Monday, October 7, 2013

Another Country

I began reading James Baldwin’s Another Country the day after I buried my wife.

She is the only woman I’ve ever truly been in love with. In growing together, we had learned strategies for surviving Quebec’s terrible racial climate; she as a young Ethiopian woman unused to the nuances of an oppressive culture, I shedding my idealization of the land of my birth – coming to terms with the fact that as long as I remained Canadian in my own mind, I was submitting to the White power that constituted Canadian identity.

That climate had rendered me perpetually on the job hunt as the recession economy contracted, squeezing me out of work. It had made her vow to return to Ethiopia when she finished her nursing degree. At times, the pressures of living from day to day in that world pitted us against each other, neither of us really knowing what we were arguing about until it was long over and we’d made up again.

In the five and a half years that I spent with her, she taught me a lot about myself. I had learned from other women that they thought it was attractive when a man was verbally rough. It had seemed a foolish exercise in performance to me in my early twenties, but I went along with the expectations and women seemed to like it. It was from my wife, though, that I learned how that performance could also hurt a woman emotionally. I didn’t ever want to be that guy again.

The last words I said to her, and the last words she said to me, were “I love you.”

That night, a Quebecois fireman left her on the cold ground to die, rather than trying to resuscitate her.

When you lose the only person you’ve ever loved, the person with whom you’ve spent every single day of your life for years, and you know that she’s never coming back, the most immediate concern you have is to decide whether life is worth living. And if you choose to answer in the affirmative, then you must find reasons to justify that decision.

I changed a lot in the days and months that followed. I listened to more hip-hop and less of the jazz I’ve always loved. Though I read more voraciously than ever to take my mind off my sorrow, I couldn’t enjoy the feel of words in my mind the way I’d used to. I couldn’t write, couldn’t feel as cogent and in command of my thoughts as I’d trained myself to be. I stubbornly held onto memories and feelings that reinforced my depression, because they were all I had left of her. I had to be tough enough to deal with it, I told myself.
And nearly everyone else was, annoyingly, telling me to “be strong” – as if they knew the first thing about it.

But if you don’t bend, you’ll break. After the night that I hit rock bottom – an episode still too painful to disclose in print, one in which I lost the respect of my oldest friend and wound up in a hospital late one Saturday night – I realized that I had to reconfigure my idea of myself as a man.

I could not “be tough” because holding onto my pain was literally killing me. So I had to develop a new standard of manhood for myself, one that incorporated an understanding that other people’s opinions were not going to help me. I had to be fine with being sad. That wasn’t going to go away, and to hell with anyone who thought less of me for it.

I could not be financially successful in this country – regardless of my intellect or work ethic – because I was brown and therefore was cheap labour. At that point I was working 16 hours a day. All my hard work really meant, in honest words, was nights of insomnia and stress-filled days of misery. Reaching after the brass ring of success meant jumping through hoops held by White people, and some people who wished they were White; and they’d move the hoops if you got too good at navigating through them.

If my ideas on masculinity were bound up with my social experiences, and my social experiences determined my political attitudes, then changes in how I saw myself meant that my political outlook had to change, too. I’d always felt I had to “be a man” precisely because White society was constantly telling me that I was not a man. (The converse of it was that White people assumed I was sexist because I was Brown…rather than because I was socialized under White Canadian patriarchy.)

I had to stop measuring myself by these standards of manhood. They were unrealistic and dangerous. They hurt people I loved. If I held onto them, I would end up dead.

I had to develop a standard of manhood that was honest about who I really was.

About six months after reading Another Country, I read Manning Marable’s new biography of Malcolm X, where he revealed that Malcolm likely had had an affair with an older White man in his pre-prison days. To me, this came as a shock: I’d developed a certain idea of what Malcolm was in my mind, and it wasn’t a dude who liked men in that way.

Up until that point, my concept of gay men was as predatory White men – mainly because I’d once had to fight a 50-year-old White co-worker in the parking lot of the garment factory I used to work in, after he’d tried to feel me up. But reading this about Malcolm reminded me that James Baldwin was gay. And so was Langston Hughes. And all of Eldridge Cleaver’s ranting aside: they were no racial sellouts.

In fact, their writing had a more realistic, well-rounded portrayal of humanity in all its ragged edges than some of the misogynist portrayals of manhood and the two-dimensional female characters of Richard Wright. Baldwin had penned my favourite work of literature – If Beale Street Could Talk – from the narrative standpoint of a young woman. Although he was a man, his portrayals of masculinity showed it to be a frequently harmful performance – one that reinforced racial status for White men, at the expense of Black women and men; one that ended in overwork, suicide, and feelings of powerlessness in racialized men. And I remembered how he’d once said that he understood masculinity better than most men, because he’d been victimized by it.

And if James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, and yes, Malcolm X, had had these life experiences and it shaped who they were as people, then it also shaped their writing and their racial struggle. That writing had influenced me. It informed my racial attitude as a man searching for his rightful place in the world.

The experience of grieving, somehow, gave me an intuitive understanding of others, one that was not so quick to condemn. It helped me to understand the sexually aggressive, racist behaviour of the White man I’d worked with as a compensation for his private feelings of insecurity. I began to understand that women often looked for men like the one I’d pretended to be, because they’d been taught that men were supposed to act that way. It helped me understand that my own imperfections were just like everyone else’s, and had the same cause.

Although we were all different, and some actions were unforgivable, we were all in the grip of feelings of failure and self-doubt and we lashed out at those closest to us because of them. For the way our Canadian culture had been organized as a colonial, patriarchal society relied on fear as a motivator – fear of unemployment, fear of losing status, fear of being perceived as “weak.” Covering up that fear, trying to emulate the models of success and dominance given out by this society, demanded unfeeling behaviours; and thus produced inhuman social interactions. Acting tough, paradoxically enough, was a sign of fear.

A few nights ago I read in the Upanishads that “Who sees beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear.” I wouldn’t have understood the meaning of that passage a few years ago. But after my wife passed away, along with a capacity for understanding the behaviour of others came the understanding that death is nothing to be afraid of. And once you lose your fear of death, you aren’t afraid of anything else. Fearlessness creates genuine empathy.

My political trajectory has brought me the understanding that I will never be truly free from racism until the Tamil nation wins freedom and independence for itself. Gaining self-determination for the Tamil homeland involves tearing down the neo-colonial structures, in which Canada is complicit, that maintain its oppression from a distance, just as it oppresses Tamil immigrants and their children here. To break these shackles, we must have another country.

But to free our nation, we must first know the freedom that comes from losing all fear. It is in developing fearlessness and compassion within ourselves that we may become the people – men and women – that we need to be to outlive this society. These qualities will give us the personal fortitude and social strength that we need to build our own nations, in freedom and dignity.

Acquiring that understanding cost me everything. But I would not be alive today without it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Stranger Within Thy Gates

She walked into the white building on Boulevard Réné-Levesque. A Canadian flag flew above. The sky was clear.

The revolving door turned slowly as she pushed it. She was tired. A long day at work, and now this. She pushed the round button beside the elevator, indicating “Up.”  Above her, the lights blinked slowly. 11 – 10 – 9 – 8. The “8” stayed lit for several seconds. She sighed.

Her feet hurt. She double-checked her manila envelope to make sure her documents were all there.

7 – 6 – 5 – 4. A young Arab couple with an infant boy came through the front door and stood beside her. The woman passed the baby to her husband and looked through her purse. Finding two immigration documents, the hijab-wearing wife smiled at her husband.

