Blind Man with a Pistol


Québec’s Black 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.



‘Police Brutality Is Not a Game’

spiritThe 2009 World Police and Fire Games kicked off in Vancouver this weekend. More than 12 000 police officers from around the world will compete in 65 sporting events over the next ten days. The event has prompted the Vancouver Anti-Poverty Committee to call for a mobilization against police brutality both locally and internationally, under the banner ‘Police brutality is not a game’. It is curious, then, that the Games chose this ‘Eagle Spirit’ image, by traditional Haida artist Garner Moody, as the official logo. The 1329-strong Vancouver Police Department boasts a meagre twenty-one First Nations officers (about 1.5%), and even fewer (if any) actual Haida officers. While this substantially less than the 4.4% First Nations make up the general population, perhaps the Games decided not to honour this small contingent by rooting their national heritage for the official crest, opted instead to salute the overrepresentation of First Nations our boys and girls in blue incarcerate: First Nations make up 18.5% of our national prison population, a bias even more acute in British Columbia.

This shameless appropriation of First Nations’ cultural heritage by the state has become a popular past-time in British Columbia, perhaps the most infamous example the Inukshuk logo of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. At least the Haida, unlike the Inuit, can be found within the borders of the province.

The audacity of the World Police and Fire games to choose the national art of the people they most brutalize and incarcerate as their logo bespeaks gross ignorance and criminal blindness.  The fact that the choice was probably meant to sell Canada’s ‘multicultural’ society internationally adds further insult. Just as the purpose of our police forces is not to protect its citizens, but to protect the state against its enemies—in this case, the autonomy and nationhood of our First Nations—its gamesmanship and recreation extend this defence to new fronts. By appropriating without honour or good faith, the ‘correctional services of Canada’ engage in an act of cultural violence against the artistic heritage of its favourite victim, the First Nations of Turtle Island.



Free and Fair

‘Free and Fair’ elections is quickly becoming a registered trademark, patented by the West, used only in the negative against enemies of Western hegemony. To wit, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and most recently and most sensationally, Iran, all attract Western solicitude, debutante champions of ‘democracy’ soberly measuring the ‘freedom’ and ‘fairness’ of brown people everywhere. When, I wonder, was the last time the Globe and Mail announced ‘Stephen Harper wins free and fair federal election’? Perhaps it would be better for Iran to follow the American-allied Saudi example: if you don’t hold elections at all, no one can complain about their legitimacy.

Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, calls the assumption of a fixed election in Iran a ‘social fact’. That is, it is no longer a question whether or not President Ahmadinejad and his followers rigged the election, a critical mass of Iranians now believe they did, and they are fighting with their lives. This makes it easier to ignore the frenzied Western media and their self-righteous braying in the name of free and fair elections (without, it is fair to say, a trace of irony), while still supporting the Iranian people and their struggle for democracy.

I don’t know enough about Iran to pass comment on the status of their revolution, so it would be prudent to start by contextualizing the West’s concern for the state of democracy in Iran. First: since, as written at Revolutionary Flowerpot Society, all elections held in Iran occur within a theocratic system. This means, contrary to what American and Israeli hawks have been successfully insisting since 2002, the presidency of Iran is not the highest executive office in the country: that privilege, as our media is slowly learning, belongs to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Aside from the fact that such a heirarchy suggests that no election in Iran has been ‘free and fair’ since about 1951 (and the Americans and British made sure those results didn’t stick), the result of this incongruous mixture is that Khamenei has emerged in the Western press paradoxically as a grandfatherly, judicious sage, pleading for stability and pondering a recount, rather than a theocratic patriarch who remains the largest barrier to Iranian democracy (a fact, it should be needless to add, not lost on Iranians).

Furthermore, the incessant tendency of the Western media to deliver heroes and villains to its readership means that since Ahmadinejad is our demon, Mir-Hossein Mousavi must be our angel. Consider first that Mousavi and democracy are rather recent bedfellows, and second, that his chief supporter, Mohammad Khatami, was the recipient of George W. Bush’s infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ prize in 2002 when he, and not Ahmadinejad, was president of Iran. Moreover, the reason that Ahmadinejad is grossly popular with the poor and dispossessed may have less to do with fundamentalist chicanery (although its draw cannot be ignored) and more to do with adroit local politics (h-t croghan), forging populist policies that afford full insurance to impoverished women and free university classes to Azeris. This toxic mixture of ideology and praxis defrauds the West’s monolithic view of Iran and pits oppressive fundamentalism against disenfranchisement of the poor, possible comfort to the Israeli-US war machine and potential of outright anti-revolutionary betrayal. An uncomfortable choice for a Western liberal not up to speed on 100 years or so of Iranian history.

