Introduction: last year of our Second twenty-first-century Decade (!)
Year-end and year-start reviews can be an occasion for melancholy or celebration, and yet I personally feel neither. Mostly I feel astounded to find myself 19 years into the twenty-first century, and the third millennium, when it seems not so long ago that the pregnant year 2000 was sprung upon us.
Time moves oddly for humans: faster as we get older, because each year is a smaller fraction of our total lives. A year for me is one-sixty-seventh of my life. For my grandson, it is a quarter of his lifetime. Yes, time moves oddly.
What will the twenty-teens be called in future? The decade of no qualities?
I felt certain that by now a topic would suggest itself to me for this column, to inspire me to write an argument. Instead I am not starting with a unified essay, but rather a few unrelated opinions and observations about topics in current events. A second US civil war, Canadian truth and reconciliation, Saudi Arabia, and a new Clint Eastwood film, are the topics. Hard to thread together.
America the Disturbing
Two fine pieces of writing have stayed in my mind from recent magazine reading. One essay is from Harper’s magazine, the other from Walrus; both in their recent November issues. The topic is the same: a second American civil war seems imminent to well-informed scholarly observers. The Harper’s piece is much more a political-science essay by an American writer, the Walrus essay by Stephen Marche a consciously-Canadian perspective on what could happen in the USA and how Canadians will feel the impact.
The Harper’s essayist makes an argument about how US states can drive forward liberal policies when a right-wing federal government has different ideas, and is interesting to one who hopes for an America turning away from the directions that federal Republicans want to go. It is the seriousness of the thesis that America could descend into civil war that has haunted me.
[ Read the Harper’s essay here: https://harpers.org/archive/2018/11/rebirth-of-a-nation/]
With that disturbing possibility in my mind – that the USA could once again, as in 1861, fracture into violence that would leave incalculable scars on the nation – I soon discovered the piece by Marche and devoured it.
Marche has made a compelling argument for how Canada and Canadians are unavoidably shaped by what happens in the social and political fabric of the mighty republic on our southern land border, the world’s only superpower.
Civil war, Marche notes, is something we in a rich First-World nation cannot easily imagine in the First World; it is something that happens in developing nations in Afro-Asia or Latin America, in our experience of global news. We have to stretch to imagine how it could happen to the USA. And yet the possibility is taken very seriously by journalists, pollsters, scholars, academics, and informed members of the American political elite.
I have read a great deal of the history of two major civil wars in the English-speaking world: the English civil war of 1641 – 1649, and the Irish example of 1920 – 1921. I know rather less about the American civil war of 1861 – 1865 but have recently learned more. It is a fascinating study for an historian.
Both England and Ireland took some time to heal their societies after their civil wars, and for the English, the man who ruled their brief republic as military dictator – the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell – is still a figure around whom no consensus for or against his political ideals has ever been agreed in historical writing nor in the popular consciousness. Cromwell intrigues me.
America never healed after the civil war of northern Union against southern Confederacy. Marche is not alone in his observation that the USA still suffers from the rancour and the cultural divides that war left in American politics, society and culture. One hundred and fifty years after the Union crushed the Confederacy and chattel slavery was ended in the USA, the terrible scars of racist ideology have not been erased. Indeed, racism taints all relationships between descendants of Euro-American whites and others, whether African, Asian, Native, or Latin. The Republicans have become the party of the diminishing US white majority, as immigrants and natural increase swell the number of non-whites. The Democrats is the party of the Others, and liberals.
For Canadians, the point Marche makes is profoundly valid, in my opinion: we are a nation forged by the US civil war, since Confederation in 1867 was a direct response to and attempted solution for our fear of the mighty Republic.
The American South and its distinct historical mentality has now moved beyond geography into a mindset spread among possibly as many as 40 percent of Americans; Marche describes how anti-federal militias and “sovereign-citizen ideology” are primed to fight, as in 1861.
Canada and America: family resemblances?
If – perhaps I could say “when” – violence in the USA assumes the shape of a second civil war, Canada will be shaken, stirred, and transformed by the experience of whatever consequences are finally worked out in America. We must, says Marche, be more certain of what we are and what this nation-state-society called Canada is, when our neighbour collapses into civil-war violence.
Canadians must articulate why we are the “other North Americans” – the European immigrants who did not have a Revolution against the British monarchy. Canada has been called “the peaceable kingdom” and our political slogan has been summarized as “peace, order, and good government.” We do not need revolution, for we have evolution – peaceful forward progress. Well, every nation must tell itself a story about who it is. Americans have never been unsure about their identity as unique, exceptional, chosen nation.
When the USA divides and fights itself over what it is, Canada will have to be conscious of why it is.
