Harper, We Have A Problem: Women-Only Gym Hours, Niqabs, and Canadian Islamophobia

When Soumia Allalou recently put forward a request to institute women-only hours at McGill University’s gym, she set off a maelstrom of controversy both on campus and off. Opinion pieces articulating outrage along with a petition opposing the idea quickly circulated. The University administration’s response was to unilaterally cut off discussions, stating that “it’s always been clear, McGill is secular and co-ed, and this is what we promote.” This is an interesting version of McGill’s history, given that McGill operated as a male-only institution for the first 63 years of its existence. In fact, up until the 1970s, all female undergraduate students were categorized separately as students of Royal Victoria College. It is also intriguingly amnesic in light of the Christian imagery found throughout campus, such as the stained glass windows portraying Saint Michael in the War Memorial Hall and of Saint George elsewhere.

Soumia Allalou, McGill Student. Source: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/women-only-gym-hours-nixed-by-mcgill-university-1.3002816

Soumia Allalou, McGill Student.
Source: http://www.cbc.ca

Speaking from personal experience as a woman who has worked out in a gym, I agree with Ms. Allalou’s perfectly reasonable statement that “there are many reasons women would want to work out only with other women. They might feel more comfortable. They might have had bad experiences in the past…” Given the University administration’s citation of secularism, one wonders what the response would be if a non-Muslim woman had put forward the request…

As one online comment on the McGill Daily states,

“This is only about accommodating a growing religious group that hold an ideology that is demanding more and more changes to our secular society. The fact that feminists are endorsing this kind of thing shows that we need to educate ourselves more on these customs and take a look at the middle east where they are the norm – because that is where we are headed.”

This comment is both disturbing and representative of the response to Allalou’s request. Firstly, note the framing of Muslims as a group who are demanding changes in the context of a zero-sum game in which accommodating the needs of a minority is seen to equal rescinding the rights of the majority. This kind of thinking sets up an “us vs. them” mentality in which it becomes increasingly difficult to think collaboratively or collectively. Secondly, this comment reveals the now familiar assumption that Islam is somehow particularly demeaning to women (never mind the fact that clear incidents of misogyny can be found in nearly all major world religions). This comment also troublingly demonstrates an unquestioning adoption of a belief that has been at the centre of several major imperialist interventions throughout history, including the more recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Such Western invasions have often actually resulted in devastating set backs for the status of women, despite the rhetoric citing ‘the plight of women’ as justification for military intervention.

Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod's latest book on the topic.  Source: http://anthropology.columbia.edu/

Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod’s latest book on the topic. Source: http://anthropology.columbia.edu/

The idea that Muslim women are particularly oppressed and need to be ‘saved’ by ‘our superior secular society’ is a trope that is stealthily seeping into many of the discourses around immigration, Islam, and navigating cultural difference in Canada. (On a side note – why is it that the very people who are making these kinds of statements are often in the very next breath claiming that we live in a ‘Judeo-Christian’ society? You really can’t have both!). Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod offers some extremely relevant perspective on this topic in a piece entitled “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” (2002).

In it she provides us with a timely reminder of the ways in which the issue of the burqa and women’s rights were boldly mobilized in order to justify the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Abu-Lughod tells us that

“it is deeply problematic to construct the Afghan woman as someone in need of saving. When you save someone, you imply that you are saving her from something. You are also saving her to something. What violences are entailed in this transformation, and what presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to which you are saving her? Projects of saving other women depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged.” (Abu-Lughod 2002:788-789).

The slide from demonizing women who wear niqab to making blanket statements about the supposed inferiority of Islam is chillingly smooth, and often used for nefarious purposes.

