As I watched this, I thought about this idea that gets bandied around a lot by people – the idea of kicking problems down the road for the next generation to deal with. You hear media bobbleheads talking about it all the time these days, and it’s been going on for decades. “We’re mortgaging our future,” “We’re passing the debt on to our children,” that sort of thing. On a side note, has anyone ever done an analysis of of how many economic and fiscal metaphors have entered our common parlance in America? I wonder if they outstrip biblical references yet…
Anyways, so yeah, that gets tossed around a lot. And I think it’s pretty good thinking, really. But not the way they use it these days – just like the metaphors they used above to describe it, it’s always focused on money. Money is the only thing we seem to value in the immediate moment, no matter how much we protest that we are SO into whatever it is we fetishize, be it Jesus, or Hockey, or Science, or Guns, or The Economy, or a pair of fucking sneakers. Problems DO get kicked down the road, and debts do get passed on to grandchildren, but the economic ones are not the debts we should really be worrying about.
Here’s the thing – we have immediate concerns in our lives that make us forget about history, assuming we know anything about it in the first place. This is the excuse we make for not going to that peace march, for not learning to bake our own bread, for not volunteering, for not spending time with our families. Sometimes those concerns are beyond our control – indeed, a capitalist society relies on a working class who have no option besides working for the company, and shopping at the company store. If you are struggling to feed your family, you’re not gonna have time to think about where your chicken came from, let alone run a community garden.
However, sometimes we just think it’s beyond our control, because our priorities are out of whack. If you’re a single mother working two jobs just to put food in front of your kids, that’s one thing. But if you make, say, $60k a year, have a house full of expensive toys (new car, furniture, $3000 tv set, go karts for the kids), and you’re loaded to the hilt with credit card debt, I think you’ll agree that whatever might be the circumstances that led you into that pit, you are not in the same boat as that working class single mother. You’re not even in the same ocean. And it’s interesting to me, how that very struggling single mother is often the person who DOES make the time to also work at some sort of community volunteering; those who’ve known privation and hardship are often the ones who have the most energy for helping others. I could introduce you to a few examples of this that I know personally.
But this is what people forget: history has a different set of concerns than us. History records a different set of facts when it tells the story of people who are now dead. Our history is full of conquerors and kings who hired their own historians and wrote down their own self-serving histories, and there are undoubtedly a lot of good people who deserve a place in our textbooks who have been completely erased from our memory by those who were powerful in their day. That those Ozymandiases are also forgotten is little solace, to me, anyways.
But the nature of history is changing all around us. History is no longer written exclusively by the victors. For the last couple of centuries, we’ve been watching the effects of what is academically referred to as The Enlightenment. There are those who blame the Enlightenment for the ongoing fall of civilization. I say The Enlightenment simply did what Socrates did: it shone a light on our ignorance and our illusions of knowledge, revealed civilization for the thin facade that it was, and demanded that we do better if we claim to be moral people.
And the last two hundred years, if you read the books carefully, reveal a story of humanity, shamed in the “light” that photographs and telegraphs and widespread literacy brought to the dark corners of the world, horrified at what the previously silent voices (of our wives, of our slaves, of our employees, of our children) were telling us about their lives, working our asses off to do better. Not all at once, and many lives have been wasted on nothing whatsoever. But when you look at history now, with eyes that have looked hard at what some call morality, you can get a pretty damn good sense of what side you want to be on.
History remembers Ghandis and Hitlers, Unsinkable Molly Browns and Marie Antoinettes (though she didn’t say what I thought she said). I’m having a conversation with Laurie right now about my female historical figures – even talking about women in history is difficult, because so many remarkable women are lost to history. It’s interesting, too, that in my mind, Molly Brown was “the best I could come up with” for a female analog of Ghandi – and yet, upon just a moment’s reflection, I would argue that women’s suffrage is actually more important, from a progressive’s view of history, than Ghandi’s tweaking of the Raj’s nose – I privileged the guy with a penis, I do believe, even as I worried about privileging the guy with the penis. Once you go meta…
But please, I didn’t come here to impose a hierarchy, I came to destroy it. I brought up Hitler for a reason. If you’re gonna call Godwin on me, go ahead and do so, because I am actually about to draw a comparison between white Canadians right now and white Germans in the 1930s. If that’s too close to me calling you a nazi for comfort, I apologize, but I’m including myself in the comparison as well. We are all in this together. That’s kinda the point here.
