18.7.05

27

To while away the time on my bus-ride to Qu├ębec this weekend, I bought the Globe and Mail newspaper, something I rarely do anymore -- which reminds me, where have my long, leisurely Saturday mornings gone, anyway? It certainly gave lie to the popular assessment of the Globe and Mail as Canada's "liberal" alternative to the slop that the ultra-conservative CanWest-Global media machine doles out (in multiple formats). In fact, its coverage of and commentary on everything -- from the anti-Muslim backlash in the aftermath of the London bombings (or, the lack of it, according to the G&M), to the economic situation in Cuba (a feature on the Cuban black market attributes it to the failure of socialism, a "testament to the Cuban government's inability, in the end, to wield absolute power and control over its people") -- shows the G&M to be the conservative, bourgeois rag that it is. Which is why I had avoided reading it, for a long while -- until Saturday. I used to have a subscription to the G&M, which I recall having to cancel in protest (the way most of my subscriptions go, eventually, it seems). And they've never published any of my many breathless letters.

But after this Saturday's edition, it seems that another such letter is in order. I was aghast, in particular, at Margaret Wente's column, titled, in typical Wente fashion, "Europe is a factory for terrorists. Are we?" Those blissfully unfamiliar with Wente should note that she has demonstrated herself in the past to be -- in my estimation -- an Islamophobe. For example, in the fall of 2003 she published a long article arguing that Iraqis weren't "ready," or sufficiently politically "mature" for democracy, proof for which she considers the possibility that they might, if enfranchized, vote for the wrong party, i.e., an Islamist one. In this installment, after giving a potted history of Muslim immigration to Britain and France, she turns to compare that history to patterns of Muslim immigration to Canada. Of course, it's not clear that what is being called "Muslim immigration" has a discernible pattern, given the obvious fact that Muslims are not an ethnic or nationally-identified group, but rather, comprise the largest religious group in the world, and reside on all continents. Not to mention that - horror of horrors! - some Muslims are born white Christians, and convert to Islam, and other people, juridically-identified as Muslims aren't observant. In any case, such inattention to detail is Wente's currency: "[i]n Europe, the whole idea of immigration is relatively new," she writes, whereas "in the U.S. and Canada, immigration is our history." It's our history, only if you conflate immigration with English and French colonialism, an elision that the textbook rendition of Canadian history consistently and neatly performs, summarized in the claim that "ours is a nation of immigrants." Neither is it true that immigration, in a loose sense, is new to Europe -- guest-working, education, and the flight from famine conditions have been among the motivating reasons for intra-European migrations for centuries. As for extra-European immigration, while this phenomenon boomed with decolonization, "Europe" has been much more racially differentiated for much longer, than contemporary xenophobic constructions allow.

But let's get to the crux of Wente's argument. Wente quotes Robert Leiken, whose recent "prescient" article, "Europe's Angry Young Muslims," published before the London bombings, suggests that the rise of Islamic terrorist activity in Europe is due to the fact that "younger Muslims [are] reject[ing] the minority status to which their parents acquiesced" (quoting Leiken). Wente insists that conditions for immigrants -- especially Muslim immigrants -- are particularly prosperous in North America, by which she means the U.S. and Canada (not Mexico), and this, according to Wente, prevents the emergence of Islamic terrorist groups born out of discontentment with social conditions:

"In North America...[Muslim] kids grow up in a society where race and background don't matter very much. Our society isn't completely colour-blind. But it's possible for an Indian boy from the Punjab to come to Canada at 17 and rise to the top of political life. It's possible for the son of immigrant Jamaicans to become the U.S. secretary of State, and for a black woman who grew up in Alabama to succeed him. This kind of meritocracy is uniquely North American. And it's what makes Canada and the U.S. two of the world's most succesful cultures."