They were all going to the same floor.

3 – 2 – “Rez-de-chaussé!” announced the calm, recorded female voice of the elevator.

The door opened. People spilled out. There were Indian people and Black people and White people and Latino people and Arab people and Quebecois people and Anglophones and Africans and Caribbeans and Italians and Iraqis and some people who had lived here for their whole lives and some who had just applied for refugee status and others who had worked at the same job for thirty years since coming from the old country. Some wore shiny shirts and others wore faded jeans; some were going to take the bus and others were going to walk to their convertibles. They were all tired, busy, harried, and did not look at each other.

She and the couple with the baby got onto the elevator together. She pressed the button for the eleventh floor, turned, and smiled at the woman holding the baby. She loved babies, and this little boy was especially cute and tiny.

The elevator went to the eleventh floor. The sign on the wall pointed them to the elevator across the hall and to the right. There was a small knot of people waiting in front of it.

Here, there were no Quebecois or Anglo-Canadians.

The elevator’s door opened. One by one, the waiting people lined up and filed into it. The door closed behind them. A dim light illuminated the interior with an eerie glow.

Was this all just a big mistake? She had only left her home country because the opportunity had presented itself, and it didn’t seem to be such a bad option. There was no civil war to flee, no government repression had been directed against her. She was just going to get a permanent work visa to replace the temporary permit that she had.

Maybe she should just turn around, go home, and get on the airplane back to her country. She’d had so many good memories there, and this place where no one respected each other was so bizarre and hostile. For the last six months, the newspapers had been full of stories of how immigrants were ruining Quebec. Why did they ask us to come here and work in the first place, then? she asked herself.

Suddenly, the elevator started upward with a jolt, prompting cries of nervous surprise from two young girls. The elevator’s recorded male voice intoned: “Vous allez au Bureau de l’immigration et citoyenneté.”  No one had pushed any buttons; indeed, there were no buttons on this elevator. There was clearly only one destination for this elevator car, and it was clearly the only one without any buttons in the whole building – perhaps the whole city. It was too late to turn around now.

The air seemed dense and heavy around her.

“Quatorzième étage. Bienvenue au Bureau de l’immigration et citoyenneté.”

People were shuffling off the elevator onto the faded white linoleum of the fourteenth floor. The Arab couple with the baby stepped out ahead of her. She took a deep breath and walked out.

Intense bright lights shimmered overhead, contrasting painfully to the semi-darkness of the elevator. A bulletproof automatic sliding door guarded the entrance to the waiting room. The small hallway quickly filled with the elevator’s occupants. The automatic door slid open. The group filed in.

A sign told them to take a number before sitting down. A machine fed out tickets with printed numbers for each of them. An electronic ringing tone announced the appearance of each applicant’s number on an LED display overhead. She took a number and sat down with the others. The waiting room was already half full. The baby played with his mother’s hijab.

She waited half an hour. Then it was her turn. She walked softly through the second set of bulletproof sliding doors. It was flanked by an armed guard on one side, on the other by a Canadian flag. She walked through a maze of corridors lined by wooden doors until she found the right one.

“How are you today, Miss?” asked the thin White man behind the desk. He had a small mustache, slightly bent shoulders, and oval-rimmed glasses. He wore a formal, pinstriped shirt. He was clearly an unremarkable man to his own people.

They ran the gamut of questions. Name, address, social security number, photographic proof of identity, birth certificate.

“Now, there’s something we need to discuss,” said the man.
“What’s that?”
“You don’t have very much money in the bank. We can’t allow people into our country who will be a burden to us.”
“I have a sponsor. It’s my employer,” she said.
“Oh, why didn’t you say so?” the man seemed somewhat confused, flipping through his folder.
“Well, it was my sponsor who signed all the papers for my application. You have her information with you. I never gave you any of my banking information.”

The man across the desk ignored the last statement. He finished flipping through the folder, made a few notes, and then he pointed her to a white machine with two eyeholes.

“It’s like a camera,” he said in a tone that was meant to be reassuring and authoritative.  “Put your eyes up against the black holes and I’ll take a picture of your eyes.” She looked at him quizzically. “This is just the retinal scan that will be kept on file to verify your identity,” he said, less reassuringly and more authoritatively. “It’s completely optional, of course.” Of course – just like it was completely optional to have your work permit renewed or not. She placed her eyes against the holes.

“And now, place your hands against the base of the machine; there’s another camera there that will take a digital scan of your fingerprints.” Of course. This must be completely optional as well.

“Now before we are finished, we will need to complete your physical examination.” the man spoke without looking up from what he was writing. “Go to room A-8 and our doctor will examine you.”

“I’ve already had a physical exam,” she started. “That’s all right, we just need one more,” he interrupted. She closed the door to the office and walked back through the maze to room A-8.

“How are you today, Miss?” asked the doctor. He was another unremarkable man, with bad teeth. “I’m fine,” she replied.
Name, address, social security number, health care card.

“Now please take off your clothes,” the White man behind the desk said.
“Take off your clothes. I need to examine you.”
“I need a female nurse to be present, then.”

The doctor opened the door and called in a nurse. “She’s nervous,” explained the doctor hurriedly. He sat down. The nurse stood beside his desk. The two White people looked at her expectantly.

“But the door is still open!” These people have no shame.
“Oh. Well, you can close it.” She closed the door and disrobed to her undergarments.
“I need the rest of your clothes off. Don’t worry, I’m a doctor – I see this every day.” Has your job really made you completely asexual?

She looked at the nurse for reassurance. They were both staring at her, red-faced.

She was dressed now. “OK, everything looks fine. I’ll send the paperwork to your case agent,” the doctor was saying. What the hell was that? This exam lasted ten seconds!

She opened the door to the blinding light of the hallway. Her feet were hurting again and a headache was on its way. She opened her purse, found an Advil, and swallowed it as she made her way through the maze back to the waiting room. The automatic door slid open.

As she walked through it, she passed the Arab man, holding his son. Their number had just been called. The woman was picking up her purse and hurrying to catch up with them.

The door slid shut, cutting between the woman and her baby. The little one began to cry, clearly audible through the bulletproof glass. The mother began to sob in response, in spite of herself.

Hearing the cries, the guard snapped his head up. He put his hand to his gun, ready to draw it. He shouted at the crying mother. “You wait your turn!”

The two women’s eyes met for an instant. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bill C-31: Mandatory Incarceration for Survivors of Genocide

Jeevan (not his real name) was on a break from work when I spoke to him by phone in late April. He’s 38, starting a new life away from war, and is separated from his family – including two children aged nine and seven. Jeevan holds down two jobs. Beyond supporting himself and maintaining family responsibilities, he must also pay legal fees. For, like many other Tamil refugees, he has been ruled “inadmissible” to Canada.

“I am physically protected, but psychologically affected by my situation,” Jeevan said through translation.

On March 22, Foreign Affairs Minister Baird stated that Canada “continue[s] to call for an independent investigation into the credible and serious allegations…that international humanitarian law and human rights were violated by both sides” in the war that killed, maimed and displaced hundreds of thousands. Prime Minister Harper has announced that Canada will boycott 2013’s Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka if the government there does not co-operate with a war crimes investigation.

