Filed under: Capitalism, Democracy, Imperialism | Tags: Bill 94, Canada, Dana Olwan, Naema Ahmed, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Niqab, Quebec, rabble.ca, The Minister's Black Veil, The Veil
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836), Parson Hooper causes a sensation in the sleepy New England town of Milford by donning a black veil without explanation. Parson Hooper continues to wear this veil throughout his life while his bizarre behaviour convinces his clergy that the veil must hide some sinister, unspeakable sin. On his deathbed, the Puritan citizens of Milford demand that he remove the veil:
“Never!” cried the veiled clergyman. “On earth, never!”
“Dark old man!” exclaimed the affrighted minister, “with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?”
Father Hooper’s breath heaved; it rattled in his throat; but, with a mighty effort, grasping forward with his hands, he caught hold of life, and held it back till he should speak. He even raised himself in bed; and there he sat, shivering with the arms of death around him, while the black veil hung down, awful at that last moment, in the gathered terrors of a lifetime. And yet the faint, sad smile, so often there, now seemed to glimmer from its obscurity, and linger on Father Hooper’s lips.
“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”
The moral of the story is clear: we are all of us sinners, and the Parson, good disciple as he is, wears the veil so that none of us need to. Yet this act of martyrdom nevertheless provokes darker feelings in his fellow townspeople, as if they knew all along that his act of contrition remained above all an unsaid implication of their complicity, an exposé of their confederacy of sinners.
Somehow, Hawthorne’s construction of the veil in the nineteenth-century American imagination doesn’t enter into our current obsession with a different veil. Naema Ahmed and Québec’s Bill 94 remain in the forefront of our collective minds, as Dana Olwan’s recent article at rabble.ca demonstrates.
Commentators suggest that the bill has received overwhelming and broad support in Quebec and outside it. A much-cited Angus Reid online-poll that surveyed a sample of 1,004 Canadians found that 80 per cent of respondents approved and 16 per cent disapproved of Bill 94. Put differently, four out of five Canadians are today likely to be in favor of this legislation.
Apparently, whatever its genesis, the veil still gets us North American settlers riled up. The niqab presents a problem to Canadians: it is a conspicuous manifestation of the inequality of the sexes, propped up by traditional patriarchy and old-school religion. Many Canadians, particularly those from a Judeo-Christian background, view the veil as an ominous statement of persecution and oppression. Of course, such statements are all around us: cheerleading at football games, magazine stands, T4 slips, Engineering faculties. Which is to say, we are inundated every day in this country that women are not treated as equally as men. Yet for some reason the public response to the niqab—indeed, their “outrage”—is signally disproportionate to the symbolic message of the veil. To wit, that women aren’t equal to men.
As Olwan asks, the troubling thing about this legislation is not what it reveals about Canada and Quebec’s dedication to the principles of liberalism and democracy and so on, but rather, what it conceals:
What are the narratives that enable the writing of the bill and the broad support it is receiving across Canada? What are the consequences of this legislation for Muslim Canadian women who wear the niqab, Muslim Canadians and religious minorities? How do we unpack the announced intentions of Bill 94 from their real and material effects on Muslim women in Canada?
What gives stories like Ahmed’s the extra oomph is not that a university-educated, urbane Muslim woman living in Canada is being oppressed—by whom? by her religion? by her family? by her Egyptian cultural roots?—but that her otherness, her foreignness, draws a line under her received inequality. It is as if legislation like Bill 94 acts as its own veil, directing our attention to the sins of others and away from our own misdeeds. It’s no secret that the West fetishizes the veil, but perhaps this fetish is not simply an over-investment in otherness, but a symbolic compensation for the oppression we enact and instantiate on a daily basis. Like the Puritan townspeople of Hawthorne’s Milford, we know we are not whole, but staring at the niqab allows us to ignore our fissures and shortcomings, illuminating the fault, the plight of the Other—as all of ours fall dark.
Perhaps the West’s recently developed obsession with the veil stems from some sort of cognitive, if unconscious, link with our culpability and complicity in the sufferings of Middle Eastern women, through our imperialist wars, our addiction to petroleum, our appetite for opiates. What we really object to is that the niqab walking around in our comfortable, commodity-strewn Western world, shortens the chain of this link and makes it plain. It is as if the Niqab, like Picasso to the Third Reich when asked if he was “responsible” for painting Guernica, responds to our question thusly: No! You are responsible! This is the result of your politics!