More distressing is the inextricable relationship these elections and the attendant Western response share with the two imperialist wars in the Middle East, the subsequent occupations, and their genesis. The revelation that those who a few years earlier were advocating an American bombing campaign of the Iranian people are now suddenly concerned about their welfare should incite us to revisit what is motivating our desire for Iranian freedom and fairness.  Such an impulse, cognate with the liberal support in 2002 for the Iraq war, suggests that urging a bourgeois revolution in Tehran is consonant with murdering the people behind it; that is, the people involved in both scenarios remain invisible to us. Both are spectacles of our narcissism, fantasies of our media, and betray Western imperialist desire.

The only rational conclusion that can be drawn, then, is to support neither the neo-liberalism and cross-class appeal of Mousavi or the populist, yet theocratic craft of Ahmadinejad. Indeed, as outsiders, it is neither our responsibility nor our purview to comment (a sentiment, surprisingly enough, shared by the American president). The election itself, whatever degree of fraud we choose to apply to it, is no longer an issue. A recount, now counselled by Khamenei, seems like an absurd solution in the wake of recent events. Our obligation, therefore, is to keep our ‘free and fair’ label in our pockets—to support enthusiastically, joyfully and without reservation the struggle on all sides of the Iranian people  who can now glimpse a better world, plumbed from the depths of the delerious and frenetic soup of hope and tragedy in which they have been submerged.



Pyrrhic Victories

On 20 March 2003, under false pretences, under the grotesque banner of ‘shock and awe’, despite the protests of the largest demonstration the world had ever seen, despite two-million marchers in London on 15 February that year, the armed forces of the United Kingdom invaded Iraq. On 30 April 2009, with 179 British soldiers and untold hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens dead, UK combat operations ceased.

As someone who demonstrated against the invasion with 150 000 others in -30 C Montreal weather, an ‘I told you so’ has never come at a higher price. Exhausted with questions of the Downing Street Memo, the Dodgy Dossier, and Weapons of Mass Destruction, both now stale even as running jokes with the late-night talk show set, the question posed by the nation in the wake of  the British withdrawal is: ‘Was the UK mission in Iraq a success?’

What a question. A success for whom, one might wonder; and for what? Certainly the original rationale and legality of the war have been so crippled and enfeebled to render the prospect of success farcical. For those of us with functioning memories the answer is simple: there were no weapons of mass destruction, therefore any injury, incurred or evinced, returns a negative sum. Despite the fact that then-Home Secretary Jack Straw was caught on tape saying that the case for war was based on ‘thin’ evidence, on Question Time recently he desperately clung to a tortuous justification that would have made Michael Ignatieff proud: based on what we knew, we made the best decision we could; those who made what turned out to be the right decision, therefore, did so for the wrong reasons, and may God have mercy on their souls.

So much for weapons of mass destruction. But there is another helix to this double coil: the war on terror. Britain, who fought fascism alone in the streets of London, would rise again to help their American allies in the desperate wake of 9/11. Never mind that none of the World Trade Center hijackers came from Iraq. Never mind that Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party espoused pan-Arab secularism and was historically at odds with the fundamentalist Islamic al-Qaeda. If We Do Not Take The War To Them They Will Take The War To Us. Except they did. Would the 7/7 2005 bombings of London occurred if Britain was not in Iraq? Perhaps. Although the Spanish people thought otherwise when the Madrid underground was attacked: they almost immediately deposed the sitting government and voted in José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s leftist party who promised to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. One question, however, renders such speculation instantly moot: are there less terrorists in Iraq now than there were on 20 March 2003? The answer is an emphatic and resounding no.

So our men and women in parliament turn to a new charade. The charade of democracy. Perhaps we did go into Iraq for the wrong reasons but look what we’ve done: we’ve deposed a tyrannical and genocidal dictator and given democracy to the Iraqi people. As if it was ours to give. As if the Iraqi people needed it given. What is democracy anyway? Listening to the cheerleaders of the invasion, you’d think it was a show of theatre: blue thumbs, long queues, smiles and broken English. But this is not democracy. It is a circus.

