapsing. In other words, they were at the end of their life span.

A Galapagos land tortoise lives to 190. A very healthy grey squirrel barely makes it to 20. Those are life spans. The human life span is about 90, and that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. What has changed, for humans, is life expectancy. In 1900, Canadians could expect to live to 50. Now we can expect to live into our eighties.

This is a key point: in the rich countries today – as a result of sanitation, vaccination, diet and antibiotics – human life expectancy is very close to the human life span.

In 1900, your typical person got sick – at 7 or 37 or 67 – and died at home a few days later. Today, most of us die in a hospital. And we don’t get sick – we just get old. Pneumonia used to be called the “friend of the aged”; now it’s easily cured, so we linger. Our increased longevity has demographic implications: the longer people live, the higher the percentage of old people. People blame it on the baby boom, but if those post–World War II babies died at 50, there would be no boom in old people now.

So given the unprecedented millions of us who will be lingering for months or years, the current interest in euthanasia or assisted suicide is not surprising. Current polls show that 84 per cent of Canadians support assisted dying.3

My mother was no social pioneer, but on this she was ahead of her time. Twenty years ago, at the age of 75, her major activities included going to funerals and visiting hospitals and “long-term care facilities.” She’d say, “I believe in euthanasia. When someone is miserable and they make everyone else miserable, they should be killed. When I get old, you won’t have to beg me.” She was right. She had to beg us.

The irony is that virtually none of the current discussion is about the aged. The most discussed cases involve youngish people suffering from great pain and a terminal disease:

  • Sue Rodriguez was 43 when Canada’s Supreme Court decided against her in 1992. She had ALS.
  • Susan Griffiths suffered from multiple system atrophy, a rare degenerative neurological disease. She was 72 when she “went to Switzerland” in 2013.
  • Donald Low was 68 when he made his famous video. He died of a brain tumour in early 2013.
  • Gloria Taylor and Kay Carter are the women whose cases were recently decided, posthumously, by the Supreme Court. Taylor was 61 when diagnosed with ALS. Carter was the exception: she was 89 years old. Confined to a wheelchair as a result of a degenerative disease, she went to Switzerland in 2010.

Quebec’s legislation and the recent Supreme Court decision were guided by legislation and experience in Belgium, the Netherlands and the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington. The focus of all of these is on people, like those above, who are in great pain and dying of a terminal illness.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Criminal Code’s prohibitions on assisted suicide no longer apply “to the extent that they prohibit physician-assisted death for a competent adult person who … has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”4

Québécois aspirants for assisted death “must suffer from an incurable serious illness” and “suffer from constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain.”5

Quebec’s legislation and the Supreme Court’s decision are humane and important steps, but they would likely have been of no use to my mother and won’t much help the vast majority of people who in the years to come will suffer lingering deterioration. When we talk about assisted dying, we need to distinguish between the young and the old, between early death from disease and the death that comes at the end of a proper lifespan.

According to Laura Fraser in a Halifax Chronicle Herald special report, “Academics point to the same European countries as role models for other regions, with Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands regularly topping their lists as the best places in the world to grow old.”6 Fraser conveniently points out, “Their citizens are the highest-taxed in the European Union.”

In Canada, here is what old people can look forward to: If we have money and a caring family, we will spend our final years at home or in a seniors’ residence with the best care love or money can provide. If we’re poor, we will go into a nursing home (a “long-term-care facility”) and lie in bed until we succumb.

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Quality varies. According to a Canadian Institute for Health Information study, “The average nursing home resident in Canada is age 85 or older and faces many challenges, including multiple chronic diseases and problems with mobility, memory and incontinence. Some are completely dependent on nursing home staff for the most basic activities of daily living, such as toileting and eating.”7 Further, according to the same study,

  • “The percentage of residents on antipsychotic medications without a related diagnosis ranged from 18% to 50%” (i.e., people were given antipsychotic drugs even when not psychotic);
  • 60% suffer from dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease;
  • “residents with worsening symptoms of depression ranged from 3% to 40%.”

I’m 64 years old. This is what I would like for my last years. I’d like Canadians to willingly pay high enough taxes so everyone can be humanely cared for as they grow up and as they grow old.