Inequality makes a democracy itch; but it’s accusations of complicity that make us rage. Especially when they are true.
Filed under: Capitalism, Health | Tags: Aristotle, Colonialism, George Romero, Imperialism, katharsis, Mexico, Night of the Living Dead, Oedipus Rex, Pandemic, plague, Racism, Swine Flu
Pandemics exert a particular hold on the social imagination. From as far back as Oedipus Rex, the plague reveals the fragility of the social bond, our fear and suspicion of the necessary connection that binds us. More recently, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) exploits this fear—expressed in racism, sexual gaze and state coercion—to deliver a powerful social commentary in the midst of the American civil rights movement. When what we call soceity admits strange and foreign company, we question the link that shackles us together. Zombies scare us not because they are different, but because they are so like us. As both Oedipus and Duane Jones discovered to their peril, when the enemy you seek to expel is indivisible from yourself, there is no way out. Aristotle called this katharsis; Romero called it terrifying.
And so the world finds itself gripped by another pandemic scare: swine flu joins avian flu, SARS and e coli as the latest member of a list that trails back beyond the Black Plague of London. At time of writing, the CBC website boasts no less than fourteen links to swine-flu-related stories. I have no knowledge or understanding of pandemic as a medical reality, and I would never minimize the over 150 confirmed deaths suffered in Mexican communities as a result of the disease. Moreover, I do not question Dr. David Butler-Jones’s assertion that Swine flu is likely to worsen in Canada. However, I do question the focus of the stories issuing from this media frenzy.
Despite the vast number of articles swirling about the pandemic scare, very few of them seem to be actually about the Mexican victims, or reflecting the grief shared by the affected communities. This is in stark distinction to the commiserating stories that followed the nearly 300 dead in the L’Aquila earthquake earlier this month, or the Australian bushfires that claimed more than 200 lives. Instead, we are assaulted with stories that tell us if our state borders are safe: Infected Scottish couple ‘doing OK’, With [US] Swine Flu Cases Rising, Borders are Tightening, and Canadian Health Officials Warn against travel to Mexico. Why are two slightly ill people from Falkirk earning more column inches than the devastated community that forms the epicentre of this global crisis?
A few people are trying to answer these questions. David Kirby at HuffPo draws links between Mexico’s factory farms and the illness:
As Philpott pointed out in his post, Mexican newspapers have been reporting for weeks that residents living near Granjas Carroll’s massive hog facility at La Gloria are falling ill with severe upper respiratory diseases. One five-year-old girl in the village just tested positive for swine flu – the bodies of two more children who died recently are being exhumed.
According to an April 5 article in La Jornada newspaper, “Clouds of flies emanate from the lagoons where Granjas Carroll discharges the fecal waste from its hog barns – as well as air pollution that has already caused an epidemic of respiratory infections in the town.”
More than 400 people had already been treated for respiratory infections, and more than 60 percent of the town’s 3,000 residents had reported getting sick, the paper said. State officials disputed that claim, and said the illnesses were caused by cold weather and dust in the air.
The Guardian forwards a similar possibility, targeting the world’s largest pig-meat producer, Smithfield:
Smithfield, which is led by pork baron Joseph W Luter III, has previously been fined for environmental damage in the US. In October 2000 the supreme court upheld a $12.6m (£8.6m) fine levied by the US environmental protection agency which found that the company had violated its pollution permits in the Pagan River in Virginia which runs towards Chesapeake Bay. The company faced accusations that faecal and other bodily waste from slaughtered pigs had been dumped directly into the river since the 1970s .
The outbreak of respiratory illness in the area of the Granjas Carroll plant was first detected at the beginning of this month by Veratect, a company based in Washington state which monitors the spread of disease and pandemics around the world for corporate clients.
On 6 April it reported local officials had declared a health alert. According to its dispatch: “Sources characterised the event as a ‘strange’ outbreak of acute respiratory infection, which led to pneumonia in some paediatric cases. Health officials recorded 400 cases that sought medical treatment in the last week in La Gloria, which has a population of 3,000; officials indicated that 60% of the town’s population, approximately 1,800 cases, has been affected.”