Muslim women practice many different types of veiling.  Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-23/why-do-muslim-women-wear-a-burka-niqab-or-hijab/5761510

Muslim women practice many different types of veiling.
Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-23/why-do-muslim-women-wear-a-burka-niqab-or-hijab/5761510

The incident at McGill is but one example in a recent spate of Islamophobia that has occupied the nation’s headlines over the past few weeks. The arguably racist attitude expressed in these discourses is unfortunately not confined to Internet comment sections. Our Prime Minister, the political leader of this country, is also guilty of stoking the flames of Islamophobia in similarly unabashed fashion. Whether for tactical political purposes meant to distract the public from a less than stellar economic record, or out of plain old racism, Mr. Harper’s statement that the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women” (and as such should not be worn during the Canadian citizenship ceremony) is undeniably Islamophobic. As other commentators have pointed out, the real anti-woman sentiment here is to be found in the idea that the State has the right to tell women how to dress. Another Conservative Member of Parliament, Larry Miller, echoed this Islamophobia when he told women who wish to wear the niqab to “stay the hell where you came from.”

Importantly, all of this is taking place in the context of a noticeable ratcheting up of anti-Muslim rhetoric. The Conservative party has expressly utilized the threat of Islamic terrorism to gain support for their controversial Bill C-51, against which there has been widespread protest. During the hearings for this Bill, Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy’s questioning of the head of a group that represents Canadian Muslims was labelled downright “McCarthy-esque.” In fact, this group, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, has launched a defamation lawsuit against the Prime Minister’s office for slanderous statements linking the group to Hamas.

If all of this wasn’t troubling enough news from our political leaders, a recent EKOS poll found that “not only is opposition to immigration in general scaling heights not seen in twenty years but the number of Canadians saying we admit too many visible minorities has just cracked the 40-point ceiling for the first time ever.” The author rightly points out that “opposition to immigration can be driven by factors other than racial discrimination, such as economic anxiety. But it’s hard to see how those saying too many immigrants are visible-minority can be motivated by anything but racial or cultural bias… these numbers should alarm anyone who believes in an open and tolerant society.”

The denial of a university student’s request for women-only hours at the campus gym may seem a small and trivial issue. However, it is in such seemingly mundane examples that we can begin to see the shift in attitude towards a totalitarian rejection of those we perceive to be ‘the other.’ If history has any relevance for the unfolding of the future, it is that the stakes for such a rejection are unbelievably high. These kinds of divisive tactics have no place in our collective future. We must reject Islamophobia, and smash the walls Prime Minister Harper is attempting to build between us. We are enriched through our differences. We are stronger, better and more prosperous together.

‘Act Like a Shepherd and Whistle Indifferently’*: Ocalan and a Greek Tragedy Retold

By: George Mantzios, guest author 

“Caught between the bandit state on the one hand, and the comedy state on the other.”

These were Abdullah Ocalan’s words to his lawyer after slipping through the protection of the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP) and into the hands of Turkish Special Forces in Nairobi, Kenya, on February 15, 1999. Confined now for nearly fifteen years on the prison-island of Imrali in the Mamara Sea in North Eastern Turkey, the specific chain of events that led to Ocalan’s capture are still shrouded in contention and conspiracy.

A Kurdish protester sets fire to himself outside the Greek Parliament in Athens. Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/281195.stm

A Kurdish protester sets fire to himself outside the Greek Parliament in Athens.
Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/ hi/europe/281195.stm

And yet, between the self-immolated body of a Kurdish protester in Athens and the shamed resignations of the Greek Foreign, Interior, and Public Order ministers, as well as the chief of the National Intelligence Service (EYP), there was and still is little room for confusion: Greece was responsible for Ocalan’s protection and so Greece is accountable for his capture. Greece’s accountability was even confirmed by a May 1999 Kurdish ‘popular court’ ruling sentencing the chief of the EYP and two Greek security officials to death for their role in Ocalan’s capture. But even after all these years, this blame is suspended awkwardly between incompetence and betrayal, suspended that is, between the comedy state and the bandit state, Scylla and Charybdis.

However both of these iterations of guilt reproduce a diplomatic conceit by holding the nation-state itself responsible, reifying the illusion that the nation-state is a bounded singular will on a world stage. Since at least the early nineteenth century such conceits have formatted the terms of engagement in international relations. However we all know that these conceits belie complex social dynamics of class struggle that articulate and disarticulate private and public interests within and beyond the state apparatus, complicating our ability to identify where sovereignty ultimately lies, rendering the concept at best an expedient means of juridical reckoning within the international community.