I would also like – let’s deal with the tough one first. Dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s, can wipe out the higher functions of the brain (memory, cognition, emotion, language) but leave the body intact for years. I would like to be able to sign a document today that stipulates that when, for a period of 30 days, I cannot recognize my grandchildren or remember their names, I will be put to death. No country will allow me to sign a request today, when I am (arguably) of sound mind, for euthanasia to be carried out at a later date when I am not.

I hope I have 100 good years. But I’d also like to know that, if I remain of sound mind, I can get help dying, even if I don’t have an incurable disease and am not in unbearable pain. I don’t want to be put in the position of having to kill myself while I am still capable of doing so, but before I want to. Maybe 80 or 85 should be the minimum age. But if I want to die because I’m bedridden and uncomfortable, or don’t want to deplete my children’s inheritance and/or use up large amounts of government funds for little return, that should be sufficient reason.

Finally, I’d like a going-away party. I’ve been to a few wakes recently, and they tend to be fun. I’d like to attend mine. I will lie in bed and people will make funny, affectionate speeches about me. Then someone will fetch barbiturates or hook me up to a canister of helium. I’d rather they didn’t go to jail for doing so.

Continue reading “Dying later, dying differently, dying when we want”

As I write this, the British Columbia teachers have returned to work, following a strike of several months. Depending on whom you listened to, the union or the government, it sounded like two entirely different events. The main mystery for me is why the government didn’t force the teachers back to work earlier – in time for the normal start of classes in September. Presumably they wanted to teach the teachers a lesson. In any case, it’s clear that both management and union had priorities other than the education of children.

During the strike, I wondered more than I usually do why public servants have the right to strike in the first place. Public sector unions are different from private sector unions. Private sector workers are engaged in an economic battle with owners. They gamble that the company will prefer higher labour costs to lost revenue. But it’s a big gamble: a strike can drive the enterprise out of business or out of town.

No such concern exists for public sector workers. Theirs is a political battle. A public service strike inconveniences the public, and the pressure on government is indirect. Workers will lose wages, but not their jobs.

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It’s hard to find agreed-on numbers comparing wages and benefits in the public and private sectors. In a debate hosted last year by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Jim Stanford,an economist with the Unifor trade union, argued that governments have “the power to ‘solve’ their labour relations problems by simply dictating a settlement. The potential for misuse of this confluence of fiscal interest and political power is enormous.”1 He acknowledged that “average earnings in the public sector are 5 to 10 per cent higher than economy averages (depending on how they are measured) – but education and credentials are significantly higher too. Comparing similar occupations and credentials, it’s largely a wash. Hence, he said, “Tilting at public sector unions is all about politics, not economics.”

Arguing the other side, Professor Tom Flanagan contrasted private with public sector bargaining. In the public sector, he said,“gains extorted through repeated use of strikes and strike threats may lead to reductions in service,” but the reductions “will not necessarily be in the sector where strikes have driven up compensation.” Thus, “aggressive collective bargaining may well kill someone else’s goose.”2

Flanagan cited a recent study that, after controlling for a dozen variables known to influence earnings, including gender, age, education, experience, province of residence, size of employer and nature of employment, found that public sector employees are paid on average about 10 per cent more than unionized private sector workers with similar qualifications and experience.3 Public sector workers were “much more likely to have a generous pension plan, retire earlier, have greater job security, get longer paid vacations, and take more sick days.”

Of course, even if public sector employees do have an unfair advantage over their private sector counterparts, why begrudge them their good fortune? Isn’t it a bit like the proverbial Russian peasant who, offered anything he desired, said, “My neighbour has a goat and I don’t – kill his goat”? Shouldn’t private sector workers and unions just fight harder for better pay and benefits?

The problem is bigger than that. The public sector advantage has broad implications for left-wing political parties. Public sector strikes are a left-wing government’s Achilles heel: give in to union demands, you open yourself to accusations of profligate spending; put up with a long public sector strike, you look helpless and incompetent; legislate strikers back to work, you risk losing labour votes and campaign workers.

And efficient public services are central to a left-wing conception of society. Public sector strikes undermine the left’s ability to deliver on that promise. And the perception of public service privilege leads to the conviction that increased funding for services will result in increased wages for public servants rather than improved or expanded delivery of service.

