Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Islamophobia: a response to Leigh Phillips

Well, it's certainly been a while since I've posted anything but since I still have this blog thing in my name it seemed a better place to post something longer than just on facebook. There has been a lot of debate about the terrible massacre at Charlie Hebdo and what it means from the point of view of why it happened, the character of Charlie Hebdo itself (was it racist or not) and how to characterize the movement. What has been interesting has been how bifurcated the response has been from the English-speaking left. Some have wanted to claim that the murders were an attack on our freedoms by people who hate us for them. Others have claimed that this has to be seen as part of a bigger picture involving racism in France and imperialism in the Middle East, in which France is implicated directly and indirectly. I'm of the latter camp.

This is specifically a response to Leigh Phillips, a Canadian socialist and journalist who is appalled at the response of people like myself. You can read it here.

Firstly, I applaud Leigh on the effort he has put into defending his position. This is important to work out because it shapes how we respond. Nonetheless, I strongly disagree with his argument for the reasons I detail below. I want to deal with them as follows: the character of Charlie Hebdo, the character of the terrorist reaction, the nature of opposition to the dominant narrative about the attack and, finally, some strategic thoughts. First, let's start with a quote regarding a specific cartoon from Charlie Hebdo, below, that he brings up in his piece.

In response to people who have raised concerns about the cartoon offending the cultural sensitivities of Muslims, he writes: "To my mind, if there's anything homophobic going on here, it's the idea that gays should hide themselves so as not to offend those who maintain a hatred of homosexuals." But this is a mis-reading of why the cartoon is problematic. It's not that Muslims who are homophobic ought to be challenged on their homophobia, which they should be. The problem is the suggestion that the real obstacle to gay rights is Muslims - when the campaign in France against gay marriage was not led by Islamists, it was led by white, Catholic French people.

This speaks to a general dismissal of concerns that Charlie Hebdo had a penchant for publishing cartoons meant to insult the oppressed Muslim community of France and was part of a pattern of Islamophobia. Leigh, and other commentators, want to claim that these aren't racist at all and that it's just the "Anglo left" not understanding French humour or the context. As he writes: "Leftists must make a distinction between blasphemy and racism. The two are not the same thing. No one has the right not to be offended." But is that what is going on here?

First of all it is simply not true that accusations of racism are limited to anglo leftists, there have been plenty of critiques from Arab Muslims and they have been penned by French progressive journalists, including a former journalist from Charlie Hebdo itself, who worked on the magazine for almost a decade. Not that the spurious attempt at cultural relativism applies in any case - the publishing of the Danish Prophet cartoon, the racist portrayal of Muslim women in the veil, is there to see and no amount of "you don't know the context" can explain this away. Below is a Charlie cartoon mocking women who wear the veil and the response by Olivier Cyran, available on the Leninology blog by Richard Seymour.

It is this drawing by Catherine that comes to my mind, but I could point to so many others amid the torrents of Islamophobic sewage that you others, producers of humour inflated by the winds of fashion, flush from your tanks every week. That drawing accompanied a pseudo-investigation into “sex jihadists” in Syria. This “scoop”, we learned a little while later - it’s true that it seemed plausible on first reading - was a tissue of stupidities belched out for propaganda purposes. Let’s note that you haven’t even taken this mess off your website; apparently, some subjects lend themselves better than others to retraction.When you’re laughing at veiled women, you can let yourself go, allow yourself some confusion between exciting yet weakly-sourced information, and barracks-room banter.

But I’m not writing to talk about good taste; rather, about this country which you’ve made a nastier place to live in. A country which now forbids a woman to work in a crèche on the basis that the piece of cloth she wears will traumatise the kids. Or a tertiary student, wearing a bandanna judged to be too wide, is excluded from her college with the blessings of a UMP [conservative - trans.] mayor, the socialist Minister of Education, and the rabid press. Where you’re hard-pressed to find a café counter or a table of literary notables which, without a moment’s notice, won’t erupt in the kind of joke which, at “Charlie”, makes you soil yourselves laughing on deadline day. Where every woman who covers her hair is considered the vanguard of a fifth column, to the extent that she’s forbidden to participate in a school outing or to do volunteer work to feed the homeless.

I know that, in your eyes, these vigorous measures are crucial for the survival of the Republic and of secularism. Recently, you found it useful to publish an interview with your lawyer, Richard Malka, the valiant defender of Clearstream [a corporation infamous for tax evasion - trans.], of Dominique Strauss-Kahn [politician arrested for attempted rape - trans.] and of the spirit of the Enlightenment. “The veil is the annihilation, the burial of the Republican trinity of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, your mouthpiece declared as if at a Toastmasters’ meeting for vacuum-cleaner salesmen. He would first have to explain to us for whom this famous trinity has any real meaning, and for whose profit, but let’s move on. What he’s hammering into your readers’ heads, though they’re already fully instructed on the subject, is that a few square centimetres of cotton, perhaps mixed with polyester, threaten to spread the plague across our beautiful country. That the veil is so dangerously infected that it’s not wise to waste any time worrying about the person who wears it.

