Tag Archives: politics

“Unthinkable”

American religious conservatives have a problem.

Riding high on their partnerships with the Trump administration and the perception of being political kingmakers, they need to be sure that they will be able to sustain their momentum for years to come. And with the newly-stacked U.S. Supreme Court making the overturn of Roe v Wade a seeming inevitability (as well as putting the overturn of marriage equality within sight), they are now looking for what to do in a “post-Roe” world to retain their energy, power, and dizzying levels of funding. And in the discussions they have about that dilemma, their solution, often, is to work toward a world in which they have made abortion “unthinkable.”

“I’m not suggesting that the proposed laws are unimportant—on the contrary, pass more of them! I only wish to remind us that our goal is to make abortion unthinkable as well as illegal. And that means our work has only just begun…” –  John Stonestreet and Roberto Rivera, Breakpoint

When I speak about American conservatives, of course, I don’t mean to suggest that there is some central plan or hive mind. It doesn’t work that way. Even getting U.S. Evangelicals and Catholic fundamentalists onto the same page can be a challenge sometimes, and the religious nationalist industrial complex is made up of an infinite number of organizations all vying for dollars in the same fundraising pool. But there does seem to be a fairly cohesive and organic process in which talking points filter out and take shape – and “unthinkable” appears to be one such trend in linguistic spin.

The origin of this particular incarnation of the talking point (it has been mused about many times before, but not with this degree of viral spread and consistency) appears to have been January’s Evangelicals for Life conference, in which the senior vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom’s (ADF) U.S. legal division Kristen Waggoner encouraged attendees, using the phrase. Waggoner’s encouragement came about a week after Robin Marty’s Handbook for a Post-Roe America was published, and progressive news outlets were discussing how to respond to the possibility of a patchwork or even nationwide ban on abortion. The possibility that the left might evolve to cope with a changing legal landscape – as far as EFL attendees were concerned – needed to be thought out and prepared for.

So when Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Sam Oosterhoff tells an anti-abortion rally in Toronto that he pledges to make abortion “unthinkable in our lifetime,” it’s helpful to look at religious conservative media for clues as to what he might mean by that, and where his influences are coming from.

“New Hampshire Right to Life’s position is clear, she said. ‘We would want to put restrictions on abortions and make it unthinkable and illegal…’”Concord Monitor

I could go at some length about how promoters of the sensationalistic and Planned Parenthood -defaming movie Unplanned seized on the phrase during their publicity tour, or how it’s turning up on Fox News, or how it came up during anti-abortion rhetoric pertaining to legislation in New York and Georgia as well as a legal ruling in