Archives for category: Social Criticism

I am a Canadian. This means that I get the first Monday of September off to have one last barbecue of the summer. In theory, I get this day off because the labour movement is something to commemorate, equal in its importance to families and to the birthday of the last British monarch of the 19th century. They just laboured so hard, so the government rewarded workers with a day off just to be nice. But why is it in September? Was Jim Labour, the founder of the movement, born ambiguously at the beginning of September? Is it to give children one last day of freedom before school starts and isn’t actually associated with labour at all? Most countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, celebrate their Labour day (International Workers’ day) on or around May 1st. So what is North America’s deal?

Nothing shows international worker solidarity like pitting workers against each other, rather than holding accountable the company outsourcing to the cheapest labour standards possible. Why promote workers on Labour day when xenophobic misunderstandings of the decline of manufacturing is an option?

The biggest irony is that International Workers day has its roots in the labour movement of the United States, even though they would spell it differently. Labour day in both Canada and the US was originally commemorated in the spring as well, but was moved to September. It began as an acknowledgement of the Haymarket affair when union strikers were fighting for an eight hour work day, down from around 10 to 16 hours or so. Starting on May 1st, 1886, Chicago union workers began what was to be a lengthy peaceful protest. On May 3rd, the police opened fire on the protesters for no documented reason. May 4th, the strikers thought that maybe police brutality was a bad thing, and decided to protest that too. The mayor of Chicago at the time went to observe the protest, and confirmed that they were peaceful until… well, the police showed up. Once the cops arrived, somebody threw a bomb (nobody knows who) that killed a police officer, and then a riot broke out. A bunch of people died; it wasn’t particularly pretty.

Because aesthetics are important in American politics, they had a trial for the throwing of the bomb that instigated the riot. Unfortunately for reality, of the eight defendants, only two were actually present at the rally when the bomb went off. Seven of them ended up being sentenced to death, while the eighth got 15 years in prison. Four were hanged, one committed suicide the night before his execution, and the remaining three were pardoned in 1893 when I guess they realized that a jury that admitted prejudice against the defendants, an openly hostile judge, and no evidence whatsoever probably means that this was a gross miscarriage of ‘justice’. Oh yeah, I forgot to say that five of them were immigrants too. I’m sure that had nothing to do with it though.

Well, someone has to be guilty. Why not the innocent? I mean, how innocent could they have been, really?

What the defendants had in common was a political inclination toward anarchism. The anarchists were the de facto terrorists of the day and an anarchist even went on to successfully assassinate the American president in 1901. Even the “failing New York Times” produced very pro-police and anti-labour articles denouncing the violent ways of anarchism in response to the Chicago protests. However, much like terrorists today, anarchists served better as bogeymen rather than legitimate interlocutors on abuses of power, and those benefiting from those abuses preferred to focus on the frightening veneer of anarchism rather than an ideology that fought for the eight hour work day, the end of child labour, and fair wages.

This brings us back to Labour day. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland sent in the military to crush more striking workers, and at least 26 people died. With no anarchists to blame this time, Cleveland knew he had to do something, and it certainly wasn’t going to be better labour standards, so he gave the people a national holiday. Despite workers’ established connection to May 1st, Cleveland picked the first Monday of September. While this day is ostensibly linked to the celebration of workers done by the then mostly defunct Knights of Labor, Cleveland didn’t want any association with the Haymarket Affair because he was worried that its connection to anarchists, socialists, and communists might encourage further, radical labour action. Who wants more progress than an eight hour work day, anyway?

This radical notion took shape even before the radical notion that women should have a say in politics. I wonder what radical notions crushed by police brutality these days will seem well within the Overton window in another hundred years? Hint: it’s not going to be anti-maskers

In what is surely the largest coincidence of all time, Canada implemented its own Labour day on the first Monday of September in the exact same year. Those Knights of Labour sure were successful, just not in providing a day of international worker solidarity with most other countries of the world. While some of this is sarcastic speculation on my part, and I’m sure the Knights of Labour were huge in the development of the labour movement (they were linked to the fight for the eight hour work day and the Haymarket Affair), the reality is that a solid percentage of the world celebrates their Labour day on May 1st to commemorate the political crushing of a labour movement under the guise of “both sides” rhetoric on a continent that actively tries to sweep that history under the rug.