Yet when Jeevan, along with 491 others fleeing these “alleged” war crimes, arrived near Vancouver aboard the MV Sun Sea in 2010, “the prime minister said Ottawa ‘will not hesitate to strengthen the laws if we have to’ in order to prevent more ships from coming to Canada.” (, Aug. 17, 2010)

Harper has kept his word. If passed, Bill C-31, the “Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act,” will allow the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism to designate any refugee entrance of two or more as an “irregular arrival.”

Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka coordinator, John Argue, told the Tamil Mirror that his organization is “concerned about Bill C-31 because of its negative impacts on refugees from countries like Sri Lanka.” It prevents refugees from applying for permanent residency or sponsoring family members for five years, and from appealing decisions regarding their refugee claims – which Argue believes violates the UN Convention on Refugees.

“This bill contradicts the Charter – it’s appalling!” exclaimed Argue by telephone. Section 10 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that “Everyone has the right on arrest or detention... (c) to have the validity of the detention determined by way of habeas corpus and to be released if the detention is not lawful.” Under Bill C-31, however, refugees aged 16 and older who arrive by “irregular” means will be detained, without appeal or trial, for up to one year (or until a positive refugee decision is made).

Why do Conservatives condemn the Sri Lankan government for human rights violations, while intending to violate the human rights of refugees coming from Sri Lanka and elsewhere?

The present administration has begun to lose credibility among its Western-Canadian, socially-conservative base. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, for example, once served as CEO of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (CTF). On March 29, the CTF’s website quoted its Federal Director Gregory Thomas as saying: “Annual spending will rise $86 billion since the Harper government took office in 2006.…Somebody should remind [Finance Minister] Jim Flaherty that Stephen Harper promised to balance the budget by 2014-15, because this budget won’t get the job done.”

In parliamentary debate on March 12, Conservative MP Costas Menegakis quoted an Edmonton Journal editorial: “Given the financial stress placed on our system, …there has to be a more efficient, cost-effective means of weeding out the bogus [refugee] claimants…. Simply put, we cannot continue to give everyone the benefit of the doubt when it costs that much money and taxes our social systems unduly to do so” (my emphasis).

Government overspending, the Conservatives argue, is the result of due process for refugees.

It took some time before Jeevan was allowed to work – but he only received welfare for four months and has been working hard ever since. That’s still not good enough.

On September 29, 2010, the Globe and Mail informed readers that “Canadian attitudes toward immigration are hardening as debate over the fate of a shipload of Tamils continues to make headlines….An Angus Reid online poll says…44 per cent of the 1,007 polled believe illegal immigrants take jobs away from Canadian workers, compared to 38 per cent who think that they are employed in jobs Canadians don’t want.”

By international law, refugees fleeing genocide are not illegal immigrants. Still, “fifty per cent of poll respondents want to deport the passengers and crew of the Tamil ship back to Sri Lanka, even if their refugee claims are legitimate.”

During Vancouver’s September, 1907 “Anti-Asian riots,” unionized Anglo-Saxon workers attacked Japanese, Chinese, and Punjabi workers under the slogan, “For a White Canada.” Parliament’s response was January 8, 1908’s legislation banning immigration by people who “in the opinion of the Minister of the Interior” did not “come from the country of their birth or citizenship by a continuous journey.” 1914’s Komagata Maru incident, turning back a boatload of Punjabis (19 of whom were shot dead on return to India), prefaced harsher laws effectively banning immigration to Canada from “Asiatic countries.” 

Having apologized to the Punjabi and Chinese communities for Canada’s behaviour so long ago, the Conservatives copy a page from history. “Irregular arrival” in 2012 means exactly what “non-continuous passage” meant in 1908.

Commentators believe that the Conservatives intend to pass Bill C-31 by June 29. Australian courts recently struck down similar legislation, following the action of Tamil refugees and the Australian Tamil community.

Criticism of the Sri Lankan government aims to distract Tamil Canadians from Conservative intentions toward them. Bill C-31 allows the Minister to declare that a country of origin has become safe – at his discretion. This permits re-opening established permanent residents’ files.

Clause 81(1) of the Bill allows designation of an “irregular arrival” to be made retroactively to March 31, 2009. This time period specifically targets refugees from the Ocean Lady and Sun Sea. It targets Jeevan, and the family who depends on him from a distance.

If he’d known that legislation like Bill C-31 would be debated here, Jeevan would still have chosen to come to Canada. “Canada is the only country that can give me protection,” he said.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Be Careful With Each Other, So We Can Be Dangerous Together

Comrade Will’s piece “Privilege Politics is Reformism,” for the Black Orchid Collective blog, is a timely and valuable contribution to understanding how the revolutionary movement of the early 21st century will develop. In essence, what he tries to do is to identify the dynamics of racial oppression within the Occupy movement and identify some tentative ways forward. I fully agree with his premises, but wish to carry them to their logical conclusion.

Will’s understanding of how race politics shapes everything in political, social, and organizational relief is a breath of fresh air that’s been a long time coming in this movement; but the problems he identifies are not new. Rather, the importance of “Privilege Politics is Reformism” is that it brings the debate back to where it belongs: undoing the reverse political-correctness that has marked non-White contributions to racial debate. I will be frank about my meaning. Far too often, we cut our White allies slack because they are our allies, while at the same time making token, ineffective, and useless complaints about their unconsciously (or consciously) racist attitudes. We tolerate their mistakes because they are “good people” and because we don’t want to be perceived as too extreme.

What this really means is that we’ve been content to work within the racist dynamic of a movement that is White and middle-class to its core. Its outlook is alien to our lived experience. Not only are we not culturally or physically White and thus have had different life experiences; but we are also less likely to hold middle-class occupations because our opportunities in the workforce are circumscribed by racism. It should come as no surprise that the movement we’ve worked so hard to build has no place for us.

For all its professed ideological diversity, “the movement’s” dominant outlook and perspectives belong to a very specific social group which paradoxically sees itself as a mere aggregation of “free individuals.” We, the racialized, are perpetual outsiders, exotic curiosities, constant irritants who never quite fit into this movement’s prescriptions. (White workers, for all the problems we have with them, can’t relate to this social group either. They think these people are weirdos who need to get real jobs. North American “revolutionary” organizations, of whatever stripe, can usually be identified by their lack of appeal to actual workers, of whatever racial status. That should tell us something.)

We plead from the margins for White militants to play fair, be nice, and stop acting like idiots, while neither they nor we acknowledge that this movement’s psychology and tactics flow from its racial and class foundation, behaving according to clearly identifiable trends and social laws. Fundamentally, we tolerate this movement’s mistakes toward us – its subtle oppression of us – because we have no independent movement of our own.

As Marx put it in the 18th Brumaire, “Him whom we must convince we recognize as the master of the situation.” White domination of the anti-capitalist movement’s racial discourse and organizational behaviour is a direct and unavoidable product of White domination of the capitalist social, economic, and political framework. It can only be combated by developing independent sites of economic, political, and cultural power – by rebuilding our own movements, and revolutionizing our existing cultural institutions and racialized workplace associations – where we may articulate our viewpoints without interference. Naturally it is true that race is a social construct invented by the capitalist class to create a social base for itself and forestall working-class revolution. But as comrade Will already understands, long decades of experience should have taught us by now that we do not convince our professed allies in struggle by talking, nor do we gain equality by letting things slide in the name of “unity”: we maintain our dignity by holding power.

In a comradely spirit, therefore, I’ll be critiquing Will from this perspective. He’s on the right track, but what he says contains a lot more than meets the eye.

