June 10, 2009

Egg All Over Our Faces: It’s Not Just Nick Griffin

Posted in Culture Wars, Global discourse, Women's issues tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:21 am by Maggie Clark

When you realize what’s missing in mainstream coverage of the election of two British National Party (BNP) candidates to European Parliament, you shouldn’t be able to stand all at once. Really, the omission should stun you. And if you can’t laugh aloud at it, out of shame and awkwardness at the absurdity of the thing, you might never be the same again. I won’t tell you what it is right away, though: I’m curious to see if you reach the same conclusion — and how quickly you do. In the meantime, let me lay out the story at hand, as it’s been reported throughout the mainstream British and North American media.

After Nick Griffin and Andrew Born became the first members of the BNP, which has a “restrictive membership policy” refusing entry to blacks and asians, to attain such levels of legitimate power, there was much talk of public reaction, and justifications for their election in the first place. Within hours, Griffin had egg on his face — literally — as protestors shouted “Off our streets, Nazi scum” and held up banners condemning the party as fascist. Meanwhile, broadcasters resigned themselves to giving him airtime — a perk necessitated by his new position, but entered into cautiously because of cultural reluctance to give forum to concepts like racism and xenophobia.

And there are indeed both here. While Geert Wilders, of the Dutch Freedom Party — and another member of European Parliament — claims his issue is with “Islam as an ideology, not the colour of people’s skin”, Griffin managed to change his party into something more approachable without veering from “core values” like the following, shared on BBC Radio 5 Live after his election:

“All indigenous people all over the world have certain rights and one of those is to control their own borders so their bloodline and their culture remains dominant in their country without being hostile to anybody else. It is a basic human right.”

He is, of course, also a Holocaust denier (his adolescence in the National Socialist Movement, a group honouring Hitler and responsible for cases of arson on Jewish property, he typifies as “youthful indiscretion”), though he’s cleverly sought to downplay perceptions of anti-Semitism in his party — and why not, when clearly the menace of Islam is such that a few Jews kicking about are small peas in comparison?

So the “global warming is a hoax” shtick he also forwards — condemning an exploitative liberal base for using this issue to over-tax hard-working citizens (see? people who support immigration are just all around jerks to decent white British folk!) when the real issue is clearly peak oil (read: our need to stop being dependent on foreigners for anything) — is really just the cherry on top of one enormous shit sundae.

More interesting still is how the BNP was able to gain so much traction so quickly — a multifaceted development that leaves some thankful they only received two seats in total (Ed West of The Telegraph, writing about the need for a less polemic debate about immigration, reports that some were predicting five, or even eight, handed off). On the one hand, the BNP exploited the hell out of a recent expense claims scandal in British parliament, with Griffin deftly culling the working class vote from the Labour Party after lax rules allowed such expenses as the following to be billed to a nation already struggling with the impact of global recession:

NYT — For the Tories, the worst embarrassments lay in charges for the clearing of a moat, a shipment of horse manure for a garden, the maintenance of sprawling woodlands, the installation of a miniature “duck house” in a country house pond. The more mundane needs of Laborites and Liberal Democrats were met by claims for nonexistent mortgages, dry-rot repairs at the house of a Labor M.P.’s partner, and a Liberal Democrat’s trouser press. Before he resigned over the scandal, the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, claimed thousands of pounds for a chauffeur-driven car that drove him about his Glasgow constituency, one of Britain’s poorest.

Consequent displays of “breathtaking arrogance” didn’t help, either:

Anthony Steen, a 69-year-old Conservative, told a BBC reporter that $135,000 in claims for the upkeep of his country home were nobody’s business. “Do you know what it’s about? Jealousy,” he said. “I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral. It’s a merchant’s house of the 19th century. It’s not particularly attractive. It just does me nicely.”

So if it weren’t for the fact that the party turned to in this time of great public anger, resentment, and disillusionment, is itself one of anger, resentment, and disillusionment (to say nothing of being racially motivated in its manifestations of all three), you might even say the House of Commons had it coming.

But then again, the victories weren’t garnered solely on account of the expense claims scandal; Griffin himself said there was “an enormous correlation between high BNP votes and nearby Islamic populations.” Which leads to the other part of their winning strategy: Making the threat of immigration quantifiable, by highlighting how it directly targets the children of good, decent, white British folk.

Enter the high profile subject of Muslim “grooming” of white girls for sex, and the presentation of a calmer, more reasonable-seeming Griffin on the BNP website, where he introduces a series of three “deeply shocking” videos with such moderate caveats as “We’re not putting these up because we want to alarm people or be sensationalist, but because we want to draw attention to a really serious and growing problem in our multicultural society.”