The left doesn’t usually talk about these problems in public, but there are exceptions. In the prologue to his How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot, Brian Topp describes his experience with the Saskatchewan NDP. Its near-defeat in 1999, he writes, was the result of rejection by rural voters and “a tactically opportunistic and strategically mindless nurses’ strike, timed by that union’s leaders to politically blackmail our government.”4 Then, a few pages later, discussing David Miller’s successful campaign for the Toronto mayoralty, Topp goes further:

The bitter public-sector strike that preceded Mayor Miller’s announcement in the fall of 2009 that he would not run for a third term had a familiar ring to veterans of NDP governments. Public-sector bargaining is perhaps one of the left’s proudest achievements in Canada. It is also perhaps our greatest gift to the political right .5

According to Richard Littlemore in the Globe and Mail, the proportion of private sector workers who belong to a union in Canada “has collapsed. In 1984, it was 26%. Today … it’s 17% and falling.” On the other hand, public sector membership “hit 72% by the mid-’80s and has stayed in that range ever since.”8 Littlemore suggests that one consequence is “a serious souring of public sentiment”:

 

Members may see value in their union cards, but for large swaths of the public, unions have a serious image problem: They’ve gone from being the folks who brought you the weekend to being the folks who deny you the services for which you pay your taxes.

Before the complexion of unionism went civil-servant, workers in the private sector tended to aspire to union membership. But now, non-union members of the public are more likely to resent union protections, especially when it seems that civil servants are getting fat (and retiring happy) on taxes paid by the unorganized.

 

He doesn’t provide much evidence, but you can easily find the evidence by reading the “comments” on articles about the public service in the online version of any of the major daily newspapers. They are overwhelmingly anti–public service and often drip with resentment. Public servants are seen as lazy and overpaid, using their leverage with friends in government to win undeserved privilege – at the ordinary person’s expense. Largely absent is any notion that government expenditures – on education, health care, transportation – help the underprivileged.

2_Sam Javanrouh flickrLittlemore, like Topp, sees evidence of the backlash in the 2009 Toronto garbage strike:

Public resentment over the garbage that piled up in parks during the 2009 strike helped catapult the notorious Rob Ford into the mayor’s chair. In an administration dogged by controversy, one of Ford’s clearest victories has been to contract out a large number of garbage-collecting jobs that had belonged to CUPE members. The public outcry over this was notable by its absence.

Should the left support banning public sector strikes? There are better options. According to Juhana Vartiainen in “Interpreting Wage Bargaining Norms,”

From the mid-1990s onwards, Swedish wage bargaining has been characterised by informal co-ordination of the wage claims of big unions and bargaining cartels. In particular, it has been understood that the manufacturing sector should lead by first agreeing on a pay increase, whereafter the service sector and public sector unions choose a similar increase.7

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In other words, the manufacturing sector settles on a wage and the service and public sectors follow. Canada lacks the “bargaining cartels” and other structures that are conducive to such an arrangement, and Canadian labour and management show no signs of wanting them.

Nonetheless, here’s my suggestion: public sector unions should volunteer to have their increases tied to some aggregate of settlements in the private sector. If Jim Stanford is correct that public sector workers are not a labour aristocracy, then it won’t much affect public sector wages anyway. But it will undercut certain unions’ abilities to hold left-wing parties to ransom during elections; more important, it will immediately undercut public distrust of public servants, left-wing parties and state provision of social services. And in the long run, it will be in the overall interests of public servants, as it will restore some measure of respect to the public service and encourage public sector growth.

Will that happen? I wouldn’t bet on it. But maybe the first step is admitting that we have a serious problem.

 

Notes

1 Retrieved from http://www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/should-public-servants-have-the-right-to-strike-yes/

2 Retrieved from http://www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/should-public-servants-have-the-right-to-strike-no/

3 Milagros Palacios and Jason Clemens, “Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation in Canada,” retrieved from http://www.fraserinstitute.org/uploadedFiles/fraser-ca/Content/research-news/research/publications/comparing-public-and-private-sector-compensation-in-canada.pdf

4 Brian Topp, How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot (Toronto: Lorimer, 2010), p. 28.

5 Ibid., p. 30.

6 Richard Littlemore, “Do Unions Have a Future?”, Globe and Mail, March 27, 2013, retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-magazine/do-unions-have-a-future/article10310754/?page=all#dashboard/follows/

7 Retrieved from http://www.konj.se/download/18.5ce513b71287f0b00bc800016189/wp_116.pdf

 

Arthur Milner is a playwright and theatre director, and Inroads’ culture columnist. He lives in Val-des-Monts, Quebec. 