We must affirm our identity as a nation of immigrants with liberal values and democratic norms. I only hope American violence does not swamp Canada too, a possibility Marche does not envision in his essay. It seems quite likely to me. Can Canada defend itself against American aggressors who are attempting to maintain the USA as a white-invader, white-conqueror state?
I want to assert Canadians are not just the descendants of Euro-American colonial settlers, invaders who conquered an indigenous people, who forced our cultural/socio-economic norms and our form of civilization upon the conquered: that definition identifies one side in the coming civil war in the USA, the side the Republican Party seems ready to identify as its own.
I believe, with Stephen Marche and many others, that Canadians are more than the people descended from settlers and colonialists and their ideology.
Canada: land of Truth and Reconciliation?
Canadians who are not of native or aboriginal or indigenous ancestry – in other words, 96 percent of Canadian citizens – have elected governments committed in words to “Truth and Reconciliation”. Note this: we adopted that label for the process of promoting justice for the native peoples, from the African republic calling itself South Africa. Whites in South Africa were always a pretty small minority as measured against the black native population, whereas white Canadians have a large majority over the indigenous first peoples of the continent. Yet, we have also chosen “truth and reconciliation” as our label for the transition to a more just society. First we tell the truth, then we reconcile?
White South Africans tried to make apartheid the basis of their national existence; the “world community of nations” condemned it in the name of justice, and forced the whites to end their racialized regime. Canada was a leader in the British Commonwealth for the cause of justice: Canada took the high moral ground and held it.
Regardless of the population numbers and ratios, there is a moral issue at the heart of Canada’s existence as a first-world democratic nation-state: what Right did Europeans have to come here, settle land, create a new state and economy and culture, and condemn the natives to live on tiny pieces land and in dire poverty?
I know of no formulated doctrine established by any respected international global institution that has described why it is just, or justified, or right, for a colonial state to create affluence for the invading settlers and poverty for the aboriginals. The UN condemns colonialism now, in its declarations.
So how do Canadians make it right? How do we make an unjust, unjustified, takeover of land, resources, and sovereignty from the original owners, right?
The “right of conquest” used to be that right. The ancient Greeks and Romans, and then the medieval Christian Church, articulated that right. We of Western Civilization do not like to acknowledge this is the right upon which our nation, state, and socio-economic order is founded in North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Israel. Yet that illegitimate right of conquest, occupation, settlement, and dictation-to-the-subjugated, is the only “right” we have to be here, we descendants of Europeans living in Canada. We are rich, democratic, First World – and unjustified.
I’ll watch with great interest to see how Canada lives up to its highest ideals – the ideals that Marche says are “our values” in the essay I referenced in the section above. In BC at this moment, a Native people who never ceded their territory to the Crown by any Treaty is being forced by the RCMP to obey a court injunction to allow a pipeline to cross this un-ceded territory. The justification for the pipeline is economic development. Need I say more?
I think we are going to face a lot more of these kind of confrontations. The Environment or the Economy? Justice for natives or jobs for Canadian workers? Fair compensation for the original owners of the land? … Or profits, tax-base, market growth, and paycheques, for the invaders and their system?
And, as if that were not complicated enough: what do we do about the millions of people all over the globe who would, if they could, get into Canada so they could enjoy what we have here? Most by far will not get to our land borders, but those who can, will arrive in seriously-menacing numbers as years go by. What will we do about that? Build a Wall? Build a huge Navy? Create Fortress Canada?
And will the First World recognize “climate justice” as a right, and pay compensation to the under-developed world where people never became affluent? The First World ruined the climate by our hyper-development, and got rich. Now we tell the poor nations they cannot catch up with us. China ignores warnings about climate, and “forges ahead” on our former development path under the slogan “Enrich yourself! It is glorious to have wealth!”
Stay tuned to this issue, it will keep on giving us challenges as climate change drives more and more refugees into migration hordes.
Saudi Arabia: don’t poke the oil barrel
I cannot deny myself the pleasure of this irony. The First World coddles Saudi Arabia because we need its resource for our tremendous affluence. Their oil underpins Westerners’ profligate consumerism and democratic-individualist civilization. And the Saudis rule a state that is about as opposed to upholding our ideals of human rights as any national social system on earth that I can name. Their regime is not colonialist -- it is misogynist, racist, and religiously-monopolistic.
Freedom is for male Arab Muslims. As for not-males, non-heterosexuals, non-Arabs, non-Muslims (non-Wahhabi, non-Sunni) – rights are a joke. And we have hardly noticed for most of the past century; we became deaf and blind to Saudi crimes against human rights. The sovereignty of the kingdom suddenly becomes paramount when it abuses human rights.
