“I’M NOT A Conspiracy THEORIST – You’re just a F@#KIN’ IDIOT” – pre-election march for Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada on Bloor Street in Toronto, September 18, 2021

“Lock and load!”

I started noticing The Gateway Pundit clickbait site in late 2020, when the comments sections beneath the articles in that prominent far-right news-and-conspiracy webzine were full of posts urging people to head to Washington well-armed to take back their country for then-president Donald Trump. Commenters told each other that the military would be on “our side” and would join us rather than fight us; one memorable post pointed out that the “soy boy liberals” were cowards who would run as soon as they saw their friends’ brains splattered on the wall beside them (which actually did not seem to be an unreasonable reaction). The site ran articles promoting the “Stop the Steal” rally scheduled for January 6, and the comments sections were full of people posting militaristic slogans like “the answer to 1984 is 1776!” and “lock and load!”

Of course, it seemed, none of it should be taken seriously. The commenters, judging by their posts, skewed toward senior citizenship, retired people disgruntled with the world and having time on their hands. A common refrain was “I may be old but I can still shoot!” I pictured lanky, grizzled Revolutionary War veterans carrying muskets with them to take on the US Army.

Then January 6 came along and it was no longer funny.

The comments posted on the afternoon of January 6 at first seemed triumphal ­– we are doing it! Then confusion set in – where is Trump? Has he betrayed us? The president, we now have reason to believe, had been furious with his Secret Service people for not allowing him to join the crowd at the Capitol Building, but at the time it seemed like he had told the people marching there that he would be with them only to scurry over to the White House and watch it all happen on television. As the election process continued and the shock of the violence at the capitol hit the public, confusion set in amongst the MAGA people as they posted their comments on the site.

Then, over the next couple of days, a new explanation coalesced amongst the comments as if sent down from on high, as perhaps it had been. MAGA people had not been violent; they were peaceful and law abiding. The violence had been caused by antifa people disguised as Trump supporters. They had been bused to the capitol where they changed into MAGA gear on arrival; they could identify each other because they wore their MAGA hats backwards. You could obviously tell they were not Trump supporters because they were skinny and wore backpacks. It was all a false flag attack, designed to make Trump supporters look like criminals.

It was as if Trump’s surrogates were retaking control of the narrative in real time, as perhaps they were.

The explanation did not stay the same. A few weeks later, it was not antifa but the FBI that had conducted the false flag operation. The problem was that it soon became hard to blame January 6 on antifa or the FBI after hundreds of Trump supporters were arrested and awaiting trial. The narrative changed again. There had never been any violence. Trump supporters had been let in through the doors by the welcoming capitol police, and had walked peacefully through the People’s House. The people in jail had been falsely arrested. The Gateway Pundit began running sanitized articles on and interviews with them, encouraging people to donate money to their legal defense funds.

All of these conflicting narratives of denial seemed to coexist, bumping against one other in real time.

A community where hate finds a home

The home of these denials, The Gateway Pundit, named after St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, began as the side project of a right-wing blogger named Jim Hoft. It has mushroomed into a multi-million-dollar business, featuring the writings of Holt and a skeleton staff that includes his twin brother and other relatives. Married recently to a man half his age who emigrated from the Philippines to be wed with him, Hoft seems an unlikely person to enrich himself from a webzine that is hostile to immigration and where homophobic slurs abound. Grumbling remarks pop up occasionally in the comments sections about how Hoft’s sexual identity is evidence that the site is “controlled opposition” ­­– that is, an outlet created or sanctioned by the powers that be for people to let off steam, but only within set limits. Yet he would be far from the first member of a discriminated-against minority to identify with the group that others would think of as his oppressors. One can increasingly find people of mixed-race descent who identify strongly with white nationalism and become prominent figures in the movement (such as Canadian former academic Ricardo Duchesne and American Republican Congressional candidate Neil Robinson Kumar, to name a few examples).

The Gateway Pundit, or TGP as its readers like to call it, often simply refries stories from more legitimate news sites, with added right-wing snark. But it is best known for conspiracy theories, the wackier the better. Fans of A.J., as Alex Jones (radio show host and principal of the Infowars website) is affectionately known, can feel right at home here. The Trump-stoked Arizona audit of the 2020 American presidential election results was flogged daily, full of stories of such things as ultraviolet fraud-detecting machinery that would identify bamboo residue, proving that ballots had been printed in China. Each week, stories would promise “Big Developments next week!” until, finally, the audit only confirmed that Biden had won by a wider margin than originally reported. That was barely mentioned; by then, the site had skipped to new theories of fraud.

More interesting than the articles themselves are the readers’ comments. Many mainstream publications have discontinued comments sections; they tend to attract fanatical, vitriolic people, often making personal attacks and issuing threats, and the time spent moderating them can be prohibitive. The Gateway Pundit fosters free-wheeling comments sections, where fanaticism and vitriol are welcomed – within limits, albeit very wide ones. It uses a third-party service, Disqus, for its comments section, so that commenters have to abide by both the rules of the service and the rules of The Gateway Pundit’s own moderator.

Some of the limits placed by the moderator make for interesting copy in themselves. Right-wing sites tend to attract antisemitic proselytizers, and all but the most abjectly “based and red-pilled” want to avoid looking too much like the Nazi-era Der Stürmer. Knowing that, amongst its readership, words like “Jew” and “Jewish” are more likely to be used by bigots than Talmudic scholars, the site simply bans their use so that any comment that employs them is shunted to a never-ending “pending” file. This leads commenters to employ euphemisms – there are snide references to “Js” and “Jish,” to “the Juice,” to the “small hat people” and the “people who cannot be named.” The line, “to learn who rules over you, see who cannot be named” is often repeated. Other banned words and racial epithets are similarly talked around, as for example by mentioning the need to avoid words that “trigger.” As an ironic result, words like “Jewish” start to seem like swear words that cannot be mentioned in polite company.

Commenters include dedicated trolls, people who cut and paste the same hostile propagandistic messages beneath multiple articles. Often banned from the site and others like it, they come back under names that allow others to recognize their new persona. One poster who called himself RSmith and constantly posted the same lengthy racist messages purporting to cite scientific articles about racial inferiority was banned so often and so quickly that he had literally hundreds of handles, each ending in a different number – posting for example as RSmith755 or later using an SR series of monikers, such as SR435. Another pro-Nazi poster would come back under widely differing names but always using the same avatar picture.

One regular antisemitic and pro-Nazi poster on The Gateway Pundit, who for years used the name Daisy, described (on a different forum more restricted to white nationalists) their postings in the comments sections on the more popular far-right site, Breitbart, as “outreach” that was helping to move the Overton window – i.e., helping to expand the range of normal discourse into areas once considered beyond the pale. Daisy has been banned or suspended a few times, and has recently returned to cut and paste their earlier comments under the new name of Joanna and more recently, apparently banned once more, under the name of Mary.

After being exposed to commenters like that, even the least suspicious among us might end up thinking that everyone posting must be either a troll, a Russian disinformation agent, a CIA plant, or a Gateway Pundit moderator trying to guide the narrative. People can be anything they like on the internet, and it is hard to believe that the posters who write with exaggeratedly Black phonetic spellings or who end their comments with “PS I am black” are anything close.

Whatever the actual identity of the posters, however, there does seem to be a community of commenters. People will welcome back a poster who has not appeared in the comments sections for a while, or commiserate with each other about the children who have been infected with liberal ideas and the families that they can no longer associate with because of political differences. It is, or is representative of, a nation within the nation. These are people who believe that Democrats are not just political opponents, but evil enemies of America, Demonrats and DemoKKKrats, the latter an allusion to the somewhat ironic line that Democrats were historically the real racists, and that Black people are unfortunately still on the “Democratic plantation,” not realizing where their allegiances should lie.

There is of course no unanimity among commenters; posters disagree with one another. But the Overton window looks out on different scenery here, echoing the views that are making their way from the fringe into mainstream Republican politics. In a time when Republicans win presidential elections while losing the popular vote and white nationalists hawk fears of a demographic replacement that will turn people like themselves into a minority, democracy is for some on the right no longer a thing of value. America is proudly claimed to be a constitutional republic, not a democracy, and America’s Founding Fathers are extolled for avoiding the dangers of mob rule.

QAnon slogan partially obscured on the flag in front: “Where We Go 1, We Go All” – Toronto’s University Avenue, October 17, 2020

The Gateway Pundit hosts a community where it is normal to see George Floyd as a dangerous criminal who died from a drug overdose and Black Lives Matter as a hate-filled movement that wreaked destruction and murder throughout the United States – where COVID is a hoax or no worse than the flu, and the government is coming after your guns. It is a world fiercely loyal to Donald Trump, where it is insane to think that Biden won the 2020 election or that masks can prevent infection… but not absurd to believe, along with Q and British conspiracy theorist David Icke, that the world is run by a cabal of lizard-people pedophiles pursuant to a conspiracy stretching back centuries. It is representative of a nation living in its own bubble that demonizes and denies the Americanness of half the country.

Recently, the Ukraine war has shown us another example of how opinion on the site coalesces, and is perhaps manipulated along particular paths.

Russia’s Putin has long been an idol of the far-right. An authoritarian leader who despises gay people and claims to speak for traditional values, presiding over an almost entirely white country, he is appealing to white nationalists. Terse statements saying that Putin should bomb Washington, DC are not out of bounds in TGP comments sections.

When Russia first invaded Ukraine, posters on the comments sections did not know how to respond. Then voices began increasingly to emerge speaking for American isolationism. There are articulate voices strongly supportive of Ukraine; there are also far more voices than one would find in the mainstream asserting isolationism, either saying that Russia and Ukraine are equally corrupt and neither deserves support, or coming down strongly on the side of Russia, arguing that the Biden family and the Deep State are raking in a share of all the money allocated to Ukraine. Some of these posters identify themselves as Russian, while others that do not nonetheless seem to misuse the articles of English speech in a way characteristic of Russian native language speakers. The Gateway Pundit regularly runs military and political analysis by Larry Johnson, a far-right hoax-peddler who is strongly pro-Russian and has been declaring Russia the winner of the war since March.

Conspiracy theories: when imaginary guns fire steel bullets

How seriously should any of this be taken? The Gateway Pundit does seem to be circulating and feeding ideas that are taking over significant sections of America’s Republican Party. Much as we may like to think of Canada as a kinder place, these ideas do not stop at the border. Marchers at the weekly anti-vaccination demonstrations in downtown Toronto during the pandemic shut-downs often flew signs and flags or wore t-shirts ripped straight from the American stage. MAGA hats and Trump-Pence signs (or just Trump signs, later) could readily be seen, as was a flag bearing the QAnon slogan “Where We Go One, We Go All.”

In weighing whether sites like TGP should be talked about or ignored, I again think of Ricardo Duchesne, the far-right Canadian sociologist – born in Puerto Rico of parents whose marriage would have been unlawful in many American states at the time of his birth – who was pressured into taking early retirement from a tenured position at the University of New Brunswick over his increasingly racist views and commentary. He has written his own account of his intellectual journeys, how he was converted to a belief in the genetic superiority of European men through his visits to “forbidden places,” listing a string of neo-Nazi and white nationalist websites and later also mentioning an online site devoted to making available the writings of racist thinkers. Duchesne’s account of the path he followed may be disingenuous, but it does generate concern. If a university professor with a PhD has been radicalized like this, what hope can there be for less knowledgeable people surfing the net? He now devotes his energies to his own website with an expressed intent to use it to foster what he calls a “dissident right” movement in Canada. These ideas grow in darkness, and being “forbidden” is part of their appeal. They need to be discussed.

The “fake news,” to coin a phrase, of sites like The Gateway Pundit is a danger, even if it seems crackpot to outsiders. One can reach a point where reason no longer helps us to make sense of the world. We test what we learn against what we already know to be true, examining information to see if it rings true in the context of our lived experience, to see if it is reconcilable with the rest of our knowledge and our understanding of human nature. But once we accept and believe in lies, then the only new truths we will accept are the ones that fit those lies.

The Gateway Pundit similarly exists in a self-contained ecosystem, where readers regularly look at only a small number of similar or like-minded sites that refer to and take stories from one other. Commenters on TGP express contempt for anyone who watches liberal-leaning television networks such as CNN or MSNBC, and deride people who read the progressive muckraking Mother Jones magazine. Even the Fox News network has been ostracized as traitorous and moved onto their informal “Index” of banned reading due to the fact that it called the Arizona election early, and correctly, for Joe Biden. As a result, The Gateway Pundit’s readers are members of a separate nation, one that looks on itself as the real republic and on those who disagree as the enemy; one whose allegiance lies to the nation they imagine rather than the country that is out there on the ground.

The Answer to 1984 is 1776, referencing George Orwell’s novel of omnipresent totalitarianism and the American Revolution – Bloor Street in Toronto, August 15, 2020
Map of Constantinople designed in 1422 by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmonti, via Wikimedia Commons

To start out, I have taken great pains to not consult academic or internet classifications of the subject that I have chosen to write on, and have allowed my mind to wander and evolve. As a result, there may be some definitions that are totally out of sync with the understanding of specialists on the subject. I could say one thing, though! I have understood what the Adivasis (the original inhabitants of India, in Indian languages) and the Indigenous peoples in Canada aspire to when they talk about Nationhood. It pertains to their relationship with the mountains, rivers, forests and skies with which they have desperately attempted to maintain an equilibrium. And non-Indigenous, be they settlers, colonialists, predatory capitalists, miners, golf players or housing developers, have made sheer hell out of those attempts to restore balance. This notion of the nation has evolved, and boundaries seem to have become an irrefutable requirement for defending the rights of the people who want to live peacefully and at ease with the environment.

I will begin with a bit of history that I am very familiar with, due to the research I undertook during the pandemic as I embarked on my fourth novel, Shaf and the Remington.

Nations have borders and boundaries

On the 29th of May 1453, a 21-year-old Sultan named Mehmed II led the final assault on the Byzantine Empire, and Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire after nearly 1500 years of Christian rule. There is much written and posted on the internet on this issue that is spectacular, obscene, ugly and sometimes salacious—and often made into side stories and films.

There are details of each military campaign, including the metallurgy of the largest cannons made at that time! There is also a description of the amount of lard that was spread surreptitiously by the Sultan on logs laid out on a deforested roadway across Galata on the north side of the Golden Horn, so that his ships could be dragged over the land and bypass the chain barrier that had been set up to prevent an invasion by the sea. What was pivotal was that physical control of this important city (and therefore of the Bosporus) was crucial for both the Byzantine Empire (Christian) and the Ottoman Empire (Muslim).

Control of the physical boundaries of nations was considered fundamental to rulers, whether they lived in palaces or forts and demonstrated their opulence by building plazas, mausoleums and museums, or carried out rapacious military campaigns. They trundled off their populations into churches, temples, synagogues or mosques for spiritual reinforcement or divine intoxication. It was considered the end of the medieval period. Fortifications, borders, obstacles (whether natural or constructed), strategic access roads to warm-water ports, and access to trading routes, canals and river routes were central to the definitions of national boundaries.

The concept of nation was not an imaginary or utopian notion of togetherness for ethnicity, religion or language. Nor was it the more pernicious “definition” of a nation as a global agglomeration of followers of a single religion, which has been perpetuated by Zionism and imitated by some other religions.

Preservation of a nation meant that invasions had to be prevented by defined natural boundaries (mountains, seaways, rivers and dense forestry) and by constructing thick walls around cities, fortifying seaways with cast iron chains, and deploying military engineers from Hungary, miners from Serbia, and mercenaries of Genovese, Vatican and Venetian origins. Needless to say, there were no hypersonic missile systems then, no iron domes and no cyberwarfare. Everything was done on land and sea to prevent infantry and naval invasions.

The point of this segment of the essay is to emphasize that the physical territories of a Nation define its political and economic space. A nation is defined by its geophysical borders, often reluctantly agreed upon in the modern context, despite some lurid political and historical details about the acquisition of land by force, by treacherous deals, and sometimes by sheer occupation… like Texas, California, Louisiana, Alaska, or for that matter, New York. And even today, control of the Black Sea and the port city of Odessa becomes crucial for both Ukrainian and Russian forces, not only to receive armaments, but also to ship grain.

At the next level, we have the nation state.

The nation state is how the nation is run. By governments (via election or coup d’état), based on constitutional provisions, generally. (Almost all nations in the world have constitutions, except the UK, Israel, Canada, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand, which do not have a single document codified as a constitution). The methodology of running the state—whether by local councils, by popular democracy (borough committee, flawed or otherwise), or by regimented or militarized means—shapes the state apparatus that defines the day-to-day rule over the people of a country. The state could end up policing the people, taxing the people, codifying laws about the way people must live their lives, dictating what they can wear and what they can learn, and then demonstrating largesse by providing relief and dole.

You will notice that by now we have started talking about people. That is when we suddenly realize that what seemed like a delicate and sophisticated exercise in understanding or getting excited about the running of the state, the constitutional laws that govern it, the regulations and legal systems that are supposed to provide fairness and justice to its citizens—is not really conducive to the rights of citizens. The state is paramount and its preservation and perpetuation are far more important than the rights of 99% of its citizens. That moment of realization is a crucial point in time, where citizens and their representative organizations must either cooperate and sublimely submit to the processes in the larger interests of the state… or consider an insurrectionary process, perhaps?

The nation state has governments, elected through a process, be it parliamentary or non-parliamentary, often self-defined as democratic (even when carried out under a military commission or foreign intervention), but with a variety of constitutional and electoral safeguards, judicial systems and policing systems that justify the control of the state by the government. There is often more than one level of parliament, and it is said that most modern states have chosen to separate the executive from any religious control. Elections based on first-past-the-post or proportional representation are the contending notions of majority.

In a liberal democracy, the people get the government they want. As elections approach, divisive issues are raised, instigating dormant fears within the population, and real issues of economic and political rights get sidelined. As an example, here in Québec, the issue of Québec values (the so-called Charte des valeurs québécoises) was introduced in 2013 (under Bill 60) and as usual, a silent majority of people smiled and nodded with extraordinary politeness as they went to the polls to vote for a non-inclusive and even non-democratic society, all under the name of laïcité.  

The Parti Québécois, which spearheaded the push for “Québec values” and an insular brand of secularism, lost its shirt in the elections. Its successor, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), introduced and passed the laicity bill (Bill 21) and has continued to promote the same value systems in various pieces of legislation.

Montréal demonstration on April 7, 2019 © Jody Freeman

Nationhood, however, is not about borders, bills, physical contours, customs clearance or toll gates. It is a state of ancestral learning and continuity—lessons learnt in relationship to the land, the mountains, the forests, the sky and the people who have lived under it. It is about the historical and intellectual continuity of those who were there from before. The Indigenous peoples, the original inhabitants of the land—their struggles, their opposition to colonization, their efforts to preserve their languages and culture.

Nationhood is not about countries, maps and elections—but about a relationship of any given peoples with their environment. Land alienation has become the principal way of encroaching on nationhood. It is achieved by encroachment on mineral-rich areas, displacement of local inhabitants, deforestation, and imposition of a system of economic welfare through neo-liberal economic warfare against Indigenous populations. This is happening in Latin America, in Africa, in India, in Australia and in various other parts of the world. Canadian mining companies are at the forefront of such activities, pivotal in undermining nationhood, especially in Latin America and Africa.

Almost everything we have touted as “Western civilization” is now no longer tenable… because it has been a mendacious assault on extracting value from the earth, and then more. The evidence for that is bloody—from Indian residential schools and the Sixties Scoop to the climate disaster. We have been comfortable with our sense of civilization and feel uneasy when it is challenged at the fundamental level. Science, education, knowledge and research have not led to reduced poverty levels or common prosperity… far from it.

Europe foisted on the world the notion that the “right to colonize” was a natural outcome of the superiority of civilization. By that logic, to civilize the “savagery” in the rest of the world was a natural evolution of deductive reasoning that Europe’s industrial revolution required, from the 15th century onwards. This sensibility is in itself a savagery, and colonization or decolonization is a topic in itself. However, nationhood remains a concept that needs to be embraced and understood as independent of the structures of nations, nation states and people.  

There is a fable that Mahatma Gandhi was asked by a reporter what he thought about Western civilization,  and his reply was, “It would be a good idea!” Irrespective of the veracity of the event, that sounds like something Gandhi would be quite capable of saying.

NRC-CAA protests in India in 2019 © Sandeep Banerjee

When I think of India, I think of many things: of broad fields dotted with the innumerable small villages; of towns and cities … of the magic of the rainy season which pours life into the dry parched-up land and converts it suddenly into a glistening expanse of beauty and greenery, of great rivers and flowing water; of the Khyber Pass in all its bleak surroundings; of the southern tip of India; of people, individually and in the mass; and, above all, of the Himalayas, snow-capped, or some mountain valley in Kashmir in the spring covered with flowers, and with a brook bubbling and gurgling through it.[1]

This is Jawaharlal Nehru, who became independent India’s first Prime Minister, writing about his country in The Discovery of India. Nehru’s descriptors range across scales, from the local to the regional, invoking – and presenting to his readers – India’s physical and political geography. He goes on to note that:

… the Bengalis, the Marathas, the Gujratis, the Tamils, the Andhras, the Oriyas, the Assamese, the Canarese, the Malayalis, the Sindhis, the Punjabis, the Pathans, the Kashmiris, the Rajputs, and the great central block comprising the Hindustani-speaking people … have retained their peculiar characteristics … and yet have been throughout these ages, distinctively Indian…[2]

These passages show Nehru not only seeking to give his readers a sense of the country that is India but also attempting, just as crucially, to imagine India as a space and as a community.

Imagination is a crucial aspect of any nation’s nationhood. Benedict Anderson has famously taught us that a nation is an imagined community. And specifically, it is an imagined political community that is understood to be limited and sovereign. It is crucial to understand the idea of “limited” in this formulation. A nation is limited because it constitutes a landmass and a community that is never coterminous with the world or the global population. And how a nation is imagined determines what bits of the world and which (kinds of) people will be allowed in. To say this in another way, the field of imagination then becomes a site of ideological struggle: not simply because it gives us a sense of the place but also because it settles the questions of who belongs to the nation and, just as crucially, to whom the nation belongs. Let me now turn to some crucial ways in which the Indian nation has been imagined.

The Nation in imagination

It is indisputable that postcolonial India – its space and sense of community – bears the mark of the colonial era, so let me begin with the words of the colonial bureaucrat John Strachey. Writing about India, he asks: “What is India? What does this name India really signify? … There is no such country, and this is the first and most essential fact about India that can be learned.”[3]

Presenting India as a terra nullius, or an empty space that is given content and form by colonialism, Strachey goes on to suggest that there is no such category as India, or the “people of India”:

This is the first and most essential thing to learn about India—that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social, or religious; no Indian nation, no ‘people of India,’ of which we hear so much.[4]

A crucial aspect of the Indian anti-colonial movement was to counter the British imagination of India as a colony, which attempted to present India as lacking in any cohesive identity. And to counter that, Indians proposed their own imagined identity.

Writing about India in a tract, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the doyen of Hindu Right thought in South Asia, notes: “this Bharatbhumi [India], this Sindusthan, this land of ours that stretches from Sindhu to Sindhu is our Punyabhumi [holy land], for it was in this land that the Founders of our faith and the Seers to who[m] ‘Veda’ the Knowledge was revealed.” [5] In this passage, Savarkar situates India exclusively as a space of Hindu revelation and proceeds to equate the category of “Indian” with “Hindu.” This allows him to make claims about who does, or does not, belong to India. Savarkar writes:

So to every Hindu, from the Santal to the Sadhu[,] this Bharata bhumi [India][,] this Sindustan is at once a Pitribhu and a Punyabhu – fatherland and a holy land. That is why in the case of some of our Mohammedan or Christian countrymen . . . [who] have inherited along with Hindus, a common Fatherland and a greater part of the wealth of a common culture – language, law, customs, folklore and history – are not and cannot be recognized as Hindus. For though Hindustan to them is Fatherland as to any other Hindu yet it is not to them a Holyland [sic] too. Their holyland [sic] is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently their names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin. Their love is divided.[6]

Savarkar, undoubtedly, is challenging the colonial conception of India as an empty space. But this counter-colonial imagination nevertheless draws on another kind of colonial idea, the orientalist idea of India as a land of Hindus to which Muslims were outsiders and came as invaders.[7] These ideas are scattered across the writings of orientalist scholars such as William Jones, and find their most potent expression in the works of James Mill, James Todd, and Monstuart Elphinstone – the so-called “British historians” – which were propagated by the British through the entirety of the colonial state apparatus, and ranged from the repressive to the ideological.[8] In effect, Savarkar is re-deploying one colonial notion of India to counter another, and thus remains trapped in the logic of orientalism.[9] And in so doing, Savarkar’s imagination of the Indian nationexcludes some of its inhabitants from the space of India and the community of Indians.

In contradistinction to Savarkar’s imagination of the Indian nation is the one offered by Rabindranath Tagore, poet extraordinaire and colonial India’s single-most important public intellectual. Tagore’s imagination of India is shot through with a message of hope and unity as is evident in the words of the lyric Jana Gana Mana [জনগণমন]. Most Indians know the first stanza of this lyric as it is India’s national anthem, and the rest of the lyric, barring a few notable exceptions, is not sung. But it is to the second stanza that I want to draw readers’ attention, as it presents an expansive imagination of the Indian community – an imagination, one must admit, that appears almost parodic in the face of contemporary reality. Here is the lyric’s second stanza:

Daily is your appeal made, hearing your welcome call Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Parsee Muslim, and Christian, come all The West with the East meet Weave love’s garland by your seat. For you the people’s unity – glory to thee! India’s destiny you decree glory, glory, glory to thee![10]অহরহ তব আহ্বান প্রচারিত, শুনি তব উদার বাণী হিন্দু বৌদ্ধ শিখ জৈন পারসিক মুসলমান খৃস্টানী পূরব পশ্চিম আসে তব সিংহাসন-পাশে প্রেমহার হয় গাঁথা । জনগণ-ঐক্য-বিধায়ক জয় হে ভারতভাগ্যবিধাতা! জয় হে, জয় হে, জয় হে, জয় জয় জয় জয় হে ।।[11]  

Notice how this stanza in deploys a register of enumeration to list the various religious identities who make up the community of Indians at large: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees, and Christians. And just as importantly, the stanza does not present India as a space of uniformity but as a variegated entity that gestures towards a sense of unity in difference. Note also how Tagore deploys the spiritual: India is not equated with gods or deified as in the case with some patriotic lyrics. Rather, the poet makes, and maintains, a distinction between the divine and India. The call of this divine welcomes diverse communities – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees, and Christians – who meet at the throne to weave “a garland of love.” This stanza also constructs an idea of the Indian community. People belong to India because they have lived ties with the country and not through some primordial claim on this land. Such an imaginative gesture not only makes visible the multiple religious communities that inhabit India but also sets them up as groups who belong, and are equal claimants, to Indian space. And this is precisely where the image of India becomes hopeful and also fantastic in the context of our present.

Tagore’s idea of India, imbued as it is with a sense of hopefulness, finds expression throughout his poetic oeuvre. His sonnet from the 1901 anthology Noibedyo [নৈবেদ্য] offers readers a vision of a future for India and the world that is structured as a prayer. Some readers may be more familiar with Tagore’s own translation that begins with “Where the Mind is Without Fear” (the version Martin Sheen recited in the climate action protest at Capitol Hill in the United States of America a few years ago). The text that follows is my translation from the original Bengali:

Where the mind is fearless, the head held high And knowledge, free. Where, by day and by night, This earth has not been kept broken By walls. Where all that is spoken Springs forth from the heart. Where human action, Journeys unfettered in all direction And across all the lands, to express Itself in forms diverse and countless. Where the sandbars of petty custom Have not engorged the streams of reason, Humankind not shattered into a hundred parts. Where each day, you lead all pleasures, thoughts, and tasks. Be ruthless my Lord – with your own hand strike! Wake India up into that paradise.  চিত্ত যেথা ভয়শূন্য, উচ্চ যেথা শির,   জ্ঞান যেথা মুক্ত, যেথা গৃহের প্রাচীর   আপন প্রাঙ্গণতলে দিবসশর্বরী বসুধারে রাখে নাই খণ্ড ক্ষুদ্র করি,      যেথা বাক্য হৃদয়ের উৎস মুখ হতে    উচ্ছ্বসিয়া উঠে, যেথা নির্বারিত স্রোতে দেশে দেশে দিশে দিশে কর্মধারা ধায় অজস্র সহস্রবিধ চরিতার্থতায় —        যেথা তুচ্ছ আচারের মরুবালুরাশি       বিচারের স্রোতঃপথ ফেলে নাই গ্রাসি, পৌরুষেরে করেনি শতধা, নিত্য যেথা তুমি সর্ব কর্ম চিন্তা আনন্দের নেতা–  নিজ হস্তে নির্দয় আঘাত করি, পিতঃ, ভারতেরে সেই স্বর্গে করো জাগরিত॥[12]             

The vision of this poem locates India in a state of becoming that would, in the future, transform into “that paradise.” And “that paradise” has specific attributes: where the mind is without fear, the head held high, and knowledge, free. The world, too, is envisioned here – as one entity that is not broken into parts by walls or boundaries. This is of course a fantastic list of attributes by all accounts but one that makes explicit the utopian desire for a more equitable India and a more just world. And by insisting on a borderless world of which India (the local) is a part, the poet collapses the collapses the distinction between the local and the global. The sonnet, in fact, seeks to stretch India to make it more than itself, and stand in of the world.

The texts that I have showcased show how the realm of imagination is central for positing, contesting, and negotiating ideas of India. Specifically, it shows how Indians pushed back against the colonial imaginaries to re-imagine the Indian nation in a counter-colonial vein. This process of contestation – and this is important to bear in mind – is not just, or simply, between the colonial and counter-colonial but also, more crucially perhaps, between different kinds of counter-colonial imagination that gesture towards radically different ideas of the Indian nation.[13]

To say this another way: the counter-colonial imaginations point to very different ideas of what India is and could become even as they set down ideas of who is – or is not – an Indian. And while my examples are drawn from South Asia’s colonial period, this process as such is by no means restricted only to that time. In contemporary India, in this second decade of the twenty-first century, a complex set of socio-cultural processes are seeking to imagine India an exclusively Hindu country as they push the Indian nation gradually, but firmly, down the path of a blut und boden kind of nationalism. The need of the hour is to contest these ideas to re-imagine India once again as a nation of plurality and inclusivity.

NRC-CAA protests in India in 2019 © Sandeep Banerjee

[1] Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989 [1946], 62

[2] Ibid., 61.

[3] John Strachey, India (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1888), 2.

[4] Ibid., 5

[5] Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (Bombay: Veer Savarkar Prakashan, 1969), 111.

[6] Ibid., 113.

[7] For a revisionist history in the context of Bengal that goes against this commonsense, see Richard Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

[8] For an excellent engagement with colonial historiography, see Javed Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill’s The History of British India and Orientalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

[9] See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

[10] All translations, unless otherwise specified, are by Sandeep Banerjee.

[11] Rabindranath Tagore, “Janoganomono-odhinayako” [জনগনমনঅধিনায়ক],” in Gitobitan [গীতবিতান] (Calcutta: Vishwabharati, 1993), 249-250.

[12] Rabindranath Tagore, “chitto jetha bhoyshunyo,” [চিত্ত যেথা ভয়শূন্য] in Noibedyo [নৈবেদ্য] (Calcutta: Vishwabharati, 1901), 83.

[13] For a fuller discussion on colonial and counter-colonial spatial imaginations in British and Indian literary texts, see Sandeep Banerjee, Space, Utopia and Indian Decolonization: Literary Pre-figurations of the Postcolony (London: Routledge, 2019).


Photo: Belfast Telegraph, October 2015

If you were coming home at night and saw a group of people burning down your house and attacking your neighbours, your first inclination would likely be to call 911 and contact the police. But what if you realized that the ones burning your house and attacking your neighbours were the police? Then, the obvious option would be to turn to yourself and like-minded friends to create your own institution to protect the community from assault.

This was what happened during the recent 25-year conflict in the north of Ireland, and it challenges some of the misconceptions and preconceptions related to popular assumptions about what is erroneously called vigilantism.

It is important to understand that we are not talking here about a kind of psychotic personalized violent campaign carried out by a “Punisher”-type character based on a private ethical code. Nor are we talking about rogue state agents who decide to administer what they call “justice,” often with the official state apparatus turning a blind eye. In many countries, police have run clandestine death squads to “take out” people nominally protected by the rule of law.

Here we are talking about a system of justice carried out by a non-state community-based organization that has at its disposal the means to enforce a recognized legal code and to discipline those who violate it. To be effective, it is essential that this organization also be responsible and responsive to its base community.

Northern Ireland was set up a century ago in the aftermath of an anti-colonial struggle that saw the birth of an independent Irish state. The British government wished to keep the industrialized northeast six counties of Ireland and relied on the descendants of former settlers to act as shock troops to achieve this end. Northern Ireland was explicitly designed to disenfranchise and disempower its Irish Nationalist population (about 33%) and guarantee the permanent supremacy of the loyal Unionist majority.

The local police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), was drawn almost exclusively from the Unionist population, and Nationalists always viewed it as a hostile, occupying force. In the late 1960s, Irish Nationalists demonstrated for equal rights and were brutally repressed by the RUC and Loyalist paramilitaries. People were beaten, teargassed, and shot dead. Hundreds of homes were burned, and thousands of people became refugees overnight. At that time, it was the largest forced displacement of people in Europe since World War II.

This state terror led most famously to the rebirth of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), but the IRA was only one part of the alternative structures that the Nationalist community began to create for itself. Since the RUC was totally discredited and loathed, the Nationalist areas had to create their own system of justice. This role fell to the IRA, which became responsible for administering justice and punishment in the communities it was part of.

Obviously, non-state actors in urban areas cannot create spaces to incarcerate offenders, so alternatives need to be created. Perhaps the most notoriously well-known aspect of the IRA’s administration of justice was the punishment shooting or “kneecapping,” in which offenders were shot in the knee or ankle. In fact, the IRA was reluctant to use this form of punishment widely and would often shoot the person in the thigh to inflict less damage. The IRA even consulted doctors on how to cause serious but non-lethal injury. They were advised to shoot the ankles and wrists instead of the knees because it lessened the risk of the victim bleeding to death.

Delinquents were usually warned about their behaviour at least twice before any physical punishment occurred. Generally, a beating would be administered before shooting would be considered. In some cases, people deemed to be guilty of anti-social behaviour were told to leave the country for a specific period of time. For some young people with little education and few job skills, exile from a close-knit community was considered a harsher punishment than kneecapping. It is important to understand that the IRA was tightly linked to its community, so punishment needed to be seen as deserved, measured and appropriate. If not, the IRA risked losing its base of support.

As the war went on, IRA volunteers were sometimes called upon to take on the role of social workers and deal with a wide range of issues such as domestic violence. Republican activists also developed the idea of “restorative justice” in which a perpetrator was forced to make restitution to a victim in some way. This could be financial compensation or community service.   The RUC and British officials frequently condemned the IRA as terrorizing its community, but this was nonsense. The IRA was responding to the demands of its base and was seen to be legitimate in the eyes of the people.

In fact, administering justice was seen by the IRA as a diversion in some ways because it took away resources from the war with the British state. The RUC was fully aware of this and indeed encouraged anti-social activity and drug trafficking in Nationalist areas as a means of weakening community solidarity and stretching the IRA’s capacity to wage war. The RUC, ostensibly a force to uphold the rule of law, thus often directly encouraged criminal activity. The RUC also sought to recruit informers amongst criminal elements by offering them money and the promise, generally false, of protection if the IRA discovered they were informing. Encouraging crime and anti-social behaviour thus became part of the state police’s standard operating procedure in its counter-insurgency campaign.[i]

The RUC also recruited agents amongst Loyalist paramilitary groups and allowed (and even facilitated) the indiscriminate killing of members of the Nationalist community. The RUC provided information and weapons to these clandestine death squads. Moreover, the RUC ran its own “shoot-to-kill” strategy where Irish Republican activists were ambushed and shot dead even though they were unarmed and could have been arrested. This policy was exposed in a 1986 report by British police inspector John Stalker.  

I remember once being at a party in Montréal with an elected member of Sinn Fein, which was considered the political wing of the Irish Republican Movement. A young man began challenging the Sinn Fein politician about the use of kneecapping and punishment beatings. The Sinn Fein politician began explaining the complexities of the issues involved. Also at the party was a middle-aged woman from Belfast, the mother of four children, who listened for a while. When the young man continued his criticism, she snapped at him, saying that the hoods deserved far worse. The Sinn Fein politician shrugged his shoulders and explained to the young man this view was quite representative of the community the Republican movement answered to.

The violence of the British state and the RUC forces have had a lasting effect on the entire Irish Nationalist community.

Any analysis of alternate forms of community-based justice systems needs to take into consideration their social and historical context if they are to be understood, and to avoid simplistic moralizing. The official state justice system also needs to be examined to see why such alternatives are considered a viable option by a community.

In the Irish case, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was a sectarian force with no credibility, even at the beginning of the conflict in 1969. The RUC became even worse during the war and aggressively encouraged criminal behaviour and activities designed to sap the Irish Nationalist community’s will to resist. Moreover, it actively aided far-right death squads that murdered people in the Nationalist community indiscriminately. The RUC ultimately failed but left many broken lives along the way. Given the choice, the Irish nationalist community clearly put its faith in the IRA to control crime and administer justice rather than trust a state police force whose main mission was repression and social control of the minority population.


[i]      Ron Dudai, Penalty in the Underground: The IRA’s Pursuit of Informers (Oxford University Press), 2022.

Rain © Linda Briskin, 2022
plink, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip plink, drip, drip     drip     drip    drip

I hate the sound of raindrops on the roof. So insistent, loud, abusive. Noise is invasive—
overpowering the senses.

Angry noise dominated my family. As a child, it sent me burrowing under beds and into closet corners. At 14, I gave up talking back. I swallowed my voice and went silent. A relief. 

The World Health Organization has found that “children who come from noisy or chaotic households can experience increased anxiety.” (WHO) Strangely, I worried about birthday parties. I feared balloons bursting, finding the sudden noise intolerable. Later, I discovered a word for this: globophobia, a fear of balloons. Watching someone blow up a balloon can disturb a person with ligyrophobia, a fear of or aversion to loud sounds. 