One of the most damning things about the nazi regime was its modernized nature. The nazis kept very good records, took lots of photographs, documented everything… they then tried to burn it all at the end of the war, but there was just so MUCH information that some of it survived, and we put together a pretty good record of what horrors took place behind the scenes.
But more damning still was the modern press that existed in the 20th century, and which documented the public life of Germany as the holocaust unfolded. Those who get into history, and really look at the era, get a very clear picture of the nature of fascism, where it comes from, how it arises, how it stays. The newspapers tell an all-too-clear story of a populace that, however we dress it up in fear and patriotism, allowed it to happen.
American 20th century media reveals some nasty stuff too. See this, for instance – images from the civil rights struggle. There is countless documentation of “good, white christians” engaging in all kinds of brutality, on blacks and whites, to defend their right to not have to coexist with anyone who didn’t agree with them. Americans today revile these men, one and all, though a number of them seem to do so only grudgingly. But reviling the Klan is too fucking easy, for my liking. People talk about Hitler as a “Monster”. Reading a story about the Holocaust should not be a reason to feel good about yourself because you weren’t there. Hitler was no monster. Hitler was Man of the Year. The same American media that documented civil rights was in love with him, and things were not comfortable for German Jews in 1938, but nobody was interested in THAT story at that point. Just like how in 2013, seemingly nobody is interested in the real story of Aboriginals in Canada. If we elide Hitler from the canon of humanity, we bury our head in the sand about the reality of the world in which we live, and our society will not improve if we refuse to even identify the problem.
It would be easy, now, to go down the path of blaming it all on the press. But we don’t get off that easy. We are better informed and better educated than ever. We’ve all seen those pictures, we’ve all been to the museums. We know better. And yet so many people I know, so many otherwise good people, will still sit in judgement of “indians”. They’ll make slurs about lysol and FAS, and joke about the drunk ones outside the St. Regis.
I used to do that too. I was a white male teenager in the 1980s, and every white male teenager in the 1980s that I met did it at one point or another. I’m certain there were many who did not, possibly ones I knew, and if you’re one of them, I apologize for lumping you in with me, but my social world was steeped in racism. One of my high school acquaintances had a band called “Boggan’s Blood” at one point. I was raised with very left wing, progressive values, too. I could blame it on peer pressure, I could blame it on being lonely and depressed, I could blame it on any number of things, but the fact of the matter is that racism was part of my culture, and I participated in my culture. Nothing excuses that; all I can do, and all every other living person who did participate in a racist culture can do, is learn, and make amends the best we can.
It’s not easy to face your own internalized prejudice when you think of yourself as a good person, and prejudice as bad. When I listen to Chief Spence’s voice, I hear the echo of thousands of mocking slurs, uttered by my friends, and yes, by me, as we drove by places like the Occidental as teenagers, probably out in search of weed, which we would then return to our River Heights and Wolseley dens to smoke and trip out on psychedelic music. I hear those comments, and I hear that laughter, as I listen to a woman talk about being taken away from her mother at a young age, and being forced to go to some other place, and blaming her mother for it. I hear all that pain, I see it, and it’s drowned out by the laughter of me and my friends. Most of us not ignorant – we knew better – just stupid and herd-like.
