Thursday, November 24, 2016

They Aren't Coming, They're Already Here

As Canadians, I think it is safe to say that we have tempered any jealousy we might feel towards our neighbours to the south with a certain degree of, well, smugness.

Sure, the U.S. might have an immensely powerful military and a gigantic economy, and are the only nation to put a man on the moon, but we can look over the tops of our spectacles at things like gun violence and a lack of affordable health care, cluck our tongues and say, "It's not like that could happen here." But sometimes we can hurt our arm patting ourselves on the back and kid ourselves that we don't have problems with things like racism in Canada, and that a populism born of intolerance could never happen here, and that is simply not true.

First of all, while we may not have had the institutionalized racism against blacks that the U.S. has had to grapple with, our country's government, aided by churches, participated in the attempted cultural genocide of our indigenous peoples, and we are only now beginning to come to grips with that.

Secondly, let's not forget that we've had our own share of intolerant and racist crackpots in Canada. Skinheads still march regularly in Edmonton and Calgary, and it doesn't feel like all that long ago that Terry Long tried to establish a compound for the Aryan Nations in nearby Caroline, Alberta, and burned a cross in Provost, Ku Klux Klan-style.

Third, and most importantly, there are plenty of people among us who long for the cultural homogeneity of days long past. People who look at those who have different-coloured skin (or maybe they worship differently, or love differently, whatever) and wishes those people were somewhere else. 

Earlier this week, the Edmonton Journal reported that posters had gone up downtown calling out 'anti-white propaganda'. They made claims like "It's only racist when white people do it" and told white supremacist sympathizers they are not alone.

Now, it's one thing to anonymously put up ugly monochromatic flyers with uglier ideas on them, but in the comments section of the article, I was astonished at just how much sympathy people were laying out for these notions; a complete embracing of reverse racism, anti-white sentiment, a wholesale rejection of the notion of white privilege, and scorn and admonishment for the 'social justice warriors' and 'libtards' who expressed indignation. And while a lot of the most inflammatory comments came from the fake profiles of anonymous trolls, many of these sentiments came out of everyday people's Facebook accounts.

So let's not kid ourselves: intolerance and racism are alive and well in our home and native land, and apparently nursing a great deal of discontent just below the surface.

And you have to think that some of those people are feeling pretty emboldened by the recent presidential election.

I was somewhat relieved when President-elect Trump actually did repudiate the 'alt-right' movement that had celebrated his unprecedented rise to power, but neither that, nor the fact that he has a Jewish son-in-law ("So automatically he can't be anti-Semitic!"), will make up for the fact that he is making Steve Bannon, the head of Breitbart News and a major figure in that movement, a White House counselor.

Nor will it change the fact that racist leaders like David Duke (former KKK Grand Wizard) and websites like Stormfront have been exalting Trump's victory like it was their own. At an alt-right symposium in D.C., Richard Spencer repeated his call for a 50 year moratorium on immigration, quoted Adolf Hitler in the original German, and was presented a bouquet of stiff-armed salutes by guileless whites chanting "Heil victory!"

So, yeah, there is cause for concern.

One of the most unfortunate side-effects of the recent election, to my mind, has been the evacuation of the middle ground in political discourse. The resultant polarization and lack of incentive to reach across the aisle has left the U.S. more divided than at any time except the Civil War. 

Most harmful is this pernicious idea that trying to reach common ground with one's political opponents is not only fruitless, but some degree of ideological heresy as well. I'm not saying you are going to change a white nationalists mind with some clever rhetoric, but the GOP vote was not a monolith. More than any other election, this one really was about voting against your least favourite candidate, or in Trump's case, for nostalgia, as a survey showed that 70% of his supporters thought the U.S. was better off in the 1950s. Which, I suppose, is pretty difficult to dispute, IF you are a straight, white, Christian, male; for everyone else, maybe not so much.

Less than a percentage point separated the Left from the Right in this election, and I'm sorry, I'm not ready to believe that every single person who voted for Trump is a racist, misogynist, backwards-thinking monster, any more than I believe that those who voted for Hillary are blinkered, socialist idealists, unwilling to examine her many serious flaws as a leader. If you don't start persuading some people on the other side to change their minds with good arguments, then all the "I-told-you-so"s in the world are not going to do you a whit of good in 4 years' time.