Ocalan in the custody of Turkish special forces (MiT), February 15, 1999. Source: http://www.ellanodikis.net/2014_04_01_archive.html

Ocalan in the custody of Turkish special forces (MiT), February 15, 1999.
Source: http://www.ellanodikis.net/ 2014_04_01_archive.html

What I am here proposing is that we suspend Greece’s guilt- rather than absolve it- so as to reopen what one news-outlet has dubbed the ‘Ocalan Files’. Doing so refines our level of analysis beyond the pixelated viewpoint of the nation-state, forcing many unanswered or unasked questions and considerations into focus. Firstly, and most glaringly, how did Ocalan end up cornered in a Greek embassy in Kenya? On their second day in Nairobi, the Greek intelligence agent charged with Ocalan’s protection, Savvas Kalenteridis, would read in the Turkish “Hurriyet” newspaper that Turkish intelligence (MiT) had uncovered Ocalan’s whereabouts. Through what channels was this information leaked; was the CIA involved as Kalenteridis maintains to this day? After all, a high-level US delegation had previously travelled to Italy (where Ocalan was being harbored for some time) to persuade the Italians to expel him to an ‘unstable’ African country, where his capture would prove easy.

In fact, prior to arriving in Greece in 1999, Ocalan spent sixty-six days in Italy before being expelled (the Italians were under intense pressure from France and Germany, on the one side, and Turkish trade embargos, on the other). From Italy Ocalan was procured safe passage to Moscow and from there redirected to a military base in the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, being covertly harboured there while U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was visiting Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov with the objective of persuading the Russians to expel Ocalan. The story takes another twist at this point when, flying to St. Petersburg from Dushanbe, Ocalan was advised to remain in his plane because he was being targeted for kidnapping or assassination by the Russian mafia!

And ultimately who were Ocalan’s contacts inside the Greek government that facilitated his clandestine and unsanctioned arrival in Greece on January 29, 1999? This question in particular inflects the internal divisions and exclusionary systems of political patronage that beset Greek politics and that complicate the blame game in this particular case. For instance, although sympathy for the Kurdish struggle achieved popular support from across the Greek political spectrum- a support that culminated in Turkey accusing Greece of actively hosting PKK rebel training camps- there were ongoing tensions within the ruling leftist socialist party (PASOK) that compelled Ocalan to seek out unofficial channels of entry into the country in 1999.

The PASOK Prime Minister at the time, Costas Smitis, known to Greek posterity as ‘the modernizer’ or ‘book-keeper’, was motivated above all else by the prospect of joining the European currency, enforcing very unpopular and punitive austerity measures towards these ends. Such measures were so unpopular that in 1998 eight of his own deputies openly criticized his policies, instigating a vote of confidence in parliament. And whereas Simitis was beholden to Western European interests, which considered Ocalan a terrorist, many of his deputies were ideologically wedded to the leftist politics of the party founder, the populist leader Andreas Papandreou, and maintained strong ties with elements of the PKK. It was in this vein of solidarity that one PASOK deputy would later proclaim, “this [Ocalan’s capture] is the most humiliating moment in Greece’s history.”[1]

Added to this internal political division was the division between the state itself and the ‘deep state’ of the National Intelligence Service, which maintained an informal level of operational autonomy, an autonomy typified when on four separate occasions Savvas Kalenteridis refused orders directed to him from the minister of Foreign Affairs, Theodoros Pangalos, to get rid of Ocalan in Nairobi, that is, to forcibly evict him from the embassy there. As a senior aid to Pangalos bombastically instructed to Kalenteridis, “[T]ell him to go on a safari. Tell him to go wherever he likes. He should stay away from [Greek] national colors.”