They are upsetting, too, so consider yourself forewarned if you watch them (Part I, Part II, Part III). And they speak to a nation-wide crisis Britain has at present with exceedingly low conviction rates for rape in the country, alongside a systemic problem with cases being dismissed “by officers with a ‘Life on Mars’ attitude based on making snap judgments about the credibility of the victim,” according to The Guardian.

And it’s precious, too, that in follow-up to his comment about the demographics of his voters, even Griffin explains how “the reason for [this correlation between voters and geography] is nothing to do with Islamophobia; it is issues such as the grooming of young English girls for sex by a criminal minority of the Muslim population.” A criminal minority, did you see that? And yet the BNP’s advertising campaign would prey on the country’s horrific overarching track record for sexual assault to demonize the entire British Muslim population. Clever, isn’t it?

But what’s cleverer still — if you haven’t noticed it yet — is that for all the nuanced analysis of causality, and consequence; for all the articles about whether or not Griffin will attend the Queen’s garden parties now, or how the media will handle having BNP members on their shows, or even what kind of public outcry the election of Griffin and Bron has yielded, you will find nothing — NOTHING — in mainstream media articles detailing any measure of comment, expert or personal, from the groups most affected by these elections: the British Asians, and the British Blacks, themselves.

And though we can preach until the cows come home about how offensive Griffin’s election is, and how offensive such xenophobic and racist beliefs are, until we realize that our very discourse on the subject implicitly talks around, instead of including, the very people the media claims are equal and full citizens of the British commonwealth, we are all just as guilty of perpetuating the dangerous myth of “otherness” that presently threatens the very fabric of European unity.

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April 18, 2009

The Heart of the Matter: A Shifting Social Discourse

Posted in Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , , at 2:57 pm by Maggie Clark

A very important transition is occurring in North America, and I suspect it will still be another year or so until we grasp its full implications. Just a few weeks back, Chinese financial leaders suggested changing the world’s standard currency from the dollar to a global currency reserve, and UN economists have since backed this proposition. This move would mark a shift away from the U.S. as the source of global financial stability, and towards a preexisting global discourse that will at last be given its own voice, even if North American still plays a large role in the debate.

I suspect the same is very much true for socio-religious discourse: While George W. Bush was in office, the rise of right-wing Christianity in conjunction with the U.S.’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq launched a polemic debate between Christians and Muslims — a West meets Islam, “U.S.” vs. them affair. Moreover, the rise of a particular brand of Christianity — politically-motivated Evangelical Christians — created in its own right a series of related conflicts on the home front, such that Evangelical resistance to the theory of evolution in classrooms, global warming in government policy-making, expansive rights for women and the LGBT/IQQ community, and various issues pertaining to “morally acceptable” content on national airwaves garnered excesses of media attention and political sway.

Now, though the politically-motivated Evangelical Christian community still amounts to a sizable social force, the media portrays a very different, more long-standing socio-religious battle: the conflict between Israel and the Arab world.

In this ideological warfare, North America undoubtedly still plays a crucial role, but in the last few years this role has shifted from one of proactive engagement to one of passive response. The U.S. has always been deemed pro-Israel, regarding the country as a beacon of hope for stability and the eventual spread of democracy in the Middle East. However, the U.S. simultaneously relies upon strong business relations with nations in the Arab world, and to this end has equally supplied many such countries with arms, money, and the maintenance of dictatorships that suited U.S. interests. This has always made its involvement in the region self-motivated.

Post 9/11, that involvement necessitated a stronger alliance with those who would fight against U.S. enemies in Afghanistan; later, it also meant stronger alliances with those who would support Americans in Iraq. But times have changed. Immigration from the Arab world into Europe created stresses from which controversial national leaders and extreme anti-foreigner stances have emerged. The two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, once a viable discourse with its very own “road map” to peace, is no longer a welcome solution for many in the region. And here in North America, every political decision is becoming increasingly mired in questions of perceived Islamophobic, Zionist, anti-Semitic, pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, anti-Palestinian, pro-terrorist, and anti-terrorist allegiances.

This is not by any stretch of the imagination to argue these terms weren’t bandied about before — of course they were. But what has been lost in recent months, from a socio-religious context, is a sense of North American values having any measure of relevance in the debate. Even terrorism is not being engaged as something feared again on home soil; rather, those terms, like their aforementioned brethren, time and again reroute discussion to the matter of the Middle East.