What would have happened had the “international community of civilized nations” treated the Saudi kingdom as we treated South Africa under its apartheid regime? The Saudi regime would have collapsed. But South Africa only had diamonds, and the Saudis had cheap and endless supplies of oil.
Capital rules and silence is consent
The cases of the murdered, dismembered Saudi journalist in Istanbul, and the young Saudi woman who escaped to Thailand, have put the topic front and centre in Western media for a moment. But the economic self-interest of the global, ruling, capitalist class, will cause media to bury the topic, I predict. That class owns media, and owns democracy.
Oil is still king. America’s president is speaking for many when he says working people in the USA need Saudi investment if they are to have jobs. Jobs mean a chance at a decent life; without one, you will wither, in the US, Canada, UK etc. etc. The fate of “the useless class” of people who have no purposes in the system, have no productive value to the capitalist class, will not be a happy one, if you believe Yuval Harari in his book Homo Deus; alternatively, as we give up jobs we learn to be fulfilled, in the vision of Charles Eisenstein.
Money has not yet lost its dominance over our lives, and the moral claims of Saudi victims cannot trump Saudi capital. Canada’s environment cannot beat The Economy, either. Will we fight a civil war to stop pipelines? Think about it.
Clint E. and American Dreams of Masculinity
Spoiler alert: read no further if you have not seen Clint Eastwood’s current film, The Mule, and you do not want me to spoil the surprises in the plot.
Eastwood loves Western movies, and so have I. I have enjoyed his body of work immensely over his career. He develops American frontier mythology as well as any maker of film or writer of novels that I know of, and better than most.
In his late career, he has engaged the issue of age and masculinity, and Clint is a fine voice speaking to that topic, for he has defined a certain kind of male being all through his Western films and cop movies. Tough, uncommunicative, unemotional, cold, hard, competent, violent, machismo: Clint the Squint did this best. Fuelled by testosterone, rage, and righteousness, his characters have thrilled generations of young and not-so-young males of the USA and beyond in other nations of the First World, and probably in Africa, and Asia.
In The Mule, Clint is continuing to show his development of the issues facing an aging male no longer fit to compete with younger, faster, meaner men. He has shown this “feeling side” in past films such as Gran Torino. But in this current film, he lets his hard-right Republican conservatism take charge of the plot, and we meet a character any red-blooded American male 88-years old, with Republican, racist, male-chauvinist credentials, would be proud to be.
Never mind that he is a horticulturalist – hardly a “manly occupation” – his love of orchids does not mean he is soft. He is still driven by a mighty libido, still cavorts with gorgeous Mexican babes two-at-a-time in bed, still outsmarts cops and hauls in big bundles of cash he spends on causes of his choice, like rebuilding a Veterans of Foreign Wars clubhouse after a fire guts it.
Clint permits himself all kinds of fun in this film; he is never overtly racist nor misogynist; he wins in all important ways and loses only against The Law; he gets respect from manly men and mutually-enjoyed sex from young women.
He calls black people “Negroes” and smiles an indulgent , old-man’s smile when the black couple corrects him; he acts politely with Mexicans when it is appropriate, or faces down bad ones with dignity. He reclaims the deep, uncompromised love of his former wife, steadfast loyalty from his granddaughter, and eventually, forgiveness from his estranged daughter (with Eastwood’s real-life daughter in this role). His wife dies but not before he is brought back to family values just in time -- but he still gets to enjoy easy money, easy women, and “good old boy” company until then. He goes to prison; that works out well for him because his family promises to see him frequently – more than they could in his workaholic past. (Did the drugs he delivered ruin any lives? Surely that’s irrelevant?)
I cannot imagine women thinking highly of this Eastwood film, but there are plenty of Republican women I’ll never meet who no doubt will like it. Mike Pence will like it, except for the extramarital sex, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, and a certain orange President, and maybe his wife too.
Clint portrays masculinity for the tastes of the “right kind of man.” This is a film made for a selected demographic of male Americans; I think you know which side they’ll be fighting on in the second Civil War coming to the USA.
Well that’s all, folks. The next year will not be boring, though it will perhaps be tedious in the repetition of dismal events and characters. Some time ago I gave up making new year’s resolutions to be more optimistic.
I’ve sketched what I think will be subjects to watch. I didn’t promise uplifting commentary and I didn’t disturb readers by a sudden outbreak of cheeriness.
I have made one resolution coinciding with this new year: I personally refuse from now onwards to share any news pieces on Facebook that I read there from my contacts that is negative about politics in the USA. No conservative will read them in my pages since I only have liberal friends, so there is no dialogue, only the echo chamber of cheerleading by the like-minded in their silo. I urge my friends on Facebook and my readers here and my email correspondents to follow my example. I will not contribute in any way to unravelling America any more than its own people are already doing in their unconsciousness.