Ocalan's picture on a passport bearing the identification of a prominent Cypriot journalist. Source: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol53no1/fiasco-in-nairobi.html

Ocalan’s picture on a passport bearing the identification of a prominent Cypriot journalist.
Source: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol53no1/fiasco-in-nairobi.html

More endemically, this sort of operational autonomy was cited in EYP Espionage Division Director Col. P. Kitsos’s 2003 testimony, i.e., that the EYP chief, Haralambos Stavrakakis, had received a tip-off about Ocalan’s planned clandestine arrival in Greece in 1999 but did not act on the information. As Miron Varouhakis’ unforgiving report for the CIA would later frame it, it was this dysfunctional command structure between levels of the EYP and the Greek government that turned Ocalan’s security provisions in Kenya into a joke; the security agents appointed to his defense in Kenya were purportedly not even equipped with weapons. However, Varouhakis’ report, based on leaked official Greek government documents and testimony given during a trial in 2003 of those who illegally brought Ocalan into Greece in 1999, spills too easily into a castigation of the EYP and Kalenteridis specifically, going so far as to cite Kalenteridis’ “family roots and the tradition of nationalism that it implied” as a cause for his ineptitude.

EYP agent Savvas Kalenteridis. Source: http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2013/5/turkey4678.htm

EYP agent Savvas Kalenteridis.
Source: http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/ misc2013/5/turkey4678.htm

However thanks to an exclusive interview conducted in May of last year by a Kurdish freelance reporter, Noreldin Waisy, we have for the first time a detailed personal account of the events leading to Ocalan’s capture by Savvas Kalenteridis himself. This is the first time that Kalenteridis has spoken out about the events. As such it provides an invaluable and intimate timeline that can serve as an instructive counterpoint to the official narratives that work through diplomatic conceits to locate fault at the superficial level of the nation-state. Such an attenuated account also serves as a compliment and corrective to Varouhakis’ report that finds fault quite specifically with the EYP, and Kalenteridis in particular. For these reasons I refer the reader to the transcribed interview in the link attached here.

*          *          *

Funeral for YPJ fighter killed in action defending Kobane against ISIS.  Source: http://www.dnaindia.com/world/report-wounded-kurdish-soldiers-fighting-islamic-state-at-kobani-die-after-being-refused-entry-at-turkish-border-2026224

Funeral for YPJ fighter killed in action defending Kobane against ISIS.
Source: http://www.dnaindia.com/world/ report-wounded-kurdish-soldiers-fighting- islamic-state-at-kobani-die-after-being- refused-entry-at-turkish-border-2026224

As I write this ISIS forces are besieging the Kurdish Canton of Kobane in Syria. How desolate this topic, Ocalan’s capture all those years ago, appears when viewed in relation to the stakes of the violence transpiring relentlessly over there, right now.

What an oblique intervention I am proposing! Can solidarity attend such peripheral revisions to the historical record? Is solidarity the turning of opportunities into techniques, techniques of thinking, writing, acting… feeling? Does it have an ethical stance particular to it or is it always more of an improvisation between movements of envisioning and compromising? In spite of these nearsighted hesitations, there is an impulse to act, an impulse that is not mine but to which I belong. This impulse is an excitement as much as it is a throbbing, that is, as much pleasure as pain. These two things finally being equal, much work can now be done. But how much? Do I risk doing too much or too little in my protracted contemplation of first steps?

These are questions that haunt me as I write, but not as a Greek (I am not that). This contribution was not an attempt to absolve a nation of its guilt but rather to attenuate that guilt by uncovering the actions that inscribe the risk of betrayal in every gesture of solidarity.

And so I imagine through my writing, imagine Ocalan pacing back and forth on his prison-island, trying to keep pace with the urgency that now dictates time in Kobane. Consider the lag between his words and their bodies. Consider how decisions must fester in this interval, in the meantime. Consider how this interval grows bold with autonomy, articulating their bodies with his words and vice versa. Everything seems both urgent and untimely in this interval between. Perhaps this is the space of solidarity and perhaps justice, a space that none of us can fill but that all of us must occupy.