An excellent example of this arose quite recently, in the matter of George Galloway. Galloway is a five-time British MP expelled from the Labour party for extremely controversial comments made in response to Britain’s invasion of Iraq. He has toured Britain and the U.S., working with many causes: some clearly humanitarian, many others complicated by statements that have brought UN condemnation upon him, and actions that have blurred the lines between humanitarian aid and front organizations for personal gain. (I won’t make a habit of this, but there are so many controversies pertaining to his views, actions, and travels that I’m going to recommend reading his Wikipedia entry — no one mainstream article on the man comes anywhere near as close.) On March 20, 2009, he was denied entry into Canada, on the basis of his ties to Hamas: though he has gone on record stating that he does not agree with Hamas, Galloway gave the government $45,000. As Hamas is on Canada’s list of terrorist organizations, this was enough to deny him entry, though Canadian immigration ministry spokesman Alykhan Velshi’s comment on the issue is a little more dramatic than that:

The Telegraph — Immigration ministry spokesman Alykhan Velshi said the act was designed to protect Canadians from people who fund, support or engage in terrorism.

Mr Velshi said: “We’re going to uphold the law, not give special treatment to this infandous street-corner Cromwell who actually brags about giving ‘financial support’ to Hamas, a terrorist organisation banned in Canada.

“I’m sure Galloway has a large Rolodex of friends in regimes elsewhere in the world willing to roll out the red carpet for him. Canada, however, won’t be one of them.”

Galloway contested the ban, lost, but got around the ruling by being broadcast via video-link from New York to Canadian locations. And so life went on, with the news turning to “Tea Parties” in the U.S. and Canadian outrage towards the Afghani rape law. Yes, we have plenty of political matters to attend to at home; there is no shortage of issues. But the question posed by the high profile case of Galloway — to say nothing of audience reactions to North American portrayals of recent Israeli-Palestinian disputes and Somali pirates– remains: Which is the greatest? Not in the world at large, per se, as so many cultural wars are played out on that stage every day — but here, at home, in North America? Does our ultimate socio-political investment lie with home turfs, and all the multicultural challenges upon them, or quite literally with foreign lands, and the conflicts waged there instead? If the latter, does this tie our future directly to their outcome? What are the implications (not necessarily negative!) of a national discourse set primarily by the happenstance on foreign soil?

April 17, 2009

Making allowances for human nature

Posted in Public discourse tagged , , , , at 8:28 pm by Maggie Clark

What better way to spend Easter than reading the Bible — am I right?

It’s not the most likely thing for an atheist to say, but I’ve been mulling over the application of Bible verse to contemporary beliefs: in particular, as they pertain to Evangelical stances on issues like climate change. As a friend sagely reminded me, all religious culture comes first — then canon is interpreted to fit it. This is why so many Bible verses might be accepted in one generation, and ignored in the next: Other aspects of human culture change, and with those changes, our engagement with the original texts is also transformed. (One need look no further than the treatment of slavery in the Old Testament to recognize that Abrahamic faiths pick and choose which “hills” they’ll defend in public practice; there are other, social factors that play in to the application of faith.)

And yet, alongside reading the Old Testament, this past weekend I picked up a CBC Massey Lecture series installment — five short lectures from the 1980s by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, known best for literature with strong political and feminist leanings. This volume of hers, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside, tackles a most curious social juxtaposition: the fact that we are, as a civilization, more aware than any generation before us of overarching trends, tendencies, and themes in human nature — and yet just as unable as individuals to apply this knowledge to our everyday lives. Lessing herself was drawn up in a Communist party as a young woman; this was in direct response to the egregious abuses of power enacted in her childhood nation, apartheid-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), but as Lessing develops in her lectures, there was just as much propaganda and groupthink necessarily at work among her chosen group as among the corrupt society those Communists were striking out against.

From such personal experiences and relevant academic experiments, Lessing develops the argument that all groups have this propensity towards thinking themselves in the right, and all dissenters as in the wrong; and that this righteousness furthermore flies in the face of the temporary nature of all human resolution. However, argues Lessing, if we were only to make ourselves more aware of the transience of our beliefs — and more willing, too, to accept as human nature the inclination to various trains of thought (polemic argument, for one; and with it an “us vs them” mentality) we might be able to maintain more critical thought even as time entrenches us in one camp, or one label, above all else. We might even be able to make a greater difference in the world: Lessing writes at one point about how the broad condemnation of war will never suffice to eradicate its existence if we don’t acknowledge and accept that some people do, and always will, actively enjoy the exercise of war itself. These more complex analyses are harder, yes, but likely more useful in effecting real-world change, and so at the very least merit an attempt.