Meanwhile, north of the 49th, there is a different sound. "But we're Canada!" I hear you cry, "We're tolerant and inclusive and progressive! We're the mosaic, not the melting pot! We've even started taking steps towards reconciling with the aboriginal cultures we tried to destroy! That kind of populist swell could never happen here!"

Boy, I hope you're right.

But in the meantime, Conservative Party leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch has called Trump's poll-defying victory “an exciting message that needs to be delivered in Canada as well.” She would also like to see screening of immigrants and refugees for 'anti-Canadian values', similar to Trump's desire for 'extreme vetting' of potential newcomers of the Muslim faith.

At McMaster University, first posters went up promoting an alt-right website, followed by response posters decrying fascism and calling the alt-right neo-Nazis, before being removed by the administration.

Across the board, there is an ongoing debate about whether it is wise to allow a racist or quasi-racist, anti-Semitic or crypto-anti-Semitic movement with so much overlap to white separatists, white nationalists and full-on white supremacists to re-brand itself as the 'alt-right'. Some news organizations are simply referring to them as 'white nationalists' now, but a columnist for the Guardian has a blunter approach: see a Nazi, say a Nazi

From the same article as the previous comments:

But regardless of what we call them, they are here They have never not been here, but now they are getting ready to exert themselves. The most vocal of them have started making themselves heard in Facebook posts and news forums, and they advance a polemic that should be an anathema to most Canadians. 

This week, the first issue of the new Steve Rogers: Captain America comic dropped into the Marvel Unlimited app on my iPad. In it, they do a deft job of showing just how easy it is to sway people when times are tough, and humanize the thralls of HYDRA so capable of doing inhuman deeds at the behest of their masters. 

They spend a few pages showing how one young man goes from crime, to prison, to a halfway house and then laid off and falling prey to addiction before he is invited by another ex-con to hear a charismatic speaker.

The speaker, of course, turns out to be The Red Skull, Captain America's foremost nemesis, but he is not there to extoll the virtues of fascism, or offer glory in the service of one of the Marvel Universe's most prominent and fearful terrorist groups. He is there to express sympathy for these men who no longer find themselves at the pinnacle of American success and culture the way they once did. 

He seductively comforts them with appeals to their baser natures, wrapped in what feels like rational arguments.

And in the end, by absolving them from blame, giving them first a scapegoat and then a means of combating them, HYDRA gains another disciple.

Despite being entertainment, this comic book chilled my blood as much as nearly anything I read in the news this week. Steve Rogers: Captain America was originally published six months ago, and written well before that, but in depicting the ways in which ruthless manipulators can exploit malaise and dread and convert it into terrible action, I really felt like it captured a lot of the zeitgeist going around right now.

Six months ago, I think we would have been far more shocked to see flyers talking about anti-white racism posted downtown, or others telling turban wearers to go back to their own countries hanging in our province's largest campus.  

But now, following Brexit, following Trump's victory, looking at comments meant to dissuade us from sticking up for one another, it all feels chillingly familiar.

And it is a reminder that those who disagree with us, even vehemently, they believe they are doing the right thing, just as you and I do. There is something in their backstory that makes their current actions, as disagreeable as they might be, completely rational and reasonable to them. Take Steve Rogers' mother, for instance:

Try to remember that, in the end, given the right circumstances, practically anyone may be swayed to extremist thinking.


What can we do about it? Refute it wherever you find it. Speak up, even if it means making people uncomfortable. Don't browbeat, don't dismiss, don't assume, but firmly ask, "What do you mean by that?" 

Remind people that we really weren't better off 60 years ago. That, unless your heritage is indigenous Canadian, we all came here by immigration. People who believe white privilege isn't a real thing most likely haven't had it explained well enough to them (spoiler alert: even white privilege doesn't automatically make you a racist). 

Don't dump on them, win them over. Remind them that human purity is as mythical as the unicorn, and that diversity makes us stronger, even if it might make us uncomfortable to begin with.

And most especially, when you are talking to your friends and associates in the U.S., have some sympathy for them. Their country is balanced on a knife-edge of division right now, and facing an uncertain future.

Across the world, populism and xenophobia are making their marks on the democratic process, but if we can see them coming in time, we may yet dodge a bullet here in Canada.

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