Balloons

Never touched
but the sound of his rage
bruised her skin

She would forever shrink from sudden noises
balloons bursting
children shrieking
doors slamming

Solace in closet corners
arms wrapped around knees
body tight
head bent against invasion

I am misophonic, globophobic, phonophobic and suffer from mild hyperacusis. I embrace these labels. I’m part of a community of noise sufferers, diagnosed with “conditions” with luscious names. My own voice does not scare me.

My collection of earplugs is exhaustive: in blues and purples, orange foam, white moldable silicone, striped yellow and red tubes, and swimmers’ plugs that look like fusilli pasta. I carry earplugs in every pocket and bag, and never hesitate to use them. I delight in the strangeness of orange foam sticking out of my ears. As the foam slowly expands, the world calms and I can feel my way forward.

I am considering starting the first chapter of the Society of Noise Resisters and Silence Warriors (SNRSW). New members would receive a free mug.

The Crusades

I am persistent and dogged. I draw on a bottomless well of strategic anger to challenge inconsiderate and invasive noise. In North American culture, radical individualism—insidiously popular—encourages a sense of entitlement to infringe on and invade the soundspace of others.

Recently, on the lakefront bike path in Toronto, a man had a blaring radio attached to his bicycle. Rather than birdsong and trees humming, we had to listen to this noise.

“Plug it in your ear,” I say.

“Fuck off,” he says.

I undertake my own small crusades; although justified, they are mostly fruitless. Often enough, I consult noisenuisance.org, which provides advice from environmental health professionals on tackling noisy neighbours.

Crusade One: Dogs Barking

To the dog owner at xxx Brunswick Avenue, Toronto:

We appreciate that you love your dog. However, we’re shocked that you leave your pet unattended and barking for hours at a time. We imagine it is a sad and lonely time for your animal. We also find the noise intrusive and disturbing, both inside and outside our house.

The city is a shared and crowded space and its survival depends upon respect for others.

We have asked you a number of times not to leave the dog unattended. Next time, we will complain to the Animal Control Services of the Noise Control Branch at Toronto’s City Hall.

PS. We encourage you to check out http://www.barkingdogs.net/. It might surprise you that this organization sees the “acoustic blight of chronic barking” as a public health emergency.

Thank you. Your Neighbours

City By-Law: “Persistent barking, calling or whining or other similar persistent noise-making by any animal kept or used for any purpose is prohibited at all times.” Call 338-7297(PAWS).

Devastation

I suffer from noise pollution. I am not alone. But the catastrophic impact of noise is often dismissed, buried, concealed.

Poor urban neighbourhoods are nearly two decibels louder than affluent areas. Access to silence is yet another class and race privilege.

According to The Environmental Guide:

“Exposure to prolonged or excessive noise causes health problems ranging from stress, poor concentration, productivity losses in the workplace, communication difficulties and fatigue from lack of sleep, to more serious issues such as cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, tinnitus and hearing loss … In 2018, WHO found that, each year in Europe alone, at least one million healthy years of life are lost due to traffic noise.”

Les Blomberg, from the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, points out:

“What we’re doing to our soundscape is littering. It’s aural litter—acoustical litter—and, if you could see what you hear, it would look like piles and piles of McDonald’s wrappers, just thrown out the window.”

The effect of human-generated sound on non-humans is more than devastating.

Fireworks terrify. Animals panic. Coastal birds fly far out to sea and are unable to return. In Arkansas, thousands of blackbirds fell from the sky following the 2011 New Year’s Eve fireworks. Loud noises cause caterpillars’ hearts to beat faster and bluebirds to have fewer chicks.

In the North Pacific Ocean, underwater noise has doubled in intensity every decade for the past 60 years. Ships, oil drills, sonar devices and seismic tests have made the once tranquil marine environment loud and chaotic. Excess noise interferes with the ability of whales and dolphins to effectively echolocate and can cause mass strandings of whales on beaches. Sometimes, frightened whales bolt toward the surface and die of decompression sickness.

I lament the indiscriminate ravaging of the natural world through noise, the anguish and suffering it has caused.

Crusade Two: Dogged Persistence

To: The Editor, Globe and Mail

Since 1949, every Labour Day weekend in Toronto has been ruined by the Air Show at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). Friday to Monday between 12 and three pm, the entire city of Toronto is bombarded by the piercing sound of planes. The noise is paralyzing, terrifying, deafening, even inside … Should such an invasion of public soundspace be permitted? Should the peace of the majority be trumped by the pleasure of a few?

This letter was not accepted for publication.

The CNE responds to complaints with an email form letter, which admits that noise “can be disruptive for people in the vicinity.” In the vicinity seems code for the three million people who live in the city of Toronto. In their reply, they request that readers be environmentally friendly and not print out the email.(i)

I now leave town on Labour Day weekend.

Gallimaufry

This gorgeous word means “a jumbled mix of things” (from mid-16th-century archaic French). For years, I have collected snippets about noise and silence—a gallimaufry. Each is like a piece of green glass worn smooth by waves, found on a beach, and pocketed and treasured.

A sign on the wall offers an unexpected delight during a visit to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The library opened to scholars in 1602, the circular domed building like an ever-entwining Celtic knot. The Statute of 1645 forbade the removal of any book.

The air is heavy with history: leather-bound books worn smooth, shelves gleaming with polish and the softness of age, carved wooden ceilings, illuminated manuscripts thousands of years old and still glimmering with gold leaf.

My eye catches the sign, hung askew on the side of a bookshelf, unobtrusive, dignified, understated, carrying the legacy of centuries of noise.

Restaurant noise is ubiquitous, sound levels too high for conversation or intimacy. Increasingly, my community of friends avoids going out to eat.

If we lived in New York, we could visit Burp Castle, the self-styled “temple of beer worship,” with its medieval-style murals, bartenders dressed in monks’ robes, and Gregorian chants over the sound system.

In 2019, in order to preserve the sounds of extraordinary violins, the Museo del Violino in Cremona, Italy, recorded every possible note that could be played on four prized instruments: Girolamo Amati’s violin crafted in 1615; two violins by Antonio Stradivari (himself from Cremona), one from 1700 and one from 1727; and a 1734 violin by Guarneri del Gesù.

Complete silence was required. The whole town took a vow of silence to ensure that the 32 hypersensitive microphones did not pick up any sounds from the street: neither the rumble of a suitcase dragged across cobblestones nor the hiss of a street-sweeper machine. In the concert hall where the recording took place, the light bulbs were unscrewed in order to stop their tiny buzzing sound.

In the first and second centuries, Japanese dōtaku (銅鐸)—bells made of thin bronze and richly decorated with dragonflies, praying mantes and spiders—were buried to ensure a community’s agricultural fertility. Counter-intuitively, these bells were mute. They embraced silence.

Paradox (I)

In music, silence is prized. Debussy is supposed to have said, “Music is the space between the notes.” And apparently, Mozart said, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Musicologists talk about mystical silence, dramatic silence, liminal silence, attentive silence, explosive silence, silence-as-sound-painting, and the emancipation of musical silence.

Composer John Cage hated Muzak, which, for him, was proof that silence was going extinct.
He wrote that he wanted “to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co.” In 1952, Cage premiered 4’33. The score instructs the performers not to play their instruments during the entire duration of the piece—four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

Cage would have liked Quiet Corners—a website that identifies places free from piped music.

Perhaps Cage would have also liked these lines from “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda:

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with
death.

The pleasures of silence are not without contradictions.

Silence, Silence(d): Paradox (II)

Silence(d) is not the absence of noise but the absence of voice. Who silences? Who is silenced? Who silences whom? Why?

I spent most of my life as a teacher. Despite embracing silence in so many other parts of my life, it took me years to get curious about student patterns of speaking and silence.

Influenced by metaphors of voice and breaking the silence, I used to think that it was my responsibility as teacher to encourage, even ensure, that everyone participated in classroom discussions. In many, many instances, I cajoled and implored students to share their thoughts, sometimes successfully and more often not. My own discomfort with these appeals and students’ obvious resistance to them finally encouraged me to begin a dialogue with students about silence.

What emerged was the multiplicity of silences operating in classrooms: silence due to fear and intimidation; silence from shame, from undervaluing oneself and one’s knowledge; silence that preserves privilege and avoids risk; silence that refuses responsibility to the group and to the collective learning process; silence that is about listening and sharing space and that builds the classroom collectivity; and silence that actively resists oppression.

King-Kok Cheung in Articulate Silences emphasizes that the privileging of speaking over silence is Eurocentric: “Silence, too, can speak many tongues, varying from culture to culture.”(ii) In Japan, haragei (wordless communication) is more highly valued than eloquence, an intriguing alternative to our culture’s incessant noise. In her essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” (1967), describing “the art of our time,” Susan Sontag wrote: “One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway. Discovering that one has nothing to say, one seeks a way to say that.”

Dark Silence

Eerie. No answer. No reply to message left. No prompt email. In the COVID context, silence is unnerving, alarming.

Crusade Three: Leaf Blowers

The gas-powered leaf blower fills the soundspace, even with the windows closed. These toxic machines can emit a sound level of up to 112 decibels (a plane taking off generates only 105 decibels). Even at 800 metres away, a conventional leaf blower is still over the 55-dB limit considered safe. Gas-powered leaf blowers will soon contribute more to smog in Los Angeles than automobiles.

During the Toronto winter, I live in Palm Springs, California, which has a public ordinance banning these blowers. Too often, it’s ignored. Today, I try earplugs. Useless.

I complain to the homeowners’ association. The landscaper protests about added expense and decreased efficacy. However, by the end of the day, he agrees to buy an electric blower to comply with the law.

Small victories.

The Quiet Communities movement, whose mission is “to transition landscape maintenance to low noise, low impact practices,” documents the burgeoning threats by the landscaping industry. The industry uses the courts to fight local efforts, but they have always lost!

Sound victories.

Silent Pleasures: Paradox (III)

In Mission Creek Preserve in California, I hear the sound of nature’s silence—the distant chirp of a bird, the humming conversation between the creosote and the mesquite, the waves of wind. A comfort.

Soundwalking is an intentional listening to the environment, an exploration of “the sonic ecologies of place.”

I dream of quiet gardens. On a world map, over 300 quiet gardens in the UK, Europe, Africa, Australasia and North America are marked. Havens.

The Quiet Garden Movement speaks of “intentional space for inner silence.”

I dream of the labyrinths in quiet gardens at Epiphany House (Cornwall), Friedenskapelle (Austria), St John’s Quiet Garden (Ontario), Woodlea (County Durham), Cathedral Rain (Iowa), Green Acres Ceremonial Park (Buckinghamshire), El Jardin del Labirinto (Spain), Quiet Garden (Cyprus), and Eglwys St Michael Llanfihangel Rhos-Y-Corn (Wales).

Labyrinth © Linda Briskin, 2022

I draw a finger labyrinth to settle my mind. To find a moment of silence

Empty Space

evokes silence

Silence, Singing

Silence calms the heart and grounds the body.
Silence is a meditation.
It has the cadence of a poem.

Silence is a daydream.

Silence is the taste of spring flower honey

the velvet touch of a rose petal
the scent of night-blooming nicotiana

Silence makes my heart sing, quietly.

Noise Resisters and Silence Warriors

The individuals and organizations listed below are all offered a free membership in SNRSW. A toast to noise resisters and silence warriors!

In her research, eighth-grader Nora Keegan from Calgary learned that a child who says hand dryers “hurt my ears” is correct. She studied the risks to hearing from 44 hand dryer models at arenas, restaurants, libraries, schools and shopping malls. She found that sound levels were much louder at children’s ear heights, and much higher than peak levels recommended by Health Canada. In fact, they are “very loud, around the level of a rock concert,” Keegan said, “louder than Health Canada’s regulation for children’s toys.” At age 13, she published her findings in Paediatrics & Child Health.

Small revelations.

The Right to Quiet Society for Soundscape Awareness and Protection, a Canadian charitable organization, was established in 1982. They recognize that the right to quiet is a basic human right, rather than “an amenity for the affluent.”

As one of my crusades, I encourage people to join the collectives of people who fight against noise and embrace silence. Print out these cards and leave in noisy and quiet places.

Every April since 1996, a student-led national protest invites students to take a day-long vow of silence to highlight the erasure of LGBTQ people in schools. The event is sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, which includes more than 1.5 million students, families, educators, and education advocates working to create safe schools.

Small but important victories.

A Finnish watch company, Rönkkö, launched a slogan: “Handmade in Finnish Silence.” Rönkkö’s website points out that for a Finn, “Silence means time for thought; creating something out of nothing.”

In an article about the effects of silence on the brain published in Nautilus, Daniel A. Gross recounts: “One icy night in March 2010, one hundred marketing experts piled into the Sea Horse Restaurant in Helsinki with the modest goal of making Finland a world-famous tourist destination.” The marketers, Gross writes, concluded that “silence could be marketed like clean water and wild mushrooms. Silence is a resource … In the future, people will pay for the experience of silence.” In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board released a series of photographs of lone figures in the wilderness with the caption, “Silence, Please.”

Burger King in Finland launched a completely silent drive-thru, which is very popular with the Finns. Check out their video on Vimeo.

Small victories on the corporate front.

Contemplative Silence

On a trip to Japan decades ago, the calm quiet of the monasteries was compelling, addictive. Many were only accessible by climbing arduous stairs. In Yamadera, there were 1,015 steps to the Okunoin (main hall) of Risshakuji Temple (立石寺).

Is the pleasure of silence enriched by the struggle up the stairs?

Is writing about silence a way of living with noise?

Is the call for silence comfort enough?

Silence, please. Please.

Untitled © Linda Briskin, 2022

For more on Linda Briskin’s work, please visit her website.


i Every country needs an organization like the UK Noise Abatement Society (NAS), which lobbied the Noise Abatement Act through Parliament in 1960, establishing noise as a statutory nuisance. The NAS worked with industry to encourage the production of quieter goods, with academics and scientists to identify the issues and research possible solutions, and with government to transform policy and effect change.

ii Cheung, King-Kok (1993) Articulate Silences. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 23.

 

Demonstration in Montréal against Québec’s “Charter of Values,” September 14, 2013 – Photo by Matias Garabedian via Wikimedia Commons

 

On the evening of January 29, 2017, a white Franco-Québécois gunman entered the Islamic Cultural Centre of Québec City (ICCQ) after Isha prayers, and murdered six Black and brown Muslim men. Survivor Hakim Chambaz was there when his friend Azzeddine Soufiane was shot in the head after managing to rush the terrorist. Soufiane had backed the gunman into a shoe rack and won precious seconds for his fellow worshippers, before being killed along with Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti and Abdelkrim Hassane. Five others were injured, including Aymen Derbali, who ended up permanently paralyzed and unable to walk.

During the month of Ramadan in 2016, someone had left the severed head of a pig at the mosque, wrapped in transparent plastic and decorated with gift bows. Who is killable but the non-human animal? In the cold days following the murders, I wondered what sights the white supremacist gaze – so like the sight of a gun – might reveal. Animals! Wearing clothes, miming human movements, speaking in our languages as they sit down to their pasta dinners. Grotesque, how humanoid they are able to appear. “In the eyes of the conqueror, savage life is just another form of animal life,” as the philosopher Achille Mbembe has put it (Mbembe 2003, 24; italics in the original). Animals are turned against “animals,” the pig’s head meant to offend Muslims by pointing to our dietary differences from Christians, but also to indicate our own animality, our killability.

 

The hijab and white feminism

While Islamophobia in Québec has been punctuated by episodes of hysteria over halal meat, hijab-obsessed non-intersectional feminism of the sort that perpetuates transphobia has provided it with the greatest respectability. Scholars have made two important points about the kind of closed secularism espoused by Québec under the term laïcité. The most common, to which I will return, is that it is a form of Catho-laïcité, agonistically birthed by Catholicism. Second, Université de Montréal professor Sirma Bilge has characterized it as “sexularism”– a reconfigured Orientalism which assumes that secularism will inevitably lead to the emancipation of women and queer people; that Muslims, especially Muslim men, are carriers of the diseases of heterosexism and misogyny; and that they must be actively reformed or excluded (Bilge 2012, 307). When the Islamic Cultural Centre’s imam, Mohamed Labidi, spoke at McGill University in the summer of 2017, he poignantly expressed alliance with struggles against misogyny and homophobia. His statements of solidarity were important and heartfelt. What is troubling is that he had to make them in defiance of “sexularist” mind readers and myth mongers.

This non-intersectional “white feminism” requires the collaboration of off-white women like Djemila Benhabib, who misapply their own experiences of misogyny in Muslim-majority contexts to their new and completely different white-majority context, and thereby validate white-feminist positions. The organization Pour les droits des femmes du Québec (PDF-Québec) received $120 000 in funding from the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government in 2019, then went on in 2021 to aid the government in defending its Islamophobic Bill 21 against a legal appeal, with the aid of a racialized woman “expert” on the hijab. (Incredibly, the CAQ government, which loudly proclaims its support for “free speech,” has recently announced funding for scholars who produce research in support of its own definition of laïcité.)

While claiming to defend women against the misogyny supposedly inherent to the hijab, the positions of non-intersectional feminist groups such as the PDF-Québec strip hijab-wearing Muslim women of their agency to choose, stigmatize and endanger them physically, and construct a glass ceiling in the workplace that bars them from access to jobs or even deprives them of their existing jobs. This very glass ceiling cut short the career of teacher Fatemeh Anvari, who was forced to leave her job when Bill 21 was applied. Such violence and restrictions against Muslim women, rooted in racism, do the patriarchy’s work for it.

 

Islamophobia is racism

Québec City has been a centre for overtly racist groups such as the terrorist Soldiers of Odin. But other Islamophobic groups such as La Meute or the German-imported Pegida disavow their racism via an argument that convinces many: Islamophobia is a critique of a religion, not of a race, in part because Islamophobia is framed as discrimination based on religion, with race secondary. Canada’s federal Conservatives were able to justify their opposition to Bill M103, tabled by Member of Parliament Iqra Khalid, which in the aftermath of the massacre in Québec City, sought to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.” Khalid’s private member’s motion was opposed by every Tory in the House of Commons, with the exception of Michael Chong, ostensibly on the basis that to condemn Islamophobia is anti-free speech.

As anti-Muslim anger rose in the days following 9/11, a racist in Arizona murdered Balbir Singh Sodhi. He had been helping to plant flowers near his gas station. Sodhi was not a Muslim, but a Sikh. Those days also witnessed a killing spree by a white murderer who called himself the “Arab Slayer.” None of the three men he shot was Arab. One of them was an Indian immigrant named Vasudev Patel – a Hindu. For centuries, brown people have been racialized under whatever name has been convenient, from “Saracen” to “Hindoo” to “P@ki” to “Arab” to “Muslim.” Is it any coincidence that Sikhs, brown-skinned and sometimes turbaned, experience the same kinds of racism as Muslims, from the white supremacist terrorism of the Oak Creek Gurdwara massacre to the systemic racism of the Quebec Soccer Federation, legitimated and endorsed by Bill 21?

Junaid Rana has explained,

Islamophobia is a gloss for the anti-Muslim racism that collapses numerous groups in the single category ‘Muslim.’ The ‘Muslim’ is a category that encompasses many nationalities, social and cultural practices, religious affiliations (from Muslim Sunni and Shia to Christian, Sikh, and Hindu). (Rana 2011, 30)

It is a mistake to think that skin colour and other phenotypic attributes are the only things racists latch onto in order to racialize their fellow humans. To science, race is a nullity. But Arun Kundnani and Deepa Kumar have argued that it is precisely because of the constructedness of race that “it is perfectly possible for cultural markers associated with Muslimness (forms of dress, rituals, languages, etc.) to be turned into racial signifiers” (Kundnani and Kumar 2015). Alia Al-Saji and Jasbir Puar have shown how the hijab and the turban are extensions of Muslim and Sikh bodies, rather than mere articles of clothing (Alia Al-Saji 2010, 90; Puar 2008, ch. 4). And Ania Loomba has exposed a history of white Christians racializing dark-skinned people since the period that they call medieval, by imagining the Islam of “Saracens” as a part of their bodies, a skin pigmentation or a peculiar odour that heathens possess (Loomba 2009, 503–8; Malory 1906, 48).

It is African Muslims who have the longest presence in the “here” to which racists insist we do not belong. White men brought the “black” Muslim whom we know only as “Estevanico” to New Spain in 1527 as a slave (Herrick 2018). Many more Black Muslims would be enslaved in the succeeding centuries, most of whom came from the same western part of Africa as the Guinean Ibrahima Barry and Mamadou Tanou Barry (Diouf 2013). Attitudes toward another kind of Muslim descendant in early New Spain show how the logic of anti-Muslim racism has worked. These were the Moriscos: Andalusian Muslims converted, at least outwardly, to Christianity after the fall of Granada in 1492.

In 1583, the Inquisition denounced Francisco López, a Morisco discovered to be living in Mexico. Lopez had been caught speaking Arabic and crossing his arms saying “O Muhammad, O Muhammad.” Caroline Cook has searched Inquisition records to harvest evidence of crypto-Muslims in New Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. Christians feared that if such crypto-Muslims reached New Spain, they would set about converting various Indigenous peoples to Islam, and to the allegiance of the “Grand Turk” in Istanbul, whose invasion of New Spain was always considered to be imminent (Cook 2016, 88, ch. 8). Suchlike paranoias were behind the 15th-century Muslim ban that barred these Andalusians from coming to New Spain. And yet some Moriscos did manage to come in defiance of the ban.

The other Andalusians who were cast out of the Iberian Peninsula and forbidden from travelling to New Spain were the Jews. The case of anti-Semitism shows, of course, how the religious and the racial can be fused in racist eyes. If Jews were racialized in Spain, both New and old, they have also long been treated as second-class citizens in Québec.

 

Montréal demonstration, March 28, 2015 – Photo © Rana Bose

 

Catho-laïcité vs open secularism

It was on January 29, 1808 – 209 years before the January 29, 2017 Québec City massacre – that Ezekiel Hart took his oath as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada for the electoral district of Trois-Rivières. He took his oath upon the Hebrew Bible, his head covered in the Jewish manner. The unprecedented election of a Jew to the Québec government led Attorney-General Jonathan Sewell and Justice Pierre-Amable de Bonne to object that Hart had not taken his oath in the “customary manner” – that is, in a Christian manner (Price 1915, 43). Predictably, Ezekiel Hart was expelled from the House.

Bill 21 returns us to a situation in which Québec’s Jews are denied certain jobs on the basis of their head coverings. The anti-Semitism displayed by some Québec Catholics during L’Affaire Hart had much less to do with Christianity as such, and more with the desire to guard an identity from those who were different. This was as true of the internal other, the Jew, as it was of the external other, the Muslim. Among the roots of Québec ethno-nationalism are Orientalist and colonial notions regarding the Muslim, as Université de Montréal professor Catherine Larochelle demonstrates in her scholarship on Québécois school books and travel narratives. Adolphe Basile-Routhier, the Québecer who wrote the national anthem “Ô Canada,” travelled to Morocco in the 1880s. His remark about Muslim women’s seclusion in North Africa bears a striking resemblance to modern Islamophobic rhetoric regarding the hijab.

“Christianity has emancipated the Woman, and she is enslaved wherever it does not exist.” (Larochelle 2020, 39, quoting Adolphe Basile-Routhier)

But doesn’t the Québec government’s insistence on what it calls laïcité indicate that it has severed its ties with Catholic Christianity? Not at all. In the aftermath of the Quiet Revolution, Québec’s strain of secularism arose both in defiance of Catholicism and in its shadow, like a rebellious child who grows up to display the unmistakable traits of its rejected parents. Philosopher Muhammad Velji has noted that we can understand laïcité in Québec as form of “Catho-laïcité,” a secularism that claims to deal fairly between its citizens yet privileges its Catholic heritage over all else (Velji 2019). The exclusive public holiday status of Christian holidays, the closing of all shops on Sundays during the recent pandemic lockdown, and the existence of “a 30 metre, LED lit cross at the highest point in Montréal that is visible from up to 80 km away” are all signs of this default to the ghosts of Catholicism.

I’ve had conversations with white Franco-Québécois folks my age about their parents’ support for Bill 21. Several of them explained it to me in terms of the traumatic effects of the Catholic Church’s stranglehold over Québec upon the Quiet Revolution generation. It seems understandable that Québecers would not want to return to that era and that they would be staunch in the defence of the gains they made in the 1960s. But why must the victims of trauma visit that trauma upon racial minorities who have nothing to do with it? There is no need for a laïcité that discriminates so religiously against Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews. Nor is there any need to countenance cisheteromisogyny carried out in the name of religion. Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor have set out a distinction between closed and open secularism:

An open secularism recognizes that the state needs to be neutral – laws and public institutions must not favor any religion or any comprehensive secular view — but also acknowledges the importance that the spiritual dimension of existence holds for some people and, as a result, the importance of protecting individuals’ freedom of conscience. (Maclure and Taylor 2011, 58)

Such a secularism must also respect the rights of women and other non-men, queer and transgender people. Queer, trans, nonbinary, and female-identified Muslims and Sikhs are already having conversations about how to take power within our communities. But the systemic racism of Bill 21 does not help us one bit as we have those conversations.

Research by Denise Helly and Geneviève Mercier-Dalphond into rising Islamophobic incidents in Québec has shown how the legal stigmatization of the hijab has led to the harassment of Muslim women in particular, as they are seen both as threats and misguided dupes in need of saving (Mercier-Dalphond and Helly 2021). Naved Bakali’s research has also shown the kind of racism that Muslim boys in the Québec school system experience, and how it shapes them (Bakali 2016, ch. 6). Islamophobia is gendered. Brown and Black men require violence to subdue, because we are read by the racist gaze as violent ourselves.

When he visited McGill, Québec City mosque attack survivor Hakim Chambaz told me about his murdered friend, Azzeddine Soufiane, who was posthumously awarded the Canadian Star of Courage. Hakim told me about his trip to Mecca and Madina with Azzeddine, and how his friend – a grocer – had cured his stomach pains with a particular herb. One wishes we knew of an herb that would cure the pigheadedness of those using Bill 21 to further their ethno-nationalist agenda. It remains to be seen whether the Canadian Supreme Court will uphold Bill 21, or whether it will be shown to be in contravention of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in spite of the CAQ’s cavalier use of the “notwithstanding” clause. Meanwhile, we must acknowledge the presence and history of racism in our province and hold to the belief that a better secularism is possible.

 

References

Alia Al-Saji. 2010. “The Racialization of Muslim Veils: A Philosophical Analysis.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 36 (8): 875–902.

Bakali, Naved. 2016. Islamophobia: Understanding Anti-Muslim Racism Through the Lived Experiences of Muslim Youth.

Bilge, Sirma. 2012. “Mapping Québécois Sexual Nationalism in Times of Crisis of Reasonable Accommodations.” Journal of Intercultural Studies Journal of Intercultural Studies 33 (3): 303–18.

Cook, Karoline P. 2016. Forbidden Passages: Muslims and Moriscos in Colonial Spanish America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Diouf, Sylviane A. 2013. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press.

Herrick, Dennis. 2018. Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Kundnani, Arun, and Deepa Kumar. 2015. “Race, Surveillance, and Empire.” International Socialist Review, no. 96 (Spring). https://isreview.org/issue/96/race-surveillance-and-empire/index.html

Larochelle, Catherine. 2020. “Petite histoire du nationalisme Québécois et de ses racines orientalistes.” In Modération ou extrémisme?: Regards critiques sur la loi 21, edited by Leila Celis, Dia Dabby, Dominique Leydet, and Vincent Romani, 29–42. Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval.

Loomba, Ania. 2009. “Race and the Possibilities of Comparative Critique.” New Literary History 40 (3): 501–22.

Maclure, Jocelyn, and Charles Taylor. 2011. Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Malory, Thomas. 1906. Le Morte d’Arthur. London: J.M. Dent & Sons. https://archive.org/details/lemortedarthu02malo

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Translated by Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15 (1): 11–40.

Mercier-Dalphond, Geneviève, and Denise Helly. 2021. “Anti-Muslim Violence, Hate Crime, and Victimization in Canada: A Study of Five Canadian Cities.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 53 (1): 1–22.

Price, Rabbi Julius J. 1915. “Proceedings Relating to the Expulsion of Ezekiel Hart from the House of Assembly of Lower Canada.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, no. 23: 43–53.

Puar, Jasbir K. 2008. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rana, Junaid Akram. 2011. Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press.

Velji, Muhammad. 2019. “Legislative Catharsis, Part One: A Primer on Québec’s Veil Bans for Europeans.” The Religion Factor. May 22, 2019. https://www.rug.nl/research/centre-for-religious-studies/research-centres/centre-religion-conflict-globalization/blog/legislative-catharsis-part-one-a-primer-on-quebecs-veil-bans-for-europeans-22-05-2019

 

 

 

 

Subhadra Khaperde selling seeds at the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) Biannual Conclave in Udaipur, 2019 – photo © Rahul Banerjee

 

Agriculture is what gave rise to civilization and it is also what is going to end it!

Assured availability of food began with the Neolithic Revolution about 10 000 years ago. At the end of the Pleistocene epoch and the start of the current Holocene epoch about 12 000 years ago, the last Ice Age came to an end, and in today’s Middle East region, the climate became conducive to food production as opposed to food gathering (Bowles and Choi, 2019). However, it took two thousand years after that for settled agriculture to emerge, because communitarian agriculture was initially not more productive than communal hunting and gathering.

Agriculture requires considerable labour in soil and water conservation and manure preparation before its productivity rises above that of wild growth of cereals and pulses. Initially, there was not enough agreement within the community to put in this preparatory work together. So, humans preferred to continue with hunting and gathering or switched back to it after trying agriculture for some time (Willcox and Stordeur, 2012). There was the problem of some members of the collectivity free riding on the labour of others and consuming the food stored by the community without working as much. But as private property emerged and attained enough critical mass to be able to change social norms and gain acceptability, people began to invest in improving their lands, and the productivity of settled agriculture increased.

The human population at the time of the Neolithic Revolution, averaging various estimates, was about 5 million, rising slowly to about 820 million by the time of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in 1760 AD (OWiD, 2021). Through the decimation of forests and pastures and the creation of new farmland, agriculture and animal husbandry continued to spread over that entire period, to cater to the food needs of the expanding human population.

 

Colonization and industrialization: converting agriculture into industry

The colonization of the two Americas, Africa and Asia began from the 16th century onwards. This led to further farmland being cultivated and to the spread of some of the most popular foods across the world – corn, potatoes, chillies, tomatoes, peanuts, avocadoes, papayas, pineapple and cocoa. However, even though there was deforestation, the ecology was not harmed much, because large areas of forest and grasslands still remained intact and the agriculture practiced was one that ploughed back most of the agri-biomass into the farms, along with the animal manure.

Things changed with the Industrial Revolution as, slowly but surely, agriculture also began to be converted into industry. In European countries and later in the United States, mechanization and land consolidation pushed farmers and farm labourers out of agriculture, forcing them to seek employment as workers in various industries.

In terms of production materials, the most important input in agriculture is manure, given that productivity tends to fall without its continuous application. As more and more farmlands were brought under the plough, there were attempts from the early 19th century on to chemically synthesize fertilizers. Gypsum began to be used, even though nitrogenous fertilizers were not easy to synthesize. The breakthrough in this regard came in 1909 when German scientists Haber and Bosch succeeded in converting atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. Later, phosphatic and potassium fertilizers were synthesized as well. These processes also came in handy in producing bombs and ammunition.

 

War-oriented agricultural production

Immediately following these scientific advances, World War I broke out. Since European countries were involved in the war, it was the US that provided food to Europe. American farmers expanded their production to meet wartime goals, and price support was given for the production of wheat, and pork, and other staple commodities. Once the war was over, however, farmers were producing more food than was necessary. Then came the Great Depression. The demand for food collapsed, but agricultural productivity stayed the same. The US government increased support to American farmers through guaranteed prices, crop insurance, cheap loans and direct grants (Dubner, 2019).

This was followed by World War II in which once again the US became the supplier of food for Europe, and food surpluses were utilized. However, after the end of the Second World War, the US was again faced with the problem of redirecting its massive war-oriented industry and agricultural production. The solution involved making civilian cars, trucks, planes and cargo ships instead of armoured vehicles, and transforming manufacturing units for explosives into fertilizer and pesticide-producing units.

Obviously, so many cars, planes and ships, and so much fertilizer and pesticide could not be consumed by the US population alone. And so, the high-flying consumerist lifestyle of cars and jets and the heavy reliance on processed meat and cereals was propagated all over the world, and a market was created for these products. Cattle can eat a greater volume of cereals than human beings, so the people of the developed world were encouraged to eat the former, and the people of the poorer countries (along with their cattle) were fed the excess cereals resulting from increased use of fertilizers and pesticides.

A global economy was set in motion based on the sale of the “world car” and the “world steer” (Friedmann & McMichael, 1989). A significant development was the worldwide adoption of soybean at the behest of the US, which pushed its exports and cultivation through cheap aid to developing countries, so as to provide cheap feed for beef production and cheap edible oil for processing this food into ready-to-eat marketable forms. The local farm economy was decimated and the supermarket model became the norm, with food and agricultural inputs being produced, processed and marketed by huge agribusiness corporations.

 

An artificial agricultural system takes over

The corn surpluses were still very large, and so were converted into high-fructose corn syrup and used to make sweet food in large quantities. Aggressive marketing was then used to get people to increase the proportion of sugary foods in their diet. The American Sugar Association paid scientists to falsely publish papers saying that sugar consumption had no connection to heart disease (O’Connor, 2016). Later, when a British scientist named John Yudkin questioned this fraudulent research in the early 1970s and affirmed that sugar consumption and heart disease are connected, the sugar industry ruined his reputation (Leslie, 2016).

Thus, an artificial agricultural system that was highly productive and environmentally unsustainable was established worldwide. Backed by massive state subsidies, this system devastated local farming systems and leveraged cheap transport based on fossil fuels to move food around the world. A golden era of capitalist development ensued, booming on the production and sale of the “world car” and the “world steer” by multinational corporations in the 1950s and 1960s.

In a further twist to the subplot, the US used the food industry as a weapon in conjunction with its military might, in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The heavily subsidized US food industry was much more productive than the Soviet agriculture sector, which was starved of funds. Financing was primarily used by the Soviet Union to build its military might to counter the US (Dubner, op. cit.).

 

The beginning of the end

The party came to an end in the 1970s with a triple whammy delivered by nature. Firstly, biologist Rachel Carson sounded the initial warning cry in 1962 about the way in which chemicals, and especially pesticides, were causing immense environmental and health hazards, including the emergence of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico due to excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides (Carson, 2002).

Secondly, there was a drastic hike in the price of crude oil, as its natural scarcity in relation to demand and its non-renewable character became clear to the producer countries. This severely impacted industrial production, especially that of motorized vehicles, and led to price hikes in the transportation and movement of goods, which had been the basis of global trade and especially the trade in food.

Finally, emissions from the use of fossil fuels in all aspects of life resulted in greater and greater global warming, with grave consequences of climate change looming in the future. Matters were compounded by the fact that deforestation had increased by leaps and bounds. To cater to industrialization and the extension of agriculture, forests – the best carbon sinks – were heavily decimated.

Nature has a system of ensuring that the ecosystem stays balanced. This is why there are many mechanisms to ensure that various living species prey on each other. Human beings broke this system and, as a result, their population slowly began to increase at the expense of other species. Even so, a huge agrobiodiversity was maintained by traditional farming. This too was adversely affected by industrialized farming, as there was a precipitate decline in agro-biodiversity with the breeding of high-yielding varieties of only a few kinds of crops suitable to the global food economy. At the same time, the demand for food continued to increase due to the huge increase in population from about 1.3 billion in 1850 to 7.8 billion now.

The industrial answer was to produce more and more, with the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, while this met the needs for food for the burgeoning population, it did so by devastating the environment, poisoning food, and leading to many new diseases. Due to the excessive application of chemical fertilizers, micro-organisms in the soil have been decimated and soil health has been impoverished, resulting in decreasing yields. Most importantly, because this food system is controlled from farm to fork by multinational corporations whose sole aim is to maximize profits, even today, 811 million people are going hungry and 2 billion people are malnourished (Welthungerhilfe, 2021).

 

The solution has always existed

The important question currently is whether there is any alternative to this poisoning of our earth and food by chemical farming, which can provide enough food to the billions of humans in an ecologically sustainable and economically equitable manner. The main problem with regard to farming is the availability of manure. Since agricultural productivity will nosedive without it, this productivity has to be ensured for food security in the future.

Here is what the father of modern organic farming, Sir Albert Howard, has to say in this regard:

The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can … be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to reserve the soil and prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease. (Howard, 1940)

This is a labour-intensive process, which requires the whole farming community in a local area to act together to maintain this ecologically sustainable and socio-economically equitable system. This is what traditionally had been done all over the world, as Howard goes on to say about farming in India: “What is happening today in the small fields of India … took place many centuries ago. The agricultural practices of the orient have passed the supreme test, they are as permanent as those of the primeval forest, of the prairie, or of the ocean.” (Howard, op. cit.)

Thus, if subsidies had been given to farmers rather than to chemical agriculture, to compensate them for the immense labour required to extend their natural farming system to all the land being brought under cultivation, we would have had a system that was communitarian, socio-economically equitable, agriculturally diverse and productive, and ecologically sustainable – instead of the present one, which will collapse the moment the huge subsidies being given to it are withdrawn. The 54 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and the 12 largest emerging economies together provided US $700 billion in subsidies to chemical agriculture in 2019 (Calder, 2020). As Howard said:

Improvements are possible but they are not economic… In India the cultivators are mostly in debt and the holdings are small. Any capital required for developments has to be borrowed. A large number of possible improvements are barred by the fact that the extra return is not large enough to pay the high interest on the capital involved and also to yield a profit to the cultivator. (Howard, op. cit.)

The vast majority of farmers in the world cultivate small plots of land on terrain that is unsuitable for flood irrigation, and they have traditionally been driven by the desire to produce for subsistence rather than for profit. They have over thousands of years developed a system of agriculture that makes the most of the locally available resources in terms of seeds, organic fertilizers, soil moisture and natural pest management. The clever use of rotation of a bewildering variety of crops ensured that, despite flood and drought, some part of the harvest was always saved. Famines have occurred not because of the failure of agriculture but because of socio-economic factors such as excessive levies by kings and colonial rulers, or usury and hoarding by moneylender traders (Patnaik, 1991). Indeed, excessive taxation and usury have severely constrained the development of agriculture all over the world, from ancient times.