First and foremost is this fact: as Will points out, “conversation cannot solve…racialized experiences; only the most militant and violent struggle can cleanse racialized human relations. The United States has not experienced high levels of struggles in over 50 years. Major problems develop because of the lack of militant struggle in the country.” (Canada has not yet had its major racial confrontation, but with the development of the First Nations struggle and the building tension in its urban ghettos, that day of reckoning is coming very soon. I’m not speaking alone in this; I’m practically quoting from recent articles in the Toronto Star.)

Fanon was perhaps a famous foundation-stone of “anti-oppression” or “privilege” theorizing, but his work did not emerge from a vacuum and is not without historical parallel. The psychological traits of the racially oppressed that Fanon describes are present in the fiction of Richard Wright and the polemics of CLR James, predating Fanon’s earliest work by over a decade. These, in turn, are based in earlier writings by revolutionaries of all kinds.

The present theoretical and organizational impasse in the movement, which is increasingly recognized by all but only addressed by a few (based on what I’ve seen, I’d put West Coast Occupy organizers in the latter category), is not as simple as a crisis of ideas. The ideas are already there in books for everyone to read; they interpreted a social situation very similar to our own. However, one understands these ideas differently based on one’s position in society. Viewing the problem this way exposes the psychological and practical weaknesses and incapacities of the middle class, and in particular the middle class of the ruling White nation.

Privilege politics are reformist, precisely to the degree that they have been taken up and watered down by the White middle-class movement. This movement has worn the various mantles of Abolitionism in the 1860s, Stalinism and Trotskyism in the 1930s-50’s, the Hippie/New Communist Movement of the 1960s-70s, the Anti-Globalization Movement of the early 2000s, and Occupy today. Fundamentally, however, it is the same social layer in action throughout, with the same relationship to the means of production, and the same historical and social conditioning shaping both its outlook and its treatment of allies in struggle.

Moving past the present blockage in the movement, reaching actual workers (and particularly racially- oppressed workers) means leaving these folks behind: establishing revolutionary working-class and community organizations that explicitly exclude them. Just as “the liberation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves,” our liberation as racially-oppressed people is our job, and ours alone.

The bourgeoisie of the French and American revolutions sold out their plebeian social bases, establishing new forms of class domination out of struggles that they did not initiate and even feared. In the era of socialist revolutions, the same pattern of hijacking other people’s movements led to Lenin’s gross error in What is to be Done?, which even he later recanted. Lenin stated that the working class by itself could only produce a trade union consciousness and needed the contribution of intellectuals to fully realize itself as a class. But the Russian working class independently developed Soviets and factory committees as organs of working-class power – without the help of Lenin’s agile brain. Similarly, Trotsky famously reduced the crisis of capitalism to the “crisis of leadership:” once again, the workers needed proper leaders, inevitably recruited from the middle class, to properly articulate what they actually wanted and meant to say. These middle-class elements were renamed “the proletarian party,” and thus by changing its name, the essence of the thing was magically transubstantiated.

In my debates with comrades around the Recomposition blog, I’ve learned the word “substitutionism” to describe this phenomenon. It’s not exactly that simple – I do believe there is a dialectical relationship between theory and practice with implications that I’m not going to get into here – but my judgement of this phenomenon should be clear. It doesn’t stop with class, though. Race politics works the same way.

As Will points out, but does not elaborate fully, members of the White middle class see themselves as the legitimate leadership of a liberation struggle precisely to the degree that the independent struggles of other oppressed groups wane. Rather than establishing themselves within their own constituencies, White middle-class activists appropriate the prefabricated struggles of other classes and racial groups, and often succeed in emerging within these struggles as leaders. This is partly accomplished by the deference they come to expect as their birthright, but where this does not succeed, such opportunists subtly combat and defeat legitimate, established working-class and community leaders – by hijacking community organizations and union bureaucracies. Of course, few actually see it this way. The means and methods of this racial power struggle are never overt: they rely on personal manipulations, gossips and slanders, and playing on individual psychological weaknesses and “hot buttons.” I’ve seen these tactics, not once or twice, but dozens of times, in the decade I’ve spent as an activist and organizer. I’m not the only one who’s seen them put into practice. Some of the best militants I know have burned out and given up because of this brand of activism; I’ve seen unions destroyed by the same means. I refuse to use these underhanded tactics, but I’ll never bend to them either.

Acquiescence to and accommodation of the political and personal power dynamics within movement politics is no more than the internalization of a racial power structure. Thus it is that getting a drink of water (or a bottle of beer) for a White comrade IS in fact a racializing experience. I’ve been asked to do this more than once by Whites in the movement, but to my recollection, have never asked it of anyone at all. I don’t need and don’t want anyone to do for me what I can do for myself. It makes me feel weird.

Here I’ll quote directly from Will’s piece.

…some agreement has to be found that as a general rule people who join the movement are not white supremacists. This should be a fundamental assumption, otherwise, we are left with the ridiculous and suicidal political reality that we are building a movement with white supremacists. So that leaves us dealing with racial alienation or white chauvinism by people who we assume are against white supremacy. That seems to be a crucial point that needs to be recognized.

Usually people of color want acknowledgement that something fucked up happened. It is true that generally, most white militants flip out. On one hand the white militants grasp the seriousness of the accusation, but on the other hand, in their defense, they fail to give recognition of how another person of color perceived an event. The white militant usually acts as if the theory of white supremacy infecting everything stops with their mind and body when they are accused of anything. This is understandable, as no serious militant should take such accusations lightly.

This is particularly important as people of color, based on all the shit that happens to them, tend to see the world differently, and are obviously sensitive to racial slights. The lack of recognition usually escalates the situation as the person of color tends to feel, what is “objectively true” falls back on how the white militant defines reality. At such a point, productive conversation usually breaks down.

Lastly things are more complicated today because white supremacy is much more coded today in language and behavior.…Exactly how white supremacy works in coded language and behavior in the movement is still something that needs to be investigated.
There are several important considerations in this passage which the author does not take to their logical conclusions.

Why “must” we assume that those we are building a movement with are not White supremacists? Actually, both Whites and non-Whites alike in the movement are products of a racist society. We have all internalized the value system and racist judgements of a culture that systematically de-values non-White lives and intellects, while morally elevating those of Whites beyond all reasonable proportion. This is precisely why conversation does not convince them.

This is perfectly recognizable by observing political groups and social circles where Whites and non-Whites interact. Except when there is a conscious strategy of tokenism, Whites inevitably monopolize leadership roles in official capacity. Where they do not take these roles, they function as “alphas” in unofficial capacity. This plays out in dating patterns and friendship dynamics. Power relations that would otherwise be objectively considered oppressive and racist are rationalized away as “personal choice” and “individual” personality dysfunctions. This is simply dishonest, and it functions to perpetuate oppression on the micro-scale.

Here’s what Malcolm X had to say about working with White allies in his Autobiography.
I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are “proving” that they are “with us.” But the hard truth is this isn’t helping to solve America’s racist problem. The Negroes aren’t the racists. Where the really sincere white people have got to do their “proving” of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is – and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites.