About a year ago, the United States started pressuring Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to restart peace negotiations. No one knows why. Israel had expressed no such desire. The Palestinians and everyone else thought: What’s the point? No one believed the Americans would ever pressure Israel sufficiently to get a reasonable compromise. Besides, no one was pushing the United States to get back into the ring. Presumably, Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama thought something could be achieved. Were they naive, or did they have a few aces up their sleeves?

With the negotiations at an end, we can now answer that question. There were no aces up American sleeves. Draw your own conclusions.

Obama had tried to get things going in his first term. In Cairo, he promised the Arab world a settlement freeze. But Israel paid no attention and, instead, announced new construction in the middle of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s official visit. When Obama stated that future negotiations would be based on the 1967 borders, Netanyahu got 42 standing ovations from the U.S. Congress for telling Obama to stuff himself.

The PA asked for a settlement freeze but got the release of prisoners instead. They agreed to enter negotiations. There is suspicion that a few high-profile Western boycotts of Israeli projects in the West Bank convinced Israel to comply.

7_Secretary_Kerry_Attends_World_Economic_Forum_(Pic_4) flickr large us department of state

The Jewish State

The basis of the Kerry negotiations, like all negotiations before, is the “two-state solution.” There is near-universal agreement on what that would look like: two states, based on the pre-1967 borders with mutually accepted land swaps; a shared or split Jerusalem; and some recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees, including compensation and limited repatriation. This is Canada’s official position. The only significant groups that reject this plan are Israelis, evangelical Christians and Palestinian radicals and their supporters (see box).

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Many in Israel’s coalition government reject a Palestinian state out of hand. Prime Minister Netanyahu once said he accepted the two-state solution, but he has, during these negotiations, stated that Israel will not give up the Jordan Valley for 40 years, accept refugees or remove a single settler, and that Jerusalem will remain Israel’s undivided, eternal capital. He has thrown every wrench he can find into the spokes.

The latest wrench – and the big discussion of late – is Netanyahu’s demand that the PA recognize Israel as the Jewish State. It’s an odd demand. On one hand, it’s obvious – so obvious that, until recently, it never occurred to Israel to demand it. Peace treaties were signed with Jordan and Egypt with no such declaration, and no other country recognizes or has been asked to recognize Israel as the Jewish State. The Palestinians have recognized Israel several times, but now the goalposts have been moved.

Palestinians are loath to recognize Israel as a Jewish State because they fear it would amount to abandoning Palestinian refugees’ right of return and the struggle of Palestinian citizens of Israel for equality with Jewish citizens. Are their fears justified? Who knows? Israel has never defined what it means by Jewish State.

Palestinians, like most people in the world, regard Jews as adherents to a religion. Secular Israeli Jews (a shrinking majority of Jews in Israel) tend to see themselves as a nation or people. For them, Palestinian recognition of the Jewish State is equivalent to Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. But it’s not: You don’t have to change religions to become a Palestinian or a Canadian. Imams and/or priests do not control who gets to be a Palestinian or a Canadian, but rabbis (and under Israeli law, only Orthodox rabbis) do decide who gets to be a Jew.

Negotiations were going nowhere because Israel demanded everything and gave nothing, refusing even to discuss borders. Then Netanyahu announced cancellation of the fourth prisoner release. A few days later, he announced 706 settlement units in East Jerusalem. Abbas said Netanyahu had broken the terms of the negotiations and announced the PA would sign new UN and other international agreements. Netanyahu accused the PA of walking out of negotiations.

When a few days later Abbas announced the PA had reached an agreement with Hamas, Israel suspended negotiations, saying the PA must choose between peace and terrorism – even though Israel has, more than once, called negotiations pointless because of Palestinian disunity; even though the Palestine Liberation Organization, too, had been called terrorist before Israel recognized it; even though Israel helped to create Hamas; even though at least two Israeli prime ministers had been terrorists; even though another Israeli prime minister had been found guilty of being personally responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres; even though Israel itself had previously negotiated with Hamas; and even though Abbas said that a Palestinian unity government would recognize Israel and condemn terrorism.

Netanyahu also said that, to continue negotiations, he had been prepared to offer a “partial freeze” of settlement construction. Partial freeze is another way of saying continued expansion.