Source: http://www.ozgur-gundem.com/index.php?haberID=89797&haberBaslik=Daha+fazla+ROJAVA&action=haber_detay&module=nuce

Source: http://www.ozgur-gundem.com/index.php? haberID=89797&haberBaslik=Daha+fazla+ ROJAVA&action=haber_detay&module=nuce

*”Act like a shepherd and whistle indifferently”-Vassilis Papaioanou, senior aide to Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, offered this advice to Georgios Costoulas, Greek ambassador to Kenya. This was during the interrogation of Costoulas at the hands of the Kenyan authorities who were trying to ascertain the whereabouts of Ocalan.

[1] Clogg, Richard. 2002 [1992]. A Concise History of Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

George Mantzios is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Toronto and is a member of the Rojava Solidarity Collective. 

The Looming Spectre of ‘Social Unrest’: Millennials, Joblessness and Politics

“I have no connections…”

Last weekend, I spent an afternoon in a coffee shop on the Danforth, where I struck up a conversation with the barista. He noticed some residual University of Toronto insignia on my person and asked me if I had attended the school. After a deprecatory remark about how this paltry logo was the only useful thing I’d gotten out of the place, he told me that he had an Engineering degree from Queen’s University. We commiserated over our mutually unsatisfying jobs for which we were both vastly overqualified. He cited a “lack of connections,” a remark I’ve made lamenting my own career situation too many times to count. After some time floating around the job market, I’ve come to realize that without some oligarchic hookup or familial nepotism, you don’t stand a chance.

We were living out a scene strikingly similar to one featured in a recent documentary by CBC, aptly titled “Generation Jobless.” In this memorable scene, the camera pans over the waitresses at a sushi restaurant in Vancouver, text floating down to describe their educational credentials, set against the backdrop of them serving drinks: Honours degrees in International Relations, Modern European History, etc. etc.  The effect is jarring and immediate. These young people are forced into low paying service jobs, struggling to pay off the mountains of debt accumulated through pursuing an education: an investment that our parents, our teachers, our guidance counsellors told us would be worth it.

I came away from the conversation thinking about all the times I had been told that my “Arts” education was useless and that I would never get a decent job with it. I wished I could go back and brandish this piece of evidence in my colleagues’ faces: I guess Engineers are not immune either. But unfortunately, I already knew this. The reason is self-evident: this is not a crisis of too many history majors, but a case of an entire generation being sidelined and forgotten. We simply do not matter to those currently stalking the corridors of power.

Although, one does find oneself muttering under one’s breath from time to time, about the future of all those spacious Baby Boomer houses, left to rot in the suburbs because there will be no one able to buy them, about the economic calamity which will occur when the Baby Boomers do (at long last) retire, and there is no one to fill their positions. What will our economy consist of? Legions of well educated people whose only work experience consists of pouring drinks? Our resumes are filled with service jobs and advanced degrees, monuments to frustrated desire.

How sustainable is all of this, really? How long will it be before the system collapses under it’s own sagging weight?

Perhaps, as the experts are already hinting, we will begin to experience (as they delicately put it) “social unrest.” And what else could possibly happen? Are we really expected to sit back and watch our lives drain away in endless shift after shift in jobs we hate, jobs which are a complete waste of our potential, our education, and the skills we’ve paid so much to cultivate through incurring thousands and thousands of dollars of debt?  The situation is akin to a stack of kindling, waiting patiently for a single spark to ignite the entire building in a roaring inferno of destruction.

A vengeful voice breaks into my stream of thought to whisper: perhaps then they’d listen. Perhaps if the experts are correct in their predictions, the media and the government wouldn’t call us lazy, useless, spoiled, entitled. Perhaps then our experiences and our voices would be taken seriously. Perhaps then they would decide that we do matter.