…I’ll go so far as to say that I never really trust the kind of white people who are always anxious to hang around Negroes, or who hang around in Negro communities. I don’t know – this may be a throwback to the years when I was hustling in Harlem and all of those red-faced, drunk whites in the afterhours clubs were always grabbing hold of some Negroes and talking about “I just want you to know you’re just as good as I am – ” And then they got back in their taxicabs and black limousines and went back downtown to the places where they lived and worked, where no blacks except servants had better be caught.”
It is exactly the case, as Will points out, that White militants are incapable of perceiving themselves and their actions as individually racist. This is because of a basic psychological defence mechanism. As Black American militants Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton pointed out (quoting French philosopher Camus) in the 1967 manifesto Black Power, people do not and cannot condemn themselves. They inevitably rationalize and justify their personal actions even when such acts fit into a larger sociological pattern of oppression and injustice. There are any number of demonstrations of this fact (I would recommend the film Glory as one of them), but the point is that there is no way to convince someone of the incorrectness of their actions by conversation. 

Where non-Whites challenge such dynamics, they are first ignored, and after escalation, considered “aggressive” and “reverse racists” by both Whites and fellow non-Whites. White supremacy (and all other forms of domination) is, in fact, as subtle as comrade Will says it is. That is why our entire society – both the half-hearted bourgeois-liberal campaigns and the revolutionary struggles against capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia etc. – is infected by all the problems it claims to fight against.

Contrary to what Will says, these factors do, in fact, breach the boundaries of friendship, love, and comradeship. Consider this analogy. Can anyone really say that the Republican/Conservative offensive against women has no reflection in the personal, loving relationships of heterosexual American and Canadian couples? Of course not. Male attitudes (including mine) are affected by the patriarchal social situation that produces them. Such attitudes cannot be changed by mere conversation, but by women actually challenging those power dynamics within the family and within the broader society, rather than internalizing them against themselves. The same is true of any power relation. There is nothing special about race, except its peculiar history in obstructing working-class unity against the common class oppressor.

As Marx pointed out, “material conditions determine consciousness.” If criticisms coming from an individual or group of racialized people fail to convince White militants that they are “fucked up,” this failure is not an isolated exception; it is rooted in a very solid social and material underpinning. All of North American society is built on the self-image of Whiteness and the assumptions of its superiority. Thus, as Will states, what is perceived as “objectively true” is actually what upholds White supremacy. The non-White movement activist subjects herself or himself to feelings of self-doubt, rather than challenge the weight of an activist social grouping that denies its constant connection to the broader society that produced it.

It is quite easy for the White militant to retreat into the comfort of his or her society and dismiss comradely criticism as irrelevant: for to do otherwise is to challenge the influence of centuries on his or her psyche. And, in any case, non-Whites who have internalized the same power dynamics can always be called upon to soothe the White ego. But for both these Whites and these non-Whites, this is “doublethink,” a psychological contradiction within a single mind, reflecting the material contradictions of a society that both professes opposition to, and materially upholds, racism. White militants only differ from overt White supremacists in that they are psychologically conflicted, but both are products of the same reality. Non-White militants, like all non-Whites, live in a constant state of psychological tension which can only be resolved by struggle against the oppressor.

Here we get into the territory of guilt. This is the most hypocritical and annoying aspect of race politics today: the overcompensating and insincere attitudes of White militants who attempt to mask their internalized racism by public denials of racist opinions and token associations with non-Whites. Often, these White militants will refrain from openly criticizing non-White perspectives on racial issues, but will use their in-group social status to undermine such perspectives with subtle and appropriately anti-oppressive jargon. (Much of the time, it’s not even that refined.) What is the point of engaging in such games? When someone pretends to back down, but is not actually convinced, no productive conversation has occurred. This is the behaviour of patronage, not comradeship.

It is precisely for this reason that Malcolm X’s, Fanon’s, and Carmichael’s perspective of separate organization towards racial power is necessary. Consider these assorted quotes from Black Power:
The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks….The point is obvious: Black people must lead and run their own organizations. Only black people can convey the revolutionary idea – and it is a revolutionary idea – that black people are able to do things themselves….

...In the past, white allies have often furthered white supremacy without the whites involved realizing it, or even wanting to do so…

…Black people cannot afford to assume that what is good for white America is automatically good for black people…Take the case of Tom Watson. This populist from Georgia was at one time a staunch advocate of a united front between Negro and white farmers.…But this is the same Tom Watson who, only a few years later, and because the political tide was flowing against such an alliance [the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow], did a complete turnabout… “‘The white people dare not revolt so long as they can be intimidated by the Negro vote,’ he explained. Once the ‘bugaboo’ of Negro domination was removed, however, ‘every white man would act according to his own conscience and judgement in how he should vote.’”

…the building of an independent force is necessary…Black Power is necessary. If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it, and that is precisely the lesson of the Reconstruction era. Black people were allowed to vote, to register, and to participate in politics, because it was to the advantage of powerful white “allies” to permit this. But at all times such advances flowed from white decisions. That era of black participation in politics was ended by another set of white decisions. There was no powerful independent political base in the southern black community to challenge the curtailment of civil rights.
Power is complex. It involves sociological, economic, political, military and cultural dimensions. They are all interrelated. But ideology is not propagated by the word: it is premised on the deed. Before the racist ideology caught on with White American workers and farmers, Black American workers and farmers had first to be enslaved and, during the backlash against Reconstruction, killed en masse, for the proper social context to be established. Similarly, anti-racist ideology will not be propagated by well-intentioned efforts (not even the piece of writing that you are reading right now); it will be established by organized force that utilizes all of the sociological, economic, political, military, and cultural weapons that its White antithesis has used. This is what the arguments of Fanon, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael really mean, and it is this tradition that we must rediscover as anti-racist non-White militants.

While Will explicitly states his approval of the proposition that militant action, and not conversation, will do the job of convincing, he prescribes organizational solutions to the difficulties he faced as a member of the POC working group during Occupy Wall Street. He recognizes that resolutions are not worth the paper they are printed on unless they can be enforced. But how can organizational procedures solve socially-rooted problems? The same problems he faced in New York came up repeatedly at Occupy Toronto. Drafting better constitutions and voting for better-worded resolutions does not alter the social balance of forces. These constant racial humiliations are not just part of the job or part of living in the neighbourhood, they are also part of remaining within a White middle-class movement.

During the American Civil War, Black Americans allied with Northern Whites against the Southern slave-owners to gain their freedom. This made perfect sense. But, as Stokely Carmichael pointed out, this merely resulted in exchanging the domination of one group of Whites for another. The same dynamic applies in our own struggle, today, for racial liberation. Even if we do succeed in overthrowing capitalist racism by united struggle, what is to prevent a socialist or anarchist racism from superseding it?

Only independent power of our own, built on our own, keeping our allies at a proper distance from our struggles.

The scope of the problem is larger than even this society as a whole. Race politics cannot be abstracted from the international political context. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon predicted the enormous effect of the establishment of the State of Israel on the political power of the international Jewish Diaspora. It even allowed Jews to join the White race. It’s the most recent instance of colonialism and genocide to establish national power.

But while taking care to avoid these pitfalls, racialized communities today need such bases of national territory to assert themselves and consolidate their position within other societies. As we can find in the compilation “Toward the African Revolution,” this is why Fanon joined the Algerian liberation struggle: as a Caribbean Black man, he recognized that liberating the African continent from colonialism would have a direct influence on the status of Black people abroad. In a military and strategic sense, he saw that Arab Algeria was actually the best place to direct his efforts toward that goal.

White power in our societies was historically premised on the European domination of the world order; that geographical domination is fading today. The self-assertion and equality of racialized groups within North America rests on the independent political and economic development of what Fanon called the “Third World.” It means the internationalist unity of African, Latin American, and Asian countries, against national-capitalist divisions and toward their cohesion as supra-national revolutionary societies.