But to return to the Bible: Lessing notes that religious and political beliefs share a common propensity towards absolutism and fanaticism — an observation we are all too often loathe to make, though the acceptance of this similarity might help us learn to better converse with those whose viewpoints differ from our own. The depressing truth is that most people are so long trained in empty rhetoric, and so short on the experience and tools needed to engage in formal debate, and most of all so comfortable in their own righteous certitude as to see no reason to second-guess their way of thinking, that even getting everyone to engage in open dialogue is a pipe dream in and of itself.

And yet, let’s say it could be done. What would that look like? How would it be achieved?

These are the questions I was asking myself while poring through the Old Testament this Easter, because I’m still holding out hope that some measure of formal debate might be attained if we in the media are willing to engage believers on their “home turf.” The problem is, is that home turf the religious texts themselves, or the empty rhetoric that often passes for argument in public spheres? (I’m referring here to the singing of songs in response to critical inquiry, the rattling off of catch-phrases, and all in all the extreme use of circular and straw man fallacies to avoid scholastic scrutiny of the verses themselves.)

In the case of climate change, my starting point was simple: Is there any reason Christian Evangelicalism can’t be united with theories of climate change? For many years now, a culture of vehement denial has been maintained in these communities, but why? Does climate change necessarily threaten the precepts of Christian belief? Is it necessarily a challenge to the faith of so many Americans?

From what I’ve been able to discern, there are a few places — some obvious, some less so — where the existence of climate change seems, at least on the surface, to be a threat. The most obvious is a sense of entitlement: Many believe their god gave them this land, and all that exists upon it, to do with as they would. This permits a rather regal lifestyle upon the earth — one in which the fruit of one’s labour may be applied to whatever one deems fit. If climate change has a human origin, and with it comes the cry for the curtailing of excess, this would to many seem a direct challenge to that entitlement. Worse still, it threatens a sense of hierarchy on the planet: God, then man, then the beasts of the earth, then everything else. If the preservation of one species suddenly trumps man’s full enjoyment of god’s gifts, how can that not be considered a threat?

This is where Bible-reading comes in: I wondered if that entitlement were as textually concrete as many Evangelicals make it out to be. True, in the Genesis story the world is created with man its crowning achievement… but that’s Eden. And humankind gets kicked out of it. Much of the New Testament ennobles man’s place at the top of the planetary food chain, but there’s really nothing to suggest that man should feel entitled, after the Fall, to a world as stable and nurturing as Eden. And, after all, Christian nihilists (those who see no intrinsic good in humanity, or this life, without the presence of a god) already regard this world as bleak and secondary — so why can’t the instability of the environment, and human responsibility for the quality of the land they live on, be reconciled with Evangelical thought?

I suspect the answer lies in a deeper threat felt by Evangelicals: namely, that climate change — and with it, the threat to the stability of human life on Earth — has grave consequences for proponents of intelligent design. Evolution presents elements of the world, and all who dwell within it, as “just good enough” — with first successful drafts, as opposed to perfect creatures, being the product of evolution. But intelligent design is argued from a position of precision and perfection, with the human eye especially (bewilderingly, too, for it has many weaknesses and blind spots) used to argue for the “impossible complexity” of the world we live in. From this standpoint, it’s easy to see where climate change can be threatening: If humankind could so easily tip the balance so as to make the world inhospitable, so much for that perfect construction!

And yet, here too, it’s so easy to spin the message so as to fit Evangelical parameters: God gave us a world built so that its fate is determined by human action. Gay marriage = hurricanes, floods, and stabbing death on Greyhound busses (okay, that last is a little extreme). Gluttony and greed = deforestation, unchecked industrialization, and climate change. Causal, not just correlative, relationships are the lifeblood of much religious thought: in a sphere of argumentation that already permits leaps of faith to fill in where empiricism fails, there is no intrinsic reason for Evangelical belief to side against the existence of climate change.

So where does this leave the matter of critical discourse? Well, if it were possible to foster open dialogue about such issues, the aforementioned route seems the likeliest to succeed. But more importantly, I think it has to succeed: in the last week alone we’ve seen much in world news highlighting the need to address intersections between religion and human rights, but still the topic remains taboo. Why? Is it really impossible to talk about the differences between religion and culture, group and individual, or contextual and universal rights without brewing a maelstrom of polemics, empty rhetoric, and broad accusations of various -isms and -phobias from the general public?

Lessing would argue that it is impossible to avoid these manifestations of human nature — but that even then, it is still possible, with an awareness of past behaviours and social constants, to react to these inclinations in a way that counteracts what would otherwise have us forever defining ourselves, and others, in uncompromising blacks and whites.

I really hope she’s right.