The necessary way forward is to remove the obstacles in the path of development of this traditional agriculture, and strengthen it with further research, extensive land reforms, cheap institutionalized credit and market support. Consumers also have to be subsidized and educated about the need to consume locally-sourced and sustainably produced food, instead of the poisoned stuff served by multinational corporations in supermarkets.

 

Rahul Banerjee with a sling shot to ward off birds at Pandutalab – photo © Subhadra Khaperde

 

Studies have shown that the indigenous agricultural practices of India, which have been honed by farmers over the centuries, are as productive as the high-yielding seeds and artificial-input-based chemical agriculture (Richharia & Govindaswamy, 1990). But this productivity was not to be, because the US had devised a new model of industrial agriculture in which hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, big dam irrigation and machines were used to ramp up agricultural production with huge state subsidies. These subsidies eventually went to the corporations, which not only supplied these inputs but also owned most of the farms and traded in the outputs.

This meant that farm gate prices remained low, which forced the actual small farmers in the US to gradually sell out and become unemployed, and led to tremendous destitution (Wessel & Hantman, 1983). Moreover, the post-World War II urgency to sell the excess production of fertilizers, pesticides, tractors and trucks arising from the reorientation of production in plants from explosives and armoured vehicles necessitated the replication of the US agricultural system worldwide.

So, at the behest of the research foundations set up by US multinational corporations, and with financial support provided by the US government, the US agricultural pattern was promoted worldwide in the plains areas, leaving the upper watersheds literally high and dry.

Many pilot projects in opposition to the currently prevalent destructive chemical food system are taking place around the world, to make agriculture local, equitable and sustainable. Some are in the USA itself, such as those in the traditional farming-based Amish community. These experiments remain marginal, however, as management of the global food system, based largely on chemical agriculture, remains in the hands of multinational corporations and capitalist states, which are taking humanity to its doom!

This is of course unacceptable, and worldwide pressure must be brought to bear to compel states to stop subsidizing chemical agriculture and instead fund the gradual switch to organic agriculture. The United Nations has declared 2021-2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, recognizing that this is the only way in which the present ecocidal rush can be averted.

Ecosystem restoration and sustainable agriculture are two sides of the same coin and must go hand in hand. Since the farming population is negligible in the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia, the onus is on farmers in Third World countries to mobilize and bring about this crucial change in the way agriculture is being practiced. Fortunately, such mobilization has already begun and is gaining steam around the world.

 

More information on Subhadra Khaperde is available on the following websites: Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti (Society for Respect for Women and Earth), Kansari Organics, Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra (Dhas Rural Development Centre), in an interview with World Pulse, and on her website. Details on Rahul Banerjee’s projects are available on his website and blog.

 

 

References:

Bowles, S and Choi, J (2019): “The Neolithic Agricultural Relations and Origins of Private Property, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 127, No. 5, October.

 

Calder, A (2020): Agricultural Subsidies: Everyone’s Doing It.
https://www.hinrichfoundation.com/research/article/protectionism/agricultural-subsidies/, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

Carson, R (2002): Silent Spring, Mariner Books, New York.
Dubner, S J (2019): How the Supermarket Helped America Win the Cold War.
https://gen.medium.com/how-the-supermarket-helped-america-win-the-cold-war-59c788def3eb, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

Friedmann, H & McMichael, P (1989): “Agriculture and The State System: The Rise and Decline of National Agricultures, 1870 to the Present,” Sociologia Ruralis, Vol. 29 No. 2.

 

Howard, A (1940): An Agricultural Testament, Oxford University Press, London.

 

Leslie, I (2016): The Sugar Conspiracy.
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[Editorial note: Longstanding Montréal activist Sam Boskey reflects on the impact of COVID-19 in Québec and Canada, and on some of the more global implications for structural change and greater social justice.]

 

In Montréal, looking back on the last few months, we see how the repercussions of the pandemic hit us in waves, like a triple-whammy. The first blow was social and cultural. The government-ordered lockdown and confinement immediately changed the way we spent our days, how we saw to our basic needs of food and shelter, and how we related (or not) to our fellow human beings.

The second blow was economic. Whatever activities were not suspended transformed themselves rapidly—working from home, working online, working with physical distancing. A spectre of economic collapse haunted the propertied classes. The stock-market lurched and convulsed, and oil was nearly given away. Western governments stepped in (to various degrees) with emergency injections of revenue to calm what would otherwise have been inevitable social unrest.

Social and economic activities are now resuming, in various permutations. Yet the impact of the pandemic’s third blow—at the political level—is still little understood. Many questions—what damage the pandemic has caused to our democratic functioning, how we understand its highly uneven impact on the vulnerable, what is to be changed and how we go about it—remain unanswered.

 

The social impact

While in March it might have made some sense to believe that a plague had no favourites and that we were “all in this together,” it soon became apparent that our various forms of social stratification would determine the contours of the pandemic’s penetration.

Montréal was the epicentre of the virus in Québec. Some of the first local cases of the virus were traced to world-travellers and attendees of fancy parties, but community spread was soon concentrated in traditionally vulnerable communities: the poor, immigrants, racialized groups, lower-educated, low-skilled workers, gig workers, and single-parent families—those for whom physical distancing at home or at work was not feasible, and those whose economic survival required putting their physical survival at risk.

Civil society’s quick response in providing aid to neighbours—via food collections, Facebook pages full of resources, shopping and cooking collectives—demonstrated a widespread acknowledgement that existing public and para-public services were unable to improvise with appropriate haste, after being completely gobsmacked by the pandemic.

Community motivation to provide services was diligent and comprehensive. But why so many of their neighbours were vulnerable and helpless was a question rarely raised by volunteers, beyond the usual superficial tropes about problems with “government corruption” or “private-sector greed.” (This calls to mind a quote by Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Pessoa Câmara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor, they call me a communist.”) And once steps were taken to address the most basic needs, concerns about people’s ongoing living conditions (including the mental-health impacts of their confinement) did not seem to have the same staying power.

The conditions and dire statistics of seniors’ long-term care homes (CHSLDs – centres d’hébergement et de soins de longue durée) became a particular focus. Ever-changing and erratic strategies for these seniors’ homes—the transfer of non-symptomatic hospital patients into long-term care homes, the movement of staff between different long-term care homes, the government call for medical specialists to work as orderlies, the requirement of medical professionals to go into quarantine, the barring of family members from visiting their loved ones, the lack of masks, and finally the summoning of the military to bridge staff shortages—all contributed to a feeling that this system was very much out of control.

Consequently, in Québec, most of the government’s visible efforts were focussed on massaging public opinion and trying to ensure a modicum of trust in its spokespersons. Efforts to sound caring and avuncular took priority over informing the public about the sometimes unpleasant measures that were proving effective in other jurisdictions, even when such measures were proposed by local epidemiologists. Not surprisingly, many wondered if these spokespersons knew what they were talking about, and some began to embrace conspiracy theories.

It is telling (though unfortunately so) that the expression “social distancing” has been used to describe the required behaviours during the pandemic, clearly indicating a strategy that requires our keeping apart from others. Some have suggested instead that we promote “physical distancing and social solidarity.”

But most of us were indeed socially distant throughout the lockdown. During this time, our quotidian concerns turned to what we could see and touch. Our preoccupations bubbled through short, ever-changing attention spans, fuelled by the news cycle of the media and devoid of much social context.

Some of our concerns were health-related: Are our experts (WHO, Drs. Arruda, Tam, Fauci, etc.) credible? Do masks help? What should be reopened and how fast? Should we denounce an absence of distancing to the police hotline? Some tied government policy to opinion polls, based on leaders’ popularity. Some focussed on the consequences of certain government adjustments: Are changes to parking and bicycle paths a violation of (drivers’) fundamental rights? Others were more specious: Is the pandemic real or a plot (maybe by Bill Gates)? Was the virus Chinese in origin? Some of these cyclical topics added to the climate of conspiracy theory, xenophobia and racism.

Different levels of government did implement some positive initiatives here in Québec and in Canada, certainly. But overall, the execution of government policies during the confinement tended, in many cases, to exacerbate the difficulties of the most vulnerable: prison inmates’ health and safety was off the government’s COVID radar for weeks, and homeless people, Black youth and members of Indigenous and other racialized communities were hit with $1,500 fines by police for physical distancing violations. While rental board-ordered evictions were temporarily suspended, no rent suspension or reduction was encouraged or tolerated by the government. Additionally, the irony of requiring that face masks be worn in order to be able to obtain government services, by the same government that had only recently enacted a law barring persons whose faces were not uncovered from receiving services, has been widely noted.

Along these lines of racism, the pandemic brought to light some of our more troubling social reflexes. In the weeks before the mid-March confinement, restaurants in Montréal’s Chinatown were already nearly deserted, suggesting that anti-Asian racism was alive and well and that the xenophobic diatribes of far-right leaders like Trump had made their impact felt even in Montréal. After all, no similar boycott of businesses in Little Italy was apparent when Lombardy became the world’s next major hot zone.

In many countries around the world, pent-up frustration—catalyzed in part by feelings of powerlessness during the confinement—has contributed to robust protests on long-simmering social issues. This is particularly true in the United States, which in the span of these tumultuous months has been rocked by demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd (including the Seattle occupation), and widespread denunciations of racist statues and names of sports teams. In Québec, anonymous or identified denunciations of sexual aggressors have also continued, and women’s shelters have been raising the alarm about heightened domestic violence under COVID confinement.

But the connections between racism, sexism, authoritarianism and the ever-present pandemic were not at the forefront of political demands.

 

The economic impact

When compared to other parts of the world, the economic underpinnings of G20 countries like Canada may not, in the end, be substantially threatened by the pandemic. Unlike in a conventional war, COVID has not damaged any local factories, roads, trains, airports or mines; the workforce is as educated as before, and the global stock markets (including oil prices) have already recovered considerably since the jagged dip in mid-March.

What has been badly hit, with little promise of quick or viable recovery, are economic activities that are socially consumed: cultural and musical performance, educational classes, restaurants, bars and tourist activities. The sudden transfer of much work to the home has affected the use of downtown urban space and buildings and all the related services in those neighbourhoods. The jobs of those who provide services for consumers are traditionally amongst the most precarious in our society, and workers in these fields have already felt the pressure to find other areas of gainful employment. In the many countries around the world in which tourism is a major driver of the economy, the short-term future indeed looks grim.

Has the pandemic forced the state to steer itself to a place where satisfaction of public economic and social needs becomes a permanent prioritized function? Unfortunately, it has not. Many nation-states, including Canada, have managed to bring in sweeping short-term measures that might have appeared unthinkable a year ago. To take one example, there has been little discussion of the fact that city buses in Montréal were free for several months, when generations of calls for even reduced fares had fallen on deaf governmental ears.

Yet the justification for a consistent revenue stream for workers, students, landlords and employers was not based on any previous critique of globalization or neo-liberalism. It was instead presented as a “necessary and reasonable” quid pro quo for the government-ordered shutdown of much of the economy. Even conservative business spokespersons, who usually howl at any intervention in the “free market,” were glad that workers and their employers continued to have a cash flow throughout the lockdown. This meant that customers could continue to spend (buy) throughout the pandemic, even while their consumption patterns were altered. Overall, the clear net result was to prop up a capitalist economy, not to threaten it. Without such intervention, there would have been widespread contestation of the state.

The pandemic will result in some second thoughts, at least in the short term, as to the wisdom of depending on global markets. The need for more local self-sufficiency/economic sovereignty has been clearly demonstrated by the scarcity of some foods, medicine, masks and ventilators. “Supply chain” is a term that has entered into the vocabulary of everyday life. Indeed, the most selfish procurement strategies (such as the U.S. federal government’s seizing of state-bought masks) destroyed any illusion of inter-territorial solidarity during the crisis. And a global consensus on the distribution of an eventual vaccine is hard to imagine.

This unplanned and practically unprecedented level of spending by Canada’s federal government does not appear to be scaring the business class. On the contrary, handouts to the unemployed generate demand for everyday products, and sales and income are both taxable. The federal treasury has financed this through the sale of bonds, which have been snapped up by the investment community even though they carry lower interest rates than prior to COVID. The federal government, then, is seen as a safe investment in troubled times. And, as a consequence of long-term borrowing at low rates, the government’s repayment contribution may be barely visible in a single annual budget.

The outlook for provincial governments’ finances is nowhere near as rosy. That said, in Canada, our governments have demonstrated that when there is adequate impetus, they can deliver income to (nearly) all, place negligent private services under trusteeship, mobilize the army and close borders, all without putting into question the predominantly capitalist model of service delivery.

 

The political response and impact 

One might imagine that a pandemic which has illuminated so many of the contradictions of contemporary capitalist society would elicit a heightened cry to bring the system to its knees.

Democracy was virtually absent throughout most governments’ approach to the fight against COVID. In the case of Canadian provincial politics, with legislatures suspended, over 30 Québec government orders-in-council at the cabinet level and over 50 ministerial orders were issued without any prior notice or public examination. These orders empowered authorities (including police) to exercise wide powers. The attitudes demonstrated by the politicians were often condescending and demonstrated an absence of accountability, while local death tolls climbed. There was virtually no involvement of community groups in the design of local implementation strategies.

While some governments have shown that they can act with speed to save consumer spending, there is no indication they will voluntarily assume a mandate to eradicate the class-related conditions that made the spread of the pandemic so dangerous—dense housing, inadequate health and safety protection for workers, or increasing precarity of employment.

Political commentators across the world who have filled their blogs with explanations and analyses are far from being able to actually influence government policies. Local Québec organizations have been promoting anti-racism, immigrants’ rights, civil liberties and anti-domestic violence campaigns during the confinement. Groups such as the Ligue des droits et libertés, Solidarity Across Borders and the housing rights organization, FRAPRU, have raised public alarms and occasionally won some concessions. However, it has been difficult to discern any political education or helpful analysis from more mainstream sources.

During the confinement, political parties in Canada refrained from any general critique of the federal and provincial leaders, as if their policies and behaviours were above reproach. The visible leadership of the federal New Democratic Party and the provincial Québec Solidaire were absent during the early weeks, while the media focused on the governments’ daily press briefings. If these parties contributed behind the scenes to improving programs and policy, most of the electorate remained unaware.

And yet there was much to worry about. In Québec, all the unions systematically criticized the government for its decrees suspending public-sector collective agreements, its lack of protection for workers, its forced deployment of teachers and certain health professionals, its refusal to pay hazard bonuses or to negotiate proper wages for patient attendants and other frontline non-nursing personnel.

In my home city, Projet Montréal, which forms Montréal’s municipal administration, has acted within its limited jurisdiction to facilitate pedestrian and bicycle circulation during the pandemic, in the aim of making the city more livable. Yet because its leaders have not engaged in explaining why such changes are important in facilitating a change in patterns of urban transport, such initiatives have come under attack by those who want car and parking habits to return to the old normal. When the city holds “consultations” on local micro-adjustments to traffic, rather than on overall visions of new forms of mobility, residents take the questions to mean “are you in favour of personal inconvenience?” That was the case even before the pandemic. In such cases, our collective assumption of social responsibility moves no further ahead.

This brings us to the more general question of government leadership in tackling the immediate future. In Québec, an important example is the government’s economic recovery plan put forward in Bill 61, which has recently been put on hold. The business-friendly Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government’s “recovery strategy” was heavy on infrastructure, proposing a veritable shopping list of “concrete” projects. The government argued that the urgency of relaunching the economy “required” bypassing the usual environmental evaluations. There was no focus in the recovery plan on core issues such as climate change (ignoring last year’s massive demonstrations), the social safety net, the financing of social housing and more stringent remedies for private-sector tenants, stricter employment standards, or stemming police racism.

Our school boards have as yet shown no signs of mobilizing their adult education divisions in the massive task of re-orienting and retraining the significant proportion of workers whose jobs have been impacted by COVID.

Meanwhile, as citizen and media attention has been focused on the virus, our federal government in Ottawa has been continuing to jack up problematic foreign policies. It has extended support for the overthrow of elected governments in Bolivia and Venezuela and for the impending annexation of the West Bank, and has been part of the increasing tensions with China. Here in Canada, there is the continued promotion of pipelines, as well as announcements of billions of dollars to be spent on new military aircraft and drones.

Most of the public’s focus is still on the short-term: keeping up with ever-changing proposed protocols for the return of students to schools or for public gatherings. Some perspicacious souls are questioning what will happen when the “generous” government handouts stop. But there has been precious little discussion of issues involving the bigger picture, such as preventing greenhouse gas emissions from returning to pre-lockdown levels, or providing the long-term solidarity that will be required with countries whose economies have been decimated by the virus. As if these key issues were not part of our concerns or responsibilities!

 

Conclusion

The pandemic lockdown has demonstrated that in the immediate aftershock of such social upheaval, it is possible for both government and civil society to identify some of society’s most vulnerable members and fashion some short-term palliative measures. In this, we are able to harness the initial spirit of “we’re all in this together.”

But entrepreneurial interests will soon regain ascendancy, and our caring about “each and every one” will wane, with the private sector once again overriding the public good.

None of the “public” institutions that support the vulnerable—the healthcare system, the rental boards, the welfare offices, the educational institutions—are in any meaningful sense democratic. And the governments that mandate the often well-intentioned bureaucrats who run such institutions have demonstrated no interest in altering the fundamental structures or values that promote the conditions for vulnerability.

The contradictions of social and economic inequity have been clearly demonstrated during the pandemic. The point, however, is to change them. This will require coherent political education, leadership and action, which we have not yet begun to see.

 

On March 24, 2020, when much of the city was placed under confinement at the beginning of the pandemic, a select number of businesses were categorized as “essential.” Some of these companies, you would assume at first glance, were indeed indispensable: food and beverage places, grocery stores, pharmacies. But what about the others classified as essential – good-sized companies that sold a certain volume of food? One example is Amazon, operating across Europe and North America. Another is Dollarama, usually operating more locally. Other businesses subsequently classified as essential were delivery platforms such as Uber and Foodora, which grew to significant importance during the pandemic.

The pandemic also confronted society with the nature of work. It highlighted the essential workers doing frontline work that was crucial for society’s survival, and those who were able to work from home. New York governor Andrew Cuomo called the pandemic “the great equalizer,” for regardless of class, race and gender, all were to be equally impacted by the virus and its outcomes. Across Europe and North America, however, nothing could have been further from the truth.  From the outset of the pandemic, the role played by essential workers in the global and local economy was clear.

In normal times, essential workers are for the most part invisible, but during the pandemic they became “heroes” and “guardian angels.” Our society’s survival depended on this vast army of immigrants and migrants working under difficult conditions in the lowest-paid jobs. They were ensuring the basic functioning of our societies. There was a desperate plea by employers, when confinement measures were imposed and borders closed, for people to replace migrant workers in the agricultural sector, immigrant workers in meat-processing plants, healthcare workers such as patient attendants (some of whom paid the ultimate price with their lives), delivery drivers, cleaners, and behind-the-scenes workers in mass warehouses who ensured that all goods flowed from overseas to the stores or directly to our homes. The warehouse sector, like other essential industries, is comprised primarily of a low-wage immigrant and racialized workforce that was hit especially hard by poverty and suffered the most dire consequences of the pandemic. This was the case with UBER Eats drivers, Amazon warehouse workers, and Dollarama distribution centre workers.

 

Logistics revolution: the mutation of neo-liberal globalization into warehouse “factories”

The logistics of warehouses and the distribution process may seem benign, and the simple act of optimizing speed and delivery may seem secondary to the major transformations in our global and local economy. Yet, while the key pillars of global capitalism are the financialization of capital, global supply chains, and just-in-time production, its last frontier is logistics.

Companies that understood this, like Amazon and Walmart, have become the largest corporations in our time. Walmart is seen as the pioneer of neoliberal logistics. It invented the “cross docking” model of rapid distribution through a series of warehouses and larger distribution centres that are linked through “radio identification tags.” They make use of satellites that enable real-time information to be relayed from store to warehouse to supplier, thus creating a system of lean logistics. This gives Walmart a massive edge over its competitors, making it the largest retailer on the planet.

The advent of the Web 2.0 and the rise of platforms and e-commerce only heighten the central role of logistics in global capitalism. The increasingly complex supply chains that source cheaper goods are based on just-in-time production and deregulated labour markets. This has prompted modern corporations to restructure their logistics, creating a flexible, low-paid and exploitable workforce across warehouses and distribution centres.

According to an article by Michael Grabell in ProPublica:

The people here are not day labourers looking for an odd job from a passing contractor. They are regular employees of temp agencies working in the supply chain of many of America’s largest companies – Walmart, Macy’s, Nike, Frito-Lay. They unload clothing and toys made overseas and pack them to fill our store shelves. They are as important to the global economy as shipping containers and Asian garment workers.

A local example in Montréal that we can relate to is Dollarama, one of the largest retailers in Canada with over 1,200 outlets and annual sales of $3.78 billion. The owners are now the 50th  richest family in Canada. Yet most of Dollarama’s racialized immigrant workforce receives an average wage of between $13.50 to $14.75 per hour. The Rossy family has built its fortune on the extreme exploitation of workers from its stores, distribution centres and warehouses—an unfortunately familiar dynamic experienced by workers at Amazon as well.

Dollarama operates a spokes-and-hub model like Walmart. It operates six warehouses and a central distribution centre, with a quota of shipping 2 million boxes per week. The warehouses employ only temporary placement agency workers or perma-temps who are disposable and have no access to basic rights. Dollarama can then shirk all responsibility for unsafe working conditions. In Dollarama’s distribution centre, there are almost 1,000 such workers hired by temporary agencies. Nearly all are racialized and many are refugee claimants, with little access to health and safety measures or protective equipment. They risk exposure to the virus and come under heavy pressure from the employer, who shows disregard for anything other than profits.

Such dynamics, as typified in the extreme by Dollarama, are part of a broader trend in the logistics and warehousing sector. Montréal is considered to be the 4th largest logistics hub in North America, after Chicago, Los Angeles and New Jersey. It can ship goods within 24 hours to roughly 100 million customers. This makes it a central node in global capitalism. And Montréal’s further importance, since the signing of the Canada European Free Trade Agreement and the United States Mexico and Canada Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA 2.0), is that firms can ship to Canada from Europe and thereby have access to a broader North American market. The logistics and warehouse sector in Montréal employs nearly 100,000 workers. They include those working at the port, in trucking companies, warehouses, freight companies and third-party logistics firms such as Purolator, Intelcom, and DHS.

Shifts to online shopping have turned warehouses and distribution centres into the back mall of global capitalism. Employment in warehousing and storage nearly doubled over a 10-year period and the rising demand for warehouse employment increased the ranks of the working poor by 30% in Montréal from 2001-2012. In 2011, between 3,000 and 4,250 agency employees worked in warehouses throughout Québec, over three-quarters of whom lived and worked in the greater Montréal area. These warehouse employees represented 10% of the total number of workers employed by agencies in Québec. And given that temporary employment has skyrocketed since then, this figure is now significantly higher.

A 2019 report compiled by the Immigrant Workers Centre found that in a sample of 50 warehouse workers, all were immigrant workers, 90% were temporary placement agency workers, and many of them faced unsafe work conditions. These realities are by no means coincidental. They illustrate how the logic of profit-making pervades and determines who is employed and the working conditions they face.

The fact that the warehousing/logistics sector targets immigrant workers is part of the internal logic of the sector. These companies are in the business of moving goods and organizing the distribution of those products. They do not actually manufacture or produce anything. Competition between companies to move products as quickly and cheaply as possible (the only way to survive in a sector with extremely low profit margins such as retail), also creates downward pressures to control the cost of labour. This dynamic has led to an explosion of inequality, witnessed in the hierarchical structure of companies like Amazon and Dollarama and, as a result of their role and practices, in our contemporary world.

The intersections of race and class in the logistics sector

For logistics and warehousing to be profitable, labour has to be cheap and disposable. To ensure this, many of the agencies require a docile and disposable workforce and rely on workers whose status is precarious. According to the Immigrant Workers Centre’s report on warehouse work, of the workers surveyed, 38% were from Africa and 31% were from Haiti. South of the border, Amazon warehouses and distribution centres in Minneapolis largely employ new immigrants from East Africa. In Chicago’s warehouse industry, the workforce is comprised exclusively of black and Latino workers.

The role the agencies play is not just to ensure a disposable workforce but to actively recruit immigrant and migrant workers. In Montréal, the distribution hubs in Ville Saint-Laurent and Lachine are a testament to this fact. Dollarama’s warehouse and distribution centres are manned exclusively by immigrant workers. Many are recent refugees who came over the border from the United States after the election of Donald Trump. Others come from Nigeria, Haiti, and Guinea. And a new wave of refugees and migrant workers recruited under international student visas is from India.

These workers now make up the growing populace of the working poor. Despite working 40 hours a week, they continue to live in poverty. In Montréal, the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, the virus has devastated two neighbourhoods: Montréal-Nord and Parc-Extension. Both share a common story, as two of the most impoverished neighbourhoods in Canada, with a significant rate of working poverty. Many of the residents are low-wage workers in essential services, who have to contend with inadequate housing, a lack of services, and precarious access to healthcare.

These workers remain unorganized because of the challenges faced by unions in organizing such an unstable workforce and in dealing with employers who are bent on staving off any union presence. Workers as well, because of their precarious status, will at times accept such conditions out of fear of what might become of their immigration applications, or out of sheer necessity, given their pressing need to work to feed themselves and support their families in Haiti, India, the Philippines and other parts of the world. All these factors make it immensely difficult to find ways to improve conditions. Given the pandemic, however, the situation has pushed workers to challenge such conditions. When faced with the prospect of falling ill or facing death to ensure their employer’s profits, workers have spoken up and organized.

 

The conditions of immigrant workers in warehouses

For many immigrants and refugees, warehouse work becomes an easy entry into the labour market. Warehouses are considered a low-road job, meaning low-skilled with high turnover, making it relatively easy for them to find work through temp agencies as long as they provide their own safety boots (despite that being an illegal employment condition). Such warehouses are highly racialized, with a workforce that is primarily immigrant and a management cadre that is invariably not.

These jobs start at the crack of dawn, and workers commute for an hour each way to Lachine, Dorval or Ville Saint-Laurent. For them, work dictates every aspect of their day, given the pressures of ensuring speedier processing. Workers are given impossible quotas. At Dollarama’s distribution centre, a worker will be given a daily quota of 14 pallets of goods to be shipped to different stores. This quota, when broken down by the second, means that workers have to move a box weighing up to 20 kilos every 20 seconds for the entire duration of their shift. There is no downtime or respite. This results in workers taking on riskier tasks and being forced to cut corners to meet their quota in order not to lose their jobs. As one worker commented about working conditions, “I was surprised that in an industrialized country like Canada, you could have places where people work more than machines.”

The anecdotes shared by workers tell of the extreme pressures they face. They recount urinating in bottles to avoid losing time by going to the bathroom. The breaks they have are a luxury, but due to the massive size of these warehouses, workers are unable to have a full 15-minute break simply because it takes 10 minutes just to walk off the floor. Such workplaces offer no dignity, as most workers are hired by temp agencies, leaving the employers free to exploit with impunity. Such impunity causes anger and conflict. In one instance, an employee who had been working at a warehouse for three years was dismissed without notice, the same day. In another instance, a worker complained that a very new employee had been promoted to a higher position. These workers were made to feel less than human in such places, but because of their status or precarity, were forced to accept such conditions.

Warehouse work and the pandemic

In late March, when cases began to skyrocket, it became clear all across Europe, the U.S. and Canada that the ones most affected were the immigrant working poor. For governments, one of the immediate tasks was to hold employers accountable to ensure that lives were protected and minimum health and safety standards for COVID-19 were enforced. The Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC) began to distribute flyers to inform people about their labour rights, their right to refuse work, and eligibility for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

At the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-related protective measures were much weaker and did not include the provision of masks or gloves. Even in large warehouses, the two-metre distancing rule was not mandatory unless workers were close together for more than 15 minutes. The Immigrant Workers Centre took its first step in doing outreach, providing masks and informing workers of their rights through pamphleting—all with the aim of bombarding the Québec Labour Standards Commission and goading it to act.

Protective measures were slow in coming, but management reprisals were not.  Workers at Dollarama were punished for organizing to get management to ensure more social distancing. In one case, a worker with 3 years’ service was fired for trying to help his coworkers apply public health directives. A management policy had resulted in workers’ lunches being placed in a single fridge, leading to lineups and crowding. This made workers nervous and they began to organize inside the warehouse to reverse the policy, in order to have more physical distancing. They approached the worker who was employed as a trainer, and he then went to the supervisors to inquire about the situation. At the end of his shift, he was fired by his temp agency.

In discussions with the Immigrant Workers Centre, the fired worker noted how little regard the company had for the workers’ safety and health, and for their basic rights. “I had worked there three years. I’m not a thief, I’m not a dog, I just wanted to be safe,” he said. “I just wanted my co-workers to be safe.” He and other workers decided to take action. Added pressure was applied by warehouse workers, who spoke up for better health and safety conditions at a press conference organized by the Centre. Giving in to worker pressure, Dollarama began to distribute masks and gloves.

Across various warehouses including those in Amazon distribution centres, where outbreaks of the virus took place, similar actions were reported. In the U.S., workers walked out of an Amazon “fulfilment” centre in Long Island, New York. Recently, a blockade of Black Lives Matter protesters surrounded another Amazon facility in the San Francisco Bay area to demand better health and safety measures to protect workers.

For immigrants, the pandemic remains a real threat. In Montréal, by the middle of June there were 35 different workplace outbreaks of COVID-19, many of which occurred in workplaces with a primarily immigrant workforce. Québec public health statistics show that 20% of all transmission of the virus is workplace-related. This fact remains the key preoccupation of workers and their communities: how to ensure that workplaces remain safe when employers feel that they can act with complete impunity, even if their workforce is at risk.

Despite the economic and public health crisis, retail e-commerce sales reached a record $3.9 billion in May in Canada (Statistics Canada).  In another frame put forward by Financial Times, “Amazon became the emergency port of call for those desperate to stock up on vital household goods — a rush that led the company to temporarily shut its warehouses to ‘non-essential’ products. Record revenues followed….”  Other firms that were able to leverage their logistics and online sales also attained record profits. Loblaws reported $240 million in profits in the first quarter ending March 29. Dollarama reported sales of $844.8 million and $86.1 million in earnings from April to June. Yet many of the thousands of immigrant workers who continue to carry out essential jobs are left behind.

The workers at Dollarama were able to extend their hazard pay of 10% until the beginning of August, and the deadline was extended until the end of October as a result of the campaign led by workers and supported by the IWC. Workers, though, will once again be making less than the $15/hour minimum wage needed to escape working poverty. Similar decisions to cut hazard pay were made by other corporations such as Walmart, Loblaws and Provigo, with little consideration of the risks associated with the ongoing pandemic. Workers are now left vulnerable as they are thrown back into working poverty, and continue in fear of a continuing pandemic. These conditions have left workers angry and volatile, but they have immense potential power and leverage to not only exact short-term gains but to also transform our society.

The great transformations confronting us as capitalism mutates and finds new paths for generating profits will continue to create new struggles and ways of organizing. We are now in a world where the logistics and warehouse sector has concentrated workers in a way that few predicted. Many pundits dismissed the idea of workers organizing in the era of gig work and the digital economy, arguing that those conditions would only lead to the erosion of workplaces. But in fact, platform capitalism  has led to the opposite outcome by concentrating workers in such distribution centres, the “choke points” of global capitalism.

Employers are all too aware of the stakes involved, and have used every tool at their disposal to reduce the possibility of these workers exercising their collective power, from the use of subcontracting and temp work, to threats involving people’s immigration status and other forms of intimidation. For us, it is clear that to support these workers, we have to build broad campaigns for status and the right to permanent work. Campaigning for a $15 minimum-wage would be a direct act of solidarity, giving workers the ability to challenge their employers for decent conditions and wages.

Deeper reflection is needed, though, to understand how we arrived at the point where someone like Jeff Bezos is set to become the world’s first trillionaire? The companies that profited generously from the logistics revolution did not do so because of a technological revolution or innovation. They amassed wealth from their ability to create a precarious, low-wage workforce. In many respects, these companies have also relied heavily on publicly-funded infrastructure such as highways, ports, railways and Canada Post, and on various tax incentives.

The shift to increasingly centralized forms of distribution begs the question: should we be nationalizing companies responsible for the distribution of goods?  Could that model offer us a way to ensure a more equitable society, where such extreme gaps in wealth cease to plague us in a succession of crises involving our climate, our health, and the economy? Perhaps those who migrated to seek a better future could have the option of making their life in their chosen homeland.

 

 

 

 

Editorial Note:  Nilanjan Dutta writes from India. In this essay he raises legitimate questions about the corralling of citizens by the state, using the pandemic as an excuse, and its exploitation of lock-down measures and terror to erode people’s will to resist the larger enemy of systemic, widespread profiteering—also known as neoliberal capitalism and globalization.

While Canada and certain parts of the world did not impose heavy lockdown measures and curfew, in India and some other countries, only four hours’ notice was given at midnight to “stay at home and not come out,” which created enormous hardship for the poor and for migrant workers left homeless, unemployed, and exposed to the elements. Nilanjan refers to “the mask” not only as a protective device, but also as a metaphor for gagging and prodding the population so that “we are becoming amicable to the idea of a strong and omniscient state.”

 

The Mask and the Face

Which is a mask, which is the face?
Nothing can be seen clearly. I feel
helpless as one feels after a terrible fever.

Memories haunt my brain; near the head,
Near the feet, my desires are dark
Like kisses of snakes; and in sleep
My dreams can’t even breathe.

Birendra Chattopadhyay
July 6, 1968

 

Once upon a time, people used to tie a piece of cloth over their faces when they came out in the street to demonstrate. The cloth could signify several things: if something terrible had happened, it could mean that those who were protesting were at a loss to find appropriate words to condemn it. Or, it could indicate a gag on freedom of expression. In some cases, the demonstrators could use it for concealing their identities, or to protect themselves from being tear gassed by the police. It is also not uncommon in certain parts of India to use masks as protection against the high levels of pollution.

Now, a large majority of the people around the world can be seen in the streets with a cloth covering their faces, and they are not demonstrating against anything. The face cover is being called a mask, which they are wearing to protect themselves and others around them, not from the roving eye of the state—that is no longer possible with the help of such a simple device—but from a common enemy called COVID-19. Hiding behind a mask will not attract any censure now. Not wearing one will.

Like in “lockdown,” most people would not want to go out and risk being called weirdos who don’t want to participate in this great nationalist exercise to “break the chain of infection.” Not even those who would otherwise jump into the frontlines of resistance to break a curfew. Why is this so?

I got my answer in an article about the current situation in the West Bank, featuring a conversation between Amahl Bishara, associate professor at Tufts University, and Nidal Al-Azza, director of the Bethlehem-based Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. . Nidal Al-Azza says:

Palestinians are used to being trapped under military curfew, so maybe they know how to cope. But this is different. In a curfew imposed by occupying forces, Palestinians seek to challenge it. They impose a curfew, and we break it. But today, there is not that desire. This time, staying home is required to protect your family, yourself, your neighbors, your people.

That is why we accept what the state tells us to do. And the state talks to us without pretence, without putting a mask on. It does not need one. For we have become convinced by now that the state is our protector. Even if it is the same state that a few months ago used to bark at us orders that we were loath to follow. If I feebly try to question the logic of any of the state diktats regarding the “proper code of conduct in the time of corona pandemic,” I would see friends’ and comrades’ jaws beneath the mask stiffen: “I hope you are not talking about shunning protection?” Curiously enough, the state itself cannot protect its most loudmouthed leaders. Masked or unmasked. Be they Bolsonaro and his wife, his deputies, the Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, several of Trump’s entourage, the Bolivian President, or princely royalty and famous film stars, who energize and propagate the hegemony of the state in so many ways.*

**Editorial note: As we go online, not only have several key members of Trump’s entourage become infected by COVID-19, Trump and his wife have also tested positive.

Talking about herd immunity is a taboo. “Just look at Sweden, they did not lock down and dreamed that herd immunity would come and save them. Now the country is boiling in a COVID soup.” As of the last day of July, Sweden had a total of 5,755 deaths, 80,359 cases and 2,566 in intensive care. Its average death rate over the last seven days of that month was seven deaths per day.  Up to the same date, the United Kingdom recorded 302,301 cases, Spain 285,430, Italy 247,158, Germany 207,828, and France 186,573. The death figures were: United Kingdom 45,999, Italy 35,132, France 30,254, Spain 28,443, Belgium 9,840, Germany 9,134 and Netherlands 6,147.  These stats may take any turn by the time this write-up sees the light of day. But I am just looking for some rationale behind branding Sweden as a rogue nation as far as COVID management is concerned. Sweden tried something. It didn’t pan out as planned, but now conditions have somewhat stabilized.

States across the globe have created a “mainstream discourse” that we have all learned to accept. And if we stop questioning, we will learn to accept that whatever they ordain—from a free run of the “market forces” to a “lockdown”—must be in our interest. They need to teach us this, because it is essential for the success of a common project that they are pursuing—to save capitalism.

Once all our states had opened their doors to facilitate a great economic tide called “globalization.” It had given a fillip to capitalism after the Cold War fatigue. Now if they are closing borders and again cocooning up national economies, it is because capitalism needs another phase of nanny handling. It has never really been able to recover fully from the shock of 2008. The so-called fourth industrial revolution which aims at giving machines a mind of their own only immerses it into a deeper gorge of diminishing jobs and demand. Economies such as India and Brazil, which seemed to survive the previous tremor unscathed, were showing signs of jitter for a few years before this new coronavirus appeared on the scene. We all know the story and need not recount it here.

So, capitalism must be saved after all. The age of COVID-19 has brought about the much- needed trust between the unmasked state in its full benevolence and command and control visage, and us with a mask, in compliance whenever possible. The ‘war’ metaphor is also reigning supreme: the war against the virus, the war against the enemies of capitalism. We must win all. And who doesn’t know that during a war, it is the duty of every citizen to rally behind the state?

 

 

We will do that willingly because we have also learned that only capitalism can save our lives. It has control over modern science and scientific research for vaccines and remedies to take us out of this pandemic mess. We are becoming more and more amicable to the idea of a strong and omniscient state. We are not questioning why the state, in its bid to enforce the lockdown and mask-wearing regime, is handling the COVID-19 situation as a law-and-order issue rather than a public health emergency.