Today, anarchists are still used as bogeymen to scare pearl-clutching citizens away from progressive movements being brutalized by the police. It is somewhat funny that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Rather than thanking God for Friday, workers really ought to be thanking Marx and the anarchists that fought and died for their right to a weekend – anarchists that were murdered by the State just for being anarchists. But we don’t. We barbecue in September instead.

Happy International Workers’ Day!

Did you know that racism died? It’s true! The far right doesn’t want to do a racism anymore, because racism is irrational. Melanin doesn’t have any cognitive impact! That’s crazy talk, and the far right prides itself on prioritizing facts over feelings! However, if the far right isn’t racist anymore, then nobody is racist anymore, and if nobody is racist anymore, then racism no longer exists! We did it!

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is racism?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed it—you and I. All of us are its murderers.”

And yet, despite the death of racism, disparities still exist! It’s just the darnedest thing! Black people are still disproportionately incarcerated; Indigenous people still have worse health outcomes; the Middle East is still perpetually at war. These pesky things need an explanation, and it can’t be the effects of racism, so what are we left with? Luckily for us, the far right has given us an answer. It’s just their culture! Have you even listened to a rap song? They’re all about crime; Black people just have a culture of criminality! Indigenous people get so much from the government, they developed a culture of dependence; since they don’t have to work to support themselves, they just stay at home and drink all day! And don’t even get me started on Islam; at its core is a culture of violence.

This is why groups like the Proud Boys define themselves as “Western chauvinists;” Western culture is superior! It has nothing to do with race. If white people adhered to a culture of criminality, dependence, or violence, they would be in the same situation! They just don’t! That’s where those discrepancies come from. White people inherently know better than to follow inferior cultures. There’s just something smarter and better about white people – they know to avoid these cultural traps that other, lesser races haven’t figured out yet. Case closed!

#BestCulture

Of course, this is a very silly notion indeed if you think about it. First of all, are you suggesting that the practices of Islam in Somalia are the same as those in Indonesia on the other side of the world? That the Sunni, Shia, and Sufi sects are all the same? That urban and rural black people share the same culture, or that Caribbean immigrants, African immigrants, or hell, all the different cultures across the different countries in those areas are all somehow the same? That the different Indigenous bands with hundreds of different languages among them all practice the same culture? Do you know what culture means? What are some of the festivals that are celebrated in these cultures? What are some of their traditional foods? What rituals do they practice? Culture is a very deep human artifact, and can vary from household to household, and even from individual to individual. Unfortunately, the education of foreign cultures (or even domestic alternatives to the mainstream) is usually done through polemics spoken over frightening YouTube videos of genital mutilation or whatever.

The thing is, this approach misunderstands Western culture as well. Do they think all of Western society is good, or are they picking and choosing specific aspects? Which aspects exactly are they looking at? Communism, postmodernism, and feminism are all Western constructs, and these are loathed by the far right. These ideologies are even criticized on the left for the way other Western constructs (such as colonialism and white supremacy) have influenced them. That’s why intervention in Middle Eastern countries to “save their women” is criticized by leftists. Imperialism blended with feminism is still imperialistic. This is baffling stuff, I know! You’re supposed to support women, and Muslims are horrible to women! It’s part of their culture!

Obviously consulting the women on what they want for themselves is out of the question. It’s better if we just decide for them! West knows best, after all! …Because our culture is better, to be clear.

Weirdly enough, Western culture only has continuity thanks to its mingling with other cultures. Hellenistic culture survived because the Arabs held on to it when the West decided to purge itself of paganism. We also got algebra from the Arabs, so whenever you tell a communist to thank a capitalist for their iPhone, you’ve got to thank an Arab for the math that allowed the history of physics to even begin. Pretty much all of modern Western music has its origins in Black culture. The fact that we even have an American continent is thanks to the generosity and collaboration of the Indigenous populations that certainly got the worse end of that deal.