Before we can demand some justice for ourselves, we need to abandon the neoliberal models of selfhood we have been handed. Instead of criticizing the government, instead of thinking critically about systemic forms of oppression, we turn that potentially transformative energy on ourselves. In doing so, we end up anxious and depressed, caught in the tertiary time of the precariat: constantly working to find work. We believe the problem must lie with us, that we are somehow inept, if we just rewrite our cover letters one more time, if we just scour the internet for a dozen more job postings, if we devote more hours in the day to searching, somehow things will turn around. This is a self-defeating attitude, but one that I’ve found myself slipping into many times during my own periods of joblessness. But who, exactly, benefits when we beat ourselves up over these things? When we turn this criticism on ourselves, instead of the real causes of economic precarity? Certainly not us…

As it stands now, it’s obvious that the issues our generation faces are not taken seriously in wider society. Is it any wonder we millennials don’t vote? We aren’t blind: we see that we have no recognized voice in these matters. We are not permitted a voice. We already know we will not be receiving any pension payouts in our old age. We will work until we drop. That is, if any of us will be permitted to have access to jobs by then. We know that under the current government income inequality is growing, our environment is being ravaged, and our country is being transformed into a democratically hollow petro-state. But if all these things are self-evident, if in every conversation I have with a person my age, these pieces of knowledge lie between us, known and acknowledged without even needing to be spoken, then how long can this status quo hold? All over the world, from Egypt, to Spain, to Hong Kong our generational fellows utter a collective scream of “enough.” How long before we join them?

Because the truth at the heart of the matter is this: If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?

Blood & Oil: A Smattering of Canadiana

The camera pans over rows of plush chairs upholstered in a hideous green, creaking under the weight of indifference. A man, wearing a crisp suit, his long black hair swept back, stands and speaks an unwelcome truth into a space which is saturated in long years of deceit.

The speaker is Romeo Saganash, Member of Parliament for the riding of Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou and you can watch his speech here. In it, he called for an official inquiry into the hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of missing and murdered Aboriginal women of Canada. The proposed inquiry has been gaining support after the body of 15 year old Tina Fontaine was found dead in a garbage bag in the Red River in August, and volunteers, losing hope in the government’s willingness to do so, begin to drag the Red River themselves, looking for the bodies of other missing indigenous women.

Another clip from the House of Commons circulated on social media around the same time as Saganash’s speech. In this second clip, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is shown asking some pretty reasonable questions of Conservative MP Paul Calendra regarding Canada’s military mission in Iraq. Instead of responding to the questions (with information that I believe Canadians are entitled to know!), the Conservative MP launched into a completely unrelated attack on the NDP concerning the position of an affiliated fundraiser on the Israel-Palestine conflict, repeating the same irrelevant information over and over again, like an enraged parrot.

As if we needed any more proof that the Canadian government currently in power is utterly and completely out of touch with Canadians’ priorities, our dear leader Mr. Harper declined to attend the UN summit on climate change which took place a couple of weeks ago. Harper has made it audaciously clear that we apparently have neither the right to know the details of our military involvements in other countries, nor the right to any assurance from our leader that he recognizes the importance of what has been called by many the greatest challenge of our lifetimes (i.e. climate change). Nor do we apparently have the right to a say in how our natural resources are used, and whether or not we want pipelines spewing toxins into the water and land.

At first glance, these issues may seem disconnected. They are not. Building pipelines and developing the tar sands are a direct repudiation of the idea that we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels and carry on with business as usual. To do so would be to commit a slow, toxic, collective suicide, and the evidence is clear that breaking our dependence on fossil fuels is essential if we want to counter and reverse (if possible) the effects of climate change. Indigenous peoples have been extensively involved in environmental activism, and respecting the Earth was a common theme in the Idle No More movement, which began in December 2012. Not only does our addiction to fossil fuel continue to destroy the planet, it also sets the stage for devastating military interventions, such as the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and for the greedy despoiling of land in blatant disrespect for indigenous people’s rights to it.  The depth of denial of the Conservative government is readily apparent in the actions of its leader: denying that we have a history of colonialism, claiming that the murder of so many indigenous women is a “crime problem” and not a “sociological” one, tweeting about the deliciousness of bacon while Chief Teresa Spence was on hunger strike outside the Parliament building protesting the stunningly economically depressed conditions of Attawapiskat, muzzling scientists working on the issue of climate change, and generally creating an environment where speaking out against such things is more and more saturated with a simmering fear of government crackdown.