All power to the police—that is the order of the day. (See, for example, “Teargas, beatings and bleach: the most extreme Covid-19 lockdown controls around the world” and “Policing under coronavirus: the real test is yet to come.”)

Numerous apps and devices are appearing to assist in the noble cause of “contact tracing.” But history tells us that police power and surveillance networks will not be put to noble use if, after winning the battle against the new coronavirus tomorrow, the people of the world go back to their war against capitalism the day after.

We will be powerless then if we surrender our right to raise questions now—however “naive” and “irrational” our questions may be. Have the pundits who polish up the policies of the state proven themselves to be unfailingly rational? Managing the global pandemic situation would not have become so messy if they had.

Even within the scientific community, there are interesting counterpoints. For example, listen to what Vikram Patel, the Pershing Square Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School, has to say:

It is perhaps not surprising that some scientists vociferously called for governments to act swiftly to impose lockdowns. After all, most of my community, and the government officials who conjure and implement these policies, enjoy salaried jobs which can seamlessly pivot to online platforms which we can operate with ease from our spacious homes in which being locked down can evolve into a rather congenial opportunity to master culinary skills and not have to commute to work. It will not surprise me if the reputation of scientists, already tainted in some quarters as being elitist, will be further muddied by our role in this pandemic.

While there are diverse opinions in the scientific community, too, we are being bombarded with the sermons of only those whose pronouncements are favourable for the state policies of policing the pandemic. This, we are told, is the “new normal.” The state will wear the mask of “returning to normal” (which is non-masked) and carry out all its projects without any pretension. And we, wearing a mask, will keep silent.

Capitalism knows how to make a contract even with the Devil and profit from it. The Black Death in 14th-century Europe had provided it the right conditions to germinate and grow (like a virus does when it gets into the human body). The corona pandemic might offer capitalism a second life. It is up to us whether we will allow it the opportunity by not questioning the “new normal” now. If we allow that, we will also accede to capitalism’s moral right to trigger future pandemics and epidemics—by destroying the forests, causing polar ice to melt, conducting some deadly experiment in the laboratory, or something that we are not able to think of as yet.

 

 

© Scott Weinstein

 

Washington, DC
May 17, 2020

 

Hello readers,

I thought I’d share with you a few stories from the COVID ICUs.

Just after receiving Montréal Serai’s email in March asking for this submission, I admitted Mr. Jasper* into my ICU, an elderly African American man who had just come into the ER. As my fellow nurses were settling him in, I went to the conference/break/lunch room, away from the crowded scene, to get the ER nurse’s report. She told me several times that Mr. Jasper was her favourite patient ever, and described how chatty and nice he was despite having been sick for a few weeks and possibly suffering from a lack of care in the nursing home he came from. His oxygen had gone down in the ER, and they’d had to put him on a ventilator.

After our 10-minute briefing, we walked back to his room and noticed Mr. Jasper’s blood pressure and heart rate dropping. I grabbed a jet-fuel drug, and the last thing the ER nurse saw before she had to head back to the ER was me kneeling over this poor man’s bed, doing chest compressions. He survived our CPR, but the ER nurse didn’t know that.

I wondered how she felt ending her shift with such a shitty experience.

For me, the same kind of attachment to a patient occurred in a brief encounter seven weeks ago that lasted less than two minutes. I went into the room of Karina, a young-looking Latina woman in her forties, to borrow some equipment.

Karina was breathing through a facemask on 100% oxygen, lying prone on her stomach – a technique to help oxygenation. I asked her in my simple Spanish how she was doing, and she replied, “Bien gracias.” I asked her how her breathing was, and Karina smiled at me and cheerily replied, “Bien.” I left thinking she sounded too good to be in the ICU, unlike our other patients struggling to breathe. I cannot explain why I bonded with a patient after such a short visit, but it happens.

You know how they keep saying, “We’re all in this together?” We’re not. In this city that is now majority white thanks to relentless gentrification, our expanding COVID ICU beds are filled with blacks and Latinos, many of them in medically-induced comas on ventilators. While white workers are staying at home by themselves or in couples and telecommuting, it is the blacks and Latinos who comprise most of the essential workers, working in jobs with little protection and living in homes shared by many.

Four hours later, they were intubating Karina for the ventilator. The day after, she was transferred to the cardiac ICU to be placed on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) using a high-tech blood bypass machine, because her lungs were shot. A week later when I went to visit Karina, I was happy to see she had survived ECMO… most adult COVID patients do not. Yet she needed dialysis, as her kidneys had failed. Karina was still prone and sedated by our drugs. More than my other patients, her tragic fate really got to me. It finally made me realize that COVID-19 doesn’t play.

Karina ended up returning to a medical ICU, ventilated and in our drug-induced coma. She developed “COVID toes” that were turning gangrenous. But by last week, Karina had recovered enough to sit up in bed, was off most of the sedatives, and managed to weakly wave to me when I waved to her. I have visited her often, but I can’t tell if she remembers me. She now has a tracheostomy and looks rough to say the least – but what a force of nature she is, to survive this hell! So far.

Karina left the ICU a few days later. With a lot more luck, she will be able to rejoin her family and community.

PPE selfie © Scott Weinstein

And you know, through all of this the patients’ families are not allowed to visit except if their loved one is about to die. This is a very cruel disease exacerbated by our efficiency-driven health care.

We don’t have much to offer in the way of cures, yet we certainly are inflicting pain on families through our medical isolation protocols to prevent the spread of the virus. The marriage vow of sticking together till death do us part, and the bonds that make a family a family might be a natural result of our social DNA. Now hospitals and nursing homes are tearing it all asunder.

But tonight, nothing could break up the McBrides,* an elderly husband and wife team who were patients in the same room on a medical unit. At 17:29, Mr. McBride’s heart stopped due to oxygen starvation, and in rushed the code team to do advanced cardiac resuscitation.

The McBrides come from a home where their two children and Mrs. McBride’s mother also contracted COVID but recovered. For more than an hour, Mrs. McBride stayed in the room with her husband as he was worked on by the anonymous, gowned and masked code nurses, a respiratory therapist and doctors, who aggressively did CPR on him, shocked him, injected him with drugs and stuck tubes and needles into him to keep his heart from stopping, as it repeatedly did.

The code was successful in the most purely technical terms, as Mr. McBride somehow managed to get transferred to me in the ICU, with a beating heart on too much jet-fuel drugs. But clearly not long for this world.

How does Mrs. McBride feel seeing her husband’s repeated death and revival under the hands of a code team that swoops in performing our high-tech voodoo? It must be tragic and terribly frightening.

But I hope it’s not awful. I hope Mrs. McBride saw that we were fighting for Mr. McBride’s life when it mattered, honouring his wishes. That we cared. That we were present.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the patients’ identities.

 

Vanishing Points XXXIV © Michael Bristol

 

The terror of the unforeseen – summer, 2019

I am in the passenger seat; my wife is driving at her usual steady pace, heading north on I-91, just outside White River Junction, Vermont. It’s a beautiful late summer morning, the sun is shining, and there is hardly any traffic on the road. As we’re cruising along, I’m thinking about how to start a paper on Shakespeare’s Richard II, which I will be presenting at a conference in Philadelphia the following April. Writing about Shakespeare is fun for me. The scholars who read my books appreciate what I have to say, and sometimes they assign my essays to their graduate students. So when the invitation to contribute something to this conference came up, I was happy to accept. I’m pleasantly daydreaming about discussing the play with colleagues I admire and maybe getting together with an old friend I haven’t seen in years.

Something doesn’t sound right. As I glance over, I see an eighteen-wheeler, so close I can read the fine print on the door: Timber Transport. In that same instant I hear the sickening crunch of an impact. We swerve counter-clockwise and the full weight of the speeding truck slams into the driver’s side, shattering the window. Our car is pushed sideways at high speed for the next half mile. The screech of the tires being ripped off the wheels is deafening. There is no way to steer the car out of trouble or moderate our speed; the two of us are trapped and absolutely helpless. During the 30 or 40 seconds it takes before the truck stops, my only thought is how this will ruin my plans for the weekend.

What follows is a scene we have witnessed many times before, but this time we are not witnesses; we are the scene. Traffic slows down in both directions to have a look. Two men who saw the accident are running up the side of the road. Their t-shirts both say Geek Squad. One of them is on the phone, but the only word I can hear is “elderly.” The other one asks, “Is your wife all right?” And right here is the scar, the focus of the trauma. Did I act quickly enough to get her out of there? She’s climbing over the gearshift lever; broken glass is all over the front seat. There’s blood on her arm. I still have no idea how the accident happened that day, or why our lives were spared.

The first vehicle to arrive at the scene is the fire chief’s car from Norwich, Vermont. He’s kind, concerned about our well-being, and then he tells us he sees a lot of accidents like this. There’s a college nearby and most of the time, people are not so lucky. A few minutes later, two paramedics show up in their van. Their names are Josh, who spends a lot of time in the weight room by the look of him, and Jeremy, the nurturing one. They take our blood pressure and give my wife a Band-Aid for the small laceration on her arm, probably caused by a piece of flying glass. After a few minutes they realize we really are ok, vital signs normal and no sign of any injury. Josh says, “This is a win for us.” I don’t take time to think about what a loss would have looked like.

A few hours later I drive back home over the A-10 in a rented SUV. It’s tense; we don’t talk much. For the next month we’re sitting at home in Montréal without a car. Our street and our front yards have been dug up so that contractors working for the city can replace the old lead pipes that supply our fresh running water with copper tubing. Heat, dust, noise and uncertainty occupy our waking hours. I sleep a lot, and sometimes I wonder if I will ever feel safe in a car again. I have recurring morbid thoughts, sudden episodes of disorientation, constant fatigue, and hours of inexplicable sadness. During this time, I went out of my way to describe the events of that day to everybody I met. The story I told everybody was about resilience and poise and grace under pressure and how it might have been the car’s low centre of gravity that saved our lives. The details were all accurate; the whole narrative was an evasion of the truth. If I showed you the picture I took at the crash site, the side of the car doesn’t look that bad. The crushed and shredded panels on the driver’s side where my wife was sitting don’t show.

 

Vanishing Points XVIV © Michael Bristol

 

Unborn sorrow – winter, 2019 / 2020

Things didn’t really settle down until early November. By then we had a brand-new car paid for by insurance, with digital enhancements I still do not understand. I wasn’t that confident about driving, but managed to get back and forth to the gym and the library without much difficulty. Construction work on the street was finished. The State’s Attorney of Windsor County, Vermont, wrote to advise us that the driver of the truck signed a plea agreement to serve two years’ probation for negligent operation of a vehicle. I thought the sound of the first impact was fading away and I was ready to get my life back to normal. And for me, back to normal meant starting work on Richard II, even though the conference was still a good six months away. Things do not go according to plan.

Shakespeare’s play tells the story of King Richard’s overthrow and murder by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV. Richard is the central character in the drama; his suffering and death are the source of its greatest poetry. When I suggested to a friend that Richard is the role I would really like to perform, his response was, “Yes, but don’t we all think Bolingbroke will be a better king?” Despite the absurdity of the idea I was a little offended, so I replied by quoting Richard to show him how great the King’s speeches are.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court […] 2.3.155-163

What was it about a hollow crown where death keeps his court that stuck in my mind, and for that matter, why would I want to play the part of the sad, defeated king?

The suggestion that Bolingbroke would be a better king is a standard line of interpretation in Shakespeare scholarship. It appealed to me when I first heard lectures on the play in college. Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States then, and we were beginning to hear great things about the junior senator from Massachusetts who was already campaigning for that office. A few years later Jack Kennedy gave the commencement speech at my graduation. It seemed the hope for a better king was about to be realized. Eighteen months later he was shot to death by Lee Harvey Oswald.

Many people look for a better king in Richard II, but others are more deeply moved by the passion and death of the sad king. In La Leçon de Rosalinde, Mustapha Fahmi has this to say about King Richard: “Selon lui, il n’y a pas de bon ou de mauvais leader. Il y a seulement des rois légitimes et des usurpateurs.” Fahmi’s point here is that the idea of “a better king” is simply not a meaningful expression. You don’t get to be king by doing something; it’s not something you deserve or achieve by your actions, and you are not answerable to anybody else. Richard gets to be king by being born to the right parents, and nothing further can be said. At the beginning of the play Richard says, “I was not born to sue, but to command.” You and I might find this sentiment odious – my students absolutely hated him – but in the story, Richard is the only character who can truthfully say this. If we’re offended by the idea, it might help to realize that what he is articulating here is a claim to self-sufficiency. And maybe that’s why the crazy idea I had of playing the King was attractive, even though I know he comes to grief in the end.

Richard II is a grief-stricken play. Grief is mentioned dozens of times, along with sorrow, weeping, tears, mourning and lament. Everybody comes to grief sooner or later. Grief is a complex word. It comes from old French grever, to bear a burden, which derives in turn from Latin gravis, heavy. It has links with grave and gravity and also Latin gravitas, which we use for ideas of dignity and seriousness. Shakespeare’s play is like a dictionary of grief, using the word to express harm, injury, pain, hardship, frustration, along with more familiar notions of loss and emotional distress. It also has the derivative sense of grievance, a sense of bitterness felt by a person of mediocre talents towards someone perceived as undeserving of their privilege. All this sadness is not a good fit with a political success story. Instead of cheering for Bolingbroke, maybe we’re supposed to be weeping for the overthrow and death of Richard.

I saw the beauty of the sad king for the first time in a performance of Richard II at The Stratford Festival, directed by Martha Henry, in 1999. The actor who played Richard was literally head and shoulders above every other man in the cast.  But it was the performance of the young Queen Isabel that showed me what I had missed about Richard. The role of the Queen was played by a sixteen-year-old woman named Maggie Blake. It’s a small part, with just over 100 lines, yet she was the emotional centre of the play, not only in the passion she brought to the poetry but even more in the sensuality of her presence.

In Shakespeare’s plays, women often experience grief with concrete, sensuous immediacy. The beauty of the sad king becomes visible for us in the eyes of the Queen. She has just learned that her husband has been defeated in a critical battle and she may never see him again. Confronted with the finality of a death foretold, the young queen turns her mind to the shared passion of their intimate life together. This is where grief takes up residence.

Queen:  . . . I know no cause
Why I should welcome such a guest as grief,
Save bidding farewell to so sweet a guest
As my sweet Richard: yet again, methinks,
Some unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune’s womb,
Is coming towards me, and my inward soul
With nothing trembles: at something it grieves,
More than with parting from my lord the king. 2.2.5-13

Maggie Blake’s performance showed us that the Queen knows what is beautiful about him. And what she knows about him invites us to love the sad king ourselves. The unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune’s womb, could be a child Bolingbroke cannot afford to let her bear. But in a larger sense, her unborn sorrow is foreboding about the unanticipated and the uncontrolled, reminding us that our existential condition does not allow space for self-sufficiency. They say there’s no escape from the past, but the Queen understands there’s no escape from the future either. No consideration will be given for their love.

Shakespeare’s historical plays are populated by men who cannot hear the voices of women, choosing instead to seek esteem and validation from other men. More often than not they come to grief, generally after inflicting considerable damage on the lives of other people. Bolingbroke is surrounded by men like this. In Martha Henry’s production, these men

were all heavy-bodied, all about the same height, similarly dressed in military gear, and when they would crowd together on the stage, it was sometimes hard to tell which one was Bolingbroke. The idea that he would make a better king disappeared in the gray banality of their ambition.

What then is the larger shape of this play? Is it a story of the triumph of a better king, or have we been witnessing a scapegoating ritual? Antonin Artaud might stage this play as theatre of cruelty:

“il ne s’agit pas de cette cruauté que nous pouvons exercer les uns contre les autres en nous dépeçant mutuellement les corps, en sciant nos anatomies personnelles . . . mais de celle beaucoup plus terrible et nécessaire que les choses peuvent exercer contre nous. Nous ne sommes pas libres. Et le ciel peut encore nous tomber sur la tête. Et le théâtre est fait pour nous apprendre d’abord cela.”

One last question then: What does it say about us that we resist the grief expressed in this play, displacing it into wishful thinking about a better king?

 

Vanishing Points XXXIV © Michael Bristol

 

The weight of this sad time – spring, 2020 

In the middle of February, one of the panelists for my session at the Shakespeare conference was in a car accident and suffered multiple injuries, which required emergency surgery. This was followed by three weeks of rehabilitation in a local hospital. Her husband advised me she would not be able to travel to Philadelphia in April.

A few weeks later, the conference was cancelled in response to the spread of SAR-CoV-2. About this time, Mustapha Fahmi was hospitalized with a severe case of COVID 19. He now writes to say he has been declared “healed” by public health. The worst is over, but he still faces a lengthy recovery. His wife and his two sons were also infected but did not require hospitalization.

On Friday, March 13, I celebrated my eightieth birthday with a group of close friends. As planned, we spent our time discussing Richard II.  We dispensed with our customary hugs of greeting. In hindsight I wonder if we were taking a greater risk than we realized. The next day I learned that my cousin Ted had passed away.

Teddy was a little boy when I was already married, with two children, getting started with my career. I never knew Ted as a man; he was not part of my adult life and I can’t say we were close friends. And yet I wept, surprised by the tears. I remember the day I showed him how to throw a baseball. It was a beautiful late summer morning, the sun was shining, and he wasn’t too sure about the baseball, which was pretty big for his four-year-old hand. He trusted me to show him how, and then he tried it himself. After a few attempts he got it and he laughed the way kids do when they accomplish something new for the first time.

I have an old picture of the twelve cousins, taken when the oldest of us were teenagers. If I showed you the picture, you would see an image of happy family life. We’re all smiling at our beloved uncle from Texas, standing just to the right of the camera, getting us to laugh. Teddy is standing between his big sister Veronica and his little brother Benjy. The picture doesn’t show everything. You can’t see the unpleasant racist jokes the beloved uncle from Texas has been telling all afternoon about the Latino citizens of Corpus Christi. You can’t see the legacy of alcoholism that’s going to destroy the life of the pretty fourteen-year-old girl over there on the far left. You can’t see how Teddy’s parents are struggling to pay the bills and keep food on the table. And you simply cannot imagine the fabulous wealth Teddy and Ben and Veronica are going to acquire in their adult life or how generous they will be in sharing it. All those things happened. But those things are only part of the story. Better to contemplate the simple joy of a happy childhood because that’s just as real as anything else I could tell you about.

My sister says, “You have to grieve; you need to grieve. Otherwise there is something crucial and unfinished in your life.” I think a lot of people would agree with her. For me it’s not the whole story. We’re never self-contained; we’re always incomplete. There are things that come from outside us that are essential to the self, like the language we speak, the things we learn and the stories we read. In that way we have never been self-sufficient. Everything you or I do is surrounded and shaped by things that are not you or me, an eighteen-wheeler that comes out of nowhere, destroys the car and almost ends my life.  My story is a mingled yarn, just like yours; this one is made out of personal memories braided together with strands from Shakespeare’s poetry, my sister’s email and letters from my editor.

Grief is not so much a task to be completed; it’s a burden you carry all the time for the value of everything that’s been lost, for sins of omissions, missed chances, and roads not taken. In that way grief is feeling the accumulated weight of all our losses and disappointments and all our regrets. It exists in our souls to challenge any vain hopes for self-determination. Grief compels us to understand what really matters, over against the irresistible power of contingency in our lives. And by acknowledging the cruelty of what the world can do to us, we are at the beginning of resistance to the unnecessary cruelty we habitually inflict on one another.

 

Vanishing Points IX © Michael Bristol

 

 

 

© Marie Thérèse Blanc

 

At first, around March 14, I figure I can handle it. I survived a shooting at the college where I teach. This is nothing. A two-week pandemic-engendered confinement is a walk in the park. Easy-peasy. In the metro that day I feel bold and even brave; still, I wrap my wool scarf tightly around my nose and mouth. I’m not sure now what I or anyone else thought those two weeks would accomplish; I simply held on to the hope the confinement would be limited and spent the rest of those weeks at home, relaxing, taking long walks, cooking, and sleeping well. But then the lockdown is extended, and the bargaining begins.

For the next month and a half, I acquire a sort of survivalist mentality. People around me are hoarding toilet paper, meat, and hand sanitizer, and I am startled awake by the empty shelves in supermarkets.  I quickly figure out that there’s enough toilet paper to go around if you shop at small grocery stores, and I begin eating fish because no one else seems to; only the meat shelves are bare: no one loves the humble sardine. I trust that soap works just as well as hand sanitizer.  I am fine.

Yet the moment I tell myself this, doubt creeps in and soon enough, out of superstition, I line up for twenty minutes outside my local pharmacy to gather the last bottles of rubbing alcohol. What if I am not fine after all and my sense of security was really ignorance or arrogance?  Later, I discover that if I mix rubbing alcohol with the small amount of hand sanitizer I have left at home and shake the bottle vigorously, the alcohol and disinfectant content is increased, but the sanitizing gel retains its pleasant thickness.  I am of European stock, and the canniness of my ancestors as they survived plague, typhus, and influenza pandemics of their own, not to mention an economic depression and two world wars, is shaken loose from my DNA, rises to the surface, and takes over.

Next, I go online and lose my mind. I order nitrile gloves and masks, all manner of masks: the black ones made out of foam that the youth of Hong Kong wore as they defied the Chinese-backed authorities, disposable turquoise and pink masks that take a month to arrive from China and come with instructions in Mandarin, and washable hand-sewn ones made out of psychedelic 1960s fabrics.

When I learn that this virus is essentially a microscopic ball of lipids defeated by soap, I foresee a shortage of liquid soap and line up again at the pharmacy to buy the last bottles.  Then I order packets of printing paper and boxes of toner cartridges because I now teach online and will soon be without.

 

© Marie Thérèse Blanc

But I am not a selfish hoarder: I divvy up the loot between my 88-year-old mother and my friends. I feel like Bluebeard’s wife, who pretends to pray to keep her murderous husband at bay as she waits for the cavalry to arrive. If I have enough, I think, enough of everything we need to hold on until a vaccine is developed and tested, I will be all right and so will those I love. I acquire the instincts of a squirrel, the slyness of a raccoon. I become animal-like in my anxiety. My will to live is very strong: I can feel it. I will outlast this virus. Though physically frail, I am a warrior in spirit, I keep telling myself.

After a while, I become irascible for no apparent reason although soon enough the reasons begin to appear.  On a pre-molar, a bit of filling cracks and falls away. When I call the dentist, hoping for reassurance and advice, the receptionist takes a week and a half to call me back and announces dismissively that she’d forgotten about my call and, anyway, they no longer do “that kind of work.”  Medical appointments are also cancelled.  I am confused.  Aren’t doctors and dentists supposed to help?

When the Québec government suggests that teachers and students might return to school by May 4, I envision my classes, normally packed like poultry farms with forty students each, in a closed building where the air is constantly being recycled.  Suddenly, I can hardly breathe. How dare these people, these politicians who can’t pronounce the word “epidemiology,” now think of putting students and teachers in danger while medical professionals who took the Hippocratic Oath are protected from contagion?

When the same government prepares to send health science teachers and then any kind of college teacher into infected long-term-care facilities because public servants are seemingly expendable, and a professor of history or sociology should be able to accomplish the same tasks as an experienced orderly, I explode into bursts of unrelated frustration. Denial is back, holding anger by the hand: why do we need another virtual meeting?  Why is Zoom, which many of us use to teach online, vulnerable to hackers and trolls? Why is there no sense of security anywhere? Why do we keep getting so many impossibly long and contradictory memos?

Intellectually, I get it, of course: this is relatively new and somewhat unchartered territory.  Still, I feel picked on, so I develop an exasperating itch and scratch my thigh obsessively, but there is no rash.  Then one eye becomes inflamed from the weeks spent online teaching.  Why can’t they all leave me alone!  I was doing so well on my own. I was outsmarting the virus.  I am in a state of revolt. I wonder if I have it in me to disobey government orders, and if I will be able to risk standing up for myself and losing my job.  Around me, colleagues seethe with anger too but say very little, and because I do, because I am outspoken, I fear I may seem insane and unheroic.

The government uses wartime rhetoric: we are “at war” with a virus, people are being “redeployed” and are going “to the front,” so we must make sacrifices.  We are all scattered, working from home, divided, and it occurs to me that it is now easier to conquer us.  But as the number of hospitalizations and deaths spike, the government backs down on these half-baked plans to redeploy teachers, and actual soldiers descend upon long-term-care facilities and help along with medical specialists. I experience this as a reprieve from tension, but am puzzled that even the government hadn’t quite understood how far we had strayed from peace.

 

© Marie Thérèse Blanc

As Québec is identified in The Guardian as the seventh deadliest place in the world on May 13, I finally get that I fear death after all.  Also, I can fight only one “enemy” at a time, and this virus, which no scientist seems to comprehend fully as it causes respiratory and organ failure, severe vascular inflammation, and strokes, is enemy enough.

I learn about my odds:  I am somewhat at risk by virtue of my age and because my lungs are weak, but I had a BCG vaccine against tuberculosis as a child, which a handful of scientists now conjecture may provide some form of mysterious boost against this virus. My blood pressure is optimally low. I am a woman, and women’s immune systems tend to be stronger.  My asthma is normally under control.  But both my grandmother and father suffered severe strokes, and type A blood flows through my veins; they say those are the ones who struggle most with this virus.  The bargaining returns—perhaps if I can read enough scientific articles that tip the balance towards my staying alive and steady, I can survive this.  What I really want is a crystal ball.

When the confinement is prolonged to May 25, the vivid dreams begin.  In one of them, a recurrent nightmare, I know I need to wear a mask; I know it. But something always stands in my way and prevents me from grasping one. The dream repeats itself on a loop: every time I reach for a mask, the dream starts anew with a different obstacle this time, but the pattern is the same.

I wake up one morning with Macbeth’s line trotting through my head like a horse round a manège: “full of scorpions is my mind,” Macbeth says.  I wash and wash my hands till my knuckles go dry and begin to crack.  I return to the pharmacy for hand cream even if they now say that moist skin attracts viruses. When will this mad washing ever be enough? Will I one day return to a time when I felt carefree enough to rub my nose casually with a dirty finger, like a child?

 

© Marie Thérèse Blanc

Then there is the dream where I inherit a house from a stranger. I get his furniture as well and am discouraged to see that, predictably, there are beds in all three bedrooms. They are dull, institutional beds. What will I do with so many ugly beds, I think to myself.  What a white elephant this house is! It does not resemble me. It is cold, angular, desperately sterile. Or is this what I have become?  An exterior garage, painted black, blocks the view of the river that flows by the house.  It occurs to me later that this is imagery suggestive of death: hospital beds, deathbeds, morgue gurneys, and the black garage, like a funeral parlour overlooking the river Styx.

One night, I dream that an Englishwoman in her sixties marries an Englishman near his seventies.  They are beautiful together, regal and tall, dressed in tweedy outfits from between the wars.  At some point she pauses and wonders out loud why she needs to be married at her age. The man touches the inside of her forearm with such a gentle sensuality that I wake up into the emptiness that is my own life. It is four in the morning, as the song goes, and I can no longer sleep, so I go out on my back porch wrapped in a heavy wool cardigan and cradling a mug of ice-cold tap water, and I hear the honking of geese. When I look up, I see two of them flying westward against the rose-tinted sky; they fly so low that I see the markings on their necks and cheeks.  What geese fly west in the Spring? Their flock flew by a few days earlier—this pair is late.  Are they lost? I begin to cry. Evidently, I am lost.

When I go back to bed, I remember a man whose forty-fifth birthday party I attended when I was twenty-nine. I had brought him a pomegranate as a gift. He was a professor of Philosophy from Georgia, a Vietnam draft-dodger who spoke with the faintest southern drawl, and his eyes were light blue like those of a grizzling wolf.  I was working nights in a Westmount typography, and he had encouraged me to return to university. When we’d danced that night, he had said that love is mean as he’d brushed my hair away from my face.  Why had I brought him a pomegranate? Lines from the Song of Songs rap lightly at the door of my recall: “Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see whether the vine has budded, whether the vine-blossom be opened, and the pomegranates be in flower; there I will give thee my love.”

As I lie down on top of the covers in the chilly darkness of my virus-laden despair, I suddenly wonder what he’d meant by “love is mean” when he had been kinder to me than almost anyone I had met until then.  His best friend was the man I loved; perhaps he had meant that he would go after my heart even if he would hurt his friend.  The last time I saw him, he had gotten drunk and caused a scene because I hadn’t left my boyfriend for him even though he had proposed to me three times.  As we stood up to leave because the evening had turned unpleasant, he had reached out to me and apologized as my mate tugged at my hand and I’d followed, teetering on my high heels, awkward in my dress.

I never saw him again; I had made my choice. He died a few months later what still seems to me a tragic, untimely death.  Did I make the wrong choice? Did I choose the wrong man? Could I have kept him alive if I’d agreed to marry him? Could some tiny occurrence in the chain of events ordered by fate have been altered?  It occurs to me that in a few weeks or months I might contract, and die from, this virus, and I’m suddenly growing agitated as I convince myself that I picked the wrong man thirty years ago.  My boyfriend never touched the inside of my forearm as tenderly as the older man did in my dream; instead, he’d spent decades insisting that his writing, his art, was at the centre of his life and no woman would ever claim that space.  I chose the wrong man, the wrong goose.  I may be at the end of my days, I think, and I screwed up my love life.

Depression deepens as, now and again, I come up for air in between bouts of self-pity and online teaching and take it all in: the hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world; all the elderly people who have died, confused and alone, perhaps wondering how or even why they lived decent lives, and now this; the local merchants who were already struggling with the abusive rent exacted by those lords who, in the twenty-first century, continue to lord the land, and who now see debt rising and dreams sinking further each day; the artists who have always struggled to survive and now are making art out of the anguish they nurse in the pit of their stomachs as they dream of being heard and paid again; those hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs and cannot feed themselves, let alone purchase masks or gloves, and must now ask for handouts while in allegedly civilized countries we throw away milk and slaughter pigs and chicks we can no longer sell.

When I think of all this, I feel the intranquillity and sway of the world’s sorrow, the immense, incalculable harm, the unfathomable private losses, and I cannot imagine how or when this is going to end. A colleague at work panics and tells anyone who will listen that we are going to go bankrupt. I dare not ask whom “we” might be. It is simply too much.

Each day, I go on a daily walk in my east-end neighbourhood where so few people listen to public-health directives that one might think there is no crisis.  As I walk, I see the children’s drawings of rainbows taped to windows: Ça va bien aller, they announce, as their parents congregate defiantly in the alley, beer bottle in hand after work, at intimate distance from each other because apparently now is the ideal time to rebel against the Man when there were so many opportunities before.  In a last flare-up of ire, I tape a rainbow to my own window: Ça va aller mieux quand vous mettrez des masques !  Then I take my sign down.  Who am I to preach to those who feel perhaps that they need to be able to live a little while they are still alive?  Soon enough, they will be denounced by an angry neighbour and the alley will fill up with police cars—this is what we’re like now as we learn to navigate the competing claims of collective impositions and individual freedoms or entitlement.

 

© Marie Thérèse Blanc

And this, too: unexpectedly, a colleague sends us an email advertising his new album. He teaches medieval literature, and he sings a beautiful dark song to an irresistible beat. I dance, alone, in my living room. In the Mile End on a Tuesday, Martha Wainwright sings on a roof to entertain a neighbourhood at a safe distance, like a luminous but slightly whacked-out angel poised between earth and sky.  She invites three Hasidic men and a child to sing and they do so, sweetly, on that same roof.  Is God listening?

Are you listening?

People hang out on their balconies or their front steps, lost for a moment in memories of a time when atomic pom-pom-like viruses didn’t lie in wait like a pack of hyenas at the edge of their hopes.  It should have always been like this. Summer is almost here. I don’t know if my mother, my friends, or I will be alive by Fall. I never did, really, so I wonder what’s different now.

It is, simply, that our deaths have been scripted, and that is unbearable.

I cannot accept it.

 

 

Swollen men, blind with power

Break the rules, one by one…

Willie Nelson, “Under the Gun”

 

In the midst of her isolation in Brooklyn, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, my granddaughter texted, “I just want some human contact that isn’t mediated by a screen.” A young friend in Montréal emailed, “I’ve developed a terrible fear of THE OUTSIDE. I barely go out.”

Their words started me thinking and worrying. One way of looking at mental health focuses on the frame of reference. These days, in the world of the smartphone, the present is front and centre. The past is gone and the future hazy, both (re)constructed in the context of the digital present. This is especially true for young people who don’t have much of a past, of a time before our current crisis, and they may find it difficult to imagine a future. If reality, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder, then it becomes something created to suit our particular personality. But when the familiar cues are removed by a pandemic, or a war, or maybe climate change, then our engrams become inactive and we are left on our own without the context of memory.

Observers note that the environment created by the coronavirus pandemic has unravelled many aspects of the social order worldwide. In the U.S. this situation is exacerbated by a President who always seems to turn his gaze to the mirror of his own political likeness, so in his eyes, the origin of our current debacle becomes very much his political and social reflection rather than something biological and medical, or the economic travail of people.

Add masks to the equation. Masks are meant to hide or disguise the person who wears one. When I was growing up, The Lone Ranger hid his face. That was his schtick, his cloudy image. There were other heroes on film, in comics and on the radio who thrived in a bubble of confused identity. Of course, medical people wore masks as basic protection during their work, while these days we are all urged to adopt N95 or some facsimile, and an industry has emerged around masking. But how do masks affect our sanity as we cope with the pandemic reality? It feels like a scene from ‘Night of the Living Masked,’ spooky and scary, too reminiscent of those body snatchers.

Years ago, Julian Jaynes wrote a controversial book (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) suggesting that ancient man “listened” to the voices of the gods and implemented action without the resource of a rational or conscious mind, a phenomenon he attributed to the interface between the two sides of the human brain. Activity proceeded regardless. Consciousness or, alternatively, the concept of consciousness, he attributed to a later development in the progression toward our ‘civilized’ world.

In the context of Jaynes’ hypothesis, I wonder if we are headed back to some form of bicameralism, a kind of schizophrenia, fostered by the phones many of us carry in our hands. If sanity requires a context, a good Gestalt or a cognitive pattern to promote (healthy) consciousness, then what happens when things unravel, when the institutional order fragments? In the U.S. we now have an unstable president who fosters chaos by choice, his brand of crazy, a kind of schizophrenogenic strategy to derange the mental health of a large sector of the population in order to nurture a trove of true believers, people loyal to him, a population he can provoke and control, depending on his mood.

I’ll digress. I recently watched a noir movie made just after the end of World War II. A critic/commentator analyzed the film, noting the rich atmosphere, exteriors in New Mexico and Maine, interiors rustic but well furnished, a story enhanced by a Technicolor glow in a place where white people didn’t have to worry about money. Something was missing. In the middle of the night, I realized the missing piece was ‘soul,’ some sense of humanity that justified all the emotions on vivid display. That realization started me thinking about America, then and now.

I grew up in the environment of a just-ended war against Germany, Italy, and Japan. The country was filled with patriotism typified in songs like “The House I Live In:” What is America to me?/ A name, a map, the flag I see,/ A certain word, ‘Democracy,’/ What is America to me? The tune, written by the blacklisted Abel Meeropol and Albert Maltz, was sung by many artists from Frank Sinatra to Paul Robeson, with the words adjusted to suit the performer. In those songs and in the myths taught at school, I was immersed in ‘founders’ ideas, a whole catalogue of stories to explain, justify and indoctrinate my generation, as they had been used to ‘Americanize’ successive generations in the country as well as immigrants. The heroes (mostly men) were celebrated on designated holidays.

In the 1960s, I learned that from the beginning there had been naysayers who pointed out “inconvenient flaws” like slavery, the so-called Indian wars, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, the suppression of groups seen as a threat to the established order of things. And women were mostly left out of that early history. Without itemizing a litany of inconsistencies, fabrications and distortions, I found the history of “The House I Live In” to be a checkered tapestry, beautiful especially if you were rich and white, but often an ugly lump of coal for those who lost out.

This brings me back to the current plague. A plague forces us to isolate, sequester into our spaces without the shared moments that make us social creatures. And within that tent of aloneness we confront ourselves in ways unusual, stripped of our favourite defenses. We must rely on the media for information, news blathering in, news that can be very depressing. Without much companionship or social support, our engine of sanity can be stalled at the station, forcing us to confront things we have avoided or maybe never learned. In a digitalized timeframe held by phones, generations trained in immediate gratification see a world out of whack. This situation can induce a state of anomie, normlessness and alienation, being out there without a parachute. The most available adaptation is to become depressed or descend further along into craziness as we struggle to deal with the state of the world, the chaos out there.

As noted, in the U.S. the Sociopath in Chief chooses to nurture dis-ease and chaos in his brazen push to seize and maintain his power. Of course, he and his designated surrogates have been allowed to break the rules (not wearing a mask), one by one, contradicting messages from the medical world. He appeals to the many people who have come to adore him, a narcissistic Jesus.

In Orwell’s 1984, the screen sits on the wall. During the early computer age, that screen was on the desktop. In our new millennium, screens are handheld, on every street corner, at every bus stop. There are also wrist devices incorporating the features of a smartphone. Soon implants will monitor our health to enhance prevention and diagnosis of disease. All kinds of devices can promote control of the political system, and Ben Franklin’s nightmare, corruption of the populace, may come true.  Down the road there will be implants at birth to teach us all the best practices and behaviours in a continuous progression to as yet undreamed delights. In the end, all human communication will be under our skin, the screens incorporated into our bodies, and we will be under the thumb of our leaders. At that point, a conscious mind may become optional, harking back to Jaynes’ bicameral mind notion, the gains of the last 3,000 years lost.

When the U.S. President is routinely labelled narcissistic, prone to tantrums, I find myself comparing his public behaviour to the struggles of the troubled teenagers I once worked with, because many were out of control. But when the national leader and role model is out of control, how does that affect the norms governing what is and is not permissible? In his domain, some people are allowed to walk around carrying automatic weapons, even into state legislatures. Others are killed by police or vigilantes for jogging while black or similar “offenses.”