This isn’t to say that cultural practices can’t be criticized. I mentioned genital mutilation earlier. It’s perfectly reasonable to criticize practices without expanding a single strand of a culture as a representation of its whole. Or conflating it into places where it doesn’t belong (genital mutilation has closer ties to the regions where it is practiced than it does to Islam, for example). Just as it should be okay to criticize cultural practices of the West, which the Western chauvinists would call treasonous (police brutality, an essential staple of Western culture, cannot be kneeled against, for example).

An institution that operationalizes violence to control the behaviour of its jurisdiction, founded in the slave patrols utilized to maintain white supremacy? Yeah there’s no room for critical analysis there. And for any smug Canadian, the history of the RCMP is basically the same.

Social problems ought to be criticized, but they ought to be criticized with the intention of social change. I can criticize Western culture because I’m a member of Western culture. I have a stake in how that turns out. The change I’m going to impact is really only going to be felt here, anyway. I could want the lives of people in Saudi Arabia to improve, but I don’t live there. I don’t know enough about their culture to really say what would work or not. I’m an outsider. That’s why legitimate cultural intervention requires local cultural leadership. If the far right really wanted to help Indigenous, Black, or Muslim people, they would listen to and amplify those voices rather than talk over them. The far right is not presenting good faith criticisms of cultural issues because their goal isn’t social change, it’s exclusion. I mean, if you really want to know why disparities exist, you can look into it! Make informed criticisms! Or, I suppose, you could continue believing what an outrage peddler on YouTube tells you.

Racism is an ideology that holds one race supreme and dominant over all the rest. As an ideology, it can get very complex and nuanced. Nobody likes either of those things, so racism often gets boiled down to the hatred of races other than one’s own. Lynchings, cross burnings, all that fun stuff from about a hundred years ago, and about five years from now, serve as the framework for what racism looks like. If the far right isn’t doing that, then I guess it’s not racist!

Phew! I’m glad you cleared that up! I was worried for a second there…

The thing is, the far right is trying to disengage from the measurable manifestations of racism because it carries such negative connotations. But that doesn’t stop their ideology from actually being racist. Islamophobia is the best example of this because they will say that Islam is not a race, and they are technically correct. Checkmate to all the liberals! However, the culture that they’re pointing to doesn’t actually exist. They don’t know anything about it. The reason that hate crimes against Sikhs increased after 9/11 is because they were Brown people who wore turbans, just like Osama Bin Laden!! It had nothing to do with their culture because culture is just the veneer used to overlay the actual ideology of white supremacy. White people are safe; Black and Brown people are not. Let’s call it Islam because we don’t want to be seen as racist. That’s why bad faith criticisms of Islam are called racist; good faith criticisms usually originate within Islam itself and end up looking much different.

Right wing ideology is often based in fear. It’s afraid because the bogeyman is coming for us, and so we have to make sure to keep the bogeyman away. The best bogeymen are the ones that look different from us, and race does that super well. Turns out racism never really died, as hard as Obama tried to president it away. It will be with us for a long time, and “Western chauvinism” really shouldn’t be fooling anybody.

When it comes to highest global carbon emissions, Canada is ranked 11th overall, contributing about 2% of the world’s CO2 emissions. On a per capita basis, however, Canada joins other oil producing nations of the Middle East and jumps to 7th place, ahead of the two largest polluters in absolute terms, China and the United States. Because Canada is supposed to be the “nice” country, we make claims of producing “ethical oil” to allay the fears of Western oil consumers not wanting to give their petro-dollars to evil Muslims. Our way of syphoning oil from the ground may make Canadians one of the biggest polluters on the planet, but we’ll be damned sure to do it politely. This brings us to the current debate around pipelines in Canada.

Pipelines are the practical manifestation of ethical oil. They reduce carbon emissions in long-distance transfers of oil (when compared to rail), they produce less spillage than rail, and they are typically built further from communities than rail. If we assume that oil production is going to continue into the near future, which is a safe bet all things considered, then the use of pipelines could be considered a harm reduction approach. If we are going to be polluting anyway, let’s pollute in the least pollution-y way possible. I mean, oil advocates also say that the pipelines are good because they’re going to expand the market, which would indicate more pollution since additional oil production will likely offset the reduction of carbon emission created by pipelines, but let’s sweep that one under the rug for now. All us hippie progressives love harm reduction when it comes to our drugs, why not embrace harm reduction when it comes to CO2 emissions?

