Taking Offence

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I have a friend who used to say he didn’t take offence even if it was offered.

What the hell does he know? Everyone these days takes offence at pretty much everything someone else says or does and, what’s more, they demand that the offending person by sufficiently punished. Personally I’m offended – and soon you will be, too.

This morning a man is complaining because his anti-abortion flag was taken down by City Hall. He was offended at this insult – which occurred apparently because so many people were offended by the flag. Meanwhile, on Facebook, someone demanded that people stop talking about Mother’s Day because he had recently lost his mother. And so it goes.

Stephen Colbert recently joked that the only use for Trump’s mouth was as Putin’s cock holster. This offended people on both the right and the left; the former thought it vulgar and an insult to the presidency while the later called it homophobic. Meanwhile, Colbert has apologized (sort of) even though he’s frequently said much worse things about better people. This has not stopped the demands for his firing nor diminished the ratings of his late night show.

Over in Ireland, Stephen Fry was under investigation for blasphemy over remarks he made about some generalized God. Never mind that he was addressing an age old theological problem as to why there is evil in the world. And don’t say free will – that might explain evil people but it hardly explains tsunamis or cancer in 4-year olds. The investigation was dropped when it was discovered there was only one complainant and he wasn’t really offended but thought others might be. How presumptuous! I’m offended that he appropriated other people’s offence for his own purposes.

Which brings us to cultural appropriation, which apparently now means observing, talking about, thinking of or imagining anything that is not directly taken from your own culture. This is not to diminish the real issues of colonialism and the silencing of the voice of the other – which may well be a factor in why some writers and artists do not get the attention they deserve – but to suggest that it is inappropriate to even imagine the other is a crime against… well, I’m not sure who. Some have even suggested that eating ethnic food might be inappropriate (and don’t get me started on the evils of tourism) which I’m sure would come as a big shock – and economic blow – to the Chinese family that sells me noodles.

This is not simply an issue of free speech as some have framed it but something much deeper and concerning. It is a form of cultural isolationism, an ahistorical approach that appeals equally to the xenophobic right and the identity-obsessed left.

But if we actually are one race – the human race – and live on one world, as environmentalists like to say, shouldn’t we all be learning from each other and using our imaginations to make the other us?

But maybe that’s just offensive.

And that’s ten minutes.

Old Stock

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The Canadian political debate played out much as I predicted and all three party leaders either won or lost depending on which pundit you care to believe. It is doubtful if it was the game-changer everyone was waiting for. The most interesting moment, perhaps, was Stephen Harper’s referral to old stock Canadians. He has since explained he means anyone who has been here for more than a generation or two. Hmm. That’s not what most people seemed to think.

No-one is much more old stock than me. My family has been here for eight generations, arriving in the 1770s or so. Other than the French who preceded us and the Aboriginal people who had already been here for millennia, you can’t be more old stock than that. We are, apparently, the English version of ‘pur laine’ those original Francophones who – if it were not for money and the ethnic vote – would have ensured Quebec’s sovereignty.

Was Harper simply being clumsy? Did he use an awkward phrase in responding to a tough question and if so why? What was the purpose of distinguishing between people who came in the 40s (that would allow one or two generations right?) and those who came in the 70s or 90s. Citizenship doesn’t have a best before date does it? (Well, under C-24 it now does if you are an ex-pat like Wayne Gretzky or Donald Sutherland but that’s a different story).

Maybe we wouldn’t be quite so sensitive if the Conservatives hadn’t just hired temporary foreign worker, Lynton Crosby, from Australia to help kick-start their campaign. He has a reputation for dividing people along racial lines and using secret codes – dog whistles – to motivate the racist base. Was this the first in a series of statements that will be used to create fear about the dangerous hordes waiting at the gates?

The sad truth is that there is a racist base. As much as Canadians like to paint themselves as open and liberal, that is a modern construction – largely built by changes that occurred post-world War II, when we were shocked into realizing that our old values – ones that discriminated against Asians and turned away Jewish refugees from the Nazis – just weren’t going to serve any longer.

Modern Canada is multicultural and open. It has been engaged in the world as a peace keeper and as a model for tolerance and cooperation. People came from around the world to study how we did it. And now all the old bogeymen are being raised again.

But surely there is a risk in promoting division and using secret codes to motivate those who should be encouraged to change their ways instead. How do the ethnic communities – wooed so assiduously by Jason Kenney – deal with being told that there are two different kinds of Canadians, those who get accepted no matter what and those who are here on sufferance?

‘Pur laine’ and ‘old stock,’ according to the racists, are the only real Canadians, no matter what the Constitution or the law may say. It’s not the Canada I grew up in but I recognize it nonetheless.

And that’s ten minutes.