Such arguments that hope to rectify, if not erase, the lies and deception fostered by those we trusted to lead us want to cleave justice from history. Well, here we are now boys, in the bed we made, and by gum we will make a game of it. But, those who make this case, those who would have us believe that history is beside the point, forget, as always, that history is the point. History shows us that Saddam Hussein, the vanquished ace in the hole for Iraq warmongers, is himself a product of Western imperialism and meddling. History shows us that every time the Iraqi people attempted to rise up in chorus, they were thwarted by an empire promising first pacification, then civilization, now democracy.

Democracy is the people. Democracy is not a gift bestowed upon a willing nation by a guardian parent who feels its offspring is ready. It is not a thing that can be pounded into a square inch of dust like embossing in so much beaten copper. It is of the people, by the people and for the people; and its genesis in Iraq has been baffled by British egotism throughout the last one hundred years. But the thing about democracy is that it will not be baffled forever. Like murder, it will out. And no one knows this better than the citizens of Iraq, who, despite being bloodied, abused and beaten, have now seen the backs of British soldiers three times in a century.

So Britain continues to laud its military efforts, with soldiers who are kinder, gentler, than their American counterparts, and made the best of a bad situation. Keep calm and carry on, goes the motto. Besides, victory in Afghanistan awaits. So too, I hope, does democracy for Iraq. It’s been a long time coming.



Police on my Back

If you are a British citizen, you should be furious. The severe and brazen violence exercised by the London Metropolitan police upon its citizens during and after the G20 protests is the direct result of unbridled and rampant expansion of executive and coercive powers of the British state. The cream of the crop such expansion has sown is the alarming murder of Ian Tomlinson, a non-protestor who was batonned while walking away from police with his hands in his pockets. If you are a person of colour in Britian, this observation probably comes as no surprise. But the difference now is that the thugs responsible have been caught on tape. Indeed, one of the most disturbing revelations to come out of the profuse video evidence is that when  a police officer backhanded Nicola Fisher at a vigil for Tomlinson’s death, she remonstrated “Do you realise there are three film crews filming you?”  The police officer, who had his badge number obscured so as to evade identification, responded by swinging a baton at her knees.

There is no end to the outrage these incidents should effect. The 2005 murder by police of Charles De Menezes and the recent inquest revealed police tactics: lie, obfuscate and impede justice until the evidence is so indisputable that backpedalling becomes unavoidable. The six officers responsible remain on the force. It appears that this strategy has become standard policy. Police announced the ‘death’ more than three hours after it occured, with an additional insidious claim that protestors impeded health care workers from accessing Tomlinson. Although the IPCC knew that Tomlinson had had contact with the police, they did not inform Tomlinson’s family. An inquiry was not launched until the Guardian published a video showing Tomlinson walking away from officers with his hands in his pockets, severely beaten to the ground in an unprovoked attack by London’s finest. An initial pathologist report, also delayed, conducted by Dr Freddy Patel who, it was later revealed, was twice reprimanded for dubious ethical behaviour, concluded Tomlinson died of a ‘heart-attack’. A second postmortem discovered Tomlinson died instead of internal bleeding. There should only be one question echoing through Scotland Yard and the British public right now:  How is this not murder?

Britain is a world leader in CCTV cameras, keeping a policing and surveillant eye on its public. It has baselessly and dangerously expanded the maximum time police can detain a terror suspect, first to 28 days in 2005 (after Tony Blair requested a 90-day period), then briefly to 42 days in 2008 before it was defeated after public and opposition party outcry. The next longest detention period by a Western democracy is Australia with 12. The list goes on: national ID cards, DNA databases and municipal politicians who have access to police surveillance to spy on innocent civilians and local political rivals. The unrelenting result of these coercive policies is a police force that has come to conceive of its executive power as inviolate, boundless and absolute.

Big Brother is not only the most popular show on British television, it is the archetype by which the state models its public policy. Now that Britain has seen the fruits of these oppressive labours, it is time to take them back. Of course, the task is much more difficult now that a culture of surveillance and coercion is firmly established, but the British public has seen its closed-circuit image and it does not like what it sees. It is important now more than ever to honour the deaths of De Menezes and Tomlinson by reclaiming our right to public autonomy and show these thugs the door.



The Mote in our Conscience

US President Barack Obama has released classified memos that reveal administrative approval of waterboarding and sleep deprivation, among other tactics, in the interrogation of terror suspects by the CIA. The Obama administration has rightfully denounced such crimes as torture. I don’t know all the details about American and Canadian participation and complicity in the torture of terror suspects, but I know someone who does. For those details, read skdadl at pogge.