And that’s where we now stand.

Israel

What’s the difference between the Israeli right, centre and centre-left? The right openly opposes the two-state solution. The centre pretends to support it in an effort to maintain international, especially U.S., support. The centre-left claims to support it, but places conditions on the Palestinians that make resolution impossible. All blame the Palestinians for failure. As Zeev Sternhell wrote in Haaretz,1 “For Israel’s leaders, the word ‘agreement’ means unconditional Palestinian surrender. This perception is anchored deep in the Israeli consciousness and is shared by the right, the center and the center-left, the towns in the country’s outskirts and most residents of Greater Tel Aviv, the Labor Party and Likud.”

The tactic that best serves the Israelis is delay. This is not new. From the beginning of the occupation, the settler slogan was “facts on the ground”: if there are enough Jews living in the territories, it will be too late to change. Settlements have expanded under both centrist and right-wing governments. Construction accelerates during times of relative peace (negotiations, for example) and slows when there is violence.

So refusing to negotiate is a kind of delay, and then negotiating is another kind. Breaking off negotiations is one kind of delay, and agreeing to resume is another. Failed negotiations are a kind of delay. Successful negotiations are a failure, because even small steps encourage the dangerous belief that deals can be made with Arabs. That was the lesson of the Oslo Accords, when for a few years Israelis became enamoured of Palestinian-Israeli accords. It took the Camp David Accords in 2000 to break Israelis of that habit – those negotiations whose failure Clinton blamed on Yasir Arafat and out of which Ehud Barak invented the great slogan “We have no partner for peace.”2 Delay as long as you can, negotiate as long as you can, then sabotage the negotiations and blame their failure on the Palestinians. And, of course, even if there is a deal, you can be sure there will be violence (from extremists or provocateurs), and Israel can use that violence to break the deal and then, again, delay negotiations or negotiate for years.

Polls show that a majority of Israelis support the two-state solution, but this means nothing. Thirty-six per cent vote for the right, 35 per cent for the centre/centre-left. The religious parties, which tend to care mostly about – and can be bribed with – welfare and exemption from army service, are at about 15 per cent. That leaves genuine opposition to the occupation and support for a two-state solution at 14 per cent (which includes the Arab parties). That is what the Palestinians are up against.

The American response

When negotiations broke down, Kerry blamed Israel. This was as unprecedented as it was accurate. Sadly, he and the State Department backtracked. Others have shown some courage in apportioning responsibility – former Canadian ambassador Michael Bell, for example.3

Typical of the self-delusion that clouds the American mind on Israel is Roger Cohen’s April 10 op-ed in the New York Times. Cohen wrote, “The recent Israeli decision to move forward with plans to build 700 new settlement units in Jerusalem reflects a widespread view within Netanyahu’s governing coalition (and quite likely in his heart of hearts) that not an inch of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River should be surrendered”; and “Netanyahu’s insistence on up-front Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state … amounts to so much bloviation designed to undermine any talks.”

So far so good, but then: “Neither side is serious today about a two-state peace settlement.” The problem on the Palestinian side is “widespread corruption and nepotism … Abbas has zero democratic legitimacy; he leads a divided Palestinian national movement” (see box: Abbas). Perhaps; but Cohen didn’t list a single position held or action taken by the Palestinians that undermined negotiations. So which side is not serious?

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Cohen wrote, “The gap between the maximum potential Israeli offer and minimum Palestinian demand keeps growing.” Absolutely true, but he neglects to mention that the gap grows only because Israel’s offer shrinks.

So what does Cohen propose the Americans do about the fact that “Netanyahu’s governing coalition” is adamant that “not an inch of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River should be surrendered”?

Kerry should take a break. Prolonging failure only demonstrates weakness … American clout can only be demonstrated if there is a limit to the accommodation of unserious people. Let the impasse fester for a while (it has for decades), focus on securing a lasting nuclear deal with Iran, and demonstrate thereby that the United States is capable of acting in its own interests when necessary, irrespective of the views of even its closest allies.

In other words, the problem is American credibility, so prove your independence by pursuing U.S. interests in Iran, but other than that do exactly what Netanyahu and the Israel lobby demand: nothing. No mention that the United States provides Israel with over $3 billion a year in untied funds, guarantees Israeli military superiority4 and vetoes anti-Israel resolutions at the UN.