And he continues later on:

The obsessive pounding on Muslims to which your weekly has devoted itself for more than a decade has had very real effects. It has powerfully contributed to popularising, among “left-wing” opinion, the idea that Islam is a major “problem” in French society. That belittling Muslims is no longer the sole privilege of the extreme right, but a “right to offend” which is sanctified by secularism, the Republic, by “co-existence”. And even - let’s not be stingy with the alibis! - by the rights of women. It’s widely believed today that the exclusion of a veiled girl is a sign, not of stupid discrimination, but of solid, respectable feminism, which consists of pestering those whom one claims to be liberating...

Speaking of which, we could say a lot about the sleazy aspect of your motivations. The euphoria with which Charlie Hebdo welcomed the topless activists of FEMEN suggests that the grease of Islamophobia blends perfectly with a splattering of testosterone. The ode of Bernard Maris to Amina Sboui, a Tunisian FEMEN-ist who posed topless on the Internet, offers a good example of the hormonal muck dripping off your pages: “Show your breasts, Amina, show your genitals to all those bearded retards who hang around on porno sites, to all the desert pigs who preach morality at home and pay for escorts in foreign palaces, and dream of seeing you stoned to death after raping you... Your nude body is of an absolute purity, compared to their jellabas and repugnant niqabs”. Paging Dr Freud...

Nor is Olivier Cyran alone in his criticisms. The editor of Le Monde Diplomatique has also penned a short, critical history of Charlie for al Araby al-Jadeed titled "From anti-colonialism towards Islamophobia". He points to the fact that publisher Phillipe Val, who relaunched the magazine in 1992 ended up supporting NATOs war in Kosovo, and not supporting the Palestinians after the Second Intifada. This represented the shift to attacking Islam that went much further than just poking fun.

One example, of many others, of this Islamophobia was the 2006 publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in Denmark. It was in March of that year that Philippe Val, along with Bernard-Henri Lévy, Caroline Fourest and Antoine Sfeir signed The Twelve’s Manifesto: standing together against the new totalitarianism, published in L’Express. It stated that, “after having conquered fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, the world faces a new, totalitarian global threat: Islamism. We, writers, journalists and intellectuals call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunities and secularism for everyone.”

Nor is it useful to point to CH's origins in the radicalization of 1968, almost fifty years ago. Things have changed a lot since in then - at the publication and in French society. Frankly, other than as a point of historical interest, this fact is utterly irrelevant. To put it at its most extreme: Mussolini started out on the left of the Italian Socialist Party. Similarly, the reference to historical examples of anti-clericalism. First of all, the Bolsheviks supported Sharia in Muslim majority nations within the old Russian empire. And in Latin America Catholic priests were often in the forefront of struggles against oppression. They were in the central leadership of the FSLN in Nicaragua during the revolution. The reformism of the current Argentinean pope, for instance, isn't an accident. Things change and people change. And sometimes religion is an ally and sometimes it is the enemy. Context is everything.

But the question of Charlie Hebdo's politics is really only significant in that we are expected to demonstrate solidarity not only with the victims themselves but to also support the political message of the newspaper itself. We don't need to think that they were fascist or a "racist magazine" to not want to provide support for their Islamophobic cartoons or the Islamophobic use to which it is being used by the mainstream press. Too many are using this tragedy as an excuse to print cartoons that can only be viewed as racist outside of their context (accepting the argument that their original intention was as a meta-commentary on French racism, etc). Of more significance is the analysis of the meaning of the attack and the political response to it.


First the idea that this is about identity politics vs free speech is just plain nonsense. It is precisely about, in part, the question of freedom of expression. Where is the real threat to freedom of expression - is it Islamists in France or is it the French state. Since the French state has, in the last ten years banned the hijab in public schools and public sector jobs, banned the niqab and burqa (which applies to a vanishingly tiny percentage of the population and is really just an exercise in Islamophobia, as it was in Canada when the Tories did the same at voting booths), banned sidewalk prayer while Muslims were systematically prevented from opening new mosques, banned protests against the Mohammad cartoon in 2006 and protests against Israel's murderous assault on Gaza, the idea that it is Muslim fundamentalists threatening French republican freedoms is obscene, especially now as the French state rounds up dozens of people for the crime of "apology for terrorism." Would providing context for the attacks constitute an apology for terrorism? Do we believe in banning free speech in order to protect free speech?

In fact, what is shockingly missing from Leigh's analysis is a single mention of the conditions of the Muslim French population. There is no discussion of the concrete experience of racism in France, which predominantly affects people whose origins lie in Muslim majority countries. Not only the laws, which reinforce social exclusion, but also the poverty, the discrimination in jobs and housing, the conditions in the banlieues, the differentiation in government spending in these areas, etc. etc. To again return to Cyran:

On the political level, its influence is zero: six million Muslims in our country, none of whom are members of the National Assembly. For a parliamentarian, it’s safer to plead the case of commercial lawyers and to pass laws making veiled women invisible than to worry about eruptions of Islamophobic violence. Nor is there a single Muslim among media owners, information officers, heavyweights among employers, big bankers, important editors or union big-wigs.

Of more importance to an analysis of how the left should respond is related to the point made above about the real threat to freedom of speech on the one hand and an analysis of the origins of a kind of Islamist fundamentalism that believes in terrorist attacks on civilians. There is a spurious argument in the article that goes: "To reduce these murderers to automatons responding to military interventions in Iraq (a war France did not participate in) or Mali actually erases subaltern agency and thus is its own species of 'noble savage racism. Historically, anti-imperialist Arab resistance was primarily secular and socialist, not Islamist."