It’s a connection that appears, to the non-medical eye at least, as blindingly obvious. Kettle together shit, swine, flies and workers close enough for long enough, and the result will be nasty. So now that an American corporation, driven by Western appetite for cheap pork loin has created what the chairman of the state legislature’s Committee on the Environment, Marco Antonio Núñez López, called ‘focos rojos‘ (translated by Kirby as ‘breeding grounds’ or ‘hot spots’) for a disease spreading to Canada, the United States and abroad, our response is to circle the wagons, tighten our borders, ostracize and incriminate Mexico. A familiar narrative to say the least.
In a final bit of irony, Canada has tightened screening procedure for Mexican seasonal workers coming up during the summer to fill Canada’s casual labour void. There are no plans yet to bar workers, 15 000 of whom work on fruit, vegetable and dairy farms throughout the summer every year. So now that our sociopathic food industry and insatiable consumerism has created a diseased cesspool which our liberal sensibilities forbid us from implementing on our doorstep, relegated instead to the conveniently inconspicuous and less ‘civilized’ Latin America, we forbid the casual labourers we desperately need from working in our ‘enlightened’ agriculture industry; thereby, in all likelihood, encouraging them to take up work in the more unsafe and unhygienic environment of Mexico. Like Oedipus, we keep trying to find the culprit behind the crime but all the evidence repeatedly, and quite awkwardly, points back at us. And, like Duane Jones in Romero’s Living Dead, we might survive the onslaught of pandemic only to be thwarted by our own incompetent, shortsighted and paranoid state.
Filed under: Ecocapitalism, Literature | Tags: A Scots Quair, Forestry, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Scotland, Sunset Song
The Scottish government has abandoned its plans to lease up to 25 % of its crown forests to private companies. Perhaps they’ve learned something after all. Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the great socialist author of the trilogy A Scots Quair (1932, 1933, 1934) had something to say the last time Scotland tried to mortgage its future for the present.
Chae went round all Kinraddie on his leave that time and found changes enough to open his eyes, maybe he was fell wearied with the front, folk thought, there was nothing on there but their pleitering and fighting. And the first change he saw the first morning, did Chae, lying down on his bed for the pleasure of it and Kirsty at the making of his breakfast. And Chae sat up in his bed to reach for his pipe when he looked from the window and he gave a great roar; and he louped from his bed in his sark so that Kirsty came running and crying What is’t? Is’t a wound?
But she found Chae standing by the window then, cursing himself black in the face he was, and he asked how long had this been going? So Mistress Strachan looked out the way he looked and she saw it was only the long bit wood that ran by the Peesie’s Knapp that vexed him, it was nearly down the whole stretch of it, now. It made a gey difference to the look-out faith! but fine for Kinraddie the woodmen had been, they’d lodged at the Knapp and paid high for their board. But Chae cried out To hell with their board, the bastards, they’re ruining my land, do you hear! And he pulled on his trousers and boots and would fair have run over the park and been at them; but Kirsty caught at his sark and held him back and cried Have you fair gone mad with the killing of Germans?
And he asked her hadn’t she got eyes in her head, the fool, not telling him before that the wood was cut? It would lay the whole Knapp open to the north-east now, and was fair the end of a living here. And Mistress Strachan answered up that she wasn’t a fool, and they’d be no worse than the other folk, would they? all the woods in Kinraddie were due to come down. Chae shouted What, others? and went out to look; and when he came back he didn’t shout at all, he said he’d often minded of them out there in France, the woods, so bonny they were, and thick and grave, fine shelter and lithe for the cattle. Nor more than that would he say, it seemed then to Kirsty that he quietened down, and was quiet and queer all his leave, it was daft to let a bit wood go vex him like that.
But the last night of his leave he climbed to Blawearie and he said there was nothing but the woods and their fate that could draw his eyes. For over by the Mains he’d come on the woodmen, teams and teams of them hard at work on the long bit forest that ran up the high brae, sparing nothing they were but the yews of the Manse. And up above Upperhill they had cut down the larch, and the wood was down that lay back of old Pooty’s.