It’s okay because the world has access to a needle exchange program

Vancouver is known worldwide for its harm reduction approach to drugs. They give heroin to heroin addicts, so surely their methodology is suitable for examining pipelines from this perspective. Vancouver invested in a four-pillars approach to fighting drug addiction in its city. These pillars are prevention, treatment, enforcement, and of course, harm reduction.

When looking at the pillar of harm reduction, its big caveat is that it does not condone the usage of drugs, but highlights that abstinence is not an immediate goal for some users, thus necessitating a pragmatic approach. Oil isn’t going away any time soon no matter how hard we might wish it to be so, so the first point goes to harm reduction.

Next, it wants to define what the harms actually are. Physical harms of drugs are obvious (death and illness, for example), but there are also psychological harms (the fear of crime/violence/family breakdown), social harms (the breakdown of social systems), economic harms (lost productivity, workplace accidents, health care costs, etc.), and community harms (public disorder, drug litter, etc.). Harm reduction is literally the name of the game, and pipelines do reduce the harms listed above. I mean, there are harms that pipelines ignore, like the aforementioned problem of expanding markets. Also, if we assume the jobs, jobs, jobs promised in pipeline development addresses economic harms, we have to ignore that oil is still a dying industry and renewable energy is the 8th fastest growing market in Canada. Short-term economic benefits may result in long-term harms, but I’m still fine burying my head in the sand over this for right now. Let’s just say that pipelines reduce measurable harms because they still technically reduce some harms.

You know, from this perspective, it looks like oil is going to last forever!

The next course of action within harm reduction is to maximize intervention options. Drug users need clean needles, sure, but they also need stable housing, supervised consumption, safe supply, street drug testing, and so on. Pipelines are one issue. While you can certainly find centrists who will advocate for pipelines being built alongside investments in renewable energy (the current Liberal government is one such example), those investments paints a different picture. Canada spends about $4.8 billion dollars a year on fossil fuel companies; this is not direct cash payments (though cash does appear occasionally, such as money for oil well cleanup costs – $1.7 billion), but includes things like tax breaks, research and development support, etc. Our environmentally conscious Liberals spent $4.5 billion on a pipeline that may actually go nowhere. In the wannabe petro-state Alberta, they spent $1.5 billion on a pipeline that the Biden administration very predictably cancelled. Alberta’s government also spends millions of dollars on a propaganda outlet that takes to task such things like the accurate reporting of the New York Times and cartoons. Remember these are tax dollars, not Big Oil corporate expenditures. When you realize that 10-30% of what the world’s governments spend on fossil fuels could pay for the entire green shift to renewable energy, it becomes clear that this is where we depart from the harm reduction philosophy. In order to truly reduce harm, we actually need to be putting real effort into moving away from fossil fuels.

Are you telling me that being nice about our oil isn’t actually enough to stop climate change??

The final aspect of harm reduction within the four pillars approach is the respect of basic human dignity. Drug users are human beings. They have endured trauma, and in order to cope with that trauma, they use drugs. It’s not a perfect system, but society needs to approach the problem with compassion and respect. However, the planet isn’t emotionally coping with anything. There is no autonomy to respect. The dignity of the Earth does not demand pipelines in the way that the dignity of a human being demands shelter and livelihood. Harm reduction is actually a failed metaphor because the planet is not doing this to itself. It’s an assault that we need to prevent from becoming a murder. Beating someone to death with a cushion may hurt less than a ball-peen hammer, but just because it takes longer doesn’t mean it still doesn’t ultimately lead to death. Harm reduction is allowing a person to do what they’re normally going to do in the safest way possible; the same kind of concession would mean allowing the planet to do what it would normally do as best it could with human beings dicking around on top of it. We are the ones addicted to oil. We are the ones needing intervention. Pipelines are the addict telling his family that he’s quitting for sure this time, but he still needs to borrow $40. A pipeline is not a clean needle. It’s a lie.