And now, Kerry and Obama have called for a “pause.” “Perhaps in a few months, Mr. Obama said, the time might be ripe for Israel and the Palestinians to ‘walk through that door,’ ready to compromise,” Patrick Martin reported.5 So now, according to the United States, both sides are to blame. An improvement over Clinton, I suppose.

In the Daily Beast on April 27, Josh Rogen reported on Kerry’s remarks to a closed-door meeting of influential world leaders two days earlier, of which the Daily Beast obtained a recording.6 According to Rogen, “Kerry said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders share the blame for the current impasse in the talks,” adding that neither Netanyahu nor Abbas was ready to make the tough decisions necessary for achieving peace. “Kerry criticized Israeli settlement construction as being unhelpful to the peace process,” and he “criticized Palestinian leaders for making statements that declined to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state,” Rogen wrote.

“Kerry also repeated his warning that a failure of Middle East peace talks could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens,” and said that if there’s no two-state solution, Israel risks becoming, in Kerry’s words, “an apartheid state.”

Finally, “Kerry said that he was considering, at some point, publicly laying out a comprehensive U.S. plan for a final agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, in a last-ditch effort to forge a deal before the Obama administration leaves office in 2017.”

Sure, let’s wait another three years. Apparently there are no tricks up the American sleeve. What a waste of time and energy. Nevertheless, like an addict promising to kick the habit next time, Kerry insists the United States still matters. We can always hope. But we, and especially the Palestinians, should put our energies elsewhere.

What’s next for the Palestinians?

Many – including the PA – were sceptical about the Kerry negotiations from the start. But the pressure to enter the negotiations from America and Europe – the two groups with the means if not the will to force an Israeli retreat – must have been overwhelming. Still, at this point the PA really has no choice but to give up on negotiations entirely and turn to the UN and international law. Palestinians in the territories will turn, one hopes, to increased nonviolent political action, with the tacit support of the PA, and support elsewhere via boycott, divestment and sanctions (see box).

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Ten years ago, in the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman called Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip “an urgent necessity.”7 Ideally, Friedman wrote, “this withdrawal should be negotiated along the Clinton plan. But if necessary, it should be done unilaterally. This can’t happen too soon, and the U.S. should be forcing it.”

The United States should be forcing a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, and it’s an urgent necessity. Friedman wrote that more than ten years ago.

Israel’s leaders will need to realize, as did Soviet and South African leaders, that they cannot have what they want. Israel simply does not get to keep the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Gorbachev and De Klerk abandoned Soviet and South African delusions, and thereby probably prevented a great many deaths.

We can’t simply wait for an intelligent and courageous Israeli leadership. We must force an end to Israeli delusions.

Continue reading “The Middle East impasse”

2_this-is-war.762x400In Hannah Moscovitch’s This is War, four Canadian soldiers recount and relive the events that led up to a horrific mass killing. This is a story of Canada’s participation in the Afghan war, and the soldiers, whose places of origin range from Hamilton to Red Deer, seem properly and believably Canadian. But This Is War, as one might judge from its title, is also about war. At Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company in January 2014, the staging – a patch of desert, endless shades of olive and tan, the infinite horizon – reinforced the parable-like quality of the writing.

Moscovitch is an immensely talented, still-young playwright. What makes her especially exciting is her always eccentric and brave point of view. This is War is a pretty ambitious title for a 30-something – I was not looking forward to another war-is-hell story, but Moscovitch delivers far more. This has to be the most anti-romantic view of war ever. Our Canadians are not heroes, nor are they evil. They’re just banal. In the midst of constant dreariness, recurring horror and occasional atrocity, their concerns are youthfully mundane.

The play takes the form of a series of interviews and scenes with the soldiers. We don’t see the interviewers or hear their questions, only the soldiers’ responses, spoken directly to the audience, recounting the events leading up to a joint operation with, and an atrocity committed by, the Afghan army. When asked about the night before the “joint op,” the soldiers evade or won’t answer. Instead, we see what happened: a card game, a sexual encounter, a love triangle, egos bruised. But it’s all immaturity and naiveté and self-indulgence:

Jonny: You like the sarge?

Tanya: I did a tour with him. He’s like family. Like an older brother. Actually, he’s kind of like my dad.

Jonny: Yeah?

Tanya: Yeah, my dad can talk you into things like lending him your boyfriend’s car that you happen to have the keys to, so he can go crash it into a parked car in Mississauga.