Folk had told him the trustees had sold it well, they got awful high prices, the trustees did, it was wanted for aeroplanes and such-like things. And over at the office he had found the factor and the creature had peeked at Chae through his horn-rimmed glasses and said that the Government would replant all the trees when the War was won. And Chae had said that would console him a bloody lot, sure, if he’d the chance of living two hundred years and seeing the woods grow up as some shelter for beast and man: but he doubted he’d not last so long. Then the factor said they must all do their bit at a sacrifice, and Chae asked And what sacrifices have you made, tell me, you scrawny wee mucker?…
Early in the year, about May that was, the rain came down and it seemed it never would end, there was nothing to be done out of doors, the rain came down from the north-east across Kinraddie and Chris wasn’t the only one that noted its difference from other years. In Peesie’s Knapp there was Mistress Strachan vexing herself in trying to make out the change; and then she minded what Chae had said would happen when the woods came down, once the place had been sheltered and lithe, it poised now upon the brae in whatever storm might come. The woodmen had all finished by then, they’d left a country that looked as though it had been shelled by a German army. Looking out on those storms that May Chris could hardly believe that this was the place she and Will had watched from the window that first morning they came to Blawearie.
— Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (1932)
Filed under: Capitalism | Tags: Cheap Flight Culture, Climate Change, consumerism, Crabwalk, Günter Grass, Im Krebsgang, Kraft durch Freude, Nazi Germany, Question Time, Robert Ley, Ryanair, Shelly Baranowski, Stanstead Airport, Strength through Joy, Tourism, Will Self
I recently got back from Berlin, where I spent a few days with a short side-trip to Prague by train. Meanwhile, 49 climate-change activists were arrested for occupying London Stanstead airport, in an attempt to protest its planned expansion. The irony is not lost on me. The activists, who belong to the group Plane Stupid, are fighting an uphill battle against Britain’s middle classes, who have come to think of cheap flights from budget airlines like Ryanair (with whom I travelled last weekend for less than 50 GBP return) and EasyJet, which both rely on alternative ports like Stanstead to keep fares down. Last night on BBC 1′s ‘Question Time’, an audience member who claimed to be generally critical of the West’s limp and weak-kneed response to climate change, nonetheless called cheap flights her ‘right’.
My trip, if I had taken the train (using, of course, the wonderful site The Man in Seat 61), would have cost me realistically 250 GBP, not inlcuding the expenses incurred extra day of travel (meals, loss of an extra day paid holiday, etc.) in an overnight car from Paris to Berlin. Of course, these costs are defrayed by the fact that train travel is far more enjoyable, far less stressful, and far more aesthetically pleasing than air travel, but most middle-class Britons don’t consider taking the train to their holiday hot spots. Indeed, living in Edinburgh, the four-hour train ride to London would further add to my travel costs, possibly necessitating a day’s room and board in pricey London.
Now, everyone deserves to travel. It is perhaps the singularly best way to learn more about our world and ourselves. One of the best things modernity has brought us is the exchange of ideas and worldviews. Of course, this means that the poor and middle classes should also be offered the opportunity to travel. But cheap-flight culture is swiftly becoming a blight on the world not only in its immense environmental cost, but because of the kind of travel it incurs. Cheap-flight culture has spawned countless insulated enclaves of British ‘culture’ throughout Europe. Such ‘Little Britains’, however, leave the charm and history of their native culture with their pets and take the most odious: Tennants-swigging louts in open-air pubs showing the football (Premiership only, please. No La Liga here…) and an endemic barfight and rape culture. Can the new stag party industries that have popped up in Riga and Budapest really insist that any cultural exchange takes place? Britons can go their entire vacations without speaking or hearing a word from a language other than English, or indeed, without speaking to a person who is not also British.
I am reminded Nazi Germany’s Kraft durch Freude campaign in the 1930s, or ‘Strength Through Joy’. KdF was the brainchild of Robert Ley, head of the German Labour Front from 1933 to 1945. German Nobel-prize-winner Günter Grass, in his 2003 novel Im Krebsgang or Crabwalk, describes Ley thusly:
it was he who dissolved all the labor unions right after the takeover, emptied their coffers, dispatched squads to confiscate everything t their headquarters, and forced all their members, who numbered in the millions, to join the German Labor Front. It was he, this moon face with a cowlick, who had the inspiration to require all state employees, then all teachers and pupils, and finally the workers in all industries to use ‘Heil Hitler’ as their daily greeting. And it was he who came up with the idea of organizing the way workers and white-collar employees spent their holidays. He provided inexpensive trips to the Bavarian Alps and the Erzgebirge, to the North Sea and Baltic coasts, and, last but not least, ocean cruises of shorter and longer durations—all under the motto of ‘Strength through Joy’.