This is wrong both logically and historically. The defeat of secular forms of resistance from nationalism to Communism in the Arab world have historical roots, from co-optation (Egypt et al) to outright defeat (Iran viz Mossadegh). Pakistani Islamism was sponsored by Britain as a counterweight to Ghandi's (problematic) Indian nationalism. Islamism's rise has to be understood not as an "automaton" response but one historical and social response amongst many. One look at the Egyptian revolution reveals all of the possible permutations of response that arise from a population in crisis - some of those were forms of Islamism. Just as in Egypt or Ireland (or Africa or China or...) or other places, the oppressed - precisely because they aren't automatons - respond in different ways depending on a multitude of factors. Even within Islamism there are many strategic and political responses - from the Marxist Islamism of Dr. Ali Shariati prior to the Iranian revolution to al Qaeda, which was inextricably linked to US-Saudi imperialism. That is why in some circumstances socialists work with Islamists. As the British Marxist Chris Harman wrote in an excellent analysis back in the 90s - "with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never." Even with the example of the terrible Islamist attack on the military-run Pakistani school, we can't understand this attack - certainly not as a clash of civilizations - without understanding the specificity of the Pakistani military offensive in the tribal areas and the anger and tragedy and destruction that it has caused. That is not to justify that attack but to place it in the context of a contained civil war. Incidentally this relates directly to Charlie Hebdo. When the secular Egyptian coup slaughtered hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood Islamists, Charlie didn't mock the pretensions of our Egyptian allies (and recipients of massive aid) for their brutal hypocrisy, they instead mocked the murdered activists. I'm not sure if, in that instance, it makes them racists but it definitely makes them assholes.

Further, pointing to support from journalists and cartoonists in Muslim majority countries does nothing to advance our understanding either of the attack or its meaning. France is not Saudi Arabia or even Yemen or Iran where the character of the struggle is different, the balance of forces viz certain forms of Islamism, etc. are different. And this is actually important because Saudia Arabia is a key prop for western imperialism, a counter-revolutionary force during the Arab Spring and a prop for the most reactionary Islamism in the world. The USA backed Saudi Arabia in its creation of the most conservative opposition possible to the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan. It did likewise viz Syria and Libya. It was happy to have the House of Saud undermine the Egyptian revolution. Wahabbism, like Zionism, is a key element in western imperialism's hegemony in the Middle East. Opposing that form of Islamism within Muslim majority countries is part of the struggle against US and western imperialism. But we aren't in those countries, are we? Our job is to point the finger at our own governments.

Back to the Anglo world, the attempt to link this to censorship or identity politics on the left in western countries is simply wrong-headed. I do agree that the retreat of the movements in the west, the failure of Occupy to break through, etc. has led to a certain turning inward in many places. I have seen this online and off - splits, infighting, accusations of a personal nature. But the reaction to this tragedy has largely not reflected that. If anything there are as many "identitarians" who have supported attacks on "reactionary Islam" as have resisted it. And the biggest reducer of free speech remains the state and its allies, with opponents of the Gaza conflict finding their university positions eliminated or speaking engagements canceled. Again, it's worth re-stating that nobody has opposed freedom of expression. The concern is that this was rooted in imperialism and a limitation of freedom of expression and a suppression of rights of the Muslim population of France - and an acceleration of that for the rest of us as well in the days following, with an expansion of the security state.

Finally, what is lacking is a sort of "what is to be done" in the face of the tragedy and the subsequent mobilizations in France. There are no millions on the streets in the UK, Canada, Australia or the USA. That implies strongly that the reaction of the left must be different. The same holds in sections of the Middle East - what would leftists say in Egypt where the regime emphasizes that it is attacking MB terrorism? How about in Bahrain or Iran? Were I in France I would probably have been on the protests and handing out leaflets with an independent position that emphasized what needs to be done to defend freedom of speech (like opposing a crackdown) - eliminating restrictions and discrimination against the Muslim population. But in the English speaking world the emphasis ought quite rightly to be against Islamophobia, imperialism and any hypocritical attempt to use this as an excuse to expand the security state, which is what some on the left have done. And that includes opposition to idealizing CH precisely because it has been used to pretend this is just about blasphemy, not racism. Just like after 9/11, aiding the idea that Islamism or Islam is the biggest threat or that the reason for these attacks was "hatred of our freedoms" a la George Bush, only feeds into the racism and xenophobia of our rulers and our state. We can do better than that.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Norm Kelly v Rob Ford: The Right Wing Mayor Is Dead. Long Live The Right Wing Mayor!

Happier days for the populist right

Well, it was indeed a circus at city hall yesterday. I wasn’t able to attend the performance live but did have the pleasure of watching some of it unfold via the miracle of the interwebs. Those Ford brothers sure know how to do a great imitation of The Sopranos – belligerent, bullying, pulling faces like a couple of 12-year old school yard pricks. Better writers than me have detailed the whole gory affair, including former fan club president, Christie Blatchford.

So, I won’t dwell on the specifics of their performance. Just to note that, in the end, Ford was stripped of much of his power. Of course, it came after a predictable performance that the Ford gang has realized will garner them international attention and ensure, if not a political future, it’s definitely building their media career. A lot of North Americans love UFC. The Fords played to that fan base.