During this pandemic, the media have clearly described large numbers of people fighting to survive social isolation within an economic disaster in an environment of desperation and psychological turmoil. Each day we catalogue new facets of societal failure, the failure of institutions to provide what is necessary for people. Looking ahead, some talk hopefully about a return to normal, a version of the good old days. But a counter-narrative would try to envision a ‘make this crisis into something useful’ approach, in the hope that we can fix the many fissures exposed by the pandemic. All this sounds hypothetical. In the here and now, how can we cope with all of the stressors: large numbers of people sick or dying due to the coronavirus; many without enough money to pay the bills and provide the basics of food and shelter; a universe of fragile seniors and needy children?

Societal and community inequities stand exposed, and we know that the pre-pandemic ‘normal’ did not equip the U.S. and many other countries for this crisis. Without rational leadership, and without a realistic plan for the future that can be implemented amid the ongoing political turmoil, the basic structures of society will continue to fail.

The words of the two young women I mentioned haunt me because I suspect what we call ‘mental health’ will be the last domino to fall. Both of them have been afflicted by an unstable external world, threatening psychological derealization. Such a profound loss is something we all must face. Some will be driven mad in the absence of live face-to-face human contact. Others may reach their lunatic endgame, consumed by their fears as they withdraw into the labyrinth, an emotional cocoon. And I watch their plight, helpless. I want to scream!

 

 

Old, battered copy of La Peste © Catherine Watson

 

Ainsi, la première chose que la peste apporta à nos concitoyens fut l’exil. Et le narrateur est persuadé qu’il peut écrire ici, au nom de tous, ce que lui-même a éprouvé alors, puisqu’il l’a éprouvé en même temps que beaucoup de nos concitoyens.

Albert Camus, La Peste

 

 

 

March 20, Friday

We’ve been in lockdown now since last Monday. It started slowly. I tried to go to the Cinéma du Parc on Sunday evening and found it closed. Couldn’t go to church in the morning as services were cancelled and I was glad somehow because that was one less thing I had to do. On Monday I found all cinemas and shows were closed till further notice. Schools and universities have been closed for more than a week, libraries for almost two.

So we wait at home. I’m not dependent on a paycheck – I’m over sixty-five – and I’m not afraid. For reasons I can’t explain, I don’t think I’ll catch COVID-19. There is nothing else on the news and almost nothing in the papers.

I told myself when I first felt the world close in around me, I’m going to use this time to catch up on everything I want to do. And write. I wanted to write something longer and more personal – an affair in psychiatry from long ago – but to write well I have to have a time and a place. I can’t find either. Then I thought, write about our collective trauma, COVID-19. Because writing is always about pushing back the things you can’t control.

 

March 23, Monday

Late last night I started reading La Peste, Camus. I read it once before, almost thirty years ago, for a private French course with an out-of-work journalist. I picked up an old battered copy in a second-hand bookshop. I’ve kept it through several moves.

This time I read La Peste in French because it’s the only copy I have. Or maybe I like to feel important.

It’s set in Oran, then a department of France, in the 1940s. Oran, Camus tells us, was a city without beauty or shades of meaning, an ordinary city, ugly, it has to be said, with its back turned to the sea. It was a city without pigeons, or gardens or trees. Its inhabitants lived to make money and to gratify simple desires, for love, amusement or comfort. After the plague was over, all agreed that events were out of place there.

Montréal has parks and trees, not many pigeons but sparrows, robins, blue jays, starlings, woodpeckers and cardinals, and countless gardens. It’s a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own assortment of family homes. Once you’ve lived here a while, you can guess who lives where or who used to live where, just by looking at the houses from the outside. Front walks and separate garages mean (or once meant) English; balconies and porches mean French; white or yellow brick probably means Italian. Montréal is a city where people are proud of their differences. Probably they don’t think a lot about money, but they do think about what they share with people in the next house or the next suburb, and sometimes what they don’t. They think a lot about rights.

Now it’s as if that complicated patchwork of history and culture has been taken away. There’s only one message on radio and TV, and that’s COVID – how fast it’s spreading, how close it is to us. We’re not supposed to go anywhere anyway, and we have nothing to do but listen. I walk around the local park or down the street and it’s as if there’s only one neighbourhood, and one street, and that’s here. Here is an eerie silence without traffic noise or ringing footsteps or the sound of people talking louder than they should. Garbage trucks pass at their appointed times and then the silence falls again.

I look out on the garden and it’s almost spring. There’s a hint of life in everything that grows, but all I feel is stillness. It’s as if I’m the last woman alive. Reading La Peste, I throw myself into the void.

 

March 24, Tuesday

Still nothing is happening. The shops are half-empty and on the main road, the few cars and buses travel singly. I send a few emails. I receive emails from people I’d never dreamt of hearing from – the President of Loblaws, the CEO of Hydro Québec. This virus has the power to change the smallest details of my everyday life. Yet I am well. I eat, sleep, read, write, and the restrictions multiply. After cinemas, theatres and concert halls, they close shopping malls, parks, now small businesses and all stores except grocery stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, pet stores, hardware stores.

We have a new language that justifies the closures and tells us how to act: social distancing, essential businesses, congregating in groups, respecting the guidelines, frontline workers, flattening the curve. When I first heard these phrases, I didn’t know exactly what they meant but I figured them out from what else I knew; and now when I go to the supermarket or the pharmacy or walk down the local shopping street, I have an explanation for the changes. I know why we are chivvied into lines, why I can’t put my points card or debit card into the hand of the cashier, why so few stores are open, why all the FOR RENT signs. I’ve become part of the new order. I shuffle my way through.

 

March 27, Friday

Because I hear so many statistics, I start looking them up on the Internet – La Presse, The New York Times and a website I found called worldometer. It gives daily figures, ranking countries according to the number of cases.

On March 18, there were 200,000 cases worldwide and 8,000 deaths. Canada had 100 new cases every day. By March 26, there were 492,085 cases worldwide and 22,176 deaths. In Canada there were 3,409 cases and 36 deaths. Globometer gave a tentative global mortality rate of 3%. The WHO estimate for March 3 (death rate) was 3.46%.

I began calculating my own death rates for different countries, but it didn’t take long for me to see that not everyone who will die has died, so that particular statistic means very little. Soon afterwards I asked myself, are reported cases tested cases? Probably. Reporting also has to play a part. On March 26, Russia had 840 reported cases and 3 deaths.

Saw a police car this morning on my way back from the laundromat, driving around looking for signs of trouble.

 

March 28, Saturday

They told us yesterday we’re entering a new phase: we’re at the beginning of the steep rise that will lead to the peak. A long speech on CBC radio after 4:00 p.m. yesterday from Mayor Valérie Plante, first in French and then in English. This is not a lockdown, not yesterday and not today. The bridges will stay open, but we should stay home. I don’t think it’s an order, but it’s a strong recommendation, and we are told not to go out of our area, especially not the western part of the city. A man, I believe the deputy director of public health for the city, tells us there is community transmission. The reason is the “snowbirds” – the people who didn’t go into isolation when they came back from the States or the South.

The forecast was for a sunny day, but it’s grey cloud cover and cold. I planned on going on the bus to Rosemount, to take a break from myself and look for local colour for the longer essay I want to write. The first scene would be on the corner of Boulevard Rosemont and Avenue des Érables. I tell myself I don’t want to feel more shut in than I do already, unable to write because I couldn’t leave the house. I tell myself I’ll go anyway, though I’m nervous. Can they try to stop me – the police – if they see me walking alone? On the other hand, if I go later, the risk will be greater because the virus is spreading. I decide to go, but I’ll stay apart.

The streets of Rosemount are desolate. I see one man, one woman, and it’s hard to know if they’re going somewhere or just using up time. Everything is shut: houses, stores, a cinema. It’s an area that’s become very chic with storefront windows displaying baby clothes and original home furnishings. On Boulevard Rosemont, a young man with a backpack and worn clothes asks me for change, and I don’t give it. Why not? Because I’m alone and he’s alone and if he did try to grab my purse, there wouldn’t be anyone around to help me. Aloneness breeds aloneness and an obstinate hardness of heart. I keep walking, pass someone who looks less in need.

I’ve begun Chapter 2 of La Peste. The plague has been declared and the gates of the city are closed. The residents of Oran are prisoners, and like most prisoners, time has become meaningless for them. They can’t live for their future release (and in the meantime focus all their strength and courage on surviving their imprisonment), because they’re sure that they’ll find out later on that their release date has been changed. They can’t live in the past, because thinking about the past brings only the taste of regret, and they know they can change nothing. They therefore live in a useless, floating present, wanting their old lives back.

We are more like people under relaxed house arrest. But like the people of Oran, we live without the structure of time. We cannot know how long present circumstances will last, and we don’t know how much of our past we’ll be able to keep once things return to normal. And each person or each family lives with a different loss – with separation from friends, wider family, or a lover, with the cessation of work responsibilities and an identity that goes with work, and without pay. Lives are overturned, but differently, and each person’s life, or each family’s life, is always about managing the disruption. Probably we are more closed in on ourselves and less likely to feel another person’s distress.

 

March 30, Monday

Towards the beginning of Chapter 2, there is a conversation between the principal character, Bernard Rieux, and a journalist from Paris, Raymond Rambert. Rieux is a doctor caring for plague victims, and Rambert wants a medical certificate stating that he is not infected so that he can leave the city and go in search of the woman he loves. Rieux refuses, first of all because the certificate would prove nothing – Rambert might already be infected but have no symptoms, or might become infected between leaving Rieux’s office and leaving the city – and second, because there are many men in Rambert’s position and he cannot make exceptions. Rambert tells Rieux that he denies their shared humanity and forgets that he is also responsible for individuals and their happiness. He accuses Rieux of speaking the language of abstraction.

Later Rieux sees that this is true. He is no longer moved by the cries of his patients or the pleas of their families. He enforces rules and follows procedures; he stands by while the police and paramedics forcibly remove patients from their homes. He feels no pity, and at the end of the day, his indifference is a consolation for the pain and suffering he has witnessed.

Rieux does not sign the certificate for Rambert. Soon afterwards he joins a team of volunteers organizing emergency services for the sick and dying. Later still, Rambert stops trying to escape the city and joins the volunteers.

 

March 31, Tuesday

What I miss most is news. I open up La Presse online and there are no new stories, only one short paragraph on COVID. Journalists have been laid off or put on reduced pay.

Now the US is the epicentre of the pandemic, especially New York. China has come out of it fairly well and its citizens are slowly getting back to work.

Later: I hear on the radio that the number of new cases is doubling every day in Canada. I don’t go on worldometer.

 

April 1, Wednesday

Over 2,000 cases in Québec. So I did check the figures. Went out yesterday, down to Avenue Mont-Royal on a clear, cold spring day. On the Plateau there are more people on the streets than here, some older than I am, and almost all smile as you go by. Then last night I thought I might have the virus – slight fever, slight nausea. But it lifted, then I coughed.

Worldometer, 01-04:

Total cases worldwide: 882,068; deaths 44,136
Canada: total cases, 8,672; deaths, 101

 

April 3, Friday

I turn on the radio just before 2:00 p.m. and already it’s the barrage of statistics. Legault is still speaking – or is it Arruda? It’s in translation. There are now 63 deaths in Québec attributed to the Coronavirus, but the increase compared to yesterday’s is less alarming than it seems, as yesterday there were cases under review. At 2:00 p.m. Doug Ford says that there could be between three and fifteen thousand deaths in Ontario, 600 deaths. Without public health measures, there could be as many as 100,000 deaths.

 

April 4, Saturday

This morning’s news: the next week and the next month will tell us if the increase in cases is beginning to slow. They’re talking about perhaps lifting restrictions in June.

But it is scary. After I got home last week from Rosemount, I realized that the stickiness I’ve felt in my throat for the last couple of days could be a sore throat. Later that day I looked in the mirror and saw red cheeks, as if I’d just come in from cold air. I had a slight fever, less than one degree, 97.1 Fahrenheit. But I slept, lighter of heart, because I’d been out earlier. Fever comes and goes. I don’t remember other illnesses being like this. Usually there’s a certain point where you know you’re sick, and if you’re at home you go to bed and hope to sleep it off. Maybe you can’t, but that’s because you get worse, and then the sickness – nausea, giddiness, stomach pain – blocks out worry and the effort to fight it off. This time I just don’t know. One minute I’m sure I have the virus and the next minute I think I don’t. I sleep, only to wake in darkness, knowing I’m alone.

 

April 6, Monday afternoon 

I have one more chapter of La Peste to read. At first it wasn’t easy to follow. I couldn’t always remember who was who, and I got lost in the long descriptions of the mood in Oran. But after the conversation between Dr. Rieux and Rambert, a story starts to emerge. Each character becomes involved in the life of the city, and you follow that person through the year of the plague. Which is not to say that everyone in the novel does good – one person probably does harm because he trades on the black market – but everyone lives a life and is changed by what he does.

Towards the end a new character appears: death, or the plague, or the scourge (le fléau) or later, evil. All tighten their grip on the city and all are one and the same.

INSPQ-Projections, May 5, 2020

 

April 8, Wednesday

Finished La Peste yesterday. Mr. Legault and Dr. Arruda released their projections for the month (published April 7):
pessimistic projection: cases, 59,845; deaths, 8,860
optimistic projection: cases, 29,212; deaths, 1,263

As the story draws to a close, the virus weakens; the sick begin to recover and the rats reappear. The authorities declare the plague as good as over, and after some delay, the gates are opened and the residents of Oran are reunited with lovers and family. But Bernard Rieux loses the two people he loved most, his wife, who dies of an unnamed illness, and his closest friend, who dies of the plague. He knows then that the plague will never be over for him; he knows as well that he will go on fighting, without hope and without inner peace. Rieux understands what other people do not: that the plague can always return, even in the midst of happiness and celebration, and even when victory seems assured.

 

April 13, Easter Monday

Main news over the weekend, deaths in seniors’ homes and long-term care. Thirty-one people died in one residence in a little over two weeks, five from COVID-19.

 

May 12, Tuesday

Today’s news on CBC, a report released on Friday by the Québec Public Health Institute (the INSPQ), and another prediction: if Legault continues with his plan to reopen schools and businesses in Greater Montréal later this month, there will be an additional 10,000 cases in Montréal by the end of June, an average of 150 deaths a day in July. This is excluding deaths in long-term care. The point: reopening should be deferred.

This isn’t the whole picture: over half the deaths in Canada are in Québec (5,169 in Canada, 3,013 in Québec; over half the deaths in Québec are in Montréal (1,919). Not just in Montréal, but predominantly in Montréal North, Rivière des Prairies, Villeray, Park Extension and Lachine – neighbourhoods where there is greater overcrowding, where people have no choice but to go to work, where they use public transport and travel on company buses, and where they cannot escape infection. We’re living in a city more sharply divided along economic lines than before the virus hit, and I wonder if this will be the final message we take from the pandemic – that the costs are not equally shared.

 

 

Editorial note: Charles William Johnson shares some of his intriguing and controversial research into ancient art forms, with special reference to the legend of Pan Gu as it appears in both Chinese and Maya cultures. He describes how transparencies of the many stone images, when overlaid on one another, depict an ancient form of animation that he calls “paleoanimation.” We are still trying to wrap our heads around some of his findings.

                                                                  

Dedicated to Maurice Cotterell

 

Encoded Images

Various ancient cultures encoded images into their artwork. The ancient Maya encoded images relating to other cultures in their artwork. Some stone bas-relief sculptures of the Maya offer visual keys to decoding the hidden images. Numerous methods were used to achieve this. In fact, there are almost as many methods as there are sculptures. In this study, only one image is presented as an example of the encoding procedure, which is scientific in nature as it involves concepts of math, geometry and motion in terms of reflexive and translation symmetry.

Generally one does not expect to find any encoded images in ancient artwork. Even the idea is looked down upon by institutional archaeology, not a strong field of research. But researchers who consider such a possibility might search for themes related to the culture being studied and to that culture’s own mythology.

In fact, the first encoded image that I stumbled upon in October 1992 was that of a hummingbird, Huitzilipochtli, an Aztec deity of love and war. The hummingbird appears encoded in a composite fourfold view of the Aztec calendar. Finding the hummingbird seemed logical enough, as it pertained to Aztec mythology. Other scholars such as Maurice Cotterell* were finding similar mythological images in the Maya culture.

After uncovering the hummingbird in the Aztec calendar, I began to study the math and geometry in ancient artwork, searching for other possible encoded images. I reasoned that if there was one image, there must be others. For almost three decades now, I have been documenting innumerable encoded images in ancient art from around the world in my research project: Earth/matriX, Science in Ancient Artwork.

To date, unimaginable encoded images have been discerned in the ancient artwork of eight different cultures. One of these is the image of Pan Gu, the Creator of the Universe, a mythological being of Chinese origin, which appears encoded in a Maya sculpture.

 

Seibal, Guatemala, Stela 13, 870 A.D.

Pan Gu, the Creator of the Universe, was said to be the son of Yin and Yang. His image is often depicted standing or sitting with the yin-yang symbol in each hand. The Pan Gu creation myth is presented in different versions, but it may belong to a period of a thousand years before our era. The name is written in varying ways: Pangu, Pan Gu, P’an Gu, Pan-Ku, etc. Mirror the image in a certain way and there appears Pan Gu with a dog face, the Creator of the Universe.

 

The Mirror Image

Pan Gu, Creator of the Universe

 

To find an ancient rendering of the image of Pan Gu through visual reflexive symmetry is significant in itself, given that there are so few ancient depictions in existence. But to uncover this image encoded in ancient Maya art challenges all realms of human knowledge to date. The Maya image of a standing figure dressed in serpents (in which the Pan Gu image is encoded) requires its own space and interpretation with its own cultural significance. For now, our comments are restricted to the Pan Gu image that appears therein.

Different versions of the Pan Gu legend say that he had a dog face and carried a hammer and chisel (or axe) with which he created the Universe. At first nothing existed; then the cosmic serpent produced the cosmic egg, the primordial state that lasted 18,000 years. Out of this state, Pan Gu emerged from the egg and the yin-yang balance appeared. Pan Gu thus created the Earth, symbolized as Yin, and the sky, symbolized as Yang, keeping them separate by standing between them. This version runs from the Cosmic Egg to Yin-Yang.

Details of the different versions of the Pan Gu legend aside, the first question that came to my mind was how a figure of ancient Chinese origin came to be encoded in an ancient Maya sculpture. That’s a prerequisite query with no factual answer to be found in history books. Although many scholars have suggested, and still suggest today, that contact among ancient cultures was a reality, it appears that there is no definite physical proof. Similarities between some ancient cloud designs of Chinese bronzes and comparable designs in Maya sculptures have often been pointed out by scholars, but such prima facie comparisons of design always appear hypothetical.

 

Mirror image

The image of Pan Gu presented here derives from mirroring one image of the Maya sculpture of Seibal with another, a left and right-handed view of the image. Maurice Cotterell has employed this method extensively in his work. The ancients used innumerable methods for encoding images in their artwork. I have employed and uncovered a few. In order to view the images, a certain degree of technology had to be developed, such as film transparencies now available through modern-day photography, and scanners and printers.

The film transparencies drawn from ancient designs are then overlaid on one another, and the search for recognizable designs can begin. It is next to impossible to merely look at an ancient image sculpted in stone and visualize a particular mirrored design. For example, look at the image that appears in Seibal shown here, and try to imagine the mirrored image of Pan Gu suggested by the design. Only by moving the two mirrored right and left-hand images overlaid on one another do the designs of the cosmic egg and the yin-yang symbol make their appearance in the hands of Pan Gu. This is shown in the paleoanimation “cells” (or images) below.

The possible contact among ancient cultures required for substantiating the fact that an ancient design from China appears in ancient Maya artwork appears to me to be confirmed in the ancient encoded images. When I first saw the composite image of a standing figure with a yin-yang symbol in each hand take shape in a Maya sculpture in Seibal, Honduras, I immediately wanted to know just how extensive was the practice of encoding images in ancient artwork, and if possible, find out what all the encoded images meant to the artists who created them.

For years, even though the composite images that I had derived appeared to have been placed there by conscious design, I kept thinking that perhaps they were random coincidences. The innumerable encoded images that I have derived to date are far greater in number than anything I had initially imagined. In addition, I recently found four different ancient historical figures in a single composite image, which shredded any idea of random coincidence. Confirmation of the idea of conscious design has taken 30 years.

The ancients employed an infinite number of methods to encode their images, from the basic mirror-reflection symmetry employed in this image of Pan Gu to much more complicated methods of translation symmetry, at times even involving the Maya glyphs appearing on some sculptures, with detailed geometries. It has taken me almost three decades to uncover a few of the methods. I suspect there are many more that will be discovered by searching additional pieces of artwork. In my research, I have pored over fewer than 200 ancient pieces of art. There are thousands in existence.

Once a specific method is detected for a particular art piece or design, this can open up an exponential number of images that may be accessed by anybody with a little imagination and lots of patience. At times I have studied an image in detail for days and weeks on end, derived a few images and laid them aside, only to return years later to find additional encoded images in that same ancient design. It is also a matter of perspective: I may look at a particular composite image for years and not see anything until I take a different visual perspective or focus, and suddenly the figure of a person may come into view. The degree of creativeness in the methods for encoding the images in ancient artwork is astounding, in my opinion. Many books could be written just on the methods of reflexive and translation symmetries employed by the ancients.

 

Seibal, Guatemala, Stela 13, 870 A.D.

 

The Dog-faced Pan Gu

 

Images in motion: paleoanimations

In the legend of Pan Gu, one version states that Pan Gu had a dog face. I mentioned the study of motion earlier. Aside from the encoded still images, such as the one of Pan Gu standing, it became clear to me that the distinctions between the apparent images and the encoded images were designed for creating ancient animations. I call these paleoanimations. By moving the film transparencies into different positions, one sees the cosmic egg turn into the yin-yang. And one also sees the dog face of Pan Gu make its appearance in other views. The concept of ancient animation encoded in the still views of the Seibal Maya figure becomes evident as one moves the right and left-hand overlays on top of one another.

As with the encoded still images, the ancients employed numerous methods for animating some of their images. The stop-motion methods could also be based on reflexive and/or translation symmetry, as well as other design methods (that are too numerous to detail here). Below are some of the possible motions of the Pan Gu figure from the Maya figure Stela 13, located in Seibal, Guatemala. This paleoanimation employs reflexive symmetry of a partial mirrored image type. The number of animations that one may create from a still image can be staggeringly high, with the movement between the two mirrored images occurring in micro clicks. The images shown here are from the single original design shown in the first view. With the mirrored detailed images, I then use stop-motion to produce the paleoanimation. Literally, one can produce an infinite number of cells derived from the single Maya image, for a more fluid sense of motion.

In viewing the encoded image from the point of view of motion, it then becomes possible to create ancient animation storylines, or paleoanimation storylines. I have found that the following thought holds true across various ancient cultures.

A popular adage is, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
With the ancients, “A picture is worth a thousand pictures.”

 

The Chinese Creation Story of Pan Gu and the Cosmic Egg
An Ancient Maya Animation

 

Some versions differ from the myth of chaos (yin-yang) to the cosmic egg. Animated storyboards are designed, encoded in the original Maya image, which illustrate the relationship of the cosmic egg to the yin-yang in the legend of Pan Gu. With hammer and chisel, Pan Gu transformed the primordial chaos into cosmic order and created the Universe.

A single image may encode countless related images in an open-ended manner. One image that has been manipulated through math, geometry, motion and reflexive and/or translation symmetry can yield an infinite number of derived images. Further, a single image may encode different story lines for each of the different design elements in a sculpture. Here, I present a few cells of one example of the primordial egg as an example of many Earth/matriX paleoanimations derived to date. Different storylines exist, encoded within the Pan Gu image, but one may suffice to understand the idea behind ancient animation.

Also of note in the animated design is the appearance of the skeletal mask in the background, an element not referenced in the mythology, other than possibly as the “cackler” and the cosmic egg.

 

The Cackler and the Cosmic Egg

 

The transformation in the paleoanimation from the chaos of the yin-yang to the primordial cosmic egg suggests that with life comes death, represented in the skeletal mask. Variant interpretations may exist, no doubt. What may have been the original meaning of the design in symbolism remains a mystery. As with all graphic symbolism, interpretations remain with the viewer, unless specified in the historical record, of course.

 

Observations

One of the main lessons that I have learned from studying the encoded and animated designs in ancient artwork from around the world concerns the methods for encoding images in the ancient artwork.

Popular cartoons and comics utilize different cells or images to create a storyboard. The ancients designed a single cell for the viewer to derive an infinite number of cells, visuals that may produce an animated storyboard.

The ancient animations were designed into the original artwork. The storyboard presented here, illustrating the relationship of the yin-yang to the cosmic egg, is not something of my own creation. I am simply following the instructions as I have understood them that are encoded in the original, ancient sculpture. My participation is limited to conveying the message I interpret that was encoded by the original Maya artist, who had in turn rendered the story from the mythology of ancient China.

Now, as I contemplate the hundreds of encoded images and storyboards that I have uncovered in artwork from various ancient cultures, I continue to wonder and marvel at how the information was communicated from one culture to another. The encoded images where ancient cultures register images from the mythology of other ancient cultures undoubtedly confirm contact among these cultures.

With regard to the Pan Gu image, the story is not complete. There are many other encoded images and storyboards told within this single image. As I mentioned, a single image encodes countless story lines. The encoded images reflect a conscious purpose of communication with the generations that were to follow them. For example, rather than being openly etched in wood for their contemporary viewing, they were encoded in stone, unnoticeable at the time of their rendering and noticeable only now, centuries later. Perhaps the ancients encoded images in their artwork for all of us to see – all of us who have followed them in time.

 

 

*For a complete list of the works of Maurice Cotterell, visit www.mauricecotterell.com

In particular, see: The Mayan Prophecies, 1995; The Supergods, 1997; Future Science: Forbidden Science of the 21st Century (2012).

Further suggested reading:
Earth/matrix: Science in Ancient Artwork, http://www.earthmatrix.com/main_themes.html

 

A drawing by Shanti Kumari, inspired by the image of Pan Gu

Pan Gu with the gentle eyes. By Shanti Kumari (© November 2019)

 

“China’s Pan Gu and the Cosmic Egg Encoded in Ancient Maya Art”©2019-2020 Copyrighted by Charles William Johnson

 

 

 

 

Along the south bank of the River Thames strode a sunken-faced man carrying a small book. The man, only thirty-nine years old, was meditating on life and death as he walked down the waterfront promenade. His eyes, bruised from sleeplessness, carefully studied the calm current in the river. It had only been three years since the death of his father, and nearly a decade since the passing of his eleven-year old son. Away from his Stratford-upon-Avon home and family, he had been summoned to the sunless district of Bankside to write a play based on an ancient Scandinavian legend. In 1603, an unauthorized publication of his manuscripts had appeared, but was quickly forgotten and overshadowed by its better-written successor in 1604, famously known as Hamlet.

Two centuries later, British soldier Sir Henry Bunbury had newly inherited Great Barton Hall, his late uncle’s manor house on the estate. The mansion’s previous owner had carefully adorned its interior with grotesque Baroque portraits and wooden hand-carved ceilings. Excited to discover his new belongings, Sir Bunbury decided to make an inventory of everything. In the left wing of the house, he discovered a closet filled with books owned by his grandfather, who was an ardent collector of old dramas. Rummaging through the texts, he stumbled upon a soiled, badly-bound booklet. On its title page read “The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke”—now commonly known as the Bad Hamlet.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century — as the semester comes to an end and students cram for finals, this fall’s production of the Dawson Theatre Program provided its audience with a sense of relief. Directed by Stéphane Zarov, the graduating students performed Shakespeare’s lesser-known version of the tragedy: Bad Hamlet, or Hamlet Q1 (first quarto). At the end of the show, just as everybody had started gathering their belongings to exit the theatre, my friend turned to me and asked, “What’s the difference between the good and bad Hamlet?” The question stayed with me, and I became increasingly intrigued.

I decided to interview the director to gain some insight. “The bad Hamlet is about 1,200 lines shorter. It’s about half the size,” he says, adjusting his round glasses. “It doesn’t scan as well. It’s a terribly composited text, in other words you really have to go through it. You know, is this prose, is this verse? Usually, when we do Shakespeare we have to cut. But in this case, I don’t. We didn’t have to cut—what you are hearing is the full text. The full first quarto. An hour and forty-five minutes, this is the full Shakespeare play. It’s a hoot. I wrote at one point, ‘Hamlet without the introspection.’ So imagine Hamlet not thinking—just going. ‘Hamlet with running shoes.’”

Despite the fact that they share the same title, the two texts are very different. The second quarto, which appears in 1604-05 and is most similar to the popularized tragedy, features an introspective and elaborate protagonist. The first quarto, much shorter and very plot-driven, was published in 1603 only to be buried away almost immediately after its publication. However, its rediscovery in 1823 redirected critical debate: scholars had already formed strong opinions on Shakespeare’s identity and the nature of his texts, and this quarto was incongruous with their beliefs. Many theories arose hypothesizing the origins of Q1: some claimed that it was a pirated version of the play, others argued that it was a cast member’s memorial reconstruction, and so on.

I interviewed Amanda Cockburn, Chairwoman of the English department at Dawson and Shakespeare scholar, to get a more definitive answer. “We don’t know enough about Shakespeare’s creative process to make a final determination as to whether he wrote it or not. Hamlet was a Scandinavian play, a revenge tragedy. What Shakespeare is doing with Hamlet, as a revenge tragedy, is very clever. In the original tragedy, Hamlet’s uncle kills his father, the ghost says, ‘Revenge! Avenge me! I’ve been murdered by your uncle,’ and it’s almost immediately a blood bath. The ancient Hamlet in the Scandinavian and the Nordic tales, he goes and gets right to it. So what’s clever about Shakespeare’s good Hamlet, is that he stalls, and he stalls, and he stalls—and that’s the big joke.”

Here, she refers to the philosophical introspection as the main difference between the bad quarto and the final play. “A lot of scholars point to Michel de la Montaigne. He’s this wonderful French writer who wrote a series of essays, and he popularized the essay genre. What he really talks about in his collection of essays—they’re very funny—is his own interiority, and the nature of thinking. He explores what it is to meditate upon and think about a question. And Hamlet soliloquizing, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ is philosophical stalling. One question begets another question, and more questions—and never answers. It almost mimics this idea of the self entering into a complicated labyrinth. This is the whole project of Michel de Montaigne. What’s interesting is that he wrote this in the century previous, so before Hamlet was published. The English translation [by John Florio] happened in between the bad and the good quarto. So scholars think that Shakespeare came back to Hamlet after reading Michel de Montaigne’s essays.”

In fact, some of Hamlet’s major soliloquies in the good Hamlet clearly echo de Montaigne’s essays. For example, his most famous soliloquy contemplating suicide, “To be, or not to be: that is the question,” deeply resembles Florio’s translation of de Montaigne’s essay: “I know I have neither frequented nor knowne death, nor have I seen any body that hath either felt or tried her qualities to instruct me in them. Those who feare her presuppose to know; as for me, I neither know who or what she is, nor what they doe in the other world. Death may peradventure be a thing indifferent, happily a thing desirable. […] Wee finde nothing so sweete in life as a quiet rest and gentle sleepe, and without dreames.”

Zachary Lesser, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, published a biographical book called “Hamlet” After Q1 in 2014 in which he focuses not on Q1’s origin, but on the cultural significance of its resurgence. Lesser argues the possibility that scholars came up with different theories in order to preserve their idea of Shakespeare as the best writer in the English language. In reaction to this, Amanda Cockburn adds:

“So we tend to make an icon of Shakespeare as this monolithic genius who channels truths about human nature through his plays. I think that a lot of people have conspiracies about Shakespeare and the works he’s produced in part because we have a natural tendency to break down monolithic ideas of genius: ‘How could it be just one man?’ And in fact it wasn’t just one man. He was writing in collaboration with other actors; he talked to Ben Johnson, one of his contemporaries, probably all the time, about his ideas. Was he doing work and writing alone by himself and doing research and reading Montaigne’s essays? Absolutely. I think that, yes, we like to make conspiracy theories about Shakespeare because of what we attribute to his genius, and his status as the head white man at the top of the literary canon.”

Although most scholars have declared Q1 a rough draft, we might never reach a consensus about the bad Hamlet; very little is known about Shakespeare’s personal life. While more popular versions of Hamlet are composited from the later publications, the bad Hamlet remains a fascinating play and demonstrates part of Shakespeare’s creative process.

 

 

 

(c) Marie Thérèse Blanc

 

My father’s death defeated me; I felt robbed by it.  It didn’t come as a surprise because he had cancer, lung metastases to be exact, and we were told at some point that he had a month left at most.  Still, his death defeated me. He was absent during his own father’s death a continent away, so he told me one day that being there for a parent’s dying was a privilege.  I didn’t understand what he meant until he passed away himself.  It wasn’t just that I had wanted to see him out as he had seen me being born, or that I had wanted to be there in some foolish act of solidarity. It was that, selfishly, I had also hoped to learn from the act of dying. He had been a born teacher, as well as a university professor, and I, who am naturally inquisitive, had wanted him to teach me that one last thing as he had taught me to fight bullies, stand up for my principles, or use my first camera or computer. Instead, he went through that rite of passage on his own, which is to say very much alone, as if he had not wanted to share what I know he saw as a beating, a vanquishment, because he’d thought until the very end that he could trick death.

In “The Race,” a poem taken from The Father, the collection in which she details her father’s dying and death, Sharon Olds recounts running breathless through an airport to catch a plane so as to be at his bedside.  Having made it, she “walked into his room” and, with gratefulness, simply “watched him breathe.”  I remembered that poem on January 30, 2018, as my best friend drove as fast as she could through the streets of Montréal to bring me to the palliative-care hospital on time after my mother had called to say my father had lapsed into a coma.  It was a Tuesday, early in the morning, and over the mountain Westmount parents were dropping off their children and double-parking their massive SUVs in front of posh schools, so traffic was stalled and slow. Unlike Olds, I did not make it on time. I tumbled out of my friend’s car and ran over the iced parking lot, through the halls of the hospital, and finally into my father’s room, but my mother, who’d arrived before me, mouthed the words “It’s over” as I stood by his bed, smiling in confusion because he still looked so life-like with his eyes open wide, his mouth agape in what seemed like wonder.  Even my mother had missed the moment of his last breath.

I had no idea how to process the sovereign solitariness of his passing.  Only an hour later, when a nurse told me that she guessed I was his daughter because I resembled him, did I allow my sorrow to well up through my shock in an awkward surge of uncomprehending hurt. So I did not learn a thing from my father about dying, and have few stories about that, other than that I know now it is possible to cross that threshold unaccompanied, not because we are born alone and will die alone as the cliché goes, but because sometimes the people we love just don’t make it to our deathbed on time or at all.

In “His Smell,” Sharon Olds also remembers her father’s scent before he died: he smelled “like wet cement. . . crushed granite. . . Jurassic shale. . . tang of chlorine. . . the faint mold from the rug in the house. . . .”  The similes are strongly evocative of the organic and the chemical.

Five days before my own father died, the doctor, a young Jewish woman, took us aside and whispered, “It won’t be long. He has begun to smell of death.” She knew my mother was a doctor too, so I suppose she saw no need to be less blunt, something I appreciated. After the doctor left, I leaned over and, like a small animal, sniffed my father’s neck and cheek as I said goodbye to him that day, yet I picked up on nothing unusual and marvelled at her refined and sensitive nose.  But when I got home to my parents’ house to prepare tea for my exhausted mother, I noticed a thick coating of ice on the front steps, walked inside, found a hammer in my father’s toolbox, came out again, and on my knees began furiously cudgelling the ice. Son of a bitch, I thought; you’re leaving us.  And now I have to take care of everything without you!  I whacked the ice so hard that pain rose up my arm, strummed my shoulder’s tendons, and the hammer’s head flew off the handle in a wide arc and landed in the snow behind me.

That evening I looked online for descriptions of the smell of dying: here science and literature diverge, for it is said to be a sweet smell—the smell of acetone, or nail polish remover—caused by changes in metabolism as the body shuts down.  But I missed that too and was therefore left without my own poetic similes.

 

(c) Marie Thérèse Blanc

 

To me, my father had simply smelled like my father at that stage of his life when he was tired and letting go.  He who had always appreciated the citrusy tang of fragrances by Christian Dior or Calvin Klein now felt like a slightly neglectful or musty old man.  Four weeks before his death he had asked for something to make himself feel better: not a full-bodied fragrance, he had explained, but something lighter, so I bought him a modest French cologne by Mont St-Michel. He had looked lost as he’d fingered the bottle and asked, haltingly, “Where do I apply this?” What had been a sort of last wish a few days earlier had been forgotten already as death loomed nearer and instructed him to disremember everything, even the smallest pleasures. At Christmas, he had eaten a thread, a mere fibre of roast duck, just for a last taste of the meat he loved most, before sitting back in his chair as if that had been too much effort for one day, and after that he never sat at a table or ate anything again. He drank milk through a straw, and then not even that, just water now and again, and then ice chips.

Dying is an intensely material, physiological process.  In cases where the patient dies a slow death, as my father did, that process is well known and described quite precisely by the medical community:  the patient loses his appetite, loses the capacity to rise up from his bed, sleeps all day, becomes incontinent, breathes more shallowly and infrequently, and at the end, curiously, the toes curl up.  A day or so before death, a brief period of uncanny lucidity is not uncommon. My father, who lost all his bearings in the week that preceded his death, suddenly sat up in bed twenty-four hours before he died and asked my mother when her birthday was.  Even as he’d lost his appetite completely, my mother had insisted on feeding him a small meal daily, which he had rejected impatiently.  Her denial was strong. Now stunned and encouraged by his sudden burst of energy and revived memory, she told him delightedly that it was to be the next day. Science can account for much, but not for these small acts of seemingly literary irony.

Neither does science account for those Wittgensteinian areas, those scientific vacuums whereof we cannot speak and about which we must perhaps remain silent—namely, the metaphysical.  What happens at death?  Do we cross over into some other quantic reality, some other realm?

In my father’s case, 2018 was not the first time he’d died.  He’d had a first crack at it eight years earlier when he lay in the intensive care unit after a bout of double pneumonia and had a heart attack.  I was there that time, and just before he collapsed and the doctors called a Code Blue and pushed us brusquely out of the room, he had a moment of being quite literally somewhere else.  He stared at a corner of the room as if he were recognizing someone he’d known a very long time ago and was surprised to see again, and in the process knocked the attending nurse’s glasses off her nose as he pointed past her. He did not seem frightened so much as pleasantly surprised, as if he’d never thought he would see that person again, but there he or she was.  Because I was convinced that he was seeing something of tremendous import, I looked to where he was pointing and then back at his face, but unlike him I was tethered firmly to this world and saw nothing.  Then he collapsed, his heart a tightened fist.