Take Down the Flag

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I’ve always had an attraction to flags – not a Sheldon Cooper level attraction, but when I was in Boy Scouts I learned semaphore while all the other boys were learning Morse code. There was something about openly standing on a hilltop to send secret messages that appealed to me.

As an adult, I was pleased and proud to work on a project for Expo 86 to gather and in some cases encourage the creation of community flags in the Northwest Territories. Every time I go to Yellowknife and walk along the path that leads from City Hall to the Heritage Centre I look up at the row of flags and feel a twinge of pleasure.

I know that flags can cause controversy. The Canadian Maple Leaf flag, now considered an icon of our nation, was initially greeted with hatred and derision. Those who clung to the old flag claimed it was a desecration and an insult to all the soldiers who had fought under the Red Ensign. What people said in public was bad; what I heard it called in private was worse.

We got over it.

The controversy about the Confederate flag sounds vaguely similar. Its proponents claim it is a symbol of heritage not hatred. It remembers and honours all those who fought and died. It is nostalgia for the finer aspects of the old days and ways. Most people look at it and see it as a glorification of a society based on slavery. They see it as code for Jim Crow and the KKK. Secret messages sent openly from hilltops.

So what is this heritage you are talking about? Is it a society where the rich few lorded it over everyone else? Where people were treated as mere commodities? A society whose economic system was based on stealing people’s labour? Confederate society depended on supporting the privledged few on the backs of slaves and indentured servants.

Maybe it was the war you are trying to commemorate. Never mind that this was only one of the flags of the Confederate states, the one adopted when the war was at its bloodiest and no hope of reconciliation was seen. Commemorations are meant to heal wounds not keep them open.

And the Civil War and the so-called reconstruction that followed is a deep wound on the American soul. The war took more American lives than all of the other wars that the USA has fought combined. 750,000 dead – nearly 2.5% of the living population – and many more wounded. Towns burnt to the ground. Populations displaced. And for many people living in the south, nothing really changed. Nothing improved. Which is why so many left.

The South blames the North for that but maybe they should look in the mirror. People who cover their wounds – whether with bandages or flags – seldom see them heal. America is still wounded by slavery and by the Civil War – which now presents itself in the pathology of hatred, xenophobia, intolerance and, yes, a desire to have a society where the wealthy few prosper while the masses huddle and suffer and yearn for freedom.

It’s time. Take down the flag.

And that’s ten minutes.

Casual Racism

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I have a black friend who is constantly being asked the question: where are you from? Ron (not his real name) always answers Toronto, where he has lived for twenty years. The questioner will often say: Yes, but I mean, before that? At which point, Ron will say: Oh, you noticed the remnants of my accent. While they are nodding, he will say, Yeah, I grew up in Nova Scotia.

I, too, am from Nova Scotia, but nobody ever asks me where I ‘really’ came from. Well, unless I say the word ‘aunt.’ Then they know I’m from down east. Ron’s family came to Canada as United Empire Loyalists so I guess his proper answer should be: I grew up in Nova Scotia, but my family came from….<pause> …the United States. His family came to Nova Scotia only a few years after mine (from Yorkshire in England).

This is one of the more innocuous questions that people of colour are constantly asked, something I’ve observed and been told about for years. Perhaps, you might think it somewhat natural, being a country of both immigrants and migrants (there are more Maritimers living outside the Maritimes than within their boundaries), yet I seldom hear it asked of white people, no matter how heavy their accent might be. Oh, it might eventually come up – but seldom as the first or even third question they get asked.

This seemingly innocent question is the thin edge of the wedge. As the wedge widens we get all sorts of crazy questions that only non-whites are get asked. Questions about occupations, for example, not as in: what do you do? But rather: do you play sports? Are you a musician? Which would be fine if they are actually playing but when they are dressed in a suit? Really?

There are lots of people who could give you hundreds of better examples – check it out on Youtube or Google if you want to see the real dumb questions people ask.

If that was all casual racism amounted to, I guess people might be able to tolerate it with a shrug and a smile and unspoken ‘asshole.’ But it doesn’t stop there. Cars being pulled over by cops only because black men are driving them. People being accused of crimes when videos show the criminal was someone whose only common characteristic was that they are brown. Or worse yet that show it was a white guy that did it. People being treated as if they must be in service, simply because they are the only non-white in the room.

Even casual slights damage people; hurt their self-esteem, ruin their expectations and hopes of a better life. They provide the foundation that lead to things like what happened in Baltimore or New York or Baltimore. That lead to killers getting off under stand your ground laws. That lead to the fucking laws in the first place.

So the next time you meet a black man or an Asian woman, why not ask where they went to school, what they studied, what kind of job they have or about their kids, if it is clear they have some? It won’t cure the worst of racism in the world but it might be a start. It might stop it from being casual and accepted and turn it into something obvious and wrong.

But that’s ten minutes.