What is more interesting, besides the easy to talk about spectacle, is just what we have gotten in replacement of Rob Ford: Norm Kelly. This is what the left voted for in stripping Rob Ford of his powers – they voted for Norm Kelly to take over the mayoral role. So, who is this guy? Well, certainly he will be less entertaining but will he be “better” for our city? I mean he must be, after all, even council lefty Gord Perks was tweeting that if the Ford bros. tried to remove Kelly before yesterday’s vote they’d just put him back in place so that they could make him interim mayor.

Kelly, made Deputy Mayor by Rob Ford himself, is a political veteran, having been in and out of various levels of office since Trudeau the senior was Prime Minister. He was also once the head of history at Upper Canada College – a prep school for ruling class boys in Toronto. And, most importantly, he’s just as odious as Rob Ford. As he himself said as recently as August, when he was made DM, on his role:
“There has to be a commitment to the core policies and core direction of the mayor...”

He’s not kidding there, in fact, he voted with Ford over 96% of the time. Like Denzil Minnan-Wong, Cesar Palacio and other council right-wingers, Kelly has happily played the role of Ford hatchet man whenever it was needed, removing the TTC chief General Manager Gary Webster back in February, 2012 – at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars – because he didn’t furnish Ford’s castle in the sky with the necessary furniture by endorsing his outrageously expensive and impractical subway plan. It should be noted that Kelly previously voted in favour of Miller’s transit city plan seven times. That’s the plan that Ford tore up as soon as he was elected because he wanted subways, not LRT. Of course, at the time Kelly was on Miller’s executive, which is both a demonstration of Miller’s judgment and Kelly’s opportunism.

Besides his role as chief toady, Kelly is also a climate-denier or, as he would say “we just don’t really know anything now do we?” Tell that to the families of the 10,000+ dead in the Philippines. Nor is this some recent aberration, according to this 2003 article in NOW:
[Kelly] holds the distinction of being the only TTC commissioner who doesn’t believe in increased funding for public transit. Member of the city’s powerful policy and finance committee and an unabashed supporter of the Island Airport expansion, Union Station, Front Street extension – you name it. Believes in privatizing waste, water and public housing. One of the worst voting records on council on the environment as well.

So, let’s be honest. Like Minnan-Wong and the rest of the Ford Nation minions at City Hall, the only thing that has changed for Kelly is that Ford’s incompetence has made it impossible for him to implement the austerity agenda that they support. Ford has fallen out of favour with the real powers that be in the city and with the mostly right wing, pro-austerity media. For certain this palace coup includes a fair share of careerist maneuvering by Ford’s former allies, but at its core it’s all about re-arming neo-liberalism on Toronto City Council.

And the left on council are playing the role of enablers – not of Rob Ford’s self-destructive, substance-abusing behavour – but of austerity and privatization. They are helping the right wing to re-arm by helping them remove the right’s own worst enemy. They could have exposed the tawdry nature of this whole spectacle, the dubious nature of the police surveillance operations and the opportunism of council’s right wing. Instead, what they seem to want is “business as usual”, calm and cooperation.

The city council left could have used this crisis as an opportunity to derail the austerity agenda. But they didn’t. And they aren’t alone. Andrea Horwath, provincial NDP leader raised no questions about what is going on at City Hall, endorsing the Liberal government's intention to now deal with Norm Kelly. “If Mr. Kelly is now the person who is the head action person when it comes to city of Toronto decision-making . . . then that’s the appropriate thing to do,” said Horwath. Really? All the NDP can do is big up right-winger Norm Kelly? And the union movement in the city has been no better sadly. Having failed to mobilize any sort of sustained fight against attacks on jobs and conditions by the council right wing, they did manage to make an effort to mobilize an audience in council chambers yesterday to support the right wing’s push to oust Ford. I’m sure Norm Kelly will reward Toronto’s public sector workers with better conditions…not.

Personally, I hope Rob Ford sues city council and exposes further the hypocrisy that resides here - like when Doug Ford opportunistically pointed out that the head of the Police Services Board going on a fishing trip with the Police Chief, Bill Blair, is a major conflict of interest. The more the flailing of the Ford bros tears apart the right wing, discredits these supposedly austere institutions helmed by the responsible elite, and sets them at odds with each other, the better. The left should not be aiding the right to be more effective, they should be "enabling" their self-destruction, helping them hoist themselves on their own petards and exposing their rotten politics in the process.

Seeing this debacle unfold has made me realize that the Rolling Stones had it all wrong. It’s not true that you can’t always get what you want. In this case the left got what it wanted but it most definitely isn’t what we need.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Ford Saga: Left Gives Cover To Right Wing Palace Coup

Cuts, what cuts? It's all about bad behaviour
photo credit: @HeartsOnTheLeft

Not one word about cuts. Not one word about privatizing garbage collection. Nothing about his refusal to ever attend a single Gay Pride Parade. Zilch about his actual politics. No, everything is focused on his drinking, his drug use and his public displays of such activities. Oh, and in case you didn't notice: he's fat (because that deserves serious political discussion with regards to the mayoralty). The closest we get to something progressive is a councilor pointing out the hypocrisy in Mayor Ford’s “zero tolerance” stance on illegal drugs when he himself has purchased illegal drugs in the last two years.