Just as the anti-colonial movement of the 1950s and 1960s (revolutions in Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam in particular) had a dialectical relationship with the Black Power movement in the United States, so today the decline of the West (both in Europe and North America) and the rise of India and China have already had a dramatic effect on race relations within Western societies. Powerful immigrant voting blocs, and the international economic and political ties they bring, give their communities a certain breathing space in an asphyxiating racial environment. It should be clear enough to all readers, but I want to make clear where I stand on this. The international balance of power is a temporary and uneasy détente; it will likely lead to imperialist war in our lifetime. It is not a substitute for organized working-class power; but today we witness massive strikes in India and a staggering wave of demonstrations in China. These, too, will have their effect on the immigrant communities in Canada and the USA.

As I’ve stated, there is an important pitfall here. “Divide and conquer” is simply a tactic of minority rule, whether that minority is the capitalist class of a country or the aggregate of Western countries. Race is incidental to the deliberately-created social fractures that capitalism rests on. As Fanon pointed out in Wretched of the Earth, Africanization of the top posts after decolonization eliminated visible White political control; but new social divisions based on tribe, region, and language became the tools of the new African capitalist classes. This led to internecine struggle and ultimately genocide in many ex-colonial countries. While we must begin to build the structures of racial power within the shell of the capitalist society, if they remain on a capitalist foundation they form the basis of a new oppression. (The class politics of oppressed communities is a site of struggle that we as militants will have to contend with. But that is an internal struggle, and not the business of outsiders.)

I’ll return now from the general to the particular. Anti-racist struggle means independent social development of oppressed ethnic and national groups within Western societies, who self-organize to find their niche within the economy, maintain ties with their homelands, and strategically use these strengths to leverage social and political power. In their early stages, such movements will adapt themselves to capitalist economics and bourgeois politics: but the basic demand for racial equality undermines the economic and social basis of Western society as a whole. “Equality” is not a demand that can be satisfied on capitalist grounds, for all wealth-generation under capitalism is premised on hierarchy. It can only be satisfied by working-class self-organization within the community.

Building independent racial power will destroy the construct of Whiteness and thus make class unity possible. As CLR James pointed out in a 1967 speech, referencing Stokely Carmichael and the thesis of Black Power as the fruition of his own theoretical observations in 1939,
the independent struggle of the Negro people for their democratic rights and equality with the rest of the American nation not only had to be defended and advocated by the Marxist movement. The Marxist movement had to understand that such independent struggles were a contributory factor to the socialist revolution. Let me restate that as crudely as possible: the American Negroes in fighting for their democratic rights were making an indispensable addition to the struggle for socialism in the US.
Perhaps May 1968 in France best illustrates what James was talking about. Seven years after Fanon’s death, the Algerian revolution provided a spark to Algerian workers in France. These workers, oppressed by both race and class, became the catalyst for a revolution that drew in – not only the workers of their own nationality, not only the racially-oppressed workers – but the whole working class of France, in one of the most dramatic European revolutions since the end of World War II. It was not only these Algerian workers who felt the revolutionary urge: the war to occupy Algeria cost many French workers their lives, holding down a country for the bosses’ profits. French workers could be and were won over to social revolution by the independent anti-colonial struggle and the self-organization of Algerian workers.

So it is that the “Arab Spring” – a response to pro-American regimes in the Middle East – is the progenitor of the North American Occupy movement. However, North American activists did nothing to start the Arab Spring, and can do little to help it reach its goals. Here in our own countries, it is the shared experience of all people of colour within the movement of the White middle class that we have not been treated as equals, have been denied the respect due our intellects and organizational abilities, and seen as objects to condescend to or tokens to use and manipulate for White political objectives. The struggle for recognition will not be achieved by begging and pleading to convince our White allies within the movement. Our job is to organize independently of them so that, when it does become possible to build a united movement, they have no choice but to recognize and respect us as a force to be reckoned with.

I salute my comrade Will’s statement that “human life is meant to be lived in freedom or not at all.” It is precisely this knowledge - that in the end, we all die, and so life is too precious in every moment to waste in humiliation - that motivates the revolutionary impulse. This requires, on the individual level, the courage and dignity to maintain full self-respect against all odds. Such psychological development is an intensely personal odyssey of self-discovery and self-creation, but it is forged through daily acts of self-assertion within this society. It goes hand in hand with the material struggle to destroy oppressive structures and build structures of community power.

The solutions are not cut-and-dried, and will often not involve 100% racial separation. Genuinely implementing these ideas requires flexibility and adaptation to particular circumstances. But for us within the movement, rediscovering how to implement these traditions is just the starting point. Achieving our goals will be much harder.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Exoticism and Defiance in Racial Writing: Rawi Hage, Aravind Adiga, and the Literary Challenges of Building Our Communities

The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. "Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are," say the Negroes. "Be stereotyped, don't go too far, don't shatter our illusions about you, don't amuse us too seriously. We will pay you," say the whites….An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose….We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too…. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves. –Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” 1926

Too often for the political writer, the message, simplified and codified, substitutes for thought, creativity, and originality. This can happen for the racial writer who conflates solidarity of action with White activists on one hand, and homogeneity of thought with White culture on the other. Since such homogeneity is not truthfully possible, it is no more than self-censorship, a hidden vehicle of cultural weakness that re-affirms racial oppression.

Artistic integrity, the constant raising of the bar, is a critical component of a vibrant and strong society. Writers committed to self-empowerment - and ultimately, victory – have the duty to be honest: with themselves first of all. The ethically self-aware writer cannot pretend to exist in a racial vacuum. A growing and changing movement demands the maximum range of expression: it must test the full spectrum of ideas against the hard exigencies that most of our people, including many of ourselves, endure in the daily struggle for existence. It is thus that the dross falls away from the gold.

White radicals can point out all the psychological complexes, historical genocides and interpersonal subversions of the White race as a whole, and yet are quite incapable of critically analyzing themselves as members of that group. This is why White people are quite willing, and even proud, to say they have no culture. To admit the existence of White culture (as Glenn Beck once discovered) is to understand that it cannot exist independently of oppression. The Orientalist returns as the race-loving white radical – for denial on one hand has created obsession on the other. Such denial of the truth is a weakness we cannot afford to emulate.

Articulating an independent viewpoint is only possible within certain limits. Undeniably, the colonizer’s language is our lingua franca. Our reality is fashioned through methods of communication and technology that are conditioned by the whole of society, and not just our niche within it. Literary production, for the racial writer, goes hand in hand with community organization and self-assertion. Establishing independent bases of cultural production, within a society built on our domination, is an essentially revolutionary act. To own our own culture, racial writers must both own and take responsibility for the product of their labour. 

This means, as Fanon told Cesaire in Black Skin, White Masks, not falling into the clichés of racial exoticism. Only the middle class prides itself on its integration; only the middle class uses exoticism as a strategy for White acceptance. Honest, self-assertive writing means an organic connection with the working class of our communities.

Non-White workers are not discriminated against because they are workers, but rather their opportunities in the workforce are circumscribed by racism. They are alienated primarily by cultural and physical traits leading to racial status, and only secondarily by economic status resulting from racial status. The non-White middle class literally occupies the middle ground, breaking down the cultural cohesion of communities and acting as a conveyor belt for oppressive values.

As every intelligent person now admits, integration and multiculturalism are dismal failures. Assimilation, of course, is impossible for us. Schools and neighbourhoods today are more, not less segregated than they used to be. On a personal level, patience with the Other is wearing quite thin. As reality strikes home, it embitters before it empowers.