Ley effectively invented the modern cruise ship industry, sending joyous German workers on countless trips—with the express purpose of recharging workers rather than objectively improving their lives. Indeed, as Grass coyly points out,
Unfortunately, passangers were not allowed to go ashore from the fjords, possibly because of regulations designed to prevent any hard foreign currency from leaving the Reich.
Shelly Baranowski’s work, Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich (2004), points out that KdF allowed wage workers a pastime once exclusively the privilege of the upper classes. Moreover, it juxtaposed the poverty of the foreign destinations with the relative well-being of the Reich:
As an agency that at low cost to its consumers sold the cultural practices that signified middle-class standing—concerts, plays, the opera, art exhibits and the theatre, riding, sailing, and tennis lessons, and vacation travel—Strength through Joy testified to the Nazi regime’s desire to its racially ‘valuable’ citizens that it enhanced their well being.
In the episode of ‘Question Time’ I mentioned, the audience member who asserted her ‘right’ to cheap flights (a sentiment, I should add, with which most of the audience agreed) it was in response to author Will Self’s conjecture that nobody in the audience could say that the end of cheap flights in Britain would actually make their lives worse.
I say this all with the knowledge that I have exploited cheap flight culture as much as anyone, perhaps with an extra dose of unfortunate smugness that somehow my travels are much more enlightening. But what really should be drawn from this guilty pleasure, is another layer to the already confounding problem of travel. How do we, as a society, encourage healthy and beneficial travel and cultural exchange between people of all classes and income without incurring catastrophic environmental and social costs?
Filed under: Capitalism | Tags: Barbarism, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Fascism, George Orwell, Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism, Max Horkheimer, Michael C. Moynihan, Naomi Wolf, Politics and the English Language, Reason Magazine, Semantics, Semiology, The End of America, Theodor Adorno, Timbro
Over at Reason Magazine (‘free minds and free markets’), Michael C. Moynihan laments the shoddy semiotic integrity of the word ‘Fascism’ in ‘Crying Wolf: Are We All Fascists Now?’ Moynihan sits as a visiting fellow for Stockholm think-tank Timbro, who are ‘devoted to innovating economic and social policies founded on free-market principles’ alone in the brave fight against a ‘Swedish political topography…dominated by groups espousing socialization, collectivist economic planning and heavy taxation’. With that grain of salt, here is a sample of how Moynihan stands up for semantic autonomy:
In a May 2008 essay for The Times of London, playwright Tom Stoppard, the British son of Czech émigrés, explained his long-held contempt for his more hyperbolic comrades in the theater. “I felt myself out of patience with people who, from 1968 onwards, would denigrate this country that adopted me, this country that I’d adopted, as some kind of fascist police state. It just seemed so embarrassing that those countries that truly could be described as such were very, very different from Britain.” In Stoppard’s acclaimed 2006 play Rock ’n’ Roll, a meditation on Czech resistance to Soviet occupation, one character upbraids his daughter for her lazy use of the term, grumbling that many in her generation “think a fascist is a mounted policeman at a demo in Grosvenor Square.”
To anyone that has attended a political demonstration, trawled a blog, or attended a Western university in the past half century, the scattershot use of “fascist” will ring familiar. And almost as clichéd as accusing an ideological opponent of fascist sympathies is the accurate observation that such charges often demonstrate an utter lack of understanding of just what qualifies as fascist, other than “someone I vehemently disagree with.” As an indicator of a particular set of political beliefs, “fascism” has become a perfectly meaningless pejorative, a political cudgel that is obtuse and imprecise by design.
This argument should sound familiar to anyone who has attended a first-year lecture in political science, literature or philosophy. This argument, right down to the syntax, is an uncredited lift of George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’:
In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like ROMANTIC, PLASTIC, VALUES, HUMAN, DEAD, SENTIMENTAL, NATURAL, VITALITY, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion If words like BLACK and WHITE were involved, instead of the jargon words DEAD and LIVING, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word FASCISM has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” [my emphasis]
Moynihan’s argument is thus based on a truism most literary types have absorbed as a matter of course. By borrowing, uncredited, this well-known argument of Orwell, Moynihan steals unannounced into our psyche, installing his argument there before he makes it. ‘Yes’, we agree, ‘we must protect the value of words, “fascism” most of all’. Surely, then, Moynihan will follow with a proper definition of “fascism” to set those trigger-happy leftists dead to rights?