Canadians (in particular, bourgeois Anglo-Canadians, who have been in Canada for many generations) are particularly fond of asserting that there is no class system in Canada (maybe Americans do the same, I don't know. In fact, most Americans I know are keenly aware that class is alive and well in the U.S.A.). And they are equally fond of heaping praise on themselves for fostering a multicultural society based on the "mosaic" model (in contradistinction to the "melting pot of cultures" in the United States): for, in other words, being tolerant of (politically benign) expressions of cultural "difference" (e.g., the wearing of culturally or religiously traditional dress -- as long as it's not the hijab). But the most superficial examination of the social landscape reveals an altogether different reality for racialized people, both immigrant and indigenous.

Kanada's indigenous peoples -- especially those living on reserves -- live in third-world conditions, in the midst of an overdeveloped nation. According to Kanadian government figures, only 57% of aboriginal people have adequate housing; aboriginal people are 8 to 10 times more likely than other Canadians to contract tuberculosis, a disease that, today, in the industrialized west, is overwhelmingly associated with poverty, inadequate and overcrowded housing, and poor nutrition. Because the majority of aboriginal people living on reserves do not have access to safe, potable water and proper sewage treatment facilities, they are at high risk of getting enteric and water-born diseases, that the non-aboriginal Canadian population hardly has to worry about, including giardiasis (beaver feaver), hepatitis A, and shigellosis. Life expectancy rates are lowest among aboriginal people, and infant mortality are highest. Suicide rates are highest among aboriginal youth under the age of 35. How does this reflect a meritocratic social system?

The mental/material division of labour is highly racialized, in Canada, a state whose immigration policy encourages immigration from middle-class and upper-class brackets but which does not institutionally recognize immigrants' formal qualifications -- e.g., university degrees, diplomas, or certified skills. In Canada, state-sponsored and informal racism and xenophobia conspire to make white-collar jobs and professions off-limits to immigrants "fresh off the boat." Thus most immigrants to Canada who don't have sufficient capital to start a small business (usually in the service sector), will be forced into minimum-wage jobs requiring little or no education. Wente illustrates her claim that immigrants and racialized people can escape their class location (in some cases, a location which changes radically upon immigration) in Canada or in the U.S. by refering to individuals who have, reportedly done this, among them, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice. This is a red herring, an argument typically made by people who want to claim that the system allows for class mobility, and that there are no racialized obstacles to such mobility. But this only gets off the ground, rhetorically, precisely because the system only allows a few racialized, immigrant, minoritized, or working-class individuals to ascent to power -- namely, those who will support the interests of power, as Powell and Rice have shown themselves eminently capable of doing. In fact, that Wente can only name three (or any finite number of hypervisible exceptions) performatively disproves her point. In any case, the obverse isn't true: a bumbling, lying, uncharismatic white Anglo male shipping magnate won't be "rewarded" for his ineptitude under our ostensibly "meritocratic" system; no, he'll become prime-minister, and probably survive one of the biggest political scandals in Canadian history. Those, like Wente, who insist that ours is a meritocracy have to explain how and why it is that the vast majority of people in power are white, male, rich, non-naturalized Canadians. (And any explanation of this phenomenon will quickly reveal its racist true colours.)

Racists and those who benefit from racialized class exploitation have always attempted to insulate themselves and to conceal their racism in the production of the myth of the happy slave, the prosperous immigrant, the grateful refugee, the civilized native. Here's a newsflash, Wente: most recent immigrants, refugees, and non-status people -- especially those who can't pass because of their racialized status -- would not agree that their merit determines their life-conditions, and they would disagree that "race and background don't matter very much" in Canada. Neither would Canada's aboriginal people. On the contrary, their lives are structured, overdetermined, and dominated by the political difference that race and origins make. These communities face a set of specific dangers at the hands of the state that is, supposedly, so tolerant of their "difference": racial profiling, police brutality, the limitation of their rights to due process, and their basic human rights by racist domestic and foreign policy (here I am thinking of security certificates, deportations, being forced to live underground). And they face racism, at the hands of their ostensibly tolerant, merit-loving white Canadian neighbours; a racism with many formal and informal manifestations, which affects them in all aspects of their lives: in the kind of employment they'll get; in the kind of education and life-chances their children will have; in the shape of their social relations, marital and familial relations, friendships; in their "choice" of neighbourhood, housing; in how, what or whether they will eat; in whether their child will lose its life to the criminalizing indiscretions of a racist police officer; in whether their child will die of a preventable disease; or in whether their house be consumed by what would have been, outside the reserve, an extinguishable fire.