But this post is not about the horror we feel once we realize the inhumanity our governments have inflicted in our names—such a reaction should be quick and visceral. Besides, we’ve known about these crimes for some time. What is alarming about the memos is the legal sleight-of-hand they effect to render torture lawful. And, equally alarming, is Obama’s insistence that:

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carrying out their duties relying in good faith upon the legal advice from the department of justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.

We’ve heard this before, of course. CIA agents who forced terror suspects to believe they were drowning, who exploited deep-seated phobias to glean unreliable information, and who caused such untold mental and physical duress to enemies of the state that they are now immune to prosecution, overrode any ethical qualms they may or may not have held simply by surrendering to the steely rule of law. Adolf Eichmann made a similar appeal in his war crimes tribunal in front of the Supreme Court of Israel:

It was my misfortune to become entangled in these atrocities. But these misdeeds did not happen according to my wishes. It was not my wish to slay people. The guilt for the mass murder is solely that of the political leaders… I would stress that I am guilty of having been obedient, having subordinated myself to my official duties and the obligations of war service and my oath of allegiance and my oath of office, and in addition, once the war started, there was also martial law….

I accuse the leaders of abusing my obedience. At that time obedience was demanded, just as in the future it will also be demanded of the subordinate. Obedience is commended as a virtue. May I therefore ask that consideration be given to the fact that I obeyed, and not whom I obeyed.

It is understandable for Eichmann to make this plea: he was fighting for his life. It is less forgiveable for Obama to do so. Essentially, Obama is condoning that actors of the state abandon their own sense of judgement for another, as if the law is a cold, literal thing, handed down to us by mystics and soothsayers who conjure truth out of an impenatrable lexicon we cannot hope to understand. Is not asking for ‘good faith’ in the ‘legal advice’ of experts not an act of theology?

There’s another man who justified his warmongering with cold literalism. When the Archbishop of Cantebury advises Prince Hal, now King Henry, to invade France based on a specious and tortuous claim to the throne (which, incidentally, has something to do with the fact that Hal’s great-great grandmother was a daughter of the King of France, and hence under English law, but not French law, Hal’s claim has legs) in Shakespeare’s Henry V, he equivocates until Cantebury assures him that if his logic is not correct, ‘The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!’  Only once he can abrogate responsibility under the guise of faith (in both literal law and in his religious advisors) will he exercise his ambition in a logic that confounds readers and audience members to this day.

Shakespeare may well support Hal and earnestly attempt to legitimize the morality of a highly questionable invasion, but his concept of the law is clear. When Hal camouflauges his royalty and infiltrates his army’s camp before the battle of Agincourt, he meets two soldiers who are troubled by the legitimacy of their actions, but take solace, like Eichmann, in obedience:

we know enough, if we know we are the King’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.

This line would appear to suffice for Eichmann, and indeed, for Obama. But not, I think, for the King. He does not agree:

The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services…Every subject’s duty is the King’s; but every subject’s soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience.

The law, then, is dialectic: it is in the service of society and of ourselves. The King himself says no less in his famous exhortation at Agincourt, the climax of the play and articulation of the play’s conception of obedience and law:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;

The equalities and parallels drawn between the gentlest and vilest of our society justifies the King’s claims on his men: while the King might be culpable of reckless warmongering, the cohesion of this relationship never falters. Only a just cause validates the relationship. Justice issues from solidarity and trust. It is oceanic, and total: resolute, not absolute.

Such a relationship cannot be said to exist under Eichmann or under George W. Bush. Their ruling impeteus is clear: these are the facts, and you shall obey. Can the CIA agents who practiced waterboarding on terror suspects say that every mote has been washed out of his conscience?  Can Obama? By absolving these actors on the basis of their obedience to faulty logic and mystifying legal machinations, Obama has done nothing to restore public and international trust to a diseased system. To revitalize the law, the United States needs to resituate on principles of solidarity, communion and individual culpability. At times, it seems the law is as fragile as it is robust. Those who have committed these crimes need to face justice and those who can effect as much need to stop shielding them with the law.



Ah Rancourt! Ah Humanity!

In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”

Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (1853)

Denis Rancourt, the embattled activist physics and environmental science professor who looks to lose his job at the University of Ottawa because of his unorthodox and subversive pedagogical philosophy, is becoming an international nuisance to his soon-to-be former employers. Rancourt (who, it should be said, has previously courted controversy by minimalizing global warming as an imminent threat and labelling it the concern of solitarily the ‘First World white middle class’) is under fire for ‘squatting’ a first-year Physics course, ignoring the department syllabus in authoring the course, dispensing with conventional grading (everyone was to recieve an ‘A+’) and focussing on ‘student-driven learning’. Claiming insubordination as an academic right, Rancourt found little sympathy from the university administration, who arrested him on campus and led him away in handcuffs. His plight has raised myriad questions about academic freedom and dissent.