They intubated him, put him on a life-support machine, and when he woke up several hours later, his wrists tied to the sides of the bed so he wouldn’t pull off the breathing tube, he gave the finger to whomever entered his room, and he grunted angrily, demanding to be disintubated. He had been jolted, shocked back to life, and the vision he had seen had perhaps been far more cordial, warm, and strangely human than the brutal reality of the intensive care unit.

Experiencing apparitions before death is quite typical, in fact.  In The Art of Dying, neuropsychologist Peter Fenwick outlines what dying might be like from the narratives of a large sampling of people who underwent a near-death experience.  In many cases, persons on the brink of death claim to be visited by the manifestation of a dead relative who tells them that they have come to bring them over to the other side of life. In Christian communities, these apparitions are often said to be angels. I will never know what my atheist father saw before he almost died.  When he recovered, he lost all memory of that moment, which raises questions about what those people interviewed by Dr. Fenwick actually remembered.

Science quits at the threshold of death.  It might describe physiological phenomena, speak of the death of the heart and that of the brain, describe brain activity that, in rare cases, can last up to ten minutes after the body is said to have died, or note that genetic activity continues frenetically in the days after death, but death remains far more inscrutable to scientists than it does to authors, who paint it and what lies beyond in bold, sensual strokes: “[I]t seems to me,” Pablo Neruda writes in “Nothing But Death,” “that [Death’s] singing has the colour of damp violets.”  The operatic and the cemeterial mingle here in a haunting metaphor, but above all, Neruda suggests that death is a continuance: death comes, the dying die, death sings, exeunt the dead, death sings; nothing really ends.

Others belittle death with the idea that spirit rises higher than the mouldy hand of mortality.  In “Death Be not Proud,” John Donne appears quite positive that death’s power is limited and even that “poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well, / And better then [death’s] stroake.” Why then grant death such a terrifying hold over our imagination?  In fact, imagination holds greater sway over death because, Donne tells us with confidence, it allows us to spook death by claiming that it too can be defeated by mere sleep.  For Mary Oliver, in “When Death Comes,” the only true capacity of death consists in simply stepping forward, much like a cab driver or a concierge, while she, the dying, steps “through the door full of curiosity, wondering: / what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?” Death is but an impersonal sort of worker who ushers an actor with tremendous agency onto another phenomenal but enigmatic reality. Scientists doubt and stop at the point where hesitation stumbles into unknowing.  Literature dashes forward and takes desire for a fact: death is not the end; spirit goes on and story takes over.

 

(c) Marie Thérèse Blanc

 

As my father lay on his narrow hospital bed in January 2018, I could have recalled that purple patch from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, the one that begins: “We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes” and goes on to claim that bodies are marked with experience and become, in death, a posthumous “cartography.”  But what I saw on my father’s face on the day of his death was not the intricate stamp of experience but rather innocence and soul restored. He had grown up and defied the Church that had attempted to oppress him; he had stood up to dictatorship, gone to prison, sought exile twice and become a refugee in possession of a United Nations passport, learned new languages in order to survive in new territories, tended to others as a doctor; he had taught thousands of students, trained young physicians, guided them in keeping others alive and healthy; he had struggled with marriage and fatherhood and doubted himself as a professional; he had fought his demons, and asked for forgiveness for his errors before dying.

In the last years of his life one of his sole remaining joys had been to feed the blue jays and cardinals that stopped by the crabapple tree in his backyard every Spring until they visited him with their young later in Summer, as if to gratefully introduce them to him before leaving in late Fall.  In death, he was closer to infancy than to experience: he was free, rid of conventions, expectations, disappointments.  He was, quite simply, done with us and with all this, and I was angry because I envied him his hard-earned, new-found, thunderous, and unchangeable peace and resented that he left us behind to fight all the tiresome, petty battles until our own time comes.

Because he had always loved bodies of water and had sailed as a young man, he’d asked that we scatter his ashes upon the waters of the St. Lawrence River.  Some friends were horrified and asked if I’d have to step into the churning waters holding his ashes in an urn.  Was that not dangerous?  Was it wise?  “No,” a friend, a playwright, admonished, “that sounds like the very formula for a tragicomedy.” But one funeral home agreed to perform this rite for us, and because I’d fought them tooth and nail so they wouldn’t read any scriptures during the funeral, the officiant turned to us in a moment of slight disorientation and, feeling that words were nonetheless necessary, said earnestly that from now on we would be able to feel my father everywhere in nature as he rose up from the waters as steam, joined clouds, rained down upon the earth, and made things grow.

Despite my customary sarcasm, I was unexpectedly satisfied with what was an uncomfortable improvisation that produced this simple ecology of death.  Even today, it still seems truer to the essence of death itself than most of the offerings of science or literature.  T.S Eliot was wrong, I think:  there is no fear in the “handful of dust” that is death, only the tenderness of the Zen Koan known as the Original Face Koan, which asks, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?”  The answer—which in classical Zen training must be grasped intuitively—is that it is the face of the universe and of original consciousness itself.  There is no death, no Dies Irae, no Kyrie; there is, certainly, a transformation that allows for a return we rarely ponder in earnest, in another form entirely, but that partakes in a sort of symphony of natural systems or structures that we cannot fully hear or grasp, but that we may at times divine when we are open to it.

My father’s funeral in the month of May was attended by few.  It was what he had wanted and asked for.  In February, on the date of his birthday, I had quietly organized a Buddhist ceremony to send off his soul in wisdom and peace.  I consider myself a pragmatic Buddhist; I adhere to the practice of Buddhism but shun what I cannot verify, so I cannot speak to reincarnation, but he had not always been a peaceful spirit, and I felt he probably needed the blessings on whatever journey he had entered. On the day of his funeral in May we congregated at a point where the river is calm, out East on the Island of Montréal, and laid flowers upon his ashes, which were encased in ice.  The flowers, however, fell off long before the ashes themselves sank into the river although they floated along and accompanied his remains like loyal and attentive vegetal pallbearers, and I too walked and then ran along the shore for a little while to see him off once and for all, and when the block of ice tipped over into the gray waters, my heart capsized along with it, and it was a long time before I was able to emerge from that Orphic descent.

When we drove off to return home, a large blue jay perched on a light signal, and as I waved at it to acknowledge this unexpected last tribute to my father, it flew off and the light turned green.  It is that very material ecology of death I wish for myself when it will be my turn:  humans, plants, and beasts present to witness my next, but not my last, metamorphosis.  Much more so than by literature or science, my loss is tempered by this artless reality.

 

(c) Marie Thérèse Blanc

 

 

Photo (c) Jack Klein

 

One reason to go to medical school can be a letter from a university congratulating you on a successful application, with the suggestion that you bring your thinking cap and your running shoes. So long, Dostoyevsky; hello… Galen, Harvey, and Ignaz Semmelweis. The latter gentleman lost his marbles after a long and fruitless quarrel with the German medical establishment regarding the need for handwashing after dissecting cadavers before delivering babies!

Medical science is bewilderingly vast and one is humbled by the ingenuity and dedication of the people who built this knowledge. Why see doctors? Because they are freighted with this knowledge. Cheer them up; their heads are full of science, and they have long days.

And so they are very relieved to know that artists are likewise suffering, hammering away at the coalface of their inspiration. If an artist should blunder into my office, I would show no empathy lest I relieve his/her distress and thus enfeeble her/his ardour. Out of their mighty struggles come the wonderful fruits that taste so good, with some cheese and wine. I have no trouble with washing my hands.

Matthew Arnold, 19th-century English poet and cultural critic, watched with shock and awe as science eroded the wonderful complacencies of faith and Empire. Many years ago – too many to count – he described European culture as “the braiding of two strands, of sweetness and of light:” sweetness from Greco-Roman sources, viz. drama, poetry, myth, philosophy – and light, viz. the Testaments, Old and New. So…  ethics, the deep moral sinew in culture, on the one hand, and the world of the imagination, on the other. He complained that rather a little more sweetness and a little less light would have been nice. Deep moral sinew is very much like crabgrass in that it is difficult to extirpate.

And so art, with its fumbling intuitions, is all we’ve got to see our way forward. The new problem is glut; everybody thinks they can write. Shucks! Even I thinks I can write. And clearly, the world is top-heavy with the self-referential… case in point! So we know whence; and now must tackle whither. Howsoever and wherefore await a different interrogation.

To arms, dear reader, and not now… yesterday! To the barricades! and let every encounter be a barricade. Two parts science, three parts art – stir, knead, mangle. Einstein said something very trenchant and amusing about this matter, but I cannot exactly recall his words. Perhaps you remember and should insert them at this point. He played an expert amateur violin and thought that if not a scientist, he might have been a professional musician. He had no use for the ukulele.

 

Where was I?

 

Oh yes…

 

Perhaps scientific understanding and artistic imagining are different aspects of the same impulse. And humanity’s great understanders and imaginers are inspired from similar sources. We are the astoundingly rich legatees of a cornucopia of invention and creation, but… now… hearing our mothers calling that it is time to come in to supper, we intend to stay out just a little longer, to watch as dusk falls.

In 1900 Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish physicist, established that carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels would function as a greenhouse gas, heating earth’s atmosphere. He believed that this would prevent another Ice Age and thus benefit the earth’s living populations. He was right about the heating, but wrong about its consequences.

Only our scientists can recalculate and institute the necessary steps to be taken now. Only our artists can take us by the hand, children that we are, to bring us to the place where we commit ourselves to these changes. Each one of us a scientist; each one of us an artist.

 

 

 

Ginkgo Biloba, 1815 (original in Goethe Museum, Düsseldorf), poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) Public domain

 

The zeitgeist of our times is characterized by creativity and innovation, particularly in the fields of art and science. A question often pondered is where these two fields intersect. Do they touch each other at a tangent? Do they cross each other? Do they simply overlap? Or perhaps that is a moot point, and never the twain shall meet (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling).

Kipling addressed the wrong question when he pontificated that East and West would never meet because they are merely two arbitrary points in an endless continuum. This is also true for art and science, since both disciplines are part of a never-ending human quest for knowledge and understanding. An eight-year old child once delighted grownups when she said that in science you discover something and in art you do what you like! Let’s recall what some well-known grownups have said on the subject.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a mathematician and a philosopher, believed that all art is merely an imitation of nature. This definition would have pleased artists like Michelangelo, who studied anatomy assiduously to produce sculptures more perfect than the bodies of mere mortals. But Leonardo da Vinci, a contemporary of Michelangelo, might disagree – he went on record publicly disparaging Michelangelo’s art. Perhaps this was because da Vinci, aside from being a consummate artist, was also a methodical man of science, an innovative inventor and the original Renaissance man. Or perhaps he would have disagreed with the notion that art is an imitation of nature simply because René Descartes (17th-century French philosopher and mathematician) hadn’t yet come along to predicate that perception is unreliable and reason is the only path to the natural sciences.

On the other hand, 20th-century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein affirmed that what cannot be imagined cannot even be talked about. Picasso, the father of cubism, certainly wasn’t a rationalist. He firmly believed that anything you can imagine is real. The cubist portraits of the women in his life are living proof that he perceived their multifaceted personalities. René Magritte, Belgian surrealist, considered art to be a science – that is, a way of knowing – because it evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist. Salvador Dali, the Catalan surrealist whose iconic clocks bent like warped time/space, had been highly impressed by Einstein’s recent discoveries. Frida Kahlo, Mexican painter and feminist, did not have to study anatomy in order to depict the vulnerability of the human body. She had subjective knowledge of the anatomy of an impaled body, the pain of poorly-set broken bones and the anguish of never being able to bear a child. Her paintings are so excruciatingly realistic that many of us who admire them would be unable to hang them in our living rooms.

A popular definition of the difference between art and science is that art is subjective whereas science is objective. Yet mathematicians sound like artists when they rejoice that a solution or a theory is “simple” or “elegant.” For Arthur Koestler, Hungarian British author, originality trumped perfection by opening up new frontiers. He was right, as both science and art are characterized by novelty and discovery. In fact, Koestler thought that science and art were alike in that both try to understand and explain the world around us.

Science fiction, or SF, is a literary genre that relies on the plausibility of science to conjure new forms of human societies. SF is not to be confused with fantasy fiction. The latter has no room for science or logic and couldn’t care a fig. Science fiction authors generally construct utopian or dystopian societies to express future aspirations or to decry current societies. Sci-fi is considered to be the perfect intersection between art and science. Twentieth-century science fiction writer Ray Bradbury considered SF to be “the one field that reached out and embraced every sector of the human imagination, every endeavor, every idea, every technological development, and every dream.”

Should music be classified as science or art? It is certainly art to the extent that it touches us in the deepest recesses of our psyche. But it also alters our brain connections, makes our heart rate go haywire, and can even impinge on our digestion. Since infancy and perhaps even before birth, we all naturally relate to melody and rhythm. Dissonance or noise might make us cringe.  John Cage, best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″ that is performed in the absence of deliberate sound, was a controversial composer and musicologist whose work challenged the aesthetics of art and performance. He introduced dissonance and even silence into mainstream musical vocabulary. Nowadays, soundscape artists who use technology to create spontaneous compositions out of ambient sounds are all the vogue in highly technological countries like Germany.

All these examples lead us to conclude that the starting point for art and science is imagining something that is not yet real. Both require curiosity and a sense of wonderment. Science and art raise questions that no one has asked before. Both rely on skills and knowledge. However, science requires proof, whereas art is more concerned with interpretation. Also, science looks for generalizations, whereas art prefers ad hoc solutions. Science begs to be predictable. Art is fickle and ever changing.

Goethe, an 18th-century botanist by profession but best remembered as a poet, has the last word: “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”[1] In Goethe’s world, art and science meet and become one.

 

[1] Quoted from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’ novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.

 

 

Clifton Road (my grandmother’s street) – photo (c) Catherine Watson

 

My grandmother died in 1969 at the age (I think) of 89. My brother and I weren’t expected to go to the funeral and neither of us now can remember exactly when it was. My grandmother had become a burden to my parents and they wanted to forget. After she died, my parents hired an estate clearance firm to empty out the house and all traces of her disappeared.

She left a diary for the year of her marriage and the year of my father’s birth, 1909. It’s a small, red pocket diary about four inches by two-and-three-quarter inches, a free gift with the purchase of Mazawattee tea. This my parents kept, and I took it from their house when they died, in 1987. It’s a careful document. The writing is small, neat, even, and for almost the first six months my grandmother did not miss a single day. In early June gaps start to appear, and in July a full week is missed. Then the entries are untidy, spilling over the space allotted for that day. In August the writing is once more firm and clear, and the entries are detailed. The diary ends eight days before my father’s birth, on August 15. My grandmother married in early May, and my father was born three-and-a-half months later, on August 23, 1909.

It’s a relic of empire. The first ten or so pages list the names of every Sunday in the Anglican calendar (with Sundays in bold print), the dates of Oxford and Cambridge university terms, the beginning and end of the law court sessions in London, the birthdays of several European monarchs, the anniversaries of battles, dates of the birth and death of famous men (Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Franz Joseph Haydn, Richard Wagner…). Pages towards the end show postal rates, tax rates and the average amount of time taken to deliver a letter from London to forty cities across the world; a final table lists the times of the tides in major English, Scottish and Irish towns, given as the difference between high tide in that town and at London Bridge.

 

Page from Nelly’s diary

 

When I knew my grandmother, she lived in a run-down terrace house on a forgotten street in West Croydon, the poorest part of town. (Croydon is about ten miles south of Central London, in my grandmother’s time a separate town, now part of Greater London.) Her house had no electricity and no fixed bath. It had an outside toilet and was heated and lit on the downstairs only by gas. Sometime in the early sixties, my father told me she had lived there since 1915 and paid a rent of fifteen shillings a week.

This is my rewriting of the diary she left, or part of it, the part that tells how her marriage came about, up to her wedding day. To her family and friends she was known as Nelly. This, then, is Nelly’s Diary. When my brother and I used to visit, we called her Grandma, which always felt to me ugly and cold, and as soon as I became independent I thought of her as my grandmother, which at least implied belonging – of her to me. As a child and young woman, I did not know her story although I knew her, and when the diary was found, I felt she had left it partly for me.

I was born in 1945, an early baby boomer and a child of the sixties. Before I left the family home, I also lived in Croydon but on the other side of town. My father had been the one successful member of his family.

 

The diary: January to April 1909

My grandmother wrote the diary for herself. She does not mention sharing her feelings with anyone or wanting to, or wishing, desperately, that she could. It was her private confessional space, the place where she wrote down at the end of each day what she had done, who she had seen, how she felt, and sometimes, what other people had done and how they had treated her. Yet she did not write the word “pregnancy” or even “late;” she wrote that she was “not at all well,” “felt very queer,” or “felt so ill don’t know what to do.” The meaning of the diary is clear only to people who have been similarly afraid or who have known people who were. My grandmother did try to include my grandfather, Arthur, in her worries, but he did everything he could to push her away.

2 January, Saturday. 2.25 down (2:25 train down from London) Called at 156. Warm Baths. Spent evening with Arthur, had hard, sharp walk.

5 January, Tuesday. In bed all day, up after dinner … sent a note to ‘A’ about 6.15, he went to bed (? on purpose not to see me?) … Went up to class … came back, he very very irritable + sarcastic.

9 January, Saturday.  … 2.25 down, went straight to Baths, but found them closed for repairs, home about 4, had dinner, had a wash + sat over the fire reading till 9, when ‘A’ called for me but I too tired to go out at that time, supper + to bed by 10, very very miserable

My grandmother worked as secretary to a lawyer in a London law firm and travelled to and from London every day on the train, including Saturdays, when she generally worked a half-day (“2.25 down …”). She was a modern woman for her time, spending evenings with her boyfriend, my grandfather, and going in search of him when she wanted. She lived at home in South Norwood, South London, on a street of comfortable family homes (Clifton Road, close to Norwood Junction) and was the oldest of seven children – five girls and two boys. Her father was dead, and all the children lived with their mother (“Mum”). She attended church (not every Sunday), went to choir practice and Bible study (“class”) and took part in occasional church socials and outings.

My grandfather lived at 156 Woodville Road, South Norwood, a short walk away from my grandmother’s home. He, too, lived with his family, on a rather more modest street than my grandmother’s.

Neither of them wanted a child, especially my grandfather.

Towards the end of January, my grandmother and grandfather began using what contacts they had to try to end the pregnancy. First, my grandmother made an appointment with a doctor, and Arthur went with her.

21 January, Thursday. Called at 156 about 8. Knocked 7 times, but could not make anyone hear, went over again about 9. ‘A’ in alone, asked about the dr, only stayed 1/2 hr

23 January, Saturday. Called at 156, then home to tea went to Dr Johns with A, nothing gained, back home again about 9.30.

Two days later “a friend” appears in the diary. He supplied Arthur and my grandmother with “stuff” in exchange for money. An appointment was also arranged with “a man,” although my grandmother’s courage failed her at the last moment and she did not stay.

25 January, Monday. After tea went to 156. A had been to see his friend + wants me to go tomorrow night

26 January, Tuesday. Lost 8.23. caught 8.41 foggy train late Caught 5.30 down … got ready to see ‘A’ about 20 to 8 but found he cancelled the meeting with his friend, told me trouble about £ …

27 January, Wednesday.  … caught 5.46 down N.J. (Norwood Junction) 8 o’clock. ‘A’ met me, gave me some more… Dense black fog all day not lift even lunch

1 February, Monday. Called at 156 to go with ‘A’ to his friend, but ‘A’ not well, been in bed all day. Stayed with him till about 9 …

4 February, Thursday. Called at 156. ‘A’ alone, but not well enough to go out. I went alone, but when I got there could not speak to the man, so came away without, called + told ‘A,’ he very cross about it. I (do) not stop but go off to choir practice, felt very ill all day. Not enjoy anything.

In late January a dense fog settled over London, and one night it took my grandmother more than two hours to travel from London Bridge Station to Norwood Junction, normally a journey of twenty to twenty-five minutes. In February, Arthur came down with bronchitis, and my grandmother’s younger sister also became sick and had to be hospitalized. Later in the month, her mother was laid up in bed. My grandmother was tired and often felt sick and faint, and in early February she and Arthur had a bitter quarrel.

7 February, Sunday. Arthur’s birthday
In bed till 1. Little walk afternoon. Tea with ‘A’ I took him a birthday cake, spent evening with him most fervently hope + pray that God will deliver me out of his hands, he most unjust + cruel to me.

Then,

9 February, Tuesday. Went to 156 + found ‘A’ alone, he seemed only very little better. His mood much kinder to me than on Sun last, but I w’d not forgive him.

Two more meetings were arranged with the friend. In late February there was snow and cold, and in early March, a hailstorm. In the first days of March, my grandmother fell ill (“cold in my limbs”) and soon developed a bad cold and cough. She stayed home from work (“not go to biz”). But almost at once the mood of the diary starts to change. My grandmother and Arthur meet; they talk; their disagreements seem less lasting. There is a new calm, or perhaps despair has replaced struggle and the frenzied need to fight. My grandmother by then was about three months pregnant.

11 March, Thursday. Called at 156. ‘A’ + I had talk to ourselves in front room then went for a walk for 1 hr. Not go to choir practice

18 March, Thursday.  … stayed at 156 little while, but ‘A’ + I very worried to know what to do for the best … very rainy night.

31 March, Wednesday. ‘A’ + I spent the evening in front room 156 making arrangements. I feel as if God really has left me to myself.
Confessed to mum, she so very good.

The secret being out, what remained were the practical details (the “arrangements”). Family and friends were “told,” and Arthur’s mother took it better than expected (“… his m. very nice about it”). A ring was bought (my grandmother put up the money) and the couple spent time at weekends with mutual friends, though Arthur’s temper did not improve. In the course of one afternoon or evening, his behaviour could change from bullying to kindness, or the other way around.

12 April, Easter Monday. Needlework sitting in garden until it rained, then called at 156. I went over after dinner, ‘A’ very horrid at first but he came round all right, we had tea together…  

17 April, Saturday. 2.25 down  … I promised ‘A’ to be over there 3.30, but was ½ hr late. He not ready, so came back home again … He was very, very horrid at first, but afterwards turned very nice.

I wish I knew what he really wanted, or how to manage him. It worries me so, I wish I could get right away.

23 April, Friday. Not go near ‘A,’ felt too low-spirited + done up. 8.25 down …

My grandmother noted down changes in my grandfather’s mood with as much precision as she did train times to and from London. It was as if she didn’t expect to influence him, or to be able to reason with him – and perhaps she couldn’t. Perhaps he was incapable of considering anyone’s feelings but his own. Did she know what she wrote? The clarity of her writing makes her diary a faithful record of the flux and change of an abusive relationship – of repeated movements from deliberate hurt to reconciliation, from wretchedness to hope, from anger and alienation to relative security and peace. What my grandmother describes is the emotional rollercoaster of the abused partner or wife, although she had no name for Arthur’s conduct or for her own distress. I think that she didn’t know how aberrant Arthur’s behaviour was, or how much she suffered. She was too busy keeping going and forestalling her own collapse, and writing served to neutralize what she knew and what she felt.

25 April, Sunday. 11.4 (train) to Stone Hill (a nearby suburb) Fine day, told Violet all about it, she delighted + hopes all will come right. It seems too good to be true to be as she puts it. Back to N.J. 6.40. A waiting for me, had lovely evening together, felt much brighter.

27 April, Tuesday. 8.25 down. Called at 156 saw ‘A,’ he very hard to me + cool, will not go to Vi’s on Sun.

Wish I was dead, or had never known him

 

Local Anglican church – photo (c) Catherine Watson

 

The Week of the Wedding: 2–7 May 1909 

Right up to the end, my grandfather fought a fierce rearguard action to protect his freedom and his purse. On the Sunday before the wedding, he asked my grandmother to sign “a paper” that presumably would have absolved him of all legal and financial responsibility for her and the child. When at the end of the week she still refused to sign, he threatened not to appear at the wedding, and my grandmother’s elder brother had to be sent round to strong-arm him into showing up. It seems as well that my grandmother’s brother Tom had not yet been told of the reasons for the marriage.

2 May, Sunday. Too late for church. Went to see ‘A’ after dinner, he rather cool + rude in manner, went home to tea + back to 156 after, he much nicer after tea … want me to sign an agreement. I refused.  

4 May, Tuesday. Called at 156. Mrs. came to door. ‘A’ says all right for Sat. Mum told Tom when I gone to bed, mum say he so very upset about it. 

5 May, Wednesday.  … mum told me what Tom said. I think he seems very hard, says I can’t stay home. I was very upset, cried a lot + exhausted myself. 

7 May, Friday.  … called at ‘A.’ He wanted me to sign a very silly paper + because I wouldn’t, he said wouldn’t come down tomorrow. I had hysterics when got home. Tom went over to see “A” + came back saying alright. 

Reading between the lines, it seems that my grandmother’s mother (my great-grandmother, whose name I never knew) would have allowed my grandmother to live at home after she was married. My father would then have been raised in my grandmother’s family and, just possibly, my grandmother might have returned to her job after my father’s birth. But my grandmother’s brother Tom disagreed (“says I can’t stay home”). My grandmother was the oldest child, but Tom was the elder of two brothers and male head of the household. His word was law. Three weeks after the wedding, my grandparents moved into a small flat in the neighbourhood (my grandmother paid the deposit) and my father was born there less than three months later. My grandmother gave notice at her job in the week following the wedding.

 

My father’s birthplace (upstairs flat) – photo (c) Catherine Watson

 

In the next seven years, my grandmother had two more children. In 1914 my grandfather enlisted in the British Army, and in 1919 he returned to England after spending a year in a POW camp with an untreated leg injury. He was unemployed from then on. At some point he became violent, and I don’t think anyone knows when. The marriage lasted forty-four years, until my grandfather’s death in 1953.

It was as a consequence of these events that my grandmother lived a life of poverty and her children were raised in an atmosphere of violence. By the time I knew her, she was also legally blind. She suffered from a hereditary blindness condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and in one brief diary entry, she wrote that she had seen a specialist who told her there was no cure.

»«

I’ve come to believe that understanding often skips a generation. My father had his own battles to fight and didn’t have much time or energy to spend regretting the hardships of his mother’s life. I was always inclined to take my grandmother’s part, and I felt that the world had treated her unjustly, even when I didn’t know the reasons for it, and even as a child.

When I first read the diary a few years after my grandmother’s death, when I was in my mid- to late twenties, the bond I felt with her was stronger than I’d imagined. Reading the diary, I knew exactly what she’d lived through, and at times it seemed that I was reading about myself – about a younger, more vulnerable version of myself. In my late teens and into my early twenties, I had been mostly ignorant of contraception and had no access to abortion. The fears my grandmother described were exactly those I had known: the terror of losing all my hard-won independence, the not knowing, the near panic at being found out.

Now when I read the diary, at almost seventy-four, I see my grandmother’s toughness. She took things step-by-step; she did not waste herself in emotional outbursts and fought back against Arthur only when he drove her almost to the ground. She recorded honestly, spoke truthfully when there was no one there to listen. Toughness was for her a practiced habit of mind.

 

 

 

Depuis le tournant du siècle, nous assistons à une montée alarmante de l’extrême-droite et d’un racisme décomplexé, pas seulement au Québec mais ailleurs aussi, notamment en Allemagne, en France, en Italie et aux États-Unis. Il est vrai que les contextes de crises économiques sont souvent propices à la montée de la droite et à des chasses aux sorcières. Quand tout va mal, la solution facile est de mettre nos malheurs sur le dos de boucs émissaires. Pensons à la Grande Dépression des années 30 et la montée du nazisme.

La Ligue des droits et libertés a voulu se pencher sur la question. Qu’est-ce que le racisme? D’où vient-il? Que pouvons-nous faire pour l’éradiquer pour qu’un jour nous puissions vivre dans une société où le droit à l’égalité n’est plus seulement une utopie mais une réalité?

 

Les livres sont souvent distrayants, drôles ou captivants… Mais il y a des rares fois où un livre nous apporte un nouvel éclairage sur un aspect ou l’autre de la vie et des rapports humains qui nous amène à remettre en question notre vision des choses. « La fragilité blanche »[1], de Robin DiAngelo a été pour moi un de ces livres marquants.

Avant de lire ce livre, je croyais comme beaucoup d’autres que le racisme se résumait à la posture de ceux qui n’aiment pas les personnes racisées et qui le manifestent par l’expression de préjugés ou des comportements péjoratifs et injurieux à leur égard. Selon cette vision, le racisme se résume à des comportements répréhensibles conscients et volontaires, basés sur des préjugés. La réaction habituelle lorsque nous sommes témoins de ce genre de comportements est de pointer la personne du doigt ou de lever les épaules en signe d’exaspération, de se distancer de ces propos en les qualifiant de racistes et en se confortant du fait que « nous » ne sommes pas racistes. Ceci dispose de la question et nous retournons tranquilles à nos occupations.

Robin DiAngelo expose une autre vision du racisme en parlant de « racisme systémique ». Plus qu’une simple question sémantique, ce concept change notre posture. Nous ne sommes pas seulement des spectateurs de torts commis par les autres. Nous faisons partie d’un système dans lequel nous avons tous et toutes un rôle. Nous sommes des acteurs et actrices de ce système et nous pouvons contribuer à le refaçonner.

C’est fort de cette conviction que le comité Laicité, racisme et exclusion sociale de la Ligue des droits et libertés a décidé d’offrir des ateliers pour partager la compréhension que nous avons acquise et engager une réflexion sur le racisme systémique. Depuis septembre 2017, nous avons donc organisé deux conférences grand public à l’UQAM et animé des ateliers dans divers milieux : cours universitaire en travail social, étudiantes sages-femmes, groupe d’intervenant-e-s auprès de personnes immigrantes et racisées, centres de femmes et groupes communautaires. Nous avons également produit une brochure sous forme de question-réponse [2]. Dans le texte qui suit, je vais partager avec vous les grandes lignes de la réflexion sur le racisme systémique présentée lors des ateliers.

Les racines du racisme

Il est clair que le racisme sous-tend, dès son origine, l’idée de la supériorité européenne qui a été utilisée pour justifier la conquête du monde par l’Occident. Au 19e siècle et jusqu’au milieu du 20e siècle, il y avait des expositions coloniales en Europe. On y exposait des objets, des plantes et des animaux exotiques rapportés des colonies, mais aussi… des « indigènes ». Et on mettait en évidence des traits physiques tels que la longueur du cou ou la forme du postérieur des femmes. Environ 30 000 personnes ont été exposées ainsi et vues par des centaines de millions de personnes. L’esclavagisme, ainsi que les pensionnats autochtones d’ailleurs, ont été légitimés par le fait que cette servitude contribuerait au rapprochement des populations autochtones de l’idéal de civilisation (sic) incarné – il va sans dire – par les pays occidentaux!

Au 17e siècle, il y a même eu un débat à savoir si les Indiens en Amérique avaient une âme ou non. Le Pape a conclu que les Indiens en avaient une, et qu’il fallait donc les évangéliser, mais que les « Noirs », eux, n’en avaient pas. Le Code Noir publié en 1685 en France stipulait que les Noirs devaient être considérés comme des biens meubles et qu’ils étaient donc « commerçables ».

Comme nous le savons, le concept de race ne correspond à aucune réalité biologique. Il n’y a qu’une race humaine. Les catégories raciales ont été inventées – la race est un construit social. Néanmoins, le racisme lui existe bel et bien. La race est construite par le regard de l’Autre, d’où l’utilisation du terme « racisation » et « racisé ».

Rodney St. Éloi, québécois d’origine haïtienne, dit que, lorsqu’il est arrivé à Montréal, « il s’est découvert, dans le regard de l’Autre, Noir, Négre, en tout cas, en marge de l’Humanité. »[3] 

Le racisme est apparu à la « grande » époque de la colonisation de l’Afrique, des Amériques et de l’Asie par les puissances européennes. Pour exploiter les ressources et le territoire, le colonisateur avait besoin d’asservir les peuples colonisés et de justifier de les traiter différemment des nationaux. C’est donc le besoin d’exploiter et d’asservir qui a donné naissance au concept de race et au racisme.

Photo (c) Martine Eloy

Au cœur du racisme : la construction de l’Autre

L’objectif de la racisation est de différencier, d’inférioriser et d’exclure. Le racisme opère par la construction de l’Autre : il s’agit de créer une représentation de l’Autre comme une sorte de sous-humain – à qui on attribue des caractéristiques stigmatisantes qui le définissent comme inférieur. Au 18è siècle, le racisme s’appuyait sur des études pseudo-scientifiques pour justifier la hiérarchisation des races. Mais lorsque toute base scientifique à l’existence de races a été démentie, la construction de l’Autre s’est fait de plus en plus sur la base de différences culturelles ou religieuses essentialisées et donc insurmontables.

Depuis le tournant du siècle, nous avons vu le processus de création de l’Autre à l’œuvre pour les personnes musulmanes, principalement par le biais des médias. Nous avons été bombardés d’amalgames entre musulmans et islamistes, entre arabes et musulmans, entre personnes du Maghreb et musulmans, puis de l’association entre « musulman » et « terroriste », et d’images de femmes d’Afghanistan, d’Irak et de Syrie, portant le hijab, dans des postures de soumission. Ainsi, la construction de l’Autre été complétée par cet amalgame, associé périodiquement au qualificatif de « barbarie ». Comme le fait remarquer Axel Khan, un généticien, médecin et auteur français, dans le discours des racistes, ce ne sont pas seulement les supposées races qui sont déclarées inégales, ce sont aussi les coutumes, les croyances et les civilisations. L’antisémitisme et l’islamophobie en sont des exemples notoires.

Briser les représentations stigmatisantes pour en finir avec le tandem NOUS-EUX

Nous devons nous efforcer de briser les stéréotypes stigmatisants qui nous sont présentés de divers groupes et se rappeler qu’aucun groupe religieux ou national n’est monolithique. Évidemment, il est plus facile d’appréhender les nuances au sein de groupes qui nous sont familiers. Prenons les chrétiens par exemple. Nous savons que parmi ce groupe de croyant-e-s, qui proviennent de milieux de vie très différents et de différentes régions du monde, on retrouve aussi bien des fervents catholiques qui interdisent les relations avant le mariage et l’avortement même dans le cas d’une fillette de neuf ans violée par son beau-père, que des disciples de la théologie de la libération et des personnes qui défendent les droits des personnes gaies et le droit à l’avortement.

Étonnement, nous semblons prêts à endosser la représentation stigmatisée et figée qui nous est servie quotidiennement en ce qui a trait aux personnes musulmanes. Or, il y a un éventail aussi large – sinon plus – d’interprétation de la religion parmi les musulmans qui proviennent aussi de régions très différentes du monde. Ce n’est qu’une fraction des musulmans qui sont islamistes. Il y a des associations de musulmanes féministes. Il y a ceux et celles qui vivent dans un pays avec une religion d’État dont les normes imposées sont contestées par des adeptes d’autres tendances musulmanes. Et il y a des personnes musulmanes qui ne sont pas pratiquantes. Il est important de combattre les représentations stigmatisées qui servent à la construction de l’Autre si nous voulons en finir avec le tandem NOUS-EUX.

La majeure partie de l’iceberg n’est pas facilement visible

Pour utiliser une métaphore, les comportements ouvertement et consciemment racistes ne sont que la pointe de l’iceberg. La partie qui dépasse de l’eau et qui capte le regard. La pointe de l’iceberg ne flotte pas seule sur l’eau. Elle est la partie visible d’une imposante structure de glace en dessous de l’eau qui, elle, n’est pas facilement visible. On aura beau couper la pointe d l’iceberg, il restera solide (à condition toutefois qu’il n’y ait pas de réchauffement climatique!).

Ainsi lorsqu’on parle de racisme systémique, on réfère à l’ensemble de l’iceberg. Le racisme n’est pas avant tout une question de comportements individuels ni de valeur morale, mais bien d’un ensemble de structures et de croyances qui systématisent et perpétuent la répartition inégale des privilèges, des ressources et du pouvoir entre les personnes dites blanches et les personnes racisées, à l’avantage des personnes dites blanches. C’est un système qui permet l’exercice du pouvoir d’un groupe sur un autre – un système dans lequel nous jouons tous et toutes un rôle.

Cachons ce mot qu’on ne veut pas voir!

Au Québec comme ailleurs, il y a une grande résistance à l’utilisation du terme « racisme systémique ». Nous avons vu que la demande d’une commission sur le racisme systémique a déchainé les passions : on reproche à ceux qui en font la demande de « faire un procès de racisme aux Québécois » et de « culpabiliser les Québécois » quand ce n’est pas d’« accuser tous les Québécois d’être racistes »! Pourquoi une réaction si vive et émotive à l’utilisation du mot « systémique »? Nos politiciens savent surement la différence entre « systémique » et « systématique » – du moins nous l’espérons! Comment alors expliquer que l’utilisation du terme « racisme systémique » provoque de telles réactions? Robin DiAngelo, sociologue qui a travaillé pendant de nombreuses années comme consultante et formatrice sur la question de la diversité dans les entreprises, a nommé ce phénomène la « fragilité blanche ». D’ailleurs, le sous-titre de son livre est : « Pourquoi c’est si dur pour les personnes blanches de parler de racisme ». Robin DiAngelo explique la fragilité blanche comme suit :

« Nous avons organisé la société afin de reproduire et de renforcer nos intérêts et perspectives raciaux. De plus, nous sommes le centre de toutes les questions considérées comme normales, universelles, bénignes, neutres et bonnes. Ainsi, nous nous déplaçons dans un monde entièrement racialisé avec une identité déracialisée. (…) Les défis à cette identité deviennent très stressants et même intolérables.(…) Dans les rares cas où nous sommes confronté-e-s à ces défis, nous nous retirons, nous nous défendons, pleurons, argumentons, minimisons, ignorons, et par tous les moyens repoussons ces défis pour regagner notre position raciale et l’équilibre. J’appelle cette action précise consistant à tout repousser, la fragilité blanche. »

Un impact délétère

Revenons à la question du racisme systémique. Lorsqu’on regarde la question de l’emploi, par exemple, il y a certes des employeurs ouvertement racistes (qui véhiculent haut et forts des préjugés sur des personnes racisées) mais il y a aussi d’autres facteurs qui sont plus difficiles à débusquer. Il y a les obstacles structurels, institutionnels et systémiques qui empêchent des personnes racisées d’avoir accès à des emplois. Il y a aussi les biais implicites, c’est-à-dire les associations que nous faisons inconsciemment à cause d’images, de modèles ou de messages indirects avec lesquels nous avons été bombardé-e-s depuis notre plus tendre enfance. Un exemple : avant d’être élu, Obama attendait debout devant la porte d’un hôtel que son chauffeur arrive et un homme dit blanc s’est adressé à lui pour le service de voiturier. Cela ne veut pas dire que cet homme est raciste, mais ses comportements ont été façonnés par toutes les représentations sociales qui présentent des personnes racisées dans des fonctions subalternes de service. Cet homme a eu un réflexe empreint de racisme parce qu’il vit dans un système raciste.