Jonny: Car was totalled?

Tanya: That boyfriend was so good about it, too. Didn’t freak out. Just said, “Shit happens.”

Jonny: Nice guy?

Tanya: Nice guy.

Jonny: I’m that guy. Nice guy.

Tanya: Yeah?

Jonny: There was this girl in high school – her name was Sarah Jean Greene. I did stuff like that for her, like when her cat ran away, I put up posters for it.1

It’s all high school. And why shouldn’t it be? They’re kids.

Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated Omar is said to be the first entirely Palestinian-funded feature film. We follow three young Palestinian men, engaged in violent acts of resistance, and a young woman, loved by two of the men and sister to the third. The three men kill an Israeli soldier and Omar is captured. Following torture, he agrees to collaborate with the Israelis, but instead plays a game of double agent, distrusted by both sides, in pursuit of the woman he loves.

There are two parallel stories here: the mystery-romance and the political thriller. At the first level, it has a Shakespearean feel to it, like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet: lies and confusion leading inexorably to tragedy.

The three young men are dedicated to resisting the occupation. The film assumes such resistance is legitimate and gives us several instances of gratuitous Israeli brutality. The young men appear to be mildly admired by their friends and families, and everyone helps out as they try to escape Israeli soldiers (in rather fantastic chase scenes). But for a film so focused on politics, it leaves a lot out. There is no mention of the Palestinian Authority and no mention of alternatives to violent resistance: no demonstrations or legal challenges (as in Bil’in2), no boycotts.

I’m a bit tired of and mystified by the relentless focus on terrorism or violence in films by or about Palestinians. Take, for example, Abu-Assad’s earlier film Paradise Now, or Inch’Allah and, more recently, The Attack. They ask: What can lead someone to become a suicide bomber and kill children? But Omar is different.

Omar is not about suicide bombers; none of the characters wants or expects to die, and their targets are soldiers of the occupation, not civilians. The men are not religious fanatics. They seem quite normal, neither particularly admirable nor reprehensible. They don’t talk about goals and strategies, or leaders and parties. Resistance, in one form or another, seems simply to be part of Palestinian life in the territories, always in the air, and violent resistance is simply most obvious, nearest at hand. Violent resistance is, in a way, entry-level politics.

But violent resistance, as shown in Omar, is absolutely pointless. Acts of violence by Palestinians lead to greater acts of violence by Israel and never come close to threatening Israel’s dominance. Among the Palestinians, acts of violence lead to division, distrust, retribution and death. Such acts of violence are, in Omar’s world, perfectly understandable, but perfectly useless too – and, to him and his friends, painfully, tragically destructive.

A big problem in this Palestinian mode of resistance, as in Canada’s invasion of Afghanistan, is the nature of its agents. They’re kids, and whatever they think they’re doing, armed resistance or war, their minds are otherwise engaged: in trying to get laid or in the search for love and marriage.

They’re just kids, playing in minefields.

Continue reading “This is high school”

1. We need to have a public discussion about immigration and religion

During several visits to Europe over the last 25 years, friends on the left would tell me, in hushed voices: immigration is a big problem, but you’re not allowed to talk about it, because if you mention it, it means you’re a racist. Since that time, the far right has grown, largely on the basis of fighting immigration. I’d say it’s better to discuss difficult questions openly, because if we don’t, the situation will fester and the far right will grow.

2. Our understanding of the implications of immigration and/or religious practice needs to become more sophisticated

We need to stop relying on slogans like “freedom of religion” and “freedom of expression.” They’re excellent principles and good slogans, but they don’t replace discussion, and they’re not the solution to all problems. We need to stop calling people who disagree with us racists and xenophobes.

3. I don’t want people with extreme views to have power over me or my children

This is not about religion, it’s about extremism of any kind. A Nazi uniform or a Black Bloc outfit (as we’ve seen at various G8 or G20 summits) is a pretty good indication of extreme views, and few of us would support a government employee’s right to wear such clothing on the job.

Much the same way, a religious uniform is not a bad indication of religious conservatism. Religious people who do not wear religious insignia or clothing tend to be more moderate, more liberal in their views. Those who do wear religious insignia or clothing are more likely to be fundamentalist and take literally what is written in sacred texts. Fundamentalists are more likely to believe that men are superior and that God created Adam a few days after he created trees. They also tend to believe that women who don’t dress in the prescribed manner are loose or whores, and that nonmembers of their particular religion will go to hell. I don’t want people with such beliefs sitting in judgement over me or teaching my children.