In his weekly op-ed in the New York Times, Professor Stanley Fish has this to say on the subject of academic freedom:

In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.

It’s no surprise, then, that when Professor Fish offered his own editorial in put to Rancourt’s case, he reached the following conclusion:

It is the difference between being concerned with the establishing and implementing of workplace-specific procedures and being concerned with the wholesale transformation of society. It is the difference between wanting to teach a better physics course and wanting to save the world. Given such divergent views, not only is reconciliation between the parties impossible; conversation itself is impossible. The dispute can only be resolved by an essentially political decision, and in this case the narrower concept of academic freedom has won. But only till next time.

Professor Fish does not discriminate between the University and any other workplace. Indeed, his opening gambit suggests that since Rancourt’s behaviour would get him fired from a law firm, he should expect similar treatment from his faculty. It is as if Fish adpated his views on higher education from what Charles Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854) called ‘the one needful thing’:

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Yet Fish seems to take this caricature as—ahem—fact. Certainly, with an increasing dependence on corporate donations and emphasis on producing so-called ’employable’ graduates, the University has parted somewhat from its historical role as an essential ally of democracy. To defend against this erosion, we can turn to no more eloquent exposition than the Catholic Victorian philosopher John Henry Newman. In his discourses on The Idea of a University (1852), Newman argues:

Education is a high word; it is the preparation for knowledge, and it is the imparting of knowledge in proportion to that preparation. We require intellectual eyes to know withal, as bodily eyes for sight. We need both objects and organs intellectual; we cannot gain them without setting about it; we cannot gain them in our sleep, or by haphazard. The best telescope does not dispense with eyes; the printing press or the lecture room will assist us greatly, but we must be true to ourselves, we must be parties in the work. A University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma  Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill….

[The University] will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow. (My emphasis)

Academic freedom, then, is not a workplace-specific mandate to render research and instruction more efficient, it is grease for the engine of democracy. It is the synthesis of fact and fancy, the petrie dish of society. Academics and students have a pivotal role to play in that construction. This is why education is an inalienable and universal human right, while working in a law firm is not.

No wonder, then, that Rancourt’s dissent haunts the university like Bartleby’s obstinance haunts his former employer. It seems to me that Rancourt is doing his best to uphold the spirit of Newman’s concept of the University. Granted, he is severely insubordinate—on such a shocking and incomprehensible level that the administration of the University of Ottawa appear at a  loss on how best to handle him. Indeed, Fish’s evaluation of Rancourt’s subversion as ‘comical’ coincides with the popular opinion, if the comments to any news story touching this case are to be believed. Rancourt stares at Bartleby’s dead brick wall behind the pale screen (albeit with a bit more panache), willing it to change with a simple act of defiance, as would-be peers and allies nonchalantly transfer him to the dead letter office, prison and anonymity.



Understanding Hope

Let me begin by saying that I am baffled by America. I do not know how one could possibly fix a nation so polarized, so self-absorbed, so isolated and so pervasive. Is ‘diverse’ even the right word for a country that can as easily lynch a black man as elect one as president? So when I see Barack Obama pick the homophobic and misogynist Rick Warren to introduce his inauguration, I can say that I understand. How else can you reach out to an entire class of people who are afraid, powerless and furious at a country that has abandoned them? If hate is the medium in which you have endured your entire life, what other language can you understand? Yet how can I understand this and condemn in my heart what I know is tantamount to fascism? How can I understand this and look my gay and lesbian friends in the eye?

German writer Bernhard Schlink’s bestselling novel The Reader (1997) (Der Vorleser [1995]) follows Michael Berg, who at fifteen, has a lengthy affair with Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year old tram driver.  Many years later as a law student, Michael observes a war crimes trial for Nazi crimes, in which Hannah is one of the defendants. Michael struggles to understand the position of his first love, while his horror at her crime (unbeknownst to Michael, Hanna worked as a concentration camp guard. She and a group of other female guards watched as a church full of escaped Jewish prisoners burned to the ground, killing all inside) prohibits him from achieving full comprehension, closure or absolution.

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned.When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.