Nous devons arrêter d’être des spectateurs silencieux lorsque nous sommes témoins d’actes racistes. Pensons à la terrible attaque raciste subi par le jeune joueur de hockey à Saint-Jérôme[4]. Non seulement lui et ses proches se sont fait brutalisés et injuriés de manière grossière mais de plus, pour ajouter à l’injure, la foule est demeurée silencieuse. C’est un silence qui fait très mal. C’est un silence qui autorise et perpétue ces comportements racistes.

Nous devons arrêter de nous contenter de nous déclarer antiracistes sans intervenir. Mais nous ne devons pas non plus nous contenter de dénoncer des comportements individuels – qui ne sont que la pointe de l’iceberg – sans porter attention et travailler à contrer tous les obstacles structurels à l’égalité inscrits dans l’ADN de notre société.

Le racisme porte atteinte de manière importante et délétère aux droits économiques, sociaux, culturels, civils et politiques des personnes racisées. C’est pour cela qu’il est important de reconnaître que le racisme est systémique. Non pas pour pointer quelqu’un du doigt, mais bien pour voir comment ensemble nous pouvons changer les biais structurels et lever les obstacles à l’égalité pour tous et toutes. Dans un souci de justice sociale et d’égalité des droits pour tous et toutes, nous avons la responsabilité de nous engager dans la lutte contre le racisme pour qu’un jour l’égalité pour tous et toutes soit une réalité. C’est cette responsabilité que la Ligue des droits et libertés s’engage à assumer.

1 Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism, Beacon Press, Boston, 2018, 168 p.

2 Ligue des droits et libertés, Le racisme systémique… parlons-en!, septembre 2017, 12 p. Aussi disponible en anglais, Systemic racism… let’s talk about it!

3 Le Racisme, Pour une lutte systémique, Éditions SOMME TOUTE, 2019, p. 126.

4 Alexandre Pratt, Sortez les racistes de nos arénas, La Presse+, édition du 26 février 2019, section SPORTS, écran 2

 

 

 

Photo © Jean-Paul Tremblay

Je voudrais dire wliwni (merci!) de vivre à Montréal,
qui est en TERRITOIRE MOHAWK NON CÉDÉ!

I would like to say wliwni (thanks) for being able to live in Montréal,
which is in UNCEDED MOHAWK TERRITORY!

 

Photo © Marie-Josée Tremblay

 

Kwaï! Bonjour!

Nd’aliwizi Mali-Sozi. Je m’appelle Marie-Josée.

N’wal8wzi, ni kiow8? Je me sens bien, et vous?

N’plachm8n8dwa. Je parle français.

Nd’iglism8n8dwa. Je parle anglais.

Nd’aln8ba8dwa. Je parle abénaki.

 

Il y a deux ans déjà, j’ai commencé à apprendre la aln8ba8dwaw8gan (langue abénakise), cela a duré un an. Puis, l’année dernière, les cours ont repris. J’avais envie de partager avec vous un peu de mon apprentissage de cette langue, qui m’a été si familière dès le premier cours. La aln8ba8dwaw8gan (langue abénakise), j’en suis tombée amoureuse! C’est vrai! J’avais l’impression que je retrouvais ma langue maternelle! Pourtant, j’ai été adoptée très jeune, par l’intermédiaire du père Boyle, jésuite. Je suis métisse anishnabe, algonquine. En poussant davantage mes recherches généalogiques, je suis certaine que je trouverais aussi des racines abénakises.

Je viens d’une famille adoptive non raciste. Ma mère est née à St-Henri, mon père à Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. Il a été lieutenant dans l’armée canadienne, positionné en Angleterre pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale. La division raciale n’existait pas dans notre famille tant au sujet des minorités qu’à celui de la iglism8n8dwaw8gan (langue anglaise).

« Moi, je ne suis qu’une Métisse à tes yeux, une adoptée, sans carte, sans preuve, sans communauté, avec parents adoptifs et religion catholique, en plus, qui parle français tandis que toi, tu parles majoritairement anglais avec tous les droits possibles. » Est-ce qu’on doit vraiment avoir une barrière entre nous? Que dire sur la séparation, entre nations, provoquée par les langues ainsi que tout le reste? Pourtant, toi aussi tu as été adopté. Tu as retrouvé ta famille, comme moi.

Avant même que les colons arrivent au Québec et au Canada, les différentes nations autochtones s’entretuaient. Par la suite, les colons s’installent. Certaines nations se sont alliées avec les Français de France et d’autres avec les Anglais d’Angleterre. D’où la division entre les peuples autochtones, leurs langues et leurs religions! Résultat? Langues parlées : français, anglais, autochtones. Religion choisie : catholique, protestante, traditionnelle. Et j’en passe…

Donc, pour qu’un Autochtone soit reconnu comme un vrai Autochtone, le gouvernement lui demande de prouver le pourcentage autochtone qui coule dans ses veines. Cette loi augmente la division, la discorde, la rupture entre les nations. Une loi totalement inacceptable! Comment le prouver? C’est une situation grotesque et déchirante. C’est ridiculiser les Autochtones! Le gouvernement a créé le chaos entre nous pour, encore une fois, nous isoler, nous détruire, nous exterminer!

En plus on entend les discours sur la réconciliation entre non Autochtones et Autochtones. Je suis bien d’accord, mais que fait-on de la réconciliation entre les nations autochtones ainsi qu’entre les Autochtones et les Métis? A quand cette réconciliation? Rien n’a changé entre nous, ou si peu. Donc, parler de métissage est encore plus compliqué. Vous pouvez comprendre un peu mieux comment je peux me sentir dans tout ce casse-tête… Je ne le répéterai jamais assez : Je ne suis ni l’une, ni l’autre. Ni autochtone, ni blanche.

Même si je suis impliquée dans la communauté autochtone de Montréal depuis plusieurs années et que j’y ai travaillé, je reste, pour certains Autochtones, une Métisse – ou plutôt une non Autochtone, qui veut s’infiltrer parmi eux. Il est certain que ça me blesse, mais je dois comprendre qu’il y a beaucoup de gens qui se disent métis à Montréal et qui ne le sont pas. En plus, certains Autochtones qui vivent dans des réserves – même s’ils ont leur carte d’Indien – sont métissés et donc rejetés, intimidés, par les gens qui les entourent. Selon eux, ils sont autochtones! Éventuellement, vu que la pression est trop forte, ils quittent leur communauté sans savoir où aller… Ils vont vers les grandes villes. Ils sont perdus, déchirés. C’est tellement compliqué!

Avec toute l’expérience que j’ai vécue pendant toutes ces années avec tous les Autochtones que j’ai rencontrés et qui vivent, ou vivaient, à Montréal ce que je considère le plus difficile, c’est l’intégration. De faire partie d’eux, partie d’un tout! Comme une famille! Je n’ai pas grandi dans une réserve. Donc, je n’ai pas connu les enjeux auxquels ils ont fait face. Ils ont eu des vies très difficiles. J’entends leurs histoires, mais je n’y étais pas. J’ai été élevée en banlieue de Montréal. Ma mère voulait que j’étudie afin d’obtenir des diplômes pour pouvoir travailler. On avait une maison. Je n’ai jamais manqué de rien!

Nous, les Autochtones ainsi que les Métis, nous, on travaille fort pour aller mieux physiquement, mentalement, émotionnellement et spirituellement en se réappropriant nos langues, nos traditions ainsi que nos croyances spirituelles traditionnelles. Mais, les dégâts sont irréparables et la guérison sera longue!

Nd’aliwizi Mali-Sozi. Je m’appelle Marie-Josée.

N’wigi Molianek. J’habite Montréal.

Wlinanawalmezi. Prend bien soin de toi.

Wliwni. Merci.

Adio. Au revoir.

 

 

À propos de l’artiste

Auteure-compositrice et interprète de musique indie-folk, Marie-Josée Tremblay est aussi photographe, réalisatrice, comédienne et peintre. Artiste pluridisciplinaire d’origine algonquine, elle s’inspire de ses expériences vécues allant même au-delà. Après avoir sorti un album CD « Searching for you » honorant les femmes autochtones disparues et assassinées, elle a réalisé un album EP « Ni l’une Ni l’autre » regroupant les musiques de son premier court-métrage. Marie-Josée est impliquée dans la cause des Femmes Autochtones Disparues et Assassinées depuis plusieurs années. Elle a également réalisé quatre courts-métrages avec la production Wapikoni Escale Montréal et UQAM. Elle a composé les musiques sur ses courts-métrages « Ni l’Une Ni l’Autre » et « Le Battement de ma Ville », 2015 – 2016. « Un Matin Tranquille » et « L’Envol » ont été sélectionnés au Festival Présence Autochtone de Montréal, 2017 – 2018.

En janvier 2019 sa présentation multidisciplinaire « In my heart of hearts / Au plus profond de mon cœur » a paru dans la revue Montréal Serai. Marie-Josée a également publié un témoignage intitulé « Ma nourriture spirituelle » dans la revue TicArtToc (numéro #8 printemps 2017).

 

Kolkata

 

I arrived in Kolkata in November 2014, sick with undiagnosed depression and psychosis.

I had begun to feel unsafe in Canada, the country of my birth, convinced I was being followed by unknown enemies. My paranoia was not wholly imagined. I had long perceived my marginalization as a woman of colour, particularly in the Canadian workforce. My mental health problems had begun with a job I had taken in Montréal in 2009 – as an editor/administrator for a publishers’ association – in which I had been mistreated and exploited by a white, male boss (an influential publisher) and a few of his associates. (This period was documented in “Being Brown and Depressed” in New Canadian Media, January 2018.) After two years I had quit, exhausted and in despair.

My depression degraded over the following two years. After moving to Toronto in search of secure work, my isolation deepened and I was often irritable and angry. After some time, I lost hope and developed a sense of terror.

I fled to India with a laptop and a few documents, like a reverse refugee, having disposed of most of my possessions. In India, I thought, I would be among people who shared my heritage. I would be at peace in an inherited house, the house of the past that my late father and paternal grandmother had given me. (My parents had divorced when I was 18 and moved back to India separately. My mother had moved into the house after my father’s death, to secure the property.)

But my mother’s maternal sister-in-law arrived on a visit to my maternal grandmother, who had been left in my mother’s care by my maternal uncle. And when I woke up from the sofa in my drawing room, I heard my maternal grandmother say with loud irritation to my aunt: “We could have sat there, but now Tinni [my “call” name] is here.”

In India I remained frightened. I woke up at all hours and ran about our roomy, two-storey Ballygunge house, built in 1935 as a square, brick colonial-Indian bungalow. I sprinted up the spiralling stone staircase, making sure my mother and grandmother were all right, locking the numerous Burma teak doors and grilled French windows. I spent the night on the upper floor, in the room with a balcony that looked over the street from the corner edge of the red house. If I heard anything strange to me, I leapt up and opened the balcony-door shutters to look out. I hardly slept. I was convinced that I was still being followed. I wept and wondered aloud, to my mother, if I ought to kill myself.

My mother suggested that I rest and “have fun” while in India. I enrolled in Kalaripayat and Sanskrit classes, read, wrote, and handled my long-neglected affairs in Kolkata. Another aunt sailed in from Mumbai to visit her mother-in-law, my grandmother, as though she were doing my mother and me a great favour, and demanded we take her to College Street and Park Street. My mood remained low. My terror came and went, but I was still angry, not merely at my abuses by whites in Canada, but also about my abuses by family members in India: at my maternal family, who treated my house and my time as theirs to use; at my paternal family, who behaved as though I, an unmarried woman, was a non-person. My paternal cousins next door did not visit or even acknowledge me.

My grievances were legitimate. My behaviour was unusually intense, loud, and sometimes irrational. “You’re not my mother,” I railed for hours at my mother at the top of my voice, so that the neighbours heard it. “You only care about your family!” I yelled frequently about the filth people threw from their houses onto the street. When someone laid large flowerpots against our house wall, l stomped out, lifted one of the pots in the air and dashed it down on the street. It cracked with a satisfying sound.

The old houses in our area had been built close to each other, with numerous wide-open windows, doors, verandas and balconies. My house, built by my grandfather, was just a few feet away from one that had been built by his brother. I heard chatter and activities clearly and began to differentiate voices. Our lanes were narrow, and we could also hear the voices of neighbours across the street.

 

 

I began to hear the word “pagol” thrown out by the next-door neighbour, a woman living with my second cousin Himon Sanyal, a man who improbably worked in public relations. “Is she crazy?” and “She’s crazy!” were the expressions I heard repeatedly, daily, from this woman whom I had never met. Her voice was distinctly high-pitched and loud, but other voices in her house seemed to try to hush her. I could not help picking up this word, “pagol” after that, repeatedly, and not merely from the next-door neighbour. “Mai ta pagol” – “the girl is crazy” –was something I began to hear as a chorus from strangers passing in front of the house.

The woman next door talked about the “pagol” incessantly. I once heard her advise her maids to shut the windows because someone next door was “pagol.” I then heard the windows shut abruptly. One day she sat with her family in the small room close to our kitchen, and when I spoke out to my mother, she used the word “pagol” loudly again and shut their window. Someone got out of his car one evening and walked close to our drawing room where I sat talking to my mother, and pronounced that the “pagol” was downstairs.

As a Westerner, I thought myself above fear of such behaviour. But deep in my mind I knew the power of the word “pagol.” My maternal family had a history of mental illness. My mother had told me about the intense pain she had felt when her father was branded “pagol.” The term erased a man’s humanity and was an accusation, as though mental illness were akin to theft – something to be not pitied but condemned. When I was young, my mother described going to school with her other little friends, after her father’s illness. A woman had singled her out and asked her loudly:

“What happened to your father?”

My mother did not reply. I had absorbed the sense of pained love and fear that came over my mother’s face in her recollection. The fact is my grandfather, like my mother and myself, had suffered from depression. The vulgar curiosity of an adult had burned into the child’s mind, filling her with feelings of shame, anger, pity and protectiveness toward her father, and a sense of social alienation.

My grandfather had been a lawyer in Bangladesh prior to the Partition. Living without a job in independent India, in the house of his powerful father-in-law, with a wife and several children to care for, he was suffering from displacement and intense stress. He walked into the King’s shrines and fell before the gold Kali idol to seek help from the divine. He was found weeping by guards, his hands on the idol’s gilt feet. He was hauled out of the shrine by police and locked up in his father-in-law’s house, not even permitted to speak to his wife. His brother, a professor, arrived and took him to see a doctor. My grandfather was treated with medicine for the rest of his life and went on to work for the government. Yet he was always seen as a failure, as a cause of anguish in the family.

Perhaps my memory of this was part of the reason I was reluctant to see a doctor. In Canada, too, the word “crazy” was used to dismiss the poor, the ill, the female, the non-white. And the mistrust I had grown to feel in Canada made me unwilling to consider myself “crazy.” It seemed to me my society was trying to make me “crazy” – that is, beyond the acceptable, outside the norm.

Within my first year in India, I edited a book, published a review, obtained my Overseas Citizen of India card, took courses, and helped my mother take care of my grandmother. But I neglected something critical, the Coumadin I had been taking for years to prevent blood clots. I went on holiday in Florence and promptly had a stroke. My friend saved my life by taking me to a hospital.

On return to India, my depression worsened dramatically. I was now dependent on others, for I had lost much of my memory and language. I could not travel alone, for I had forgotten the street names in the city I had known for decades. I could hardly read and could not write. I could no longer work, and required therapy. I worried I would never recuperate and that no one in India would help me to do so – that I had ruined my life. I blamed the person I was most dependent on for my isolation and incapacity.

I began shaking my mother and yelling loudly at her. One day I pushed her down on a sofa and made her listen to my screams. On another day I told her to move out of my house. Finally, one evening I slapped her three times and told her to leave again. She began crying. I apologized, wondering what was wrong with me. The next morning I woke up and knew I had to see a doctor. I became afraid of myself and asked my mother to get a maid to stay with her through the evening and night. Within a few weeks, I saw a doctor at Desun Hospital, Dr. Sujata Ghosh, who, together with my patient and supportive mother, also saved my life.

India has been seen as a healing nation, especially by Westerners. My doctor became for me a kind of guru. The Partition, triggered by interests of the colonizing West and by cultural divisions within India, had made my grandfather and his descendants suffer for generations. This suffering had demonstrated to me the harsh limitation in my heritage, both Indian and Western. The Raj-era house I had taken shelter in had slowly unveiled to me a psychic battlefield within, one I’d long ignored in Canada. But it was only in that house of the past that I could grasp what had happened to me and seek treatment.

More than a year later, after therapy, medication and hard work, I regained both my physical and mental health.

I interviewed Dr. Ghosh. It turned out that I was not the only Indo-Canadian who had sought her help. How many had she seen? “Quite a few in the last few years,” she said. “Some Indo-Canadians who have roots in India […] were here because their families are based [here]. Quite a few students were there as overseas students and had a mental breakdown […] and were not able to access help over there…” Hearing this made me realize I had not had a peculiar personal tragedy. Dr. Ghosh noted that, “overseas students […] have definitely not found […] the mental health services available or approachable. So at a great personal cost and an economic cost, they prefer to come back. But it is even stranger that a lot of Canadians – Indo-Canadians – find it more comfortable to come back and get their treatment over here.”

But why, in Canada, were Indo-Canadians and Indian students unable to find the help they needed? She replied: “Social isolation is a big problem.” That social isolation in my case, I thought, was rooted in racism and marginalization in Canada, as well as in my fractured family history. About this, Dr. Ghosh added: “if at the peak of your career, you have to take a break for a few years just because adequate mental health support is not available or you do not feel comfortable about seeking that help, had you been able to access help, had you found it approachable, easily available, you should have been able to continue with whatever you were doing.”

In Canada I had seen two white psychologists, both of whom seemed unaware of the problems faced by women of colour. But prior to my illness, I had interviewed Dr. Jaswant Guzder, a co-founder of Canada’s first cultural consultation in the Jewish General Hospital, where she is the head of child psychiatry. In an article published in New Canadian Media on February 24, 2014, entitled “Lost in Translation: Mental Health of Newcomers,” Dr. Guzder also referred to the social isolation faced by immigrants, especially immigrants of colour. It was fascinating to me that the two doctors across the ocean had identified this, along with specific cultural factors, as the root of mental health problems in people of immigrant origin. Guzder also critically stated that “the host culture often misinterprets ethnic minorities through a lens of stereotyping.”

Dr. Ghosh explained: “They [host culture mental health personnel] are not often able to relate to the kind of problems that we [have]. And it is quite unique to every culture, […] who you are, where you come from, what you are. I think mental health personnel need to have an understanding of that.” How would Canada benefit from ensuring this? Canada “has flourished because it has encouraged immigrant talents. And a lot of these people who are seeking to maybe make a life for themselves in Canada will be affected by mental health issues at some point… and if the individual is not treated adequately, the individual loses out on his opportunities. But I think the state also loses out in what that person could have contributed to the country’s economy or profits in general.”

I returned to Canada after three years in India, fit, mended, refashioned. Here I can’t help but think of the train of losses in my family over generations and in three separate countries. But madness offers insight. Foucault in Madness and Civilization states thatmadness fascinates because it is knowledge,” and may be “forbidden wisdom.” Surely my grandfather expressed the madness of the Partition by seeking to unveil it before a god. Surely I and other people of colour with mental illnesses in Canada express a forbidden knowledge – that the country we live in does not want to know us, and perhaps wishes to eject or destroy something within us. My grandfather was torn from his god, a sacrilege by a cruel time. But we who have been mad should and must strive to unveil our knowledge, not merely before the gods, but before men and women.

 

NOTE: The author has been granted permission from both Dr. Ghosh and Dr. Guzder to include their comments in this article.

 

 

 

El Violín

 

Commentary on La Negrada, Sueño en Otro Idioma and El Violín

[Note: References to film portrayals of Indigenous dramas from the golden age of Mexican cinema have not been included because they depict a folkloric and at times disrespectful view that does not reflect the cultural diversity of Mexico’s First Nations.]

 

In 2018, two fictional films about First Nations peoples and marginalization were screened, albeit briefly, in commercial movie theatres in Mexico. Both were produced as independent films, different from commercial and fringe productions.

Winners of national and international awards, both films address fundamental questions that relate to the identity of First Nations in Mexico and their marginalization.[1]

The wire fence featured in the 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence about the creation of Australia as a nation clearly symbolized that the way to build the country was to keep out what was different. The fence, in the case of Mexico, takes on other forms and expressions that also lead to marginalization or exclusion: cultural walls, officially sanctioned myths and legends, geographic separation and discrimination, and deep economic differences. All these play a role in defining the exclusionary map of the so-called “Mexican nation.”

 

La Negrada – Neri, Doña Alicia y Magdalena observan las tortugas

 

La Negrada (directed by Jorge Pérez Solano, 1964) tells the story of a community that could be anywhere in the Caribbean, Central America or Colombia. The audience is drawn into a place that has no clear geographic location. This is the first fictional film about an African-Mexican community, and few know that these communities even exist. After exhaustive scouting along the coast of Oaxaca and other Mexican states, the director chose his cast from among non-professional actors. Throughout the film, which depicts the customs and daily lives of people in the community, their marginalization is revealed gradually and through compelling images: a refrigerator being transported in a small boat, trucks used as public transportation, the lack of cars on the streets, the plain houses and simple forms of dress.

The camera of César Gutiérrez (winner of an Ariel, a Mexican film industry award) captures the beauty and simplicity of Corralero, a rural community that actually does exist on the Oaxaca coast, as well as the city of Pinotepa Nacional and the sanctuary of Juquila. Set against a backdrop of a barely developed tropical town, the  cinematography reveals the slower pace of rural communities far from the urban centres, and the beauty of the film’s characters. Different aspects of the local culture are subtly disclosed, peppered with popular verses that make reference to the locals’ way of speaking and origins. Although shot as a drama, the film takes a light approach with many humorous touches, and the dialogue sometimes employs crude language, in jest or otherwise. Some critics have gone so far as to label the film as racist:

“¡Hasta que trabajas, negro!” (“Now you’re working, negro!”), Alicia laughs as Neri carries in the refrigerator he’s brought as a gift, or when she recites: “Si por negra me desprecian, no desprecies mi color, que entre perlas y diamantes, esta negra es la mejor, ¡ay, ay, ay!” (“If I’m despised because I’m black, don’t despise my colour, for when it comes to pearls and diamonds, black is the best, yes, yes, yes!”)

“Hay mexicanos que nadie ve” (there are Mexicans that nobody sees), says the trailer’s tag line, and that is exactly the feeling you walk away with from this film — of having found out about something that the official history of Mexico hadn’t told. It was the express intention of the director to shine a light on the existence of these forgotten communities. As he explains in various interviews online, there are no film directors of African descent in Mexico, and the few known black actors are not of Mexican origin.

 

Sueño en otro idioma

 

Sueño en Otro Idioma (I dream in another language), directed by Ernesto Contreras, 1969) revolves around a native language related to some of the peoples who inhabited and continue to inhabit the territory known today as Mexico. Winner of the Sundance Audience Award and 16 Ariels including best picture, cinematography and original score, the film shows how local languages — and any language for that matter — depend on their speakers, and represent much more than a means of communication.

The film addresses other equally complex questions having to do with identity, religion, marginalization, sexuality, even the economy, and their relationship to language. The story begins when someone (a linguist) from outside the community arrives and attempts to rescue the local language, Zikril, working with a couple of elderly people who are the only ones who can still speak it.

 

More questions than answers

The two films offer much more than audiences expect and certainly more than the stories themselves. I won’t disclose further details about the storyline, which is best seen on screen, but I will talk about how these films are important in raising questions about social and historical identity – and about the creation of the identity components of the nation state that, in its construction over two centuries, has marginalized cultures to the point where many have already disappeared and others may soon be lost.

First, La Negrada makes us think about racism and, from there, identity. What does it mean to be Mexican? What defines the citizens of a country, or is there something that should define them? Does skin colour have anything to do with nationality or with the national ideal, or with belonging to a social group or a country? And, in which social strata does this place (and sometimes relegate) people?

Historian Federico Navarrete uses the term racismo cromático in his book, México racista, una denuncia[2] (Mexico, Grijalbo, 2016), to refer to discrimination based on skin colour, and to demystify prevailing conceptions about Mexico, particularly in regard to the mestizaje myth. (According to the myth, the “bronze race” was created out of the mix between Spanish and indigenous peoples dating back to the 16th century. In reality, however, this mix did not actually include the majority of the population, whether in the 19th, the 20th or the 21st century.[3]) Navarrete defines mestizaje as an ideological legend that has led, among other things, to the denial of the existence of racism in this country. Far from having been eradicated, racism has taken on new forms, and “being white” (including a lifestyle where certain European and US values predominate) continues to be a widely held aspiration.

 

La Negrada

 

In the national context, the denial of racism finds its most glaring example in regard to Mexico’s black communities: “[…] the invisibility of the Afro-Mexicans or Mexicans of African descent […] is [entrenched] to such an extreme that they are denied recognition of their nationality and their citizenship,” Navarrete explains,[4] referring to a CNN news item from 2011 that reported on how Mexican citizens of African descent were deported when they could not prove their citizenship to the immigration authorities. La Negrada portrays this in a tense scene between a female character and immigration officials.

Few know that Mexicans of African descent have lived in Mexico since the 16th century, when they were brought as slaves by the Spanish. According to data (2017) from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI – the Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography), African-Mexicans make up 1% of the country’s total population today and live mainly in the coastal regions of the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and in the central state of Mexico and Baja California Sur.

In Sueño en otro idioma, there is a “mysticism associated with language,” a unique way of seeing and experiencing the world through knowledge and artistic expression such as music. In the film, it is clear that preventing the disappearance of the Zikril language would mean navigating against the forces of the market and the dominant culture, which reach this community through the radio. The emotional ties that the language generates seem to have no reason for continuing except for the relationship between the two elderly people who speak it.

 

Sueño en otro idioma

 

In order to clearly reflect the place that language holds in a person’s identity, the director, Ernesto Contreras, hired a linguist, Javier Valdés, to create a language instead of using any of the 68 Indigenous languages spoken in Mexico. Many of these are spoken by only a few dozen people and are in imminent danger of becoming extinct.[5] In fact, the idea of the film arose from a newspaper article about the last two speakers of an Indigenous language in the state of Tabasco. The film director has spoken about the invention of the Zikril language in many interviews (Vice magazine devoted an article to it) and of how bringing it to the screen posed a monumental task of creating the language, preparing a dictionary, teaching it, learning it, practicing it and speaking it.

The idea of inventing a language and not using an already existing one stemmed from recognition of the sacred place that a language holds among its speakers, as Contreras expressed in an interview. He didn’t want to be seen as taking advantage of a language that is becoming extinct. And clearly, the people who speak these languages are in marginalized communities that are also experiencing the loss of their traditional form of expression.

Once again, complex questions arise: What defines identity or how is it defined? How do we look at the world? How do we comprehend and learn from it? What is the relationship between a language and one’s country of citizenship, particularly if the language goes unrecognized or is forgotten? How is the immediate sense of belonging defined? Does loyalty to the identity of a community precede the identity of the nation state? Can the two identities co-exist or do they contradict each other? And finally, who has the right to narrate local history where identity, regardless of its origin, is at the forefront?

These questions are directly relevant to at least 70 First Nations who speak 68 languages and are located throughout Mexico, according to the Atlas of First Nations Peoples in Mexico. And we also know that their marginalization is identified by the barriers of discrimination constructed centuries ago, following the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.

The Mexican and nationalist component of this marginalization is more recent, and can be traced to the rise of the nation state, the Declaration of Independence in 1810, and the construction of the mestizaje ideology by intellectuals (Justo Sierra and more clearly, José Vasconcelos) around the turn of the 20th century. The  dominance of nationalist Mexican ideology has been so powerful and all pervasive that very little has been questioned.

These questions are relevant to all who inhabit the country and are therefore immersed in this ideology that shapes the identity of so many, despite the fact that it has not always existed and may not exist in the future. For First Nations peoples, it has been imposed from the outside and is not part of their own identity.

Yásnaya Aguilar,[6] an El Colegio de México academic, has delved into these complex topics surrounding the nation state in Mexico. Of Mixe origin (from a mountain community in Oaxaca), Aguilar talks about how she grew up and went to school in a Mixe community, and spoke in her mother tongue. It wasn’t until she got to high school in Mexico City that she found out she carried the label of “Indigenous” in addition to being “Mexican.” This triggered an identity crisis that led Aguilar to focus her studies on the formation of the nation state:

Today, nation states are held up as one of the monopolizing entities in generating discourse on identity and its symbols. They establish a hierarchy for differences, determine a set of traits accepted as the norm and against which others are measured. These traits are related to symbols, music, dance, history, folklore and cuisine. The contrast between traits is naturally symmetrical, but nation states prioritize them, selecting a simplified set of traits, which in our case are called the “Mexican identity.”[7]

The Mexican identity with its mestizo ideology belied by racist actions and power structures marginalizes and excludes those who do not adhere to it. In this sense, the Mexican mestizaje myth can be equated with the US melting pot. The discourse doesn’t reflect the reality: instead of mixing together, the various “ingredients” (to continue the metaphor) remain separate.

 

El Violín

 

On the fringe – other productions

Besides these two independent films, there is another film entitled El Violín (2005) that explores these issues and had a brief run on the commercial circuit. The director, Francisco Vargas, tells the story of rebellion and repression in a rural community in Mexico. The film won national and international awards, including the Cannes Award for best actor for Ángel Tavira (Don Plutarco). However, the film did not last for more than a couple of weeks in commercial theatres.

The story portrays an armed conflict between the military and farmers in a rural community. Despite their common background and a shared history, the two groups have taken on different roles in the development and structure of the country. Not only has this divided them, it has pitted them against one other. In El Violín, we have a timeless story set in modern-day Mexico.[8] The construction of the nation state necessarily turns to violence to impose its ideology and dominance, and this violence can be expressed in economic, social and cultural exclusion (as in the case of African-Mexicans, First Nations and rural communities), in the disappearance of cultures (like in Sueño en otro idioma), or in armed conflicts, the victims of which mainly come from these communities.

Marginalization is also reflected in the cinematic representation of these issues, and even more so in their dissemination. In Mexico, the Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas (Commission on First Nations Affairs) has been holding the Festival de Cine y Video Indígena for 14 years now, and for the last five years, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History) has been organizing an Indigenous film festival within the Fiesta de las Culturas Indígenas, Pueblos y Barrios Originarios, de la Ciudad de México (Festival of Indigenous Cultures, First Peoples and Towns in Mexico City). These are such fringe productions (documentaries, fiction and docu-fiction) that only if they manage to reach the main theatres (by some exceptional circumstance) do they become part of the “independent films” label. Many are made by members of First Nations, and all involve their participation. Given the barriers preventing their access to broader screenings, it would appear that braids, huipiles and traditions despised (or labeled as folkloric) by the mestizaje ideology only deserve to be viewed from an anthropological angle as a subject of study, not as actual ways of life. It is of no surprise that these films are screened in little known places in Mexico, and we don’t even hear about it when they are selected for showings in international film festivals in Europe, Canada or Central and South America. They’re always relegated to festivals about First Nations or Indigenous peoples.

 

Forms of exclusion

To continue with this inquiring rather than conclusive line of discussion, all we can do is raise more questions: why does this genre of film remain on the fringes of the national film industry? Is it because it focuses on topics that fail to generate widespread interest, however fundamental these subjects are? Do they reflect the realities of marginalization and are therefore excluded from an already battered Mexican film industry where the most renowned filmmakers are forced to leave the country to find other places to produce their films? Are the people who finance Mexican film production not interested in these stories? Who receives funding to make movies, and why are these films not more widely distributed? Why are members of all these ethnic groups not in charge of making these films? Is it that talking about these subjects implies questioning the fundamental aspects of the identity of millions of people and, by extension, the established order and nationalist ideology?

The questions raised here, and certainly many more, point to answers that are relevant in understanding film production, the stories that are told, and also the people who have the means to direct and produce films in Mexico. To ensure respectful representation of marginalized cultures and avoid cultural appropriation, who should be talking about these issues? What role should “self-representation” play?

The search for answers and the telling of these stories also help provide a clearer picture of how the contours of a national map have taken shape. A national map where there are no exclusionary fences, just openings and vast expanses where cultures of entire ancestral communities can live and escape — communities that existed and inhabited a territory long before the idea of Mexico was even a glimmer on the horizon. These three films and the many others that are produced year after year on the fringes show us that it is possible, and well worth the effort, to seek out these stories wherever they may be.

 

 La Negrada – Neza, Ángela y Bujía observan los turistas

 

Postscript: On September 8, the 75th edition of the Venice Film Festival awarded the Golden Lion to Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón. Although the film has not yet been screened in Mexico, one of the actresses who played a leading role, Yalitza Aparicio (originally from Tlaxiaco, a community in Oaxaca) had this to say about the award: “For us it represents an opportunity for our language, our identity and our culture to be valued.” Her comments were heard at the Venice Film Festival and all over the world, due to the fact that Roma’s director is a high-profile Mexican filmmaker in the mainstream of world cinema, whose films fill commercial theatres. Such productions by Cuarón and other Mexican directors have been made outside the country in association with large international film producers.

As with El Violín, in Roma we see the marginal position that most inhabitants of Mexico’s original communities occupy when they migrate to the major cities, where they usually become part of the informal services sector as various kinds of domestic workers or street vendors – or they become homeless, with no rights.

 

This article was translated from Spanish by Bronwen Hillman.

 

[1] The term Native peoples or First Nations refers to communities whose structures date back centuries and who have inhabited the territory since long before the arrival of the Europeans in the Americas and the creation of nation states. The terms “Indigenous” or “ethnic groups” have been questioned in both Native and non-Native circles because of their colonial origins, but are still being used in various forums.

[2] Federico Navarrete, México racista, una denuncia, Mexico, Grijalbo, 2016.

[3] In addition, the so-called “mix” served to deny local languages and traditions in order to enforce acceptance of the Catholic religion, the official Spanish language, and the law and political organization imposed by the Mexican state – which in turn became instrumental in excluding many First Nations unless they set aside their original traditions. Federico Navarrete talks extensively about this in his book, explaining the different myths and realities surrounding them.

[4] Federico Navarrete examines different aspects and manifestations of racism in Mexico and the ideology of mestizaje, and his focus includes other marginalized groups besides Native peoples.

[5] This issue is not new. See the recent study coordinated by Arnulfo Embriz Osorio and Óscar Zamora: México, lenguas indígenas nacionales en riesgo de desaparición (“Mexico, national indigenous languages at risk of disappearing”), Mexico, Instituto Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas, 2012. Available in Spanish at: http://www.cdi.gob.mx/dmdocuments/lenguas_indigenas_nacionales_en_riesgo_de_desaparicion_inali.pdf

[6] The work of Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil takes a critical look, from different perspectives, at subjects that encompass linguistic identity, the creation of the nation state, Indigenous rights and many others.

[7] Informal translation of the original text in Spanish. Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil, “Ëts, atom. Algunos apuntes sobre la identidad indígena.” México, Revista de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, septiembre de 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.revistadelauniversidad.mx/articles/f20fc5ef-75e2-44d0-8d5b-a84b2a87b7e3/eets-atom-algunos-apuntes-sobre-la-identidad-indigena?platform=hootsuite

[8] The recent violent confrontations and executions in Ayotzinapa and Noxichtlan are just a few of the many examples that have been featured in the local and international press.

 

 

 

Kamlabai Gokhale, one of the first Indian women to appear on screen   Photo: courtesy of Caravan magazine

 

In 1991, Indian feminist filmmaker Reena Mohan produced a little-known documentary called Kamlabai. The film chronicled the remarkable life of one of the first Indian film actresses, Kamlabai Gokhale – one that began with the dizzyingly modern new twentieth century, marked by class considerations, and rather shockingly included drag and a cross-dressing marriage. Most would be surprised to learn that appearing on-screen in the new medium of cinema in India was initially so disreputable that men were required to play women’s roles. It was Durgabai Kamat, Gokhale’s mother, who broke this stigma for the very first time in 1913.

With this film, Mohan accomplished two things more relevant than ever in light of the global #metoo movement of the last year. Firstly, she managed to get a remarkable woman’s history into the film historical archive. In managing to interview the elderly Gokhale the year before she died, Mohan also ensured that the actress’ experience of life as a woman in the earliest years of the film industry was not erased with her death. But more questions remain than answers. Why isn’t this film more famous, more studied? Why are the details of Kamlabai’s life still conflicting on the internet, even today? And most importantly, what has become of all the stories of the other Kamlabais in other countries, already lost for good?

In terms of women’s film history, the case of Kamlabai reminds us that there is both a scholarly and an ethical imperative to turning the #metoo conversation to the historical. One of the major points I have tried to drive home this year in my own work as a feminist film and cultural historian is that #metoo doesn’t begin with Harvey Weinstein in 2017 at all, or even with Tarana Burke’s coining of the phrase outside of film circles ten years prior. In fact, it should be a lead-in to excavation that traces back much further in film history, through golden ages and silent screens. Neither can #metoo be classified as only a Hollywood-centric imperative, to gain a historical understanding of how women have been treated in film industries, but a global one. How did casting couches work differently across borders? What became of women who stood up against financial, sexual, and professional mistreatment from industry to industry?

So #metoo is not and should not be synonymous with American Hollywood. Accepted. Also, #metoo is not contemporary but also should reframe how we look at all women in cinema, from stars to extras back to the earliest decade of the twentieth century. Still with me? Good. But now please indulge by following me into an even deeper historian’s dive. To understand #metoo, and create a scholarly body of evidence that supports it, why start – or rather stop – with the birth of cinema at all? Why should we draw an artificial bright line between the cinematic actress who grew into what we understand as the modern star, and the pre-cinematic theatrical actress, dancer, showgirl, artist’s model, courtesan, and all the permutations blurred therein for centuries?