These sorts of actions reinforce a creeping suspicion of mine that perhaps the answer to these questions will not come from coercing and needling our government into respect our long term interests through acting on climate change, breaking our dependence on fossil fuels, and forming respectful relationships with indigenous people whose territory we have colonized. I’m not convinced the current class of people from whom the ranks of politicians are drawn will ever be able to do so, given how intimately tangled up they are in the flows of the capitalist class’s ill-gotten wealth. In short, they have been bought. But I refuse to be bought, or paid off for my silence in this egregiously obvious manner by shaky promises that cannot be delivered: candied promises of jobs from poisonous pipelines in the depths of a recession will not sway my conviction that to force these projects to completion would be morally reprehensible on multiple levels.

Intimations of the determination needed to combat these sorts of actions float across my newsfeed daily. Recently, a group of indigenous nations located on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border signed an international treaty amongst themselves, vowing to protect the Salish Sea, and asserting their right and their perceived duty to do so. Notably, the Canadian government is not a signatory, because it does not recognize the sovereignty of indigenous nations. The fact that this treaty was signed, even though the Canadian government will not recognize it fills me with hope: although we may not see much of it in the mainstream media, indigenous sovereignty is real, and it is being practiced as we speak.

This kind of quiet “we’ll just have to do things our way” action calls to mind David Graeber’s book “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology”[1]. In it he discusses the idea that in the end, perhaps capitalism will not be dismantled in the roaring fires of revolution, but rather through quietly determined, collective non-cooperation, through the construction of alternative networks and circuits of economic exchange which reflect a different set of values than those endorsed by the current political hegemony and the wild west/neoliberal iteration of capitalism those in power so vociferously champion.

clearing the plainsWe, political subjects and ‘ordinary Canadians,’ know better than to believe that the Conservative government currently in power will ever treat any of these issues with the seriousness and respect they deserve. Despite Harper’s historical amnesia, we know about residential schools, policies of forced starvation[2], discrimination, mass murder, systemic sexual violence, and economic conditions that result in extreme poverty, suicide, and substance abuse for indigenous people.

What we don’t seem to know is our own power. What would happen if Settler Canadians collectively chose to recognize indigenous nations’ sovereignty despite our government’s colonial attitudes? In what position would the Canadian government find itself, if we-the-people decided to actually treat indigenous nations as de-facto sovereign nations? Would we ask permission to enter their territories, passports in hand? How would this look? How could this be practiced? Perhaps we could start by thinking of these pipeline projects in the same way that we think about the invasion and occupation of places like Iraq. There are some striking similarities, to be sure. Depending on how you look at it, our government is unilaterally entering another sovereign nation’s territories for the purposes of economic gain (specifically pertaining to oil), against the will of that nation’s peoples. Perhaps we should oppose the pipelines on this basis and start asking our government to reveal not only the exit date for our troops in Iraq, but also for the exit date of unwelcome government agents and their business sector cronies in indigenous territories.

[1] Graeber, David. 2004. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

[2] Daschuk, James. 2013. Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Indigenous Life. Regina: University of Regina Press.

A Defense of Naivety: Creativity in Political Debate

Bits and pieces of cheap food and drinks lie scattered over the surface of the kitchen table. Monday morning classes are comfortably far away and someone pulls out a quarter and empty bottles to begin playing a simple game called spinners. We, students and roommates, relax amid friendly banter and joking taunts about the relative talent of each player. Then, as usual, the discussion turns to politics. Sooner or later things begin to get heated, and a word surfaces that I’d heard many times before: “you’re so naïve…”

Young, naive idealist in "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)

Young, naive idealist in “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)

I spent countless nights of undergrad this way, sitting around a table with roommates and friends, laughing and chatting exactly like this. That period of my life is forever associated with the political debates I had with my fellow students during those years. But marring these experiences is a particular insult which was often directed my way during those discussions. On more than one occasion and in several different contexts I was labelled by my peers as “naïve.” Whether the topic was gun registries, LGBTQ rights, military interventions or the merits of capitalism the word seemed to dog my every step. The merits of the arguments made were always registered along the political spectrum. Not surprisingly, I found myself somewhere on the left and, in the eyes of my interlocutors, teetering on its extremity.