Right now, someone is reading this and has turned to their friend and started ranting about white guilt. Call it that if you like. I call it conscience. I call it knowing that I’ve done things that are absolutely, definitively wrong, and my conscience taking me to task for it. I say that if you, like me, have ever mocked an indian, no matter what age you were or what circumstances you thought made it ok or makes it ok now, then you really ought to have some white guilt, and it should bother you when you hear an authentic voice like that of Chief Theresa Spence. If you’ve been racist, and I personally know of no white Canadians who have not, you really ought to lose a night of sleep over it now and then – if you don’t, you’re really a bit of a sociopath, aren’t you?
I know people, old friends of mine, who mock aboriginals on a regular basis, but make the dissonant claim that they are Not Racist. I have tried to puzzle out their logic, done some serious contortions in attempts to salvage what I can of my old friends who refuse to learn, and thus far I cannot make logical sense of their position… but maybe they’re smarter than me, because they seem VERY secure in their idea that they can mock someone’s race as a source of personal amusement and still be Not Racist. I just think to myself, what if a really healthy, buff friend of mine yelled “FAT FUCK” every time they stubbed their toe, and then turned to me and said “hey, it’s just a word, it doesn’t mean I hate you, my little fat buddy.” I wouldn’t find it too funny. “haha yeah, that’s been used to make me feel worthless for my whole life, but I know that YOU don’t mean anything by it,” seems to be the response they expect. But here’s where people today need to be more careful than ever: the nature of history has changed again, and we haven’t started living our lives accordingly.
One of the things that people point out on a regular basis these days is that the internet remembers everything. And it does. You know those pictures in the family album that your mother brings out to humiliate you? The internet is your mother made into an omniscient god. The stories of lives “ruined” by the internet are legion – people losing their jobs after their employer saw them giving themselves a 40oz flu, for instance. Everything you put on the internet is there forever, or at least until someone sets off a bunch of EMPs from space and puts us back to year zero. So, consider this image:
These people are clearly on the wrong side of history. I know of nobody outside of an Aryan Nations compound who thinks there is anything good about their view of the world. We all agree on this, without reservation. If you do not, and you and I know each other, we really need to sit down and talk about it. For one thing, you could be right; nobody I’ve ever met has seriously espoused this idea, so I think the exercise of someone actually playing devil’s advocate about race mixing could be very interesting. In the meantime, I’m considering the debate closed on miscegenation, with a giant A-Ok as the assessment thereof.
Now consider that the history of those living today, in 2013, is not being written by that professional photographer whose job was to document the world around him, as it appeared to him visually. No, our history is being told by us. Traditional, monolithic forms of media are being supplanted by blogs and social media – we know more about what’s on our friend’s minds than ever before, because our friends ARE our media, to a greater degree than ever before. We enjoy the distraction of The Daily Show, but the fact of the matter is that The Daily Show has more credibility to us than CNN, because The Daily Show simply points out the absurdity of CNN. Jon Stewart is the only straight man (in the comedic sense) in an arena full of clowns.
No, the history that will be written about us after we’re all dead will not be summed up in an image of a relative few proud racists, begging to be held up as the literal symbol of everything that is wrong with society, and that only in their specific historical moment, with no greater implications running backwards or forwards through the timeline. That photo, it just happened at some point, and a cameraman got it, but we’re not REALLY that bad, are we? The racists are just a nutty few, right?
Well, no. The ability of people to do unspeakable things, and brag about it, is also well-documented. See, for instance, this site. It is a well-known and steadfastly-ignored-by-most fact that lynching was the only form of “justice” that black people knew in the south, well into the 20th century. It is far less well-known that after people were beaten, hung and had their bodies burnt by mobs of angry whites for crimes of which their guilt is questionable at best, photographers would take pictures of the hanging corpse and make a postcard of it so that those who participated in the lynching could send it off to their friends as a souvenir of… of… it makes the brain stop and go cold. It literally makes you sick to think about it the fact that this level of violence was acceptable enough in postbellum American society: people felt safe sending documented evidence, with signed confessions, of their participation in the savage murder of a fellow human through the US mail, as long as that human had enough pigment in their skin. This is a fact that stares you in the face like Nietzsche’s abyss, no matter what you might believe the rest of the time. And in that world where you could brutally murder someone and brag about it… what went on behind closed doors, outside of the view of others, in a world with no social safety net, no crisis programs, no human rights bureau, no first wave feminism, no second wave feminism, no Malcolm X, no AIM? What sort of lives did the people history does not name, live?