All of which tells us two things: 1. That the denial of the existence of racism is, itself, racism. And -- what did I expect? -- 2. That I should go back to not reading the Globe and Mail. It's a no-good way to spend a Saturday.

6 Comments:

Blogger Victor Serge said...

Great article. I agree with 99.9% of it (hard for a normally combative socialist like myself :-) ) I'd just add a couple of things:

"[Immigration] is our history, only if you conflate immigration with English and French colonialism"

I think the line between the two is a class line, not a time line (e.g. French/English are colonialists, later ones aren't.) Immigrants are colonizers. But I wouldn't call them colonialists. While doubtless many shared the prejudices of their time, I think material circumstances drove their immigration - the intolerable conditions at home, or the promise of better conditions elsewhere. This certainly operated among the Canadiens (criminals, paupers & the Parisian underclass effectively deported to New France), and the waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe.

None of this mitigates the impact upon the First Nations. However, I would try to drive a wedge between the colonial governments, looking for an exploitable labour force and to relieve social tension in Europe, and the colonists themselves, who then - as now - are responding to social forces beyond their control.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous guile said...

nice, comfy place you got here :)..

9:42 PM  
Blogger a.c. said...

So exciting! The first substantive comment on my blog! And from a self-described "combative socialist" (with a kick-ass tattoo!)!

I don't disagree with the idea that modern-day immigrants are colonists or colonizers (if not colonialists); nor do I disagree with the idea that the working-class Europeans who settled Canada have a problematic, and not at all straightforward relation to colonialism (for the reasons you point out, Victor Serge, and because some gained class "mobility" when they became land-owners, something that was only possible by racist colonial relations). Where I think the slippage (or, conflation) occurs is in the opposite direction: characterizing the colonization of Canada, i.e., the state-sponsored English and French invasion and deterritorialization of indigenous peoples' lands, as a kind of "immigration." Because by definition, immigration requires the consent of the state to which one is relocating -- and a juridical relation of mutual recognition (loosely speaking): of the immigrant-resident by that state, and of that state by the immigrant. Which obviously didn't happen in Canada. What is more, states can't organize the "immigration" of their (often unwanted, poor, or, as in Australia, criminalized) populations to other states. Nor can we, unproblematically, call relocation under military occupation "immigration" (as in, for example, the immigration of North American Jewish people to Israel's occupied territories), or call planned relocations with the aim of displacing or decimating local or indigenous populations "immigration." Immigration, while certainly affected by the political and economic conditions facing nation-states, can't be a state policy on the sending end (if it is, it's colonialism); in the appropriate language of liberal democracy, it's an "individual choice" to immigrate. Now, there is an interesting question as to whether a state policy of immigration by a neocolonial state like Canada constitutes or contributes to colonialism. In any case, the conflation I was talking about occurs when colonialism masquerades as "immigration" (not vice versa), behind the falsely universalizing statement "we are a nation of immigrants." Or so I would claim. Your thoughts?

2:28 AM  
Blogger a.c. said...

thanks, guile.

9:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

keep up the great work ac! sorry i haven't been commenting at all. i have been reading, though. margaret wente is a favorite guest of Bill O'Reilly on The O'Reilly Factor. he likes to bring her on and clear things up for his audience whenever something is going up there in kanada. he loves her b/c she's always railing against the "liberal media" in kanada as being the source of so many of kanada's cultural problems (e.g., gay marriage, separation of church and state, etc.).

anyway, keep up the outstanding commentaries!

best, cmct

5:16 PM  
Blogger a.c. said...

thanks for the view from below, c.mct.! i think that settles it: to be quoted as a pundit or expert on canadian politics on the uber-conservative "o'reilly factor" one must, necessarily, be on crack. or, to be more precise, one must be overdosing on his or her own right-wing venom. and be trying to push it on unsuspecting liberals, as well...

7:27 PM  

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