We find such a mood of horror in Rawi Hage’s Cockroach. Immigrants in this society, as Hage demonstrates so hellishly, emerge into a declining, value-less culture; a thoroughly decomposed modernity (rather than any pretense at post-modernity). It is a traumatizing experience that creates a revolutionary impulse. In the absence of community solidarity and a revolutionary value system, this impulse is distorted and malformed at the individual level.

For Hage's protagonist, this social “metamorphosis” takes place in the precarious workplace and under the status of “dangerous, exotic, fuckable foreigner.” The malice and rage pervading Cockroach compensate for alienation and displacement, but rather than channel them against the White race (so excoriated throughout the narrative), he turns these emotions against himself and others like him.

Contrary to many readers' opinions, "Cockroach" is not a character most immigrants could ever relate to. His mentally-defective, suicidal alienation points both to the extent of his contact with the White world and the clear disdain he holds for his own. Just as his self-identification with vermin begins in the oppressive values of his family, Cockroach’s attempt at suicide – the ultimate form of alienation from society and the self – expresses his internalization of the White value system which does not affirm his life. As CLR James once pointed out, the experience of integration exacerbates the sentiment of alienation.

The narrator of Cockroach consciously embraces the antithesis of Whiteness, feeds the stereotype back to a largely White audience, and revels in his wretched condition in much the same way that Fanon once characterized Cesaire’s writing. The nameless protagonist is not of the same caliber as that of Ellison’s Invisible Man. The racial commentary resides on a lower level that castigates without blaming. Like Invisible Man, however, Cockroach bemoans racism without identifying a solution.

Such writing is a sad waste of great talent.

Aravind Adiga made his name in London, but has turned to New Delhi, the source of inspiration harnessed in his superb writing abilities. 2008’s The White Tiger is, fundamentally, a Native Son for our generation with the Indian working class as its protagonist. Like Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas before him, Adiga’s Balram kills for his freedom, governed by no moral code along the way. Despite White Tiger's clear Nietzschean overtones, the individual fight for freedom Balram epitomizes in killing his master is an allegory for the action of the aggregate masses seeking freedom in India.

In the process of self-transformation, Balram rejects the valuations of Indian ruling-class culture, including its aping of colonial values. His critique – really Adiga’s – of Indian society strengthens it by pointing out the vitiating nature of its power structures (class, family, religion). Progressively rejecting all social constraints in both positive and negative ways, Balram illustrates how those whose social potential the Indian power structures are intended to stultify and subvert will eventually develop the will to destroy them.

As many readers have feared, the White reader may be amused and gratified in a sense of self-superiority every time Adiga draws a negative Indian character – but none of these characters is two-dimensional in the tradition of lesser fiction. They are real and true in their complexity. Adiga took this art to a peak in 2011’s Last Man In Tower.

Despite his stated lack of association with Black Americans during his time in New York, Adiga explicitly draws on the Black American literary tradition in James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. This fact speaks to the identity – or, at least, the correspondence – of racially-determined social position in developing an artistic psychological framework. Adiga (as reported in a 2008 interview with the British Guardian) had not read Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic before writing his work, but its spirit clearly pervades the structure of the text. It is all the more compelling evidence for the truth of his writing, gleaned from willed experience with Indian workers: for the Master-Slave dialectic is the logical distillation of all power relations. It imparts the understanding that the master always weakens in dependence on the slave, while the experience of oppression always strengthens. ("What does not kill me, makes me stronger.")

George Orwell, like Langston Hughes in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” pointed to the working class of a culture as the fountainhead of its creativity. Immigration policy has always created a racially-bound underclass. The workers’ struggle for freedom, before it takes on a physical dimension, bursts forth in artistic forms as more serious social disruptions germinate beneath the surface. In an increasingly irrational and alienated class society, only the oppressed understand things as they truly are. In turn, good writing reflects real life, whether or not it employs a metaphorical disguise.

It is our responsibility to create a new glory from the material at our disposal in the here and now. Who we are may be rooted in the past and owe much to it, but who we become owes everything to the interplay between our history, our political present, and our will to act upon ourselves – candidly rooting out our weaknesses and steeling ourselves for liberation. Langston Hughes still has it right: we stand before a mountain.

We accept the challenge it presents.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Thomas Mulcair and Jean-Claude Rocheleau: Is there a difference?

Isa Al-Jaza'iri’s recent article (“NDP gains in Hochelaga, Quebec workers seek a labour party”) contains some very valuable information on the movement of the Quebec working class as expressed through the recent federal by-election.

We find, for example, that in Hochelaga the NDP’s vote share increased by 5 percent over the last election, which in fact was the greatest increase of any party. The article continues, “Rocheleau's strong showing in the by-election needs to be seen in this context. We have to repeat what we have said in previous articles: Thomas Mulcair's victory was no flash in the pan.”

These sentences make the assumption that Mulcair and Rocheleau have something to do with each other. Having lived and worked in both the Hochelaga and Outremont ridings, I, for one, see a difference between the two NDP candidates.

Jean-Claude Rocheleau is a Quebecois workers’ representative, in a constituency that is dominated by Quebecois workers. (Al-Jaza’iri: “serious showing in a through-and-through working class district”). Over 100 years ago, the same riding once elected a member of the Quebec Workers’ Party, an abortive attempt at a class-independent party.

The NDP’s 20 percent, as well as the 51 percent secured by the Bloc Quebecois, both reflect a largely homogenous social base: both in class and ethnicity. The NDP’s increase in vote share in Hochelaga does indicate a progressive movement away from the Bloc and its Quebecois-only neoliberalism – an incomplete process, to be sure, but an encouraging one nonetheless.

So much for Rocheleau’s social base.

Now to our hero Mulcair’s.

Thomas Mulcair was first elected during an historic low in Quebec voter turnout. Let’s remember some of the headlines that surrounded the by-election in Outremont, not so long ago.
Elections Canada blasted for allowing Muslim women to vote with faces covered
…“Casting a ballot is an act that must be accomplished by citizens with their face uncovered, especially since voters must identify themselves before they vote. It is unacceptable to allow voting with a covered face in our democratic society,” Bloc MP and lead organizer Mario Laframboise wrote in a letter to Elections Canada. Thomas Mulcair, who is the NDP candidate in the coming by-election in Outremont, said that in future elections, covered women could be asked to show their face to another woman in a specially designed area. “As we go over what happened in the by-elections, we’ll have real numbers, see if there is a problem or not. If it’s necessary to assuage concerns on another level, because it is controversial, maybe we can look at these other options,” Mr. Mulcair said.

This was one of the issues that dominated the by-election in which Mulcair made his historic breakthrough. Note the absolute lack of vertebrae that Mulcair displays on this issue. He is neither for nor against – at least not until the by-election is over. Why?

Because the niqab-wearers of Outremont-Adjacent, and their relatives, were political enemies of some of Mulcair’s strongest supporters. Take the Globe and Mail of 06/30/2007:

There is one peculiar challenge [for Mulcair’s candidacy], though: Outremont is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the country. Last fall, the Israeli ambassador accused the NDP of aligning itself with terrorists after the party adopted a motion at a convention in Quebec City that described Israel's military campaign on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon as drastically disproportionate.

On this issue, Mr. Mulcair distances himself from his new party [my emphasis]. Over the course of a two-hour interview in Outremont, it is the only subject with which he struggles.