This is not about religion. The large majority of people of all religions do not wear religious garb. Of course, there are fundamentalists and extremists who wear standard Canadian clothing. Similarly, there are many people who wear religious dress who are not fundamentalist or extremist. These moderates should have little problem removing their religious symbols while at work.

4. We should try to protect young women from parents who force them to conform to religious practices

The rights of young women who do not want to dress in a religious manner should take precedence over the rights of women who choose freely to wear the hijab or niqab. It seems odd to me that some proclaim “the right to choose” as a feminist goal per se. We need to know what is being chosen and under what circumstances.

5. The situation is semi-urgent

State and religion need little separation when religious institutions are small or liberal. As the number of fundamentalists increases, so do potential problems, as it is a sine qua non of religious extremists that they do not accept separation of religion and the state. Where there are large numbers of fundamentalists, there is a trend toward theocracy. At the time of Israel’s founding, no one worried about the small number of fundamentalist Jews. Now, at a local level, they force women to the back of the bus and, at a national level, promote motions in the Israeli legislature that religious law should take precedence over secular (state) law.

In Canada, the number of religious fundamentalists is increasing, and will continue to do so because of immigration and because, as psychologist Jesse Bering puts it, “nonreligious people are being dramatically out-reproduced by religious people of any faith.” Bering cites the work of evolutionary theorist and religion researcher Michael Blume: “Those who ‘never’ attend religious services bear, on a worldwide average, 1.67 children per lifetime; ‘once per month,’ and the average goes up to 2.01 children; ‘more than once a week,’ 2.5 children. Those numbers add up – and quickly.”1

In the United States and the United Kingdom there are private, community-based security organizations patrolling ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.2 Volunteers fight a variety of crimes, and local residents call them because they often respond more rapidly than the police. They are said to be effective in tracking suspects and detaining them until police arrive. They are not armed and do not have the authority to make arrests. In New York City, they have been successful at securing public funding, allowing the purchase of sophisticated equipment. Who could object?

But volunteer patrols have been accused of using excessive force against non-Jewish suspects, and have been criticized for withholding from police information on suspected Jewish child molesters and other criminals, in keeping with Jewish religious prohibitions against informing on Jews to non-Jewish authorities.

As far as I know, we don’t have private religious patrols in Canada, but we do have private religious ambulance services – in Toronto, Montreal and Kiryas Tosh, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave in the Montreal suburb of Boisbriand. According to its website, Hatzoloh of Montreal “was established by members of the Montreal Jewish community”; however, “volunteer members respond to medical emergencies to any member of the neighborhood, without regard to race, religion, or ethnic background.” But the website has almost no French,3 and its religious nature is clear:

You see them every day of the week – including Shabbos and Yom Tov, and at all times of the day and night; dashing out of their homes, shops and shuls to do acts of chesed (good deeds). They interrupt participation in joyous family simchas (celebrations) and even when davening (praying) to Hashem (G-d).

The point is, as populations of the extremely religious increase and concentrate, their political influence will grow, as will their demands for state-like services and powers. At what point will we say, “This is not what we mean by religious freedom”?

6. If we want Canada to accept more immigrants, and especially refugees, we should be willing to make a tradeoff

Polls have shown that as many as 40 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec support the Quebec values charter.4 According to a 2013 EKOS Research poll, “40 per cent of all respondents said there are too many immigrants in Canada.”5 A recent Forum Research poll found that 49 per cent of Canadians said we should “accept immigrants only from some countries which share Canadian values.”6 Thus far, Canada has been spared an anti-immigration movement or political party. Can we mitigate opposition to immigration by adopting policies like the values charter that are explicit about what is expected of immigrants and all Canadians?

7. We want to build a liberal, tolerant society, with a clear separation between religion and state

We should be clear that we regard religion as a private and personal matter. We believe that all people, even children, should be able to make up their own minds about religion. We don’t accept that things are true because the Bible says so; and we don’t ban things because a sacred book prohibits them. Being a person of faith should neither limit you nor get you privileges.
Continue reading “Seven reasons to support (something like) the Quebec values charter”