Make no mistake, this is a right wing coup to get rid of a difficult former front man. That the left is getting caught up in this is a sign of how off the rails the left is, how disconnected it is from ordinary, working class people. I don’t expect much from the “left” on city council. The best that they could do when they were needed was to vote for a study of how efficient garbage privatization was after it was implemented. And, as I’ve said before, when Ford put forward a motion during the G20 debacle to laud the police, most of the left voted for it with 5 members walking out of the chambers in order to avoid having their vote counted. They couldn’t even bring themselves to publicly abstain on a pro-cop vote after all the round-ups of innocents, the kettling, the home invasions, Officer Bubbles, the display of "weapons"by Chief Blair that included a chainsaw and some medieval role playing gear. I’m not sure how you could manage to be more lame and still get out of bed in the morning.

But now they’re all over this, crusaders for truth, justice and democracy – and being led by the nose by right wing Rob Ford ally Denzil Minnan-Wong to, uh, depose Rob Ford. (edit - except for Gord Perks, who opposes deposing elected officials - though I will never forgive him for leaving the room during the G20 vote).

Besides the city council “left”, I’ve also been shocked by some of the stuff I see on Facebook. I’ve seen articles posted attacking Ford’s drug and alcohol use by people who I know have used drugs and alcohol to excess in the past. And done it in public. Some of them even got into fights while doing it. (For the record I have used both, and made an ass out of myself in public more than once. I also strongly believe in decriminalizing drugs so that users aren’t sent to prison and the drugs trade isn’t turned into a high stakes criminal activity involving guns and violence). Then of course there are the fat jokes, always the fat jokes. And the faux outrage because Ford said "eating pussy". Are you serious? I hear people say worse shit in the cash line at the grocery store for God's sake. Who. Cares.

More seriously, look at the rallies to depose Ford at City Hall. I dare you to find a single sign opposing cutbacks, privatization or bigotry. You won’t because they don’t or, rather, these rallies aren't about that - they're about moral outrage. The kind of morals that are about contempt for the great unwashed, of which I am proudly a member. Let’s take a step back for a second here. As wildly delusional as Rob Ford and his brother are – I mean, they consort with Giorgio Mammoliti and Doug compared Rob to Jesus of Nazareth – they are right that this is a witch hunt. Perhaps, dare I say it, even a conspiracy.

The police staged an expensive and extensive investigation against Ford, including airplane surveillance, stake-outs, interviews, etc. all because he got wasted on tape. Does this strike no one as an unusual use of police resources? They found nothing, apparently, with which they could convict him – and yet the details of this surveillance of an innocent (yeah, the word chokes a bit in my throat) man are released to the media. Does nobody else find this disturbing? Would you be troubled if the cops staked out Maude Barlow’s house, or David Suzuki or Olivia Chow – and then the courts released photos, transcribed interviews and CCTV footage that smeared them without ever laying a charge? Do you think that this is a good precedent for dealing with politicians who rub the powers that be the wrong way? And rub them he does.

Ford is a populist windbag and right wing bigot with a neoliberal agenda that includes cutting services for the most vulnerable in society. But he was not the candidate of the city establishment – George Smitherman was. Ford won because, unlike the left (or Smitherman), he speaks a language and expresses an anger to which many working people can relate – including the non-white, immigrant heavy suburbs. That’s not the route of preference for the ruling elite who would rather see things stay respectable and passionless. (Unfortunately, it’s also not the route of preference for the polite left.)

Sure, after Ford won they were willing to work with him but it was begrudgingly because he’s such a loose cannon and because he’s not totally under their control. Doug Ford’s wild attacks on the Police Chief Bill Blair are demonstration enough of that. As the inability of Ford to drive through an austerity agenda became clear this very conditional support waned. And when he was unable to come up with a credible transit plan in a city where gridlock is costing significant profits (as in billions of dollars every year), there was growing alarm. Not to mention his (and Doug’s) tendency to come up with the most hare-brained ideas when it comes to city development (ferris wheels for the waterfront, anyone?).

At some point this draining of ruling class support became an active desire to remove him. Again, not because he was a right wing bastard but because he was an ineffective right wing bastard. And not because he stirred up some active opposition with his neo-liberal policies. Does anyone really think that the ruling class gives a rat's ass about some protests and a relatively small and contained strike by library workers? Really? Have you seen the ruling class of Greece veer away from implementing harsh austerity in the face of monthly general strikes? Opposition they can deal with - Mike Harris weathered a series of city-wide general strikes and a demonstration in Toronto of 250,000 or more people. He never once lost ruling class backing. This is not about the relatively minor (though welcome) opposition on the streets of Toronto. Mayor Miller, a candidate of the centre-left with labour backing, faced bigger resistance.

Whether the growth in the sentiment amongst the elite turned into active conspiracy, who’s to know. For myself, I have a hard time believing that there isn’t some coordination and discussion going on when the police dedicate a whole squad to following him (Including with airplanes!! I want to know how much that operation cost.), and then the results of those investigations lead to a progressive and systematic tightening of the noose. First, there are hints in the press that there might be some information damaging to Ford in the report. Then his driver, apparent muscle and probable dealer, Alexander Lisi, is arrested and charged with dealing pot. Then part of the report is released and the Chief of Police himself announces – at a press conference – that the crack video exists and that they have it. At each moment Ford has refused to step down and they have upped the pressure on him. My guess is that at some point, if he doesn’t cry uncle and leave office, there will be a warrant for our Chief Magistrate’s arrest. They will destroy him. I won't weep for the guy, given his mendacious and pathological behaviour, but I'll shudder at the precedent.