To those with the imagination to read between history’s lines and visualize it, it can drive you mad with its abject brutality, and the hopelessness with which it was endured by those who lived it. It makes you want to do more to advance humanity’s state, from the brutality of our roots to the Enlightenment vision of a world governed by reason, not might. And that’s where I look to for hope – for those race mixing protestors, there were Freedom Riders. Against the slaveowners were the abolitionists, and the underground railroad. Born into a world still plagued by it, when they could not stop the slave system outright, they sought to undermine it – they helped escaped slaves get to Canada, educated people, and screamed from the rooftops that their society was fundamentally evil. And unlike the Westboro people, the abolitionists were right. The Freedom Riders were right.
Point being, even when the entire society was wrong, there were people who were right, and their voices crept through the official accounts. And look at the antebellum south today: we remember some of their key figures, but I didn’t even know who Jefferson Davis was until I was in my 20s, and I only knew the name because of Boss Hogg. But those who care about such things are aware that there were abolitionists agitating for the removal of slavery for a long time before anything was actually done, and even then the struggle just continued in a different vein. But we know who the good guys were here, though history doesn’t record many of their names. Lincoln was a pragmatic politician who did what needed to be done. The abolitionists were tough people who went against the grain of their times, and without whose constant pressure Lincoln would be no more remarkable than Chester Arthur.
And before you start talking about today being a politically correct nightmare where you’re not allowed to speak your mind, I actually agree – I think you should speak your mind more, like the people in this article, because it’s not the crazy Aryans in their compounds that are the problem at this point – YOU are the problem. Overt racism, as so many nutjobs like to resentfully point out, is no longer acceptable in this society. The Limbaughs of the world, who bemoan the fact that they can’t walk around talking about niggers and spics like their father used to do, have tried and are trying very hard to turn back the clock using some weird notion of free speech to justify it. When people complain about political correctness, I hear someone complaining about the fact that at some point, someone called them out in public for saying something incredibly fucking stupid, and they didn’t like feeling stupid in front of all those people. However, instead of examining their own attitudes, owning their prejudice (whatever it may be) and doing what they can to become a better person, they instead complain about the people who pointed out their own refusal to grow the fuck up, and resent the implication that they are immature, at best.
But now I’m devolving into opinion. Yes, you can’t just walk around tossing stereotypes around willy nilly anymore. We have, as a society, expanded our notion of politeness, at the very least, to include non-white people. Especially in public and when there’s a camera in the room. But the attitudes remain, and that’s something I think we should focus on as we think about Idle No More and Canada under this government. The next government is not going to be any better than this one, unless we as a people start learning the lesson of the abolitionists, and start embracing the voices who call for progress, who call for honouring our treaties (which we have never done, as of yet), who call for a notion of ethics that includes a sustainable vision for us to move forward into.
Because not only is the world watching – history is watching, and it’s watching YOU. Your name is online, you probably have a facebook account if you’re reading this, and everything you say really IS going down on a record somewhere, and will be searchable by historians who will have computers that can do things we cannot even conceive of yet. By the time we finish documenting our whole lives on facebook, they might even be able to take our page, with its years and years of thoughts, data, photos, etc, and conjure up an AI version of us that they could talk to, that could articulate our real moral code, with the clarity of a couple hundred years’ hindsight.