Hanna, of course, is Schlink’s allegory for postwar Germany. Here, too, is America. We find ourselves declaring ‘cautious optimism’ over the Obama administration. How can we, after the last eight years, reconcile Obama’s laudable decision to close Guantanamo in one year (albeit not in 100 days, as The Center for Constitutional Law recommends) with his hawkish cabinet appointments which include Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emmanuel and George W. Bush’s Defence Secretary Robert Gates? Is the twin inauguration invitation to homophobic evangelical Rick Warren and civil rights lion Joseph Lowery inclusive or ingratiatory?

And how can we parse a statement like this, that formed the heart of Obama’s impressive inauguration speech:

Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

Such a statement embodies the tenor of Obama’s presedential actions to date: now conciliatory, now aggressive. A pull-out in Iraq followed by a renewed offensive in Afghanistan. A promise to talk, finally, with our neighbours and with our enemies followed by an unapologetic renunciation and disavowal of blame. And where, Obama, is Gaza? Which world do you live in? Do we want, finally, consensus in America if it is a consensus of messianic warmongering and imperialism?

In Plato’s Ion, Socrates is discussing the art of oration with the great rhapsode Ion. Ion insists that rhapsodes contain multitudes. That is, they must be fluent in the abilities of the characters they channel in order to produce a realistic performance. But, Socrates questions, will you know how to speak of these abilities better than the workman himself? After considering it, Ion demurrs. A fisherman, a spinster, a cowherd, a pilot—they will all know their trade better than the rhapsode. Then Socrates asks, ‘Will he know what a general ought to say when exhorting his soldiers?’

Ion. Yes, that is the sort of thing which the rhapsode will be sure to know.
Soc.
Well, but is the art of the rhapsode the art of the general?
Ion.
I am sure that I should know what a general ought to say.
[…]
Soc. And in judging of the general’s art, do you judge of it as a general or a rhapsode?
Ion.
To me there appears to be no difference between them.
Soc. What do you mean? Do you mean to say that the art of the rhapsode and of the general is the same?
Ion. Yes, one and the same.
Soc. Then he who is a good rhapsode is also a good general?
Ion. Certainly, Socrates.
Soc. And he who is a good general is also a good rhapsode?
Ion. No; I do not say that.
Soc. But you do say that he who is a good rhapsode is also a good general.
Ion. Certainly.
Soc. And you are the best of Hellenic rhapsodes?
Ion. Far the best, Socrates.
Soc. And are you the best general, Ion?
Ion. To be sure, Socrates; and Homer was my master.

I don’t throw in with Plato, but he is the caution in our optimism. If a rhapsode, in Plato’s estimation, is good at two things—poetry and war—then how happy can we be that we have the most charismatic and erudite president in living memory? How can we laud his attempts at understanding and keep our moral courage against the forces of hate and fascism that have such a heavy foothold in America? Or is this compromise we have underwritten simply a capitulation to free-market philosophy on an emotional, affective level?

Here’s hoping, America.



Against Freedom: Free Speech

In Areopagitica (1644) , John Milton, poet, revolutionary and parliamentarian, wrote what became the ur-text for defenders of free speech in the modern era. Although it had virtually no political impact at the time, it influenced the arguments of free-speech advocates for centuries: its heritage can even be observed in the United States Bill of Rights. In a virtuoso performance, Milton mixes Classical and Christian imagery to forward a profound statement against censorship:

Unlesse warinesse be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but he who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.

Lovely stuff. Milton was condemning the Licensing Order of 1643, which reinstated the authority to ban texts pre-publication, and represented, for Milton at least, a regression toward regimes like that of Spain, who were archaic and worse, Catholic (or, in the creative parlance of British sectarianism, ‘papes’). The only problem with Milton’s eloquent tract is that he’s not really against censorship at all. He’s only against censorship before a book is published. Here’s the almost equally vibrant passage that precedes the above:

I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

In fact, Milton’s treatise can be read as a plea to demand treasonous and blasphemous individuals publish their thoughts so as to ensure their crimes are adequately punished. We want our papists and royalists outed, after all.

Milton’s trick, a wondrous blend of revolution and conservatism, founds the strategy that would come to define free speech for the remainder of the millennium: he proposes a plan that enables coercion, facilitates the suppression of dissent, and ensures subversive forces are exposed and expatriated—all under the veil of what the ruling classes, never without a sense of humour, have labelled ‘Free Speech’. Milton knows that speech is never free—it’s only a matter of when your debt is called in. But this wrinkle in the modern understanding of free speech has faded from social memory.