It never happens. Moynihan offers no valid definition of his own. Instead, the real, insidious thesis of the article comes clear, retroactively revealing what the title of his article was meant to denote: not Peter’s wolf, but Naomi’s:
few noticed the runaway success of another, much more shoddily researched fascist-themed tract, this one from the feminist writer Naomi Wolf. According to Wolf’s The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, America is barreling down the road toward a fascist future, following a path well-trodden by Mussolini and Hitler. The Bush administration’s spotty record on civil liberties and the growth of executive power aren’t temporary phenomena, Wolf argues, but portend a greater “fascist shift.” America, she writes, is in the late stages of our own Weimar Republic —it’s a partially free society nearing collapse, “on the verge of a violent police state.”
Even when not flubbing or oversimplifying the broad details of fascist ideology, The End of America commits the fatal sin of contorting every sinister moment of the 20th century to ensure that it lines up with some aspect of the “war on terror.” It is clearly with Al-Qaeda in mind that Wolf wrote this stunningly ignorant passage on the construction of phantom enemies: “What matters to a fascist leader is not to get rid of the enemy but rather to maintain an enemy,” a piece of analysis that would certainly surprise the families of untermensch liquidated during the Second World War.
It’s a clever trick: he manages to discredit Naomi Wolf’s argument before she makes it, simply because she has the temerity to use the word ‘fascism’. Aside from the fact that Moynihan seems incapable of differentiating between a ‘fascist shift‘ and full-fledged Nazism, by using this strategy Moynihan can deride the comparisons Wolf draws without attacking her philosophical foundation. How can he?—he doesn’t offer a correct definition with which to challenge Wolf’s. Now, Moynihan pretends even handedness by also critiquing Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism which makes the laughable claim that fascism descends from leftist values, but he reserves his lengthiest and most applied criticism to Wolf. In fact, Moynihan for the most part approves of Goldberg’s project, he simply chides the book for its occasionally excessive zeal.
It soon becomes clear that Moynihan is less interested in buttressing the semiotic integrity of the word “fascism” against the onslaught of lazy illiterates than he is in apologizing for free-market liberal capitalism and shoring its borders against principled leftist critique—all under the veil of linguistic pedantry. It comes as no surprise then, that Moynihan concludes not that we should consolidate, solidify and uphold a just and specific definition of fascism, but that we should cease talking about it altogether:
When both sides see creeping fascism lurking around every bit of political rhetoric and action they disagree with, then the term doesn’t need to be reappropriated or redefined, it needs to be buried.
Language must be based on experience, not pedantry. If we bury a word as potent and important as “Fascism”, we bury the concomitant essential and unforgettable experience. This is the point Orwell was trying to make, not that such words have outlived their value. It is ironic that Moynihan would use free-market principles to isolate and defend “fascism” from those who would secure its services in the name of social democracy; it is capitalism itself that diluted such political words in the first place. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer write in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944):
The general repetition of names for measures to be taken by the authorities makes them, so to speak, familiar, just as the brand name on everybody’s lips increased sales in the era of the free market. The blind and rapidly spreading repetition of words with special designations links advertising with the totalitarian watchword. The layer of experience which created the words for their speakers has been removed; in this swift appropriation language acquires the coldness which until now it had only on billboards and in the advertisement columns of newspapers. Innumerable people use words and expressions which they have either ceased to understand or employ only because they trigger off conditioned reflexes; in this sense, words are trade-marks which are finally all the more firmly linked to the things they denote, the less their linguistic sense is grasped.
Wolf is attempting to ground such terms in political experience, because otherwise, they disappear under a shadow of reactionary reflex. Moynihan, eager to defend his free-market mantra, is attempting precisely the opposite: he is attempting to relegate fascist ideology to the past, to sever it from social memory and experience, and to ensure that the trajectory of capitalism—from liberalism to barbarism—proceeds apace.