How do you think your life as it is will be judged by the people who have access to more information about you than we ever had about anyone from an equally distant time in the past? Because our attitudes show through in the things we say online, and there seems to be an inexhaustible amount of disk space to store it on. I’m pretty certain they will see us 21st century Americans as a gang of buffoons and visionaries, frothing like a giant boiling kettle and just as dangerous to get near and deal with. But I think that if our technological society survives, the notion of privacy that we have will be seen as a quaint idea that hadn’t quite died out yet, and that will be seen as a good thing. Because what’s been missing from our interactions – what’s been causing problems like slavery and apartheid (here or elsewhere) has been that we are blind to the humanity of people who don’t look, or act, like us. We have trouble looking at a woman in a burqa, or a man in a turban, and seeing anything but a mirror of our vague notions of what those cultural symbols mean: the woman is oppressed, the man is either comical or a terrorist threat (yes, I do know the difference between a Sihk and an Arab and an Afghan, and that all turbans are not the same, but a hell of a lot of white people don’t). We have trouble seeing that person’s family, their kids, their parents, and that their clothing or headwear actually are NOT being worn to throw their whatever in our face. We don’t see the experience of crossing the ocean, going through the immigration process, and walking into a society that is completely different from ours, and finding that their clothing is one of the few things from their old home and culture that they can still use to celebrate who they are.
And not only do most people have trouble seeing the humanity of someone who wears ethnic clothing or has different features, some people go one step further and decide that coming over here, where we sell the image of a place where everyone is free to do what they like, look how they like, talk to who they like… we sell America as freedom’s brand name, and when people choose to emigrate here, that freedom is one of the things they are seeking. How disappointing, then, when they find that “dress however you like” only applies to whitey-approved styles that you buy at the mall. Your turban, on the other hand, is not just a style, but rather a cultural signifier that interlopes in our nice, homogenous society. Hope you’re enjoying all this freedom. Speak English or die. Thanks for the ride, go the fuck back to wherever.
So what does all this have to do with Idle No More? It’s bringing out the racism. Aboriginals in North America have not risen up as a nation, in a significant way, since the 70s. The media was very different then, as were the problems they faced, and this new uprising has really seemed to lance a long-festering boil, and all that pus is coming out in the comment sections of newspaper sites, in online forums, everywhere that this is being discussed. White people in Canada are letting off their racist steam like never before, and unlike the 70s, we’ve got the internet recording every minute of it. Some people are noticing this, and hopefully rethinking their positions. Even if they’re not doing that now, we ARE getting a very clear picture of the extent to which Canadian society is still profoundly and unapologetically full of contempt for our First Nations. And before we can change that, we have to see it – or in this case, as anyone who’s ever participated in lancing a boil knows, they will notice the stench of the festering social illness that boils up from inflammatory Sun Media yellow facebook posts. So here’s to Idle No More for lancing that boil, and reminding us all that just because Obama is president, it doesn’t mean that we’ve beaten racism.
At the beginning of this rant, I talked a bit about kicking the debt down the road, about mortgaging the future. I think it’s about time we stopped doing that, I agree. And I think that there is a moral debt here, one laid down and enforced by international treaty law, that we ought to start paying. I think that the bruised egos of white people who are realizing that they are the beneficiaries of genocide are less important than how we deal with the people that our forefathers fucked over, over and over again, for hundreds of years, and that our current leaders continue to treat with disdain, because we allow them to do it with our apathy and our casual and familiar hate.
I think that we have a people in our midst who are dying, literally, and we are more concerned with being Not Racist, or with defending our right to be racist, than with dealing with this third world health and welfare problem that exists in our own back yard while we invade oil-rich Islamic countries just like we invaded this country once upon a time. Because we wanted it. Because we could. Because it was our Manifest Destiny. And because “giving” these people money, and seeing to their health and welfare, like our nation’s leaders promised them we would and then did not, goes against good capitalist principles.
My point, friends, is that history will judge us, and history will know enough about us to judge us personally. History remembers Germany in the 1930s, but only a few infamous German individuals from the 1930s. You, on the other hand, history will remember you by name. It will remember where you lived, where you worked, what kind of porn you were into, what you had for lunch.
Think about that, next time you decide to rant about aboriginal leaders and their supposed corruption as a justification for your continued apathy and puerile poopoo-caca use of racial epithets and stereotypes. Your words will live until the Internet dies.