 

Kamlabai Gokhale

 

The actress in culture doesn’t begin with cinema, but rather moves into cinema taking all the archetypal prejudices of centuries with her. Simone de Beauvoir understood this, including a chapter entitled “The Actress” as a pan-historical and pan-global category in her magnum opus on women and culture, The Second Sex. Within the work, de Beauvoir crucially unlocked what we might call the largest paradox of the actress in any given society. She is a woman who gains bodily freedom accessible to few women in male-controlled culture. And yet, the actress is still subject to the worst kinds of sexual and labour exploitation, and to a life of poverty and misery if people lose interest, or her career ends through aging.

We must remember that the concept of the actress as a woman at the peak of aspirational glamour is an extremely modern one, made possible by a shift in class understandings and respectability standards and exported from American Hollywood. Throughout human history and across cultures, actresses were, definitionally, beyond the pale. For thousands of years, performing women fell in with courtesans, prostitutes, mystics, and women scholars – women who left their families, didn’t marry, didn’t bear children, who traveled around, who were inherent outsiders. Women who didn’t fit, who, as historian Ute Frevert has put it, said “I” – and thus were non-conforming and dangerous.

Luce Irigaray has theorized all of society as predicated on the exchange and commodification of women, who have always been divided into use-value and exchange-value depending upon their classification as mother, virgin, or prostitute. The actress fascinates as a woman who at times may straddle all three, and do so on the public market. As long as women have been performing, from demimondaine 19th-century France to Restoration England, from 18th-century Russia and its serf theatre to opera troupes in ancient China, and from devadasis in India to haeteras in Rome, they have faced the same underlying reality: the treatment of women in a business where being a visible woman was conflated with having a body for sale to be traded around and owned by men. In every one of the above-mentioned cultures, actresses, by virtue of being paradoxes, prized for beauty and yet reviled for non-traditional public life and bodies on display, have faced the same concerns and the same exploitations and mistreatments.

The re-reckoning with women’s realities in history is an ethical and political ethos, but it is not only that. When it comes to the gender organization and inequities in global culture, Faulkner’s famed axiom, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” is inescapable. To contextualize #metoo, and even women in modern culture at all, we have to go back to the beginning, to the global and the ancient. As historians trying to correct the historical record for what life has been like for women in culture, we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of today, or the era of silent film, or Hollywood, Hong Kong, or Bollywood cinema. We should be mining all of women’s performance history for its #metoo revelations.

We cannot go back and interview the maenads of ancient Greece or the abhinetriyon of medieval India on their roles and treatment in society. We can’t talk with a Russian serf actress or a Parisian courtesan of the fin de siècle about sexual assault or economic precarity. But we can start with doing interviews, writing articles, and making documentaries about women like Kamlabai before they are gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Padmaavat (2018), Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest magnum opus, became mostly notorious for what was claimed as its attack on Rajput pride and its portrayal of the legendary queen Padmavati (the story of the film was based on a poem written on Queen Padmavati’s life by a fifteenth-century poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi). Before anyone had even watched the film, there were rumours that Queen Padmavati was depicted in a romantic/intimate scene with Allauddin Khilji. The very idea of Padmavati and Khilji together was abhorrent to pure-blooded Rajputs, as it was an attack on the honour of the Queen, revered as an icon and queen mother in many parts of India’s northern province of Rajasthan. The rumours were unfounded and after a four-month period of protests and rioting in the streets, the courts intervened, and in February 2018, the film finally made it to screens both in India and around the world. It didn’t take more than a few screenings for the truth to spill out that the film was more designed to celebrate Rajput pride, a valorization that played directly into the idea of Hindu pride. At the last count the film had raked in close to 6 billion Indian Rupees at the box-office (just shy of $100 million).

I sat watching the film, and quite unexpectedly my mind went racing back to other films made by Bhansali in the last two decades. This meandering took me even further to other filmmakers I had enjoyed and grown up watching in a small town in Northern India: Raj Kapoor, Sooraj Barjatya, Rajkumar Santoshi, Ashutosh Gowariker, all names of renowned Bollywood filmmakers. It dawned on me that although the similarity between the films they made, the stories they told, and the ideas they perpetuated was telling, I had been oblivious to it.

For all its ills, Bollywood has held sway in the past hundred years and continues to dominate and dictate the cultural discourse that goes on in the Indian Sub-continent and beyond. It has also become this dominant cultural export out of South Asia. While alternative voices exist and thrive, there is little debate that the loudest voice is still that of Bollywood. But how does the dominance of this industry determine the cultural debate in India and play into the nationalist, majoritarian narrative that has recently swept the Sub-continent? In reflecting on my learnings about cinema and the understanding of my social and cultural identity, I began probing into what contributed to this framing. This makes these reflections more of an imperative, given the political and social climate that currently exists in India.

As a young person, I consumed cinema in all its poetry, including the grandeur that Bhansali portrayed in his films. When stories seem to speak to some aspect of what is around you, you assume that that is all there is. The engagement starts with childish awe, fed by ideas of stardom, music and glamour. For a young person, this is also aspirational. You want to be one with the stars. You want to sing and dance like them, you want to be part of their families. And I think it’s quite natural to grow up in a middle-class environment, not attempting to engage with more than what meets the eye. I’d say that with the ever-expanding social media and its penetration throughout the nooks and crannies of small towns and villages, things may have begun to shift across India. However the aspirational quality of cinema has remained intact.

But what is it that we are aspiring for? What starts out as a starry-eyed view of the world becomes problematic, particularly owing to the consistent homogeneity of representations and narratives. So, the idea of a middle-class family, as seen through what surrounds you, on screen and off it, is the stereotypical heteronormative Hindu reality. This statement of fact is no generalization. While the family drama romance has matured from say a Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) to a Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya (2017), the underlying ethos and identities have stayed firm and mostly static.

 

Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!

 

Padmaavat was no outlier in this, rather exemplified what’s been done for decades. I remember that in 1982 a Hindi film named Nikaah was hailed as a landmark ‘Muslim Social’ that saw an upper middle-class Muslim family depicted in a mainstream Bollywood film. The film wasn’t a first, as pre-1980s had seen sporadic depiction of Muslim characters and stories, but Nikaah mainstreamed even the social problem of Triple-Talaq (irrevocable divorce), and thus received more traction.

Tokenism is used to ‘include’ characters from minority communities and to try to weave diverse representations in the narratives that are fed to us. However, there is continuous and sub-textual engagement with the Hindu hegemony when Indian culture and access to it is depicted and learned through the lens of cinema. It’s rather hilarious that even the wedding scene in English Vinglish (2012) stayed true to its Hindu South Asian roots, notwithstanding its location (United States) and its time. My critique isn’t to suggest that Indian culture (whatever that unitary idea even means) shouldn’t be represented through song and dance and Diwali celebrations and weddings. Culture is an inalienable part of the identity of any populace. My question is how much of what we see depicted in the movies that we watch and consume out of Bollywood is a product of a real evaluation and/or analysis of what Indian culture really is? It is telling that a lot of socially relevant cinema movements around South Asia, led by brilliant filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, etc., remained on the fringes. So while there was evaluation and re-evaluation being done, it was continually on the margins.

 

 

The head of the Rashtra Swayamsewak Sangh (commonly referred to by the acronym RSS), Shri Mohan Bhagwat, in defining India’s cultural identity in 2014 clearly stated that Hindutva is the cultural identity of all Indians. He went as far to say that one can be a Muslim, Christian, Sikh, but the cultural identity of the land called India remains rooted in Hinduism. As the political ideologue of the current government in office, this idea of the RSS is neither a coincidence, nor is it a minority voice. There is a concerted effort to change by forced assertion the diverse nature of a historical, cultural and geographic entity that is the modern nation state India.

While Padmaavat may not be an outlier, things have seen a bit of change. South Asia is not just religiously diverse, it is also economically diverse, and a new breed of filmmaking is now focussing on stories from small towns and communities. Filmmakers like Vishal Bharadwaj (Haider 2014), Anubhav Sinha (Mulk 2018), Zoya Akhtar (Lust Stories 2018), Anurag Kashyap, and Imtiaz Ali have been demonstrating encouraging signs of a change in the narrative. What is important though is that in their attempts to change the narrative, they now seem to focus on the urban-rural divide, and we are still grappling with the perpetuated notions of the image of India: is it social, cultural, or spiritual? I am yet to see that my protagonist is anyone but a middle-class heteronormative Hindu male (with some marginal room for females), who is fighting against the system, looking to win over a love interest, or overcoming personal odds to move ahead in the world.

The maturity of cultural representation is evident when a people can laugh at themselves and when a culture can tell stories as varied as the breakup of a marriage due to the lack of a village toilet (Toilet ek Prem Katha 2017), erectile dysfunction (Shubh Mangal Savdhaan 2017), and women’s empowerment being spearheaded by a witch (Stree 2018). Having arrived at this level of maturity, it is critical now to debate and dispel the idea of a homogenous, majoritarian social and cultural identity.

I wish I could subscribe to the view that something like Padmaavat is merely meant to entertain or recreate a historical (some question its veracity) piece for a contemporary audience, with no impact whatsoever on how we self-identify. These larger-than-life narratives speak to the heart of an audience’s psyche, which then manifests itself into  reaffirming sectarian ideas of nationhood and identity that further fuel intolerance of what we deem the ‘other.’ This othering is empowered by the fact that social discourse and popular culture perpetuate the idea of a homogenous majoritarian whole, which demands assimilation.

I am certainly not expecting a miracle by which the majoritarian view of culture and a nation, including its social identity, will give up reins of power and control over the discourse. I am hoping that incrementally at least, we will see Indian cinema (particularly the all-powerful Bollywood) truly become a mirror to, and of, the people it very successfully entertains.

 

 

 

Community in Action, a bi-national group of high school graduates during a political tour in Jaffa – Photo © Sadaka-Reut

 

My name is Dina Gardashkin. I’m a Jewish Israeli, and the first time I learned what the word Palestinian really meant was at the age of 23.

Since I grew up in Haifa, a city known for its mixed population and co-existence, I was always aware of another identity. I understood this as Arab, but knew nothing about its national context. In school, we had never discussed this identity: where it came from and why there were Arabs living in the Jewish state. I had only heard over the news media of Palestinians being the ones who commit terror attacks. I had no background knowledge of where they came from or what they were trying to achieve.

My family had always stayed away from politics, and discussions of national or religious values were absent from our conversations. I believe this allowed me to not differentiate myself from the people around me, and to build relationships regardless of social norms and stereotypes. I first started to feel that there was something wrong with my society when I heard the way my friends referred to some of my Arab acquaintances as people I should probably stay away from. I thought it was racist and unjust, but I didn’t consider this as a political matter at the time.

Then I was recruited into the army. As everyone else, I played my small part in the chain of command without asking too many questions. When I think about it today, I can hardly believe how I went through this period knowing so little about who I was supposed to fight against and why.

My acknowledgment of the Palestinian identity happened almost by accident when, while in college, I decided to join a dialogue course led by an NGO called Sadaka-Reut. It was the first time that I had a political discussion with Palestinians – a true conversation not mediated by the media. It made me realize how ignorant I was of the political reality in my country.

 

 

The next summer, I attended an Israeli-Palestinian seminar in Germany. There I met – also for the first time – people my own age who, because of the Occupation, had been deprived of their basic rights of freedom and dignity.

Looking back at my story, I can’t avoid the sense of shame at how oblivious I was to the oppression of a people living side-by-side with me. But it also emphasizes how easy it is, as an Israeli, to go through one’s entire life without giving it too much thought.

School systems are completely separate. The media shows a very biased, one-sided narrative about Palestinians. And the history of the conflict is only told from a Zionist point of view. References to the Palestinian Nakba, the Arabic term for “the catastrophe” – the uprooting and exile of over 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 – are absent from history books in both Jewish and Arab schools. It is actually against the law even to mention this term. Once the “Nakba law” was passed in 2011, it gave the finance minister power to cut state funding or support for any institution that held activities rejecting the existence of “Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day as a day of mourning.” Each year there is a struggle at Tel-Aviv and Haifa universities for the right of Palestinian students to commemorate the day of the Nakba on campuses. In most cases, such events are banned.   After my experience in Sadaka-Reut, I decided to focus on an attempt to give as many people access to alternative knowledge as possible. I chose to work in education, bringing together Israelis and Palestinians in meaningful encounters to break through stereotypes and misconceptions. Sadaka-Reut is an educational organization whose aim is to build a just and equal society through Palestinian-Jewish partnership. It was founded 35 years ago by college students who wanted to challenge the separation of the two nationalities. Over the years the organization has expanded, and now it works with youth, high-school graduates, college students and teachers.

 

 

For the past few years, I have been working in Sadaka-Reut as co-coordinator of a bi-national project of high-school graduates. Each project has both a Jewish and a Palestinian coordinator. We go through a year of volunteer work in both Arab and Jewish schools and organize sessions for political dialogue. We observe how views change and how the perception of the conflict becomes more complex and informed.  It is very difficult for Jewish participants to deal with this new knowledge of oppression and inequality in Israel, because it goes against everything they were taught to believe in, as I was. At first they are angry at us for “turning them against” their own country, since they believe Israel to be a wholesome democracy where everyone is treated equally. Then they feel they’re being brainwashed because they were taught that education should be objective, which of course it never can or should be. Often they are struck with disbelief, since they were all raised to think that if violence is used against Palestinians, there must be a good reason for it. Finally, they have to deal with the fact that criticism of the state or the army is viewed as treason.

 

Umm-al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in the Neguev desert, demolished in 2017 – Photo © Sadaka-Reut

 

 

Those paradigms are very hard to crack. But in the end, getting a better understanding of reality, even if it involves dealing with some very troubling facts, allows us a sense of hope for our life on this land, because seeing the other side as a monster whose sole intent is to destroy us for no apparent reason leaves no place for a solution or a future where both sides feel safe.    The last few days were very difficult for me, my group and many other left-wing activists, due to the mass killing of protestors in Gaza.* External reality is never left out of the group dynamics, and it’s harder to find mutual understanding when one side is burdened with grief while the other is still trying to cling to a belief in the morality of the army. Since our Jewish participants are just a year away from their military service, they want to believe in its righteousness at all cost. This disappoints the Palestinians deeply, and leaves almost no place for empathy and partnership.

 

Sadaka-Reut’s Community in Action group – Photo © Sadaka-Reut

 

Despite it all, seeing our former Jewish and Palestinian participants from the last few years standing together side-by-side in protest against the shootings reminds me that although this sort of partnership is never easy, when it takes root, it is the most powerful force of change possible. Even when daily realities are discouraging, having a safe place and a political home for both Israelis and Palestinians is a source of strength. It is a good start for building a just and hopeful future in Israel/Palestine.

 

* This article was submitted in late spring 2018.

 

Things were simpler in the past. Authority figures told us what “our” gods wanted us to believe and how to demonstrate our beliefs. They established rules and the dire consequences of disobeying. They could even prompt those consequences to occur. So what has happened since loss of that certainly?

Lexicographers and political pundits now largely agree with the definitions quoted above to describe the rise of Trump, right-wing xenophobic or ethnically-biased governments in Europe and India, or political gestures like Brexit. Populism is most often associated with conflict between groups portrayed as competing. To paraphrase, populism represents a kick in the teeth by the populace, the “common people,” to the ruling political elites.

Such definitions are not value-free. Their authors do not consider themselves “common” even while claiming to know what is good for the commoners. For an idea to become “populist” it has to be adopted by the populus, preferably by persuading them that they thought of it themselves. For that, societies have to be separated into “us” (good) and “them” (bad).

In the old days, community control was exercised by managing information. Rules of conduct covered every aspect of life. Penalties for non-conformity could be extreme. In today’s nominally secular societies, we are told that our decisions are rational and that we have to decide for ourselves what we believe. Yet many current societies are characterized by waves of conformity to certain ideas that, in the view of some experts, are our way of kicking back against (other!) experts. So how do populist ideas come about? The following ways, places and times offer some examples.

 

The board game – a throw of the dice

Most of us are familiar with the board game Monopoly, but few know it was originally named The Landlord’s Game and patented in 1904 by left-wing American feminist stenographer and activist, Lizzie Magie, to teach the dangers of monopoly accumulation of land and property in societies striving for greater equality.

If that doesn’t sound like the Monopoly game you know, it’s because she made it with two sets of rules. Anti-Monopoly rules encouraged co-operation and a fairer, sustainable society. Monopoly rules promoted untrammeled capitalism, generating unimaginable wealth through monopoly accumulation for a few, paid for by poverty and misery for the many. As an educational game, it sold well. About 30 years later, a devout Mormon stole the game, ditched the collaborative version, patented it in his own name as Monopoly, and earned millions. Its rapid spread world-wide fostered ideas of wealth production through massive property speculation, creating populist acceptance of the inevitability of monopoly accumulation as something to strive for.

Lizzie Magie’s original board design for the Landlord’s Game, which she patented in 1903. Photograph: United States Patent and Trademark Office (Source: Mary Pilon, The Guardian, April 11, 2015)

Around the time Monopoly was being stolen from Lizzie Magie, in 1936 Germany, board games were being harnessed as an educational tool by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister. He argued that, “To be perceived, propaganda must evoke the interest of an audience and must be transmitted through an attention-getting communications medium.” One board game with a populist “educational” message was promoted under the name Juden Raus (Jews Out), a frequently used Nazi slogan. Jews were represented by yellow pointed medieval caps with grotesque facial features. The aim, using two dice, a board and several figurines, was to move the Jews across a board representing a village, to “collection points” from which they would eventually be exiled “to Palestine,” leaving the village Judenfrei (free of Jews). Children soon learned it was desirable to have a society free of Jews. Populism ensured tacit acceptance.

Goebbels and Hitler left no room for doubt. Their messages struck a blow for “common people” against a privileged elite or “others” who threatened their nation’s self-image. Although no longer needing to explicitly use those words, they repeated them constantly, reinforcing the idea for the populace. Populist targets were not limited to one perceived privileged elite, the Jews. Many other “others” were targets for the actions that Nazi populism required: communists, trade unionists, Roma, African-Germans, people with disabilities, homosexuals and others fell foul of Nazi messaging, and ultimately faced the consequences of being perceived as different.

 

The blame game – no board required

Systems of control applied against an “other” community have existed for millennia.

To generate a populist mythology against a target community, it helps if that community is a minority with visible ethnic or other differences distinguishing it from the main community, if its legal status is controlled by some authority other than itself, and if its religion is perceptibly different from that of the grouping from which it is to be isolated. It also helps if it operates a system of schools and social, welfare, health and other facilities that appear to serve mainly its own community. If, additionally, it is perceived as achieving higher educational levels, holding important administrative positions, participating in areas of the economy that include finance and banking, distinguishing itself in professions such as medicine and law, and having close and successful links with historically-related communities overseas, its otherness is reinforced.

History shows the value, for a controlling power, of suggesting that this community’s identification and allegiances may extend beyond the host country’s national borders. If members of the targeted community also work closely with genuine holders of power, serve them in moving valuables, natural resources, money, jewels, medicine, industrial and agricultural goods, weapons and other assets over time, such leaders may well see advantages in finding ways to strip them of their privileges as a prelude to removing them officially.

This description is not of Jews in Europe at whatever time, but of Asians in Africa – mainly Indians of various religions in Uganda in the 1970s. An estimated 80,000, many Gujaratis, were expelled by Idi Amin, deploying populist rhetoric and invoking mythical national interest:

We are determined to make the ordinary Ugandan master of his own destiny, and above all to see that he enjoys the wealth of his country. Our deliberate policy is to transfer the economic control of Uganda into the hands of Ugandans, for the first time in our country’s history.

With the Asians expelled, their assets “redistributed” (mostly to the Uganda Development Corporation controlled by Amin), their administrative skills and capabilities lost, the Ugandan economy effectively collapsed. Who gained? In Uganda, in the short term, Idi Amin and cronies.

However, there were other longer-term beneficiaries. The majority of refugees went to Britain, a few to India and neighbouring countries, some 6,000 to Canada. Hard as it may have been for those expelled Asians, their new host countries gained enormously from the influx. I remember working with my parents to help arrange accommodation for arriving Asians in 1972 (as we did with Chileans in 1973). Some Asians never left, because Amin needed them and granted them special status. Ironically, Asians are now back in Uganda in increasing numbers and in similar positions to those from which they were driven. A decade later in Kenya I witnessed the same anti-Asian xenophobia triggered until the Kenyans decided the Somalis were their real enemy and switched targets.

 

The numbers game – marauding hordes

Where tales of privilege cannot be invoked, populist arguments about threats from poor, disadvantaged groups can, summarized as: “They’re criminals and rapists, coming here to steal our jobs and women, exploit our services, and not contribute.” And perhaps scariest of all, “They’re going to outnumber us.”

Beyond the Indian Ocean, we hear these populist fables recounted against Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, with horrendous human consequences on an almost inconceivable scale. Bangladesh, housing the world’s biggest refugee camp, bears much of the brunt.

Arguments being deployed about the Israel/Gaza border are no different. As I write, Mark Regev, Israel’s new ambassador to Britain (the Israeli government’s former long-standing media spokesman), is on the radio justifying Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinians on the Palestinian side of their wall. Claiming they were armed with wire cutters and Molotov cocktails, he invokes the marauding hordes populist threat. Regev adds a new twist, accusing Hamas of leading “a theocratic administration.” It takes one to know one. The weakness of that populism-eliciting criticism is that for both Israelis and Palestinians, their Theos is the same God.

 

The crying game – huddled masses

Across the Atlantic, back in time, we find examples of a kinder, more welcoming populism. As part of the fund-raising campaign for the pedestal of the future Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus, a widely respected poet from one of New York’s first Sephardic Jewish families was persuaded in 1883 to write a poem reflecting and nurturing contemporary, positive, populist American attitudes. The lines most quoted are attributed to the statue herself, The New Colossus, as she welcomes immigrants sailing into New York:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

 

It is hard now to remember the pride ordinary US citizens felt then about their openness to immigrants, and the welcome they offered people fleeing different vicissitudes to build a new future in and for a new country. It is a pride still commonly expressed in Canada.

Among those huddled masses, one man found the immigration process so rewarding he undertook it twice. Friedrich Drumpft of Kallstadt, Bavaria, first immigrated as a 16-year-old draft dodger, rapidly achieving one American dream – wealth – through property speculation and by running premises for prostitution. He described that as “mining the miners.” Having made plenty of money, he returned to Kallstadt, got married, and might have remained there had the Bavarian authorities not decided to prosecute him for evading military service. He emigrated again to the USA, followed the Monopoly rules, acquired land, built properties and became very rich.

His grandson is far less keen on immigration. The latter’s undoubted popularity is in large part based on many of the negative populisms described above. Donald Trump’s public utterances identify threats from marauding Mexicans arriving en masse or marauding Muslims intent on massacre. Using words similar to the Myanmar Buddhists’, he depicts rapists, murderers and drug dealers coming to steal jobs and women from real Americans, or terrorists intent on wiping out US citizens. His solutions include building a wall (as in Austria, Spain, Israel and Pakistan), expulsions, and restrictions limiting the status and human rights of immigrants and refugees.

If Emma Lazarus had known then what her support for immigration would lead to, might she have tempered it?

 

The name game – Québec

The Canadian government used to publish Canada News, a free monthly newspaper in London. Before moving to Montréal in 1990, I studied the final 1989 issue. It included a Canadian social attitudes survey showing that on every social parameter except one, Québec was more progressive than other provinces. The exception? Anti-Semitism was orders of magnitude higher in Québec than elsewhere. I did not believe it.

On my arrival, populism in the form of Québec nationalism was manifesting itself in a way I had not expected, reminiscent of descriptions I had read of the history of Jews in Nazi Germany. The youth wing of the Parti Québecois had organized an apparently innocent photographic competition, awarding prizes to the young photographer who could photograph the highest number of shops displaying signs in English. I remember commenting to my then new friend and colleague, Maya Khankhoje (on Serai’s editorial board), that the next step would be for those shops to find their windows smashed. That’s what happened.

In my first month in Montréal, I visited a housing exhibition at the Olympic Stadium, spotted the Office québécois de la langue française, and collected documentation about Bill 101, Québec’s French language charter, of which I knew little. Some days later, invited to a pleasant dinner with some German colleagues at the home of a “refined” French-Canadian colleague and his English wife, I mentioned my visit and the documents. I said that Québec’s language laws reminded me of nothing less than the racial purity laws of Nazi Germany: where Hitler had decreed primarily Aryans and non-Aryans, Québec had mandated Francophones, Anglophones, and Allophones.

My colleague’s reaction still startles me. “Oh yes! A lot of people said that back in the 1970s but most of them were Jews and they left. They went to Toronto.” In one sentence he had brought in populist, racist, anti-Semitic tropes, and demonstrated another factor: how often the dissemination of populist ideas is linked to spreading concepts of threats to the dominant religion. That same week, a real estate agent showing me a nice square in Outremont mentioned, unasked, that until 1957 no Jews were allowed to buy in that area. I ended up in Charlevoix.

I arrived in Montréal from Brussels where I, like many others, worked in and celebrated multiple languages and cultures. Québec/Belgium comparisons could provide material for many articles. The only linguistic discrimination I experienced in Montréal was on a CÉGEP de Rosemont community radio course run by Radio Centre-Ville. One participant objected that my French sounded too French, claiming I was therefore a plant, infiltrated by the federal government to spy on them. Fortunately nobody supported his demand that I be expelled.

 

The shame game – BREXIT

The London I left in 1990 celebrated its ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. Over 120 major mother tongues were then spoken, and programs to teach the mother tongue of parents were encouraged and funded. (A primary school of which I was a governor was proud of its 74 language groups.) The London to which I returned in 2004 was transformed. The press, almost exclusively conservative/Conservative and traditionally xenophobic and anti-Semitic, was now attacking immigrants who kept their mother tongues active and maintained contact with their countries of origin. Many newspapers had long taken pride in their anti-immigrant credentials. Others, and most broadcast media, had celebrated immigrants’ contribution to British society. Under Thatcher, that balance shifted. No longer were immigrants represented as coming to build up, but instead portrayed as invading to tear down Britain’s “true” culture and traditions. They were, of course, bleeding our welfare system dry and taking our women, jobs, money and housing. Our only salvation, we were told endlessly, lay in Brexit – British exit from the European Union. A referendum was held, allowing people to vote on that possibility.

The new xenophobic populism was directed at Eastern Europeans and the real villain of the piece: our Evil Empire, the European Union. Official statistics showed none of the accusations were true: overall, migrants from Eastern Europe were making a major fiscal contribution while filling vacancies in important growing sectors such as care, which indigenous Brits shunned. European migrants took little welfare and had become so integral to the healthcare, education and hospitality sectors that public services could not survive without them. Those official statistics, then ridiculed as “fake news,” have since proven to be true.

The Britain I find myself in is subject to ceaseless propaganda mostly against the EU, immigrants, ethnic minorities, and scroungers (“deadbeats” in the US). During the Brexit campaign, experts who provided statistical evidence that financial, political and numerical claims made for Brexit were untrue became the new enemy. Subsequent court judgements upholding their criticisms of the campaign as dishonest or illegal and affirming that the Brexit vote does not override established laws (especially on human rights) have led to front-page banner headlines describing British judges as “Enemies of the People.”

Populist claims promoting the benefits of leaving, usually unsubstantiated, were reported as truths. Disagreement was derided as “Project Fear.” The Leave Campaign drove a bus around Britain promising savings of £350 million per week to pour into the National Health Service. Experts who challenged that figure were ridiculed. As it soon became clear, however, the promises were meaningless and were dropped as soon as the Brexiteers won. But the populist arguments (if they can be considered arguments) were less worrying than the consequences. From the moment the result was announced, outbreaks of overt racism started to become commonplace. Physical ethnic aggression erupted on a scale not seen for decades, including attacks on institutions (such as a Polish cultural centre in West London) and on individuals.

Second- and third-generation Asians who had never previously experienced racism found themselves under assault. Strangers in the street asked them when they were leaving. Many such Asians, in a typical populist action of pulling up the drawbridge behind them, had been persuaded to vote for Brexit as a way of keeping out European immigrants.

During the referendum campaign, it was implied that Commonwealth immigrants, particularly Africans, Caribbeans and Asians, were such an integral part of British society that they would be all right. Obviously they weren’t the new enemy, i.e., “European.” It has since become clear that to racists and xenophobes, the newness of immigrants is not what offends. It’s otherness. Although physical attacks have diminished, many Asians remain uncomfortable. Now Britain is rocked with a new scandal, the racist “hostile environment” policy created by the present Prime Minister when she was responsible for immigration. Theresa May, courting populist votes, hired a loudspeaker truck to drive around London threatening immigrants with deportation. She set in motion a program that has extradited hundreds of former Commonwealth citizens, mostly black, who had lived in Britain for up to 60 years and who were legally entitled to be there.

 

The computer video game – servers of violence

To the amazement of many, the past year has seen a massive resurgence of interest in board games, although for the past two decades, video and computer games have dominated. Some are genuinely educational and collaborative. Sadly, most bestsellers are based on war, competition, violence, discrimination and prejudice. Many make the Juden-Raus idea of rounding up Jews into concentration camps for deportation and ultimate annihilation look tame. Using a combination of action, competition and brutality, such video games foster negative populist attitudes. This is such a vast field I will mention just one example briefly to show how easily populist messages can be confused and misused.

One game touted as anti-Nazi and anti-fascist is among the most inventively violent on the market, and adopts the title of Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus,” to make its point. Set in an alternative future in which the Nazis won World War II, it lionizes heroic anti-Nazi fighters. Without players knowing real history, it easily becomes another populist message identifying governments as fascist, where violence directed against governments can be justified. Just such an alternative future was the basis of a 1978 book. The Turner Diaries described a USA in which a black man had been elected President and banned gun ownership. Brave patriots taking a stand against this new order accumulated guns and explosives and attacked centres of government. This might not have mattered had the book not become required reading for various right-wing US groups.

One such reader was Timothy McVeigh, non-immigrant, white US citizen, who in 1995 blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people (including many children). When questioned about the casualties, McVeigh said, “I didn’t define the rules of engagement in this conflict. The rules, if not written down, are defined by the aggressor.” His belief in the populist message “government = bad” meant that he viewed the people he had killed as “the aggressor.”

As US school and mass shootings reach unprecedented levels, many young perpetrators hone their firearms skills on digital games before applying them in the flesh. Massively growing use of firearms in the USA (and to a lesser extent elsewhere) is buttressed by populist messages about gun ownership as a human right, particularly against the backdrop of the “evil repressive state.”

The greatest driving force behind this populist idea is a group whose website describes it as “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization.” Founded in 1871, this group has informed members about firearm-related legislation since 1934 and has been one of its most active lobbying groups since 1975. Perceived by many as the most influential US lobbyist, it is none other than the National Rifle Association. In addition to NRA public messaging, it pays – sorry, contributes – millions of dollars per year directly to US politicians and their election campaigns. Its “contribution” was estimated at $54 million to secure control of Congress in 2016, with $30 million to Presidential candidate Donald Trump.

 

Fair game – set and match – real populism?

After this catalogue of horrors, two tales of positive populist fightback offer some light relief.

In 2004, the CBC organized a national poll to identify The Greatest Canadian, based on a 2002 BBC series. Great Britons had identified Winston Churchill – probably the 20th century’s most hated British Prime Minister, perhaps on par with Margaret Thatcher – as the Greatest Briton. In Canada, the result was very different.

Nominations were taken and preliminary votes conducted, producing a shortlist of ten. Media insiders were sure the winner would be Wayne Gretzky, then a national hockey hero. The Canadian voting public had other ideas. It voted resoundingly for a Scottish-born, social-democratic politician, first federal leader of the New Democratic Party, Saskatchewan’s Tommy Douglas, known and revered for introducing Medicare nationally in 1961.

The other story is from Britain where, in 2005, intellectual BBC radio weekly chat-show host, Melvyn Bragg, conducted a poll to identify the greatest philosopher of all time. Over a 5-week period, it received almost one million votes. As the deadline approached, Bragg started to panic. He put out appeals for support for nominees other than the then frontrunner. His pleas were futile. With a vote of 28% (twice that of his closest rival), the choice was Karl Marx.

These two anecdotes illustrate one other thing about populism. It is true that Canadians voted against the media elite telling them whom they were to choose. They chose someone representing what they admired. Similarly, BBC audiences rejected the plea from the media expert who did not want them to choose Marx (although some suggest he knew such an appeal would boost votes for Marx.)

But if the votes were truly populist according to the flying pig definitions above, they would have led to change. The Douglas vote would have translated into massive increases in Canadian public investment in Medicare (not in private companies making profits from it), and the Marx vote would have heralded the installation of a socialist government in Britain. Maybe timescale is crucial. Perhaps both these things will happen. I would like to think so.

Media mythology says populism brought the world Trump, Macron, Modi and many others, in shock votes against establishment power structures. But are a property mogul, investment banker and millionaire who relentlessly pursue policies favouring the one per cent over the ninety-nine really kicking back against ruling elites? Maybe we should modify that wonderful adage by Emma Goldman to read, “If populism changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

 

The History of Mexico, mural by Diego Rivera in the National Palace, Mexico City

 

As a political ideology, populism can be divided into an array of currents, beyond the obvious distinction between right- and left-wing. It can have negative connotations and be written off as demagogy by some individuals of the fortunate classes who object to allowing those from the lower classes to lead the country, judging them “unfit” for the job. It mirrors and crystallizes the perennial fight for power between the small group of affluent people in many societies and the struggling masses representing the majority.

Populism is a term applied to a political doctrine aimed, in theory, at serving the views and interests of the popular classes.* It is critical of the system run by the elites in power. It also applies to a literary genre that depicts the life of the masses in a realistic way. Some of its counterparts in painting include the indigenismo movement in Latin America and “naive” art.**

In the course of time, the meaning of the term populism has taken on many facets. The elites decry some of these facets and co-opt others, claiming to be advocates of the cause of the people. The definition of populism has varied in history, but generally depends on the personal or political goals of the interested parties. As we see today, populist promises are sometimes used by political elites as an instrument of ideological manipulation to mask serious political problems or to avoid applying real solutions that run counter to their interests.

Populism can also refer to a tactic used by humbler segments of society to defend themselves against the abuses of the corporate and political elite. Some depict this ideology as a doctrine that represents the best form of democracy. Others object, particularly some capitalists who view populism as merely another guise for communism. Such people have honed the skill of sheltering their wealth from the national coffers. The ruling class and their rich and corporate sponsors resist losing any of their privileges, and demonize those populists in an attempt to shield themselves from attack or changes in a system built by and for them.

We must realize that today’s populism has entered the arena of political struggle where money, propaganda, treachery, lies and even killings are the basic rules of the game. Morality is merely a tool that is sharpened to defend financial interests over human ethics. Contradictions can be noted everywhere. Few abide by their own rhetoric. Tax evasion, money laundering and secret bank accounts are the usual games of the ruling corporate and political elites of the anti-populist capitalists. They are among the main users of the off-shore banks created by them. And despite fierce rhetoric about claiming to destroy them, off-shore banks keep increasing every year.

As capitalist elites keep selling to the world the idea of the supremacy of democracy based on the capitalist system, they continue to offer tax evasion services to the very rich, through their banks. These banks continue receiving sometimes millions in cash over the counter, while omitting to respect disclosure regulations. And our politicians from time to time make a timid move to collect hidden tax evasion money to try to fill the coffers.

These tax dodges create deficits that are compensated by the State, which borrows from those same banks harbouring dirty money. Government officials do not want to annoy the corporate entities that sponsor them, or investigate a bank where they have hidden their own under-the-table bribes set aside for their election. Their rhetoric about curbing them is a hypocritical lie. The founder of the Luxembourg bank paradise complex is now a bigshot in the European Union! Some claim that the banks are warned in advance of any “surprise” searches so that they can hide compromising documents. France loses 80 billion euros in tax revenues every year in this manner. Clearstream (a post-trade service provider) that harbours part of the money, serves also to store political bribes from the sale of State weapons. This leads to decreased social services, as the debt has to be served. Capitalist fat cats get fatter while the poor grapple with the ever-shifting challenges of austerity and precarity.

A closer view of The History of Mexico, mural by Diego Rivera in the National Palace, Mexico City

Was it better in the proletarian kingdoms? Not really. The former Soviet Union is a good case in point. It might have had proletarianism, but not populism. The State owned all, but the oligarchs and some party members owned the State! The masses of people were put on leashes, could not travel abroad or speak to foreigners. There were no private liberties, but there was a decent education system for most, which was a poor but important consolation. The “proletarian” upper class could travel, buy all the corrupt capitalists’ goodies abroad: whiskies, coffee, chocolate, nylon or silk stockings, cigarettes, etc.

Now that the system has changed, Russia is sprouting billionaires. The former apparatchiks are now the owners of all the State riches, mines, oil and industries, sold at a price that only they could afford. Have things improved from communism to elitism? They have even developed an aristocratic mafia like the ones we know in major capitalist countries!

If we take a careful look at capitalism, communism, populism and most other “isms,” we see that they tend to be different expressions of the same disease – human greed and a perverted form of narcissism!

My conviction is that the advocates of populism in its ideal form have little chance of attaining power, much less holding on to it, for strong disruptive forces will quickly unravel all that. There is no shortage of examples illustrating this point: Juan Peron in Argentina, Salvador Allende in Chile, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and Mahatma Gandhi in India were all ultimately ousted or annihilated by the forces of the financial, corporate or religious elites who opposed them.

Populism is, in fact, either propaganda or pipe dreams, propagated by astute and cynical rulers or by sincere believers who can hardly be allowed to realize their populist vision!

 

 

* Populus is a Latin word which means “the people.” The popular classes are the ordinary citizens in opposition to the elite, the aristocracy, and those belonging to the privileged and affluent upper classes. In many countries, the popular classes represent 50% to 90% of the population. We all know that the upper classes of many countries form a tiny fraction of the citizenry.  In the USA, this group consists of the “middle” middle class, the lower middle class and the lower class!

**Indigenism refers to a movement and a school of art. It is often used to depict indigenous paintings and other visual arts in Latin American, African and Asian countries, which differ from the classical European forms of expression and challenge colonial paradigms. It is also sometimes called primitive or naive art.