Since this word tended to dry up otherwise rich discussions, and always found its way into the conversation after I had laid out some idea in considerable depth and detail I began to resent it. I began to grow wary of its usage and prepare for its slinking movements through the conversation, always headed in my direction. Being called this word stung. I knew I was no professor of political science but I saw no reason why my opinions were less valid or valuable than my peers.

My response at the time was to combat this word, head on. I endeavoured to read more, see more, think harder, and insulate myself from the possibility of ever being called naïve again. But I have come to realize that I should be complimented the next time someone with whom I am debating politics calls me naïve.

The truth is that “naivety” is relative; it is dependent on time and place. Who gets to use it is also dependent on whose point of view most closely resembles the ideas of those in power. Labelling someone naïve conveys a non-threatening, easily dismissible point of view. What it really means is that your thinking is so far outside the bounds of their narrow scope of possibility that they have no other choice than to use this label for you in order to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance.

Eventually I realized that this accusation should never deter you from thinking about politics creatively. Accepting your own supposed naivety actually works in favour of the political status quo. For this reason, if you are serious at all about disrupting the status quo, it is essential that you not take this accusation to heart (But don’t for a second think that I am advocating a lapse in doing the hard, dirty work of critically examining your own beliefs – that is another matter entirely).

I realized that the people who called me naïve in my politics did it simply because to them, I did appear naïve. I was formulating political stances outside of the realm of the political status quo. I was not advocating replacing the current ‘old white guy’ with a new ‘old white guy.’ I was advocating something else entirely – a different system, a different way of thought.

The trouble with accepting this accusation as a reliable representation of reality is that it discounts the fact that you have your own unique experience of the world. Just because those are not necessarily shared with the people you’re debating, doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid. Just because the people you may be debating are unimaginative and narrow in their thinking, thoroughly stuck in the morass that is the current political reality, doesn’t mean that you need to impose the same limits on yourself. Your experiences are valid, and so is your opinion.

After thinking about it, I began to see that the accusation against me as naïve mirrored accusations against the study of humanities in general. My conversations on politics with fellow students mirrored the wider debate (heavily influenced by neoliberal doctrine) going on within wider society on education, jobs, and what kinds of fields are considered “useful” and which are not. Fields like economics, engineering and business are not unimportant, of course. They open up ways of thinking which enable us to solve certain problems. But if we limit ourselves to these fields exclusively, and insist on their valuation above all other ways of thinking, then we (as a society) are going to run into some serious problems.

It seems to me that the real target in all of this is creativity itself. The humanities and arts provide training in a certain kind of creative thought. I propose that creativity is by definition the enemy of the status quo, because it enables us to think outside of our current political limitations. It makes perfect sense that instruments of the status quo, or people who are benefitted by the current system would want to squelch your political creativity. Creativity implies change, it implies coming up with alternative ways of thinking, and living, and acting politically. More of that is exactly what we need.

The real sting comes when we realize that the accusation of naivety is often hurled at youth. As people who fall into this category, we need to realize that this is part of the game. If we are demoralized, unsure of ourselves, lacking confidence in our ability to observe the world around us, think critically about it and then formulate political opinions on it, we will never change anything. And that’s exactly what they want.

I would like to humbly suggest that we embrace this word, naivety – it means we’re doing something right. The old ways of thinking about politics can be (and will be) pushed aside. Just because we are young does not mean that we are wrong. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes on a problem can be the turning point in solving it. Just because we have enthusiasm and energy does not mean that it is misguided. The fact that we have not yet been tired out and beaten down by the monotony and hopelessness of the current system is something we should be proud of, not shamed by. The word naivety should not shut down the conversation, and it should not deter you from speaking your mind. Let those who are “tired” step aside. We’re more than ready to take the torch.

And lastly, go ahead – call me naïve. I dare you.