Filed under: Capitalism, Imagination | Tags: Bechtel, Democracy, Ecuador, Edinburgh, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Financial Times, Glasgow East Byelection, Guayaquil, Hope, Labour Party, Lawrence Summers, New Labour, Scotland, Scottish Independence, Tariq Ali, Thatcherism, Venezuela
Yesterday, I heard Tariq Ali speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Warning: bagpipes at link!). Erudite, gentle and compassionate, Ali began with last month’s Glasgow East byelection, in which the Scottish National Party defeated the 25th safest incumbent in Britain, inciting Ali to label the incident ‘the end of New Labour’, and moved expertly from British politics to South Ossetia, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela and back to Scottish independence. It was a masterful performance.
Ali pointed out that when Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power in 1997, if you read what Blair and his ministers were actually saying (which of course Ali did to no avail), they were advocating a continuation of Thatcherism. Surely the privatization of the Royal Mail should have keyed us in to the fact that there is little difference between the Conservatives and Blair’s Labour. Ali pointed to the chameleon tendencies of Tory ministers who found no difficulty finding a new home. Indeed, the recent confidence motion that demanded 42-day detention capabilities for anti-terrorism police saw progressive Labour MPs voting for the bill while every Tory voted against it. Under neoliberalism and capitalism, Ali argued, when you believe that the Market can solve everything, why, exactly, do we have government at all? Pro-market MPs are incidental, opportunistic and utterly indistinguishable.
Well, the party’s over. ‘When you base your politics on a lie’, Ali stated, ‘it’s only a matter of time before you get caught out’. He cited a Financial Times article by (sexist bigot) Lawrence Summers about the mortgage crisis in the United States:
the government should use its new receivership power to protect taxpayers and the financial system. In the process, payments to stock holders, holders of preferred stock and probably subordinated debt holders would be wiped out, conserving cash for the benefit of taxpayers. The GSEs’ borrowing costs would fall considerably, helping prospective homeowners.
In this scenario, the government would operate the GSEs as public corporations for several years. They would then be in a position to extend credit where appropriate to support resolution of the current housing crisis.
Punishing shareholders. Nationalization without compensation. ‘In the olden days,’ Ali said, ‘this was called “expropriation.” China’s recent explosive growth has emphatically demonstrated that capitalism and democracy are not companions. Now, to save us from the devastation neoliberalism has wrought, the ex-president of Harvard University, in the pages of the Financial Times is advocating social democracy as the only available solution.
Under time constraints, Ali turned briefly to the situation in South America, where populist anti-poverty movements are changing the political landscape of a continent and delivering social change to the people. ‘It’s not revolutionary’, he said simply. ‘It’s social democracy’. If Scotland, for example, continues its path towards independence, they will have a new space in which to build a robust democracy. There is no point in earning it, Ali says, unless you are prepared to do something with it. Actions like the Ecuadoran village of Guayaquil, and their winning fight against Bechtel who sought to privatize their water supply should provide us with hope that we do not have to doom ourselves to another term of neoliberalism, now Labour, now Tory. ‘Change is possible’, Ali concluded. ‘If the will is there’.
So let’s, shall we?
Filed under: Ecocapitalism, Film | Tags: Alfonso Cuarón, Animation, Children of Men, Dolly!, Green Party of Canada, Hello, Kids Movies, Pixar, Put on Your Sunday Clothes, Science Fiction, WALL*E
I just saw Pixar’s WALL*E, a futuristic animated feature in which Earth has been abandoned to landfill and pollution while the human race flies around the galaxy in a commodified stupor, consuming recreation and sustenance in bland, supersized quantities. The movie is fine, as kids’ flicks go. The narrative follows the last remaining trash-bot on Earth, WALL*E, charged with cleaning up the mess the last humans left behind. The only problem is that the environmental catastrophe has proved far too massive to be fixed, and 700 years later, WALL*E is still shoveling landfill into his trash-compactor belly and stacking it miles into the sky. Cue intergalactic arrival of shiny, high-tech loveinterestbot, and subsequent heartwarming tale.