The left, by trailing along behind this palace coup and acting like it’s some sort of uprising from the people – have given cover to the right wing and the ruling class, putting a progressive gloss on the whole operation. They have facilitated a moral panic about drugs and alcohol and bad manners that won’t be used against cocaine snorting bankers, cavorting with high priced call girls. It will be used against “gangbangers” to launch attacks on visible minority communities and the poor. And the left will be tarnished as being responsible for these attacks and will be seen for the kind of downtown, whitebread, middle class snobbery of which Rob Ford has accused us.

A final note: in all this, where is Karen Stintz? She’s being very quiet and letting people like Minnan-Wong and del Grande – not to mention the left – haul down the big guy. Her name is conspicuously absent on the open letter calling for Ford to resign. She is positioning herself to be the grand unifier who has no blood on her hands. If Stintz, a Tory, wins next year, the left will have itself to blame. Stintz actually stood up to Rob Ford while the left was still cowering at the mention of Ford Nation. She doesn't need to attack him now, she already established her anti-Ford credentials - when it took a spine to do so - now she can reap the reward. The left is helping her become our next mayor. Good work, guys. Just what we need, a more effective conservative.

No, just because Rob Ford is a total bastard it doesn’t follow that all means of getting rid of him are good ways. And it sure doesn’t mean that all ways will lead to a better city. That so much of the left thinks so is a stark reminder that the left has lost confidence in itself and, even worse, lost confidence in the power of mobilizing, particularly working class people. This proxy victory – using right wingers, police chiefs, the courts and the media to eliminate a right wing mayor – is no victory at all. It is a hostage to fortune.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Three Reasons Why Ford Should Stay

Everyone’s clamouring for Ford to resign: he lied, he smoked crack, he was wasted on the job, the city needs a competent administration. Balls, I say. I’ve seen competent administrations and I can say for certain in the present climate that a “competent administration” will focus its attention on further austerity and attacking those who resist austerity. Need I remind that the entire left wing on council voted to applaud the role of the police in attacking G20 protestors? Well, a couple of them stayed away for the vote but you don’t get bravery points for that now, do you? So I can think of three good reasons why we will be better off as a city if Rob Ford stays and then runs in the next election:

1) His removal will be on a conservative basis that does nothing to strengthen the left. Sorry, folks – Police Chief Bill “martial law” Blair is the hero in this story, not the left, not the unions, not the LGBT movement. In fact the list of Ford’s enemies looks increasingly like a who’s who of the right in this city. The clamour for Ford’s head is not because he wants to close libraries, end daycare subsidies or because he refuses to attend Gay Pride. It is a moral panic about a guy who is too trashy to do the elite job of being a mayor. If he goes now he will be replaced by a new standard bearer who most of the right can rally around to implement the very same agenda pursued by Ford.

2) By Ford staying the right wing can spend the next year tearing the shit out of each other and can then proceed to split the vote three ways. A deeply fractured right creates more space to resist austerity and build a fightback. After Ford was elected there was a sense amongst the left on council and outside in the real world, that Ford Nation was unassailable. Pessimism leads to passivity and acceptance of austerity because there appears to be no alternatrive. Doug Ford’s call for Chief Blair and Polices Services Board chair Andrew Pringle to resign demonstrates that the dynamic duo have no red lines and they will escalate the fight as much as necessary to save their careers. These guys are not normal politicians. And Dougie is also correct: Pringle, the head of the body whose job it is to oversee the cops and keep them on a tight leash of accountability has no business going on a fishing trip with the damn chief. If the Ford's want to go down swinging and take down a bunch of right wing power brokers with them (saying things that the left has never had the spine to say) then I say let 'em rip. I'm not a fan of UFC but this is the kind of cage match that I could get into.

3) The left and the unions need time to rebuild confidence and activism. Let’s be honest – the left has been for shit. Besides the librarians – who fought a good strike and basically won – and one significant, union-led, anti-austerity protest of several thousand people at City Hall, Ford has faced less resistance than even David Miller. Garbage collection was privatized without a whimper from CUPE. If Olivia Chow is elected mayor – and, again, let’s be honest it will be with a Miller-esque team that includes “progressive” business leaders – and there is no anti-austerity movement in the streets or in the unions, she will implement a more socially progressive version of the same pro-business policies. I would bet money that her “cabinet” would include Karen Stintz, the anti-Ford Tory councilor who is chair of the TTC (and being touted as the person to beat Ford by the media). We’ve seen this story before with the Ontario NDP government – elected on high hopes, does progressive stuff for about a year, then collapses under pressure from the right into harsh austerity and scapegoating of the poor as the unions are split and provide little resistance. The unions, the NDP and the "social movement left" could start by mobilizing now against Ford on the basis of challenging his politics, not his lifestyle.

So, be careful what you wish for Toronto lefties because you just might get it. At worst you will end up with Stintz or, god help us, John Tory as mayor by this time next year. At best we will end up with effectively the same policies with a progressive gloss and the right wing will have ridden out a major crisis and been allowed to regroup.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Bye Bye Rob Ford, Hello Karen Stintz

There is the sound of champagne corks being popped and cheers in the streets. Everyone smiles at each other and winks, knowing that soon it will all be over. The hated burgermeister is falling and no one, except perhaps his family, will be sad to see him go. And he has been felled by none other than that champion of democracy, Toronto Police Chief William Blair.