Hence, the price of free speech is the principle commonly thought to be its synonym: freedom of thought. By shifting censorship post-production, we are forced to filter our expressions before they are published. That is, by removing pre-publication bans and replacing it with a censorious judiciary after publication, Milton’s brand of free speech effects a much more efficient type of restriction. If the book is ‘reason it selfe’, and the book is fair game for a moralizing lawmaker, then the best defence is altering reason. This so-called freedom breeds self-censorship.

But don’t take my word for it. Firebrand journalist and author G.K. Chesterton festooned the ironic logic of free speech in his wonderful spy thriller, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908):

‘The work of the philosophical policeman’, replied the man in blue, ‘is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime….We say that the most dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher’.

The key difference between Chesterton’s ‘philosophical policemen’ and Milton’s hated papacy is that the ‘philosophical policemen’, a group of undercover officers infiltrating the subversive ‘anarchists’ of Britain, turn out to be more pervasive and prolific than the populace they are supposed to survey. Indeed, by the novel’s end, these policemen comprise the entire society, fighting and observing each other. In Chesterton’s cynical revision, censorship continues apace—the only difference being, in the words of Radiohead, you do it to yourself.

With that in mind, compare Chesterton’s satirical passage, in which Gabriel Syne, the latest recruit of the philosophical policemen, reveals his motivating convictions, to Milton’s treatise against the suppression of heresy:

‘Yes, the modern world has retained all those parts of police work which are really oppressive and ignominious, the harrying of the poor, the spying upon the unfortunate. It has given up its more dignified work, the punishment of powerful traitors in the State and powerful heresiarchs in the Church. The moderns say we must not punish heretics. My only doubt is whether we have a right to punish anybody else’.

What Chesterton’s delicious irony reveals, of course, is that modernity hasn’t given up punishing heresy at all: it’s simply shifted the responsibility.

Consider whence the loudest braying and appeals to free speech come: more often than not it issues from the far right, like when they fought for the privilege of Danish cartoonists to mock and villainize Muslims. When a concept meant to promote democracy and liberty ends up acting as a shield for racists and imperialists, it’s time to consider implementing a curfew. Is defending fascism what Milton had in mind when he wrote his famous apologia?

In fact, in a further twist of irony, our governments have used its shibboleth of ‘free speech’ to invalidate dissent. There is, first of all, the sardonically named ‘Free-Speech Zones’ that have leeched their way into Western ‘democracies’, relegating dissent into safely cordoned-off areas of impotence. Even when free speech is not so explicitly marginalized, it is systematically defanged by cynical smugness. The protests against the war in Iraq saw 36 million people speak out against the United States’ illegal, ill-fated pre-emptive attack. Rather than shortcircuit a now-hopless war that has since cost milions of civilians’ lives and set back hope for stability in the region for a generation, it permitted the administrations of Bush and Blair a wry smile of condescenion: ‘this is what we are fighting for’, they insisted. The right for Iraqis of free speech and political dissent. By upholding the spectacle of free speech rather than its essence, liberalism sold freedom of expression as a brand, draining the substance of its objection and hanging it on an unjustifiable war. Our empty freedoms have now become Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s.

Faced with such paralyzing impotence we might be tempted to dispose with free speech altogether. This would be a grave mistake. While Milton might have been treacherous in his spirited defence of free speech, he was not wholly wrong. Freedom of expression, however insidious and ethereal, must be pursued in a robust democracy. To dissuade discouragement, I can olnly turn to Chesterton again, and the words of his Professor de Worms:

‘Young man, I am amused to observe that you think I am a coward. As to that I shall say only one word, and it will be entirely in the manner of your own philosophical rhetoric. You think it is impossible to pull down the President. I know it is impossible, and I am going to try it’.

Shall we? Let’s.



The Price of Hope

In my last blog post, I wrote about the emphatic rejection of neoliberal economics and criminal foreign policy represented by Obama’s recent victory. Or, if in terms less optimistic, the electorate expressed its doubts in the American Way, which had been their lot for the last thirty-plus years.  Financial meltdown, tragic failure in New Orleans and a disastrous war in Iraq had at the very least made the American public suspicious, and unwilling to risk further complicitous behaviour. Judith Butler, as she does, weighs in with a much more nuanced and complicated take on this tentative disavowal by the United States electorate.