The thing I found shocking about the movie is the conspicuous political polemic underwriting the otherwise standard love story. The film opens sans dialogue, with a fifteen-minute tour of the abandoned Earth, with an unabashedly anti-capitalist message. The mega-corporation “Buy n’ Large” owns everything from food outlets to public transit, and there is no question that hyperconsumerism pushed the human race to this crisis. Moreover, the ruined Earth, despite its sci-fi feel, is not so futuristic that we can’t see the resemblance to our own current predicament. The delightful irony of the accompanying music, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! is scathing:
Put on your Sunday clothes,
There’s lots of world out there
Get out the brillantine and dime cigars
We’re gonna find adventure in the evening air
The movie never backs down from this political message. The diasporic Earthlings eat their meals from giant cups (roughly the size of ‘large’ movie-theatre soft drinks), their leisure activities are automated and indistinguishable from each other, their bone structures have shrunk over the years due to inactivity, and social taste is dictated by an automated media system to which every citizen is connected, every minute of their lives.
How is it that a kids movie can get away with this? If this kind of overt political message was in a live-action movie, even a satire, it would be dismissed as unimaginative, or worse, as eco-commie agit prop. Not even science fiction could pull it off. An Inconvenient Truth didn’t sport this kind of polemic. If you want to spread a subversive, emancipatory political message in Hollywood, you have to cushion it in all kinds of subterfuge, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006). Yet somehow, WALL*E can get away with politics that read like they come from the most radical Green Party manifesto (not to be found, of course, in the eco-capitalist Green Party of Canada).
What is it about kids movies that permits this kind of radicalism? I’d like to think that it’s because Disney wants to instill the next generation with an emancipatory politics that will save our skins. I’m sure hoping it’ll happen. But in the words of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, ‘that shit ain’t the truth.’ Instead, it’s the same logic that sees Canada hum and haw about banning incandescent light bulbs and plastic bags while giving tax breaks to Athabasca Tar Sand corporations. Rationally, we know we’re in trouble. Big Trouble. And we’ve got to do something. But Capitalism has so ingrained artificially prescribed desires that we cannot give up. So we shift the things we have to do to realms where it just doesn’t matter.
We relegate these truths that weigh on us to realms of fairy tales, of science fiction. I hope that the message of WALL*E—that, to be prosaic, our hyperconsumerism and disdain for the environment is leading us all to our demise—gains some traction in our children, but the reality is we need it to take hold of ourselves, now. When Disney starts mocking the giant soft drinks its theatres rely on for profit, I don’t get hopeful, I despair. Consumerism—the precise type WALL*E warns us against—has stolen its own criticism from our mouths. And we’re buying it back.
Filed under: Capitalism | Tags: ATM Fees, Bell Canada, Cell Phones, commodification, consumerism, New Democrat, Telus Mobility
I’ll spare you the SMS joke-headline, but Bell and Telus have decided to start charging the outrageous fee of fifteen cents when users receive text messages. That includes unwanted spam and advertisements. The reaction, predictably, has been fierce. “Outrage” is a term that comes to mind. “Price Gouging” has made an appearance The NDP, Canada’s left-wing party, has bravely decided to take on these callous cellphone robber barons. After all, who better than the NDP who previously stalwartly took our side over ATM fees?
Defenders of Bell and Telus claim that if you don’t like the user fees, you can simply switch providers (at a $20 per remaining month fee for breaking your contract, natch). Or, you can stop using texts. Or stop using cell phones. You aren’t entitled, after all, to free messaging. If the service is worth the money, you’ll pay it. The market will sort it out.
And of course, such apologists are absolutely right. As participants in consumerist culture, we aren’t entitled to anything. We don’t have rights, influence or control. There is something ridiculous, impotent about the response to incidents like these. Hitherto unseen environmental destruction proceeds at a blazing pace as a direct result of the capitalist, consumerist system. A thousand jobs disappear in an instant, devastating communities, yet the public responds with incredulity, bewilderment, apathy. “How could this have happened?” Yet we know, rationally, exactly why this happens. We know, rationally, that our economic encourages, even relies upon such acts of violence, yet all we can do is wring our hands and hope for something better to come along.
And yet, when a phone company unfairly raises prices on our mobile phones, we can see with crystal clear precision the inequalities and injustice that motivate the practice. We become organized, mobilized, united (did you sign the NDP’s petition yet?) We rail in righteous outrage against corporate oppression, impotent in our anger, feebly shaking our fists.
k thx bye