Oh, wait a second. Bill Blair? The same Bill Blair who led the cops in their assault on G20 protesters a couple of years ago? The same Bill Blair who wheeled out props – a la the “Miami model” of protest disruption - and used “kettling” to corral not only peaceful demonstrators but unlucky passersby for hours without food or water? The same Bill Blair whose cops shot a man nine times on a streetcar before tasering him?

Something is rotten in Denmark.

I have watched the left go absolutely bananas with delight in the past week as the official right wing in Canada has imploded. Well, imploded is too strong a word, the game is hardly over for Harper as of this morning. And I’ve also been happy to see the vultures turn on each other. I mean, these guys are scumbags, lets face it. But it has been with growing trepidation.

At the federal level, Stephen Harper’s troubles have nothing to do with his murder of thousands of Afghans in support of NATO’s attempt to subdue that country. It has nothing to do with his shutdown of the national daycare plan that Paul Martin put in place to try and save his own skin, or his scuppering of the deal he made with first nations people. Nor does it have anything to do with his policy record of the past decade – his cuts to cultural funding, his government’s attacks on funding for international women’s organizations that support choice on abortion or domestic religious groups like KAIROS that support Palestinian rights. It has nothing to do with his unbridled support for big oil and their enthusiastic destruction of the environment of Alberta and, indeed, the whole world with the tar sands. Nothing to do with his support for fracking to recover natural gas. The list goes on as to the odious reasons why Harper should be unceremoniously turfed from office.

Not one of those reasons has come up. And the same can be said for Rob Ford. Ford privatized west end garbage collection, leading to a degradation in working conditions for sanitation workers, and worse service. He tried to close libraries and de-fund childcare subsidies for single parents and poor families. He has attacked cyclists and environmentalists. He shut down the much needed transit plan for the city to wage an ideological fight for subways vs LRTs.

No, the reason why Harper is in trouble is a stupid, piddling, little scandal – a couple of his senators took extra expenses – a time honoured tradition in Canada’s undemocratic chamber of “sober second thought” (oh, the delicious irony of that title as I watched Duffy roast Harper last week). His office then tried to head off the scandal by covering the expenses of Mike Duffy. Aboriginal people are living in conditions worse than the developing world on many reserves and working class people can’t afford daycare – and I care that Duffy took an extra $100K?

Sure, it is Harper’s famous arrogance and micromanagement that is bringing him down. And if he goes the way of Brian Mulroney 20 years ago I won’t shed a tear. But we all ought to remember how that celebration ended. The Tory party was destroyed, not by the left, but because it was so thoroughly rotten and hated by both left and right (the right because Mulroney supported concessions to Quebec viz Meech Lake Constitutional Accord). It gave the Liberals 4 terms in office under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin. And it gave Canada the harshest austerity regime in the western world under Paul Martin. The fact that it was not a shift to the left was also expressed in the fact that out of the ashes of the Tories arose an even more right wing party, Reform – whose ultimate victory was that they got to remove the words “progressive” from the “Progressive Conservative Party of Canada” (confirming that they are, in fact, against any progress). In Ontario the NDP was decimated for a generation (by their own right wing policies, it should be said) and replaced by the rabidly right wing Tories under Mike Harris.

Not that the present round of defenestrations will necessarily end the same way. But people need to sober up and take a look at who is putting in the knife and why. That will tell us a bit about why it is happening and why now.

In Toronto the city elite have always hated Rob Ford. Their horse was George Smitherman – a smooth, connected lawyer with right wing politics and a progressive gloss because he’s openly gay. He would have had an easier chance of maintaining consensus while implementing austerity. Ford is a bumbling, personally troubled, brash populist with few political skills beyond brawling and personal insults. His agenda is no different than Smitherman, except in the details (in particular his weird opposition to a transit plan that was supported by the Chamber of Commerce, because gridlock is a big, costly headache for Ontario capitalists). At first, after the election, the city elite reached out to Rob Ford and tried to work with him. Some media supported him, just as they had supported Mike Harris years earlier because sometimes a right wing populist can break the logjam of “business as usual” to put things on the “right track” by harnessing popular anger in a pro-capitalist direction.

But Ford was too erratic, too self-serving, too unable to build a coherent team with a coherent agenda to get through what is needed from the point of view of Toronto’s corporate elite. And they hate him because he’s a trashy, nouveau riche, petty bourgeois piss-tank who won’t play ball the way they want him to. He gets drunk in public and is rude to people. He hangs out with trash and thugs. He behaves in ways that remind them too much of the dirty unwashed masses. That’s why the focus of attacks on Rob Ford has almost always revolved around his personal behavior. Does anybody think that it’s an accident that the police released a photo of Rob Ford taking a piss in a public park? Jesus, I’ve taken a piss behind buildings more than once – because there’s no freaking public washrooms anywhere in the city. Or, horror of horror, Ford has to sneak around to buy drugs? Um, I don’t know if any of you have ever smoked pot but you don’t buy it at the corner store either (and for all we know it could have been pot that Lisi was dropping in Ford’s car – not that I particularly care). Is Rob Ford a hypocrite on these things? Would he attack drug users and homeless people who are forced to piss behind buildings? Of course he would but just because he’s an asshole doesn’t mean I have to be. Build more public washrooms for crying out loud. Decriminalize drug use.