We cannot underestimate the force of dis-identification in this election, a sense of revulsion that George W. has “represented” the United States to the rest of the world, a sense of shame about our practices of torture and illegal detention, a sense of disgust that we have waged war on false grounds and propagated racist views of Islam, a sense of alarm and horror that the extremes of economic deregulation have led to a global economic crisis.  Is it despite his race, or because of his race, that Obama finally emerged as a preferred representative of the nation?  Fulfilling that representative-function, he is at once black and not-black (some say “not black enough” and others say “too black”), and, as a result, he can appeal to voters who not only have no way of resolving their ambivalence on this issue, but do not want one.  The public figure who allows the populace to sustain and mask its ambivalence nevertheless appears as a figure of “unity”: this is surely an ideological function. Such moments are intensely imaginary, but not for that reason without their political force.

President-Elect Obama introduces a profound politics of disavowal: the American people have not only rejected the Republican policies that have marred the last eight years, but in order to choose Obama they have also had to disavow something else. Throughout his campaign, Senator Obama asserted that above all else he represented the American dream—in his narrative, a black man from a poor family who has been given the opportunity by his great country to achieve his full potential and become the leader of the free world. Along with this, however, Obama has come to also represent a nation fraught with impossible contradictions: the incurable traumas of race, class and region. In Obama, we see the American tendancy to launch missles in the name of peace, to torture in the name of freedom; or, more insiduously, to laud ambition as well as equality, democracy as well as capitalism. To accept one myth, we must disavow another. As Butler continues:

If we seek through this presidency to overcome a sense of dissonance, then we will have jettisoned critical politics in favor of an exuberance whose phantasmatic dimensions will prove consequential.  Maybe we cannot avoid this phantasmatic moment, but let us be mindful about how temporary it is. If there are avowed racists who have said, “I know that he is a Muslim and a terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway,” there are surely also people on the left who say, “I know that he has sold out gay rights and Palestine, but he is still our redemption.”  I know very well, but still: this is the classic formulation of disavowal. Through what means do we sustain and mask conflicting beliefs of this sort?  And at what political cost?

If Obama permits us not only to reject the politics we dis-identify with, he also enables us to disavow the politics we hold close to our heart, to compartmentalize them and shore them against the fear of betrayal.

We see this in Ralph Nader’s unfortunate statement, reiterated in an interview with a distasteful Fox News anchor: ‘[Obama’s] choice, basically, is whether he’s going to be Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations’. The sentiment of the question is important, indeed, desperate, for those who put their faith in Obama. But the fact that Nader needlessly phrased this pointed challenge to Obama in racialized language indicates the kind of disavowal occurring in those who would put Obama in the same boat as McCain, Bush and Clinton: “I know that he is black and has overcome the impossible and criminal limits that have heretofore defined a nation, but he is a neoliberal hawk and a war-criminal-in-waiting’. We see the disavowal of race in a candidacy defined by it in order to pursue our own desires. Nader’s slip announces race as a determining factor in our expectations for Obama even as we swear to be colour blind.

I don’t know if the strategies Obama allows in us to overcome the contradictions of living in America today are the right ones. I don’t know if purchasing a chance at social health care with the human rights of Gays and Lesbians is a good deal. Or if a man who can look at Iraq and Afghanistan and call one war good and one bad is a promising sign of peace. I will only cautiously note the difference Lauren Berlant cites between Obama’s rhetoric of hope and Clinton’s obscene sentimentality:

in response to the Washington Post’s observation that Obama is uncomfortable with performing Clintonesque sentimentality of the “I feel your pain” variety, I thought, that’s right, Obama’s more like “I feel your hope.”  Does the difference matter?

I think so.  Obama is detaching from the liberal tradition of claiming that our wounds are what make us alike and what make us obligated to aid  each other. Obama’s saying that it’s hope that makes us alike, especially the hope for politics to advance the world toward deserving our optimism for it.

So what are we bargaining for this optimism? And what do we get for our money? I’ll let Butler, whose equal parts cynicism and optimism appeal to me, conclude this piece:

In the place of an impossible promise, we need a series of concrete actions that can begin to reverse the terrible abrogation of justice committed by the Bush regime; anything less will lead to a dramatic and consequential disillusionment.  The question is what measure of dis-illusion is necessary in order to retrieve a critical politics, and what more dramatic form of dis-illusionment will return us to the intense political cynicism of the last years. Some relief from illusion is necessary, so that we might remember that politics is less about the person and the impossible and beautiful promise he represents than it is about the concrete changes in policy that might begin, over time, and with difficulty, bring about conditions of greater justice.

Here’s hoping.