"My wife's family, like a lot of European Jews, suffered a lot during the war," he said, offering further details but requesting discretion. "My strong support for Israel shouldn't be interpreted as meaning that I don't realize there are huge problems."

This “strong support” for Israeli imperialism is not a silent disagreement. The Jewish Tribune (Sep. 4/’08), which advertises itself as the largest Jewish weekly in Canada, has this to add to Mulcair’s record.
Under pressure from the party’s anti-Israel elements, the NDP reversed itself and came out in favour of Canada attending Durban II. “I’m encouraged they finally saw the light,” said Mohamed Boudjenane, executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation and a former NDP candidate. But then eight NDP members of parliament, including deputy leader Thomas Mulcair, staged a counterrevolt and forced party leader Jack Layton to reverse course once more.
The Durban conference on racism, of course, which included a condemnation of Israel’s treatment of Palestine.

Jocelyn Coulon, the Liberal candidate who stood against Mulcair, was pummeled by B’Nai Brith for his stance toward the election of Hamas:
In one opinion piece, dated Feb. 22, 2006, Coulon writes that Hamas isn't just a terrorist organization, but a social and political movement that won the Palestinian elections because of its commitment to fight corruption and help people — and the international community should not isolate it. That opinion reflects anti-Israel sentiment and violates Liberal policy in the Middle East, Moghrabi told CBC News. Coulon should not represent the federal Liberals, Moghrabi said, because he "doesn't see [Hamas] as a terrorist organization with whom we should not be talking to, as established by the previous government." The B'nai Brith lawyer said Coulon's nomination in Outremont — a Liberal stronghold — could mean he will eventually bring his opinions to the federal Liberal caucus, and possibly influence Grit foreign policy. (
Might the grand “face-covering-while-voting controversy” have served as political intimidation to voters who were weary of being harassed and spit on, and didn’t see much of anything to choose from when it came to their interests as racially-oppressed workers?

Might it have been that this reticence was noticed by the NDP brass?

Just a few months later, Mulcair suddenly got tough on “gutless politicians who have nothing to say” about reasonable accommodation of immigrants:

Living in society requires accommodation every day from every one of us, that's part of the definition of living in society,'' Mulcair said. "People from all over the world have come to Montreal and Quebec and lived together for centuries and I'll let the Parti Quebecois and the Bloc Quebecois explain why they're stirring that pot.'' (
But it seems that Mulcair’s actions have spoken louder than his words. For according to a Pundit’s Guide blog (, in the general federal election that followed,

Mulcair's vote share dropped 8 points from 47.5% to 39.5%, but at the same time his raw vote increased by almost 3,000 votes. The key fact here is that turnout increased from 37.4% in the by-election to 56.6% in the general.

In other words: despite the fact that he nearly doubled his actual number of votes, the more Outremont residents voted, the lower Mulcair’s share of the vote dropped.

The riding is dominated politically by Outremont “proper,” the tidy, well-groomed, snow-white Outremont, where dark-skinned people usually find themselves followed around by private security guards – and had better not be caught after dark, unless they are there to do a White businessperson’s laundry, or to fix a broken pipe, or to wipe the ass of a silver-spoon-fed baby. But let’s remember that Outremont also includes parts of Côte des Neiges and Park Extension. If you live in Parc-Ex or Cote-des-Neiges area of this riding, it’s because you make nine bucks an hour or less in a sweatshop. Perhaps it means that you are the one doing the laundry, fixing the pipe, or wiping up after your future overlord. It also means the only landlord who will rent to your brown face is the one who is too cheap to call the exterminator (

In the Outremont riding represented by the Honourable Thomas Mulcair, where I live, race does not overlap with class; skin colour pretty much is class.

Perhaps the Liberal-bourgeois Montreal Gazette (Oct. 15, 2008) might enlighten us about Mulcair’s second victory.

Immediately after polls closed, Dhaverenas [Mulcair’s Liberal competitor] actually pulled ahead of Mulcair by more than 400 votes. The mood was subdued at a St. Laurent Blvd. bar, Les Bobards, where Mulcair supporters had gathered. But the crowd erupted in cheers at 11:15 p.m. when the TV networks broadcast results showing Mulcair had emerged with a small lead and growing….Electors in Outremont riding, which also includes parts of multi-ethnic Côte des Neiges and Park Extension, have historically voted Liberal overwhelmingly. But that changed in a by-election on Sept. 17 last year, when Mulcair trounced Liberal Jocelyn Coulon by more than 4,000 votes. This time around, his margin of victory shrank to about a thousand ballots. (emphasis mine)
As Al-Jaza’iri warns about Rocheleau’s Hochelaga results, “Elections provide an indirect reflection of the balance of forces. Taken alone, these results are not, in and of themselves, worth paying attention to. But, as a partial window into the turbulent process at work under the surface, they can be vital clues.”

Clues, indeed. Al-Jaza'iri’s article contains more than he likely realizes.

For if an increase by 5 percent in Rocheleau’s share of the vote is significant, so is a decrease in Thomas Mulcair’s by 8 percent.

Does Thomas Mulcair support an emboldened working-class electorate, which articulates its aspirations clearly? What was Mulcair doing between 2003, when he became a minister in the Charest cabinet, and 2006, when he left that cabinet? Did he march in the streets with the worker and student demonstrators during the push toward the Quebec general strike and the student strike that followed? Or was he taking notes in the boardroom, alongside members of the economic class that sent out the riot cops?

Did Quebec workers really elect Thomas Mulcair? Or was he supported by those who live a little further up the slopes of Mount Royal, those voters who are responsible for cutting wages, introducing mass layoffs, and playing workers against each other by ethnicity and language?

For the record, I do support Thomas Mulcair. I support him in this language – a paragraph which Mr. Al-Jaza’iri ought to recognize.
We would take part in the election campaign, distribute leaflets in favour of Communism, and, in all constituencies where we have no candidates, we would urge the electors to vote for the Labour candidate and against the bourgeois candidate…Communists very often find it hard to approach the masses and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon the workers to vote for Henderson against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I will be able to explain in a popular manner…that I want with my vote to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man -- that the impending establishment of a government of Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany. And if the objection is raised that these tactics are too "subtle," or too complicated, that the masses will not understand them, that these tactics will split and scatter our forces, will prevent us concentrating them on the Soviet revolution, etc., I will reply to the "Lefts" who raise this objection: don't ascribe your doctrinairism to the masses! (my emphasis)
No, Mr. Al-Jaza’iri is no “Left-wing” Communist. He – and his organization, the IMT – and I share a common distaste for Hamas’ politics and Israeli imperialism alike. But he – and his organization – need to learn the difference between a trade union leader and a political opportunist who hops from bed to bed; between the individual votes of the working class and the dollar-votes of the ruling class – and above all: the difference between an effective political tactic, and a criminal silence about the racist behaviour of an enemy of all those who work for a living.

Unlike in the case of Rocheleau, the election of Mulcair is not identical with the increase in working-class support for the NDP. The working class, unfortunately, does not quite move that fast, at least not today. Rocheleau's slow but steady rise should serve as an object lesson that there are no shortcuts to the working class, and no working-class leaders without flesh-and-blood (as opposed to imagined, idealized) workers. The IMT should be clarifying the issue of where Mulcair stands with relation to the working class, and not providing a racist with the mantle of the workers he has attacked.

The IMT shouldn’t be afraid of telling the truth.