It’s so blindingly obvious I can’t believe the left doesn’t see this. When I talk to working class people who aren’t leftists it’s obvious to them. They know that Rob Ford is being attacked because he looks and sounds like them – he has family problems and swears and drives an SUV and he drinks too much and has trouble keeping it together. Surprise, surprise, so do most working class people (not exactly that constellation of challenges but similar ones). That the left hops on board this attack uncritically and says, frankly, the snobbiest, most elitist crap in attacking Rob Ford does the left no favours. The right wing will win on this terrain. I saw people laughing at Rob Ford yelling at reporters who were at his house and wouldn’t get off his property yesterday. I hate Rob Ford but I was sympathetic to him to be honest. The media are vultures and I’d have lost my shit if I were him too. I don’t find public dismemberment of anyone a pleasure to watch and while the left might think it’s fun because he’s so odious you ought to remember: this isn’t about you, it’s about the confidence of ordinary people to take control of their lives. Public humiliation of Rob Ford in this way isn’t going to raise their confidence in themselves. It’s going to further cement the idea that only rich, slick and connected operators – like Smitherman – are fit to run the city and the country. Notice the different coverage of Smitherman's family challenges about a month ago - his husband disappeared on some kind of binge, part of a long term problem apparently, and the police were called in - to Ford's troubles. Nobody laughed at Smitherman (nor should they, not for that). That’s why this idea that “Ford Nation” are stupid or brainwashed because they continue to support their man is so odious to me. On this one thing they are right – this is a concerted attempt to oust their man by city elites (though they are wrong that it has anything to do with the left).

Or Karen Stintz. Does anybody think that it’s an accident that Ford’s legal dossier was leaked now? Does anybody think that it’s odd that the police – on the basis of a newspaper report with no physical evidence – put their top investigators on the case to nail Ford? Since when have the police followed a politician to reveal his personal foibles or cared about political corruption? I mean, they released a report that doesn’t demonstrate any proof of illegal activity on the part of Ford. If they had any proof they would have arrested him. This is about destroying Rob Ford while there is still enough lead-time before the next municipal elections to rebuild the right wing on city council. This is about giving Karen Stints – who, coincidentally, announced her candidacy last week – a clear shot for the mayoralty. Stintz is also a Tory but one who knows how to work with city capitalists and who saved the transit plan from Rob Ford. And she doesn’t get drunk in public.

I would argue that a similar process is under way at the federal level. Not that there is a conspiracy (I do think that there’s a conspiracy to destroy Rob Ford, by the way) but rather a sense of malaise amongst the elite at the effectiveness of Stephen Harper. Let’s face it, Harper never really represented more than a fraction of Canadian capitalists. But he was the best alternative on offer after the meltdown of the Liberals because of corruption and infighting. But now the Liberals have recovered and Justin Trudeau is a rising star – while Harper’s star is on the wane. Everybody prefers consensus. This is true of workers as much as it is of capitalists. That’s always been the power of the Liberals – to implement the ruling class agenda through consensus, whenever possible, rather than conflict. That’s why they are Canada’s “natural governing party.” The Tories are the fallback position for Canada’s capitalists (and workers, traditionally). With a recovered Liberal Party and people getting tired of Harper’s open Machiavellianism and not-so-hidden right wing extremism, it looks like there might just be an opportunity to restore the historic coalition that the Liberals represented. Harper is now discovering just how shallow his support was in most of the country.

Will any of this benefit the left? Let's be frank, the union movement has done zero to resist austerity (outside of a few pockets of heroic, sectional struggles). Ford privatized garbage collection and there was not even an information picket. There were a few demonstrations against Ford on an anti-austerity platform and the strike by library workers – that was quickly settled, wisely, by Ford’s people before it could become a focal point. But that’s it. The Occupy movement was great - but it was small (compared to the tasks) and short-lived. It never generalized into a sustained movement.

Since the decline of the anti-war movement there has been almost zero public opposition to Harper’s agenda. And, of course, the ever-craven federal NDP under the leadership of ex-Liberal Tom Mulcair, is rushing to prove that they are the new Liberal Party of Canada. We’ll see how that goes for them. Even in Quebec, the PQ, which benefited from the brilliant student movement has managed to turn the debate away from austerity and towards attacking Muslims.

These are, in short, challenging times. And the over-the-top celebrations by the left at the predicaments of Ford and Harper is a sign of desperation. We’ll take any crumbs of hope that fall from the table. Sure, it’s true that splits in the ruling class can be to our benefit but it would be silly to think that the ruling class is split in Toronto. They are united in wanting Ford out – Blair is simply fronting for them. I expect that Ford will be getting some phone calls to offer him a cushy parachute if he jumps now along with a reprieve from criminal charges. The particular madness that is Alberta politics is, of course, always a problem for Canadian capitalists but when the Toronto Sun comes out for Harper’s neck don’t kid yourself that there isn’t a growing consensus at the national level.

So, the left shouldn’t pretend that this defenestration has anything to do with us or with workers or social programs or any of that good stuff. This is a night of the long knives, a ruling class drama that is entertaining, perhaps, but will do little to strengthen the ability of our side to take back that which was taken from us. And, in the case of Ford, the snobbery can actually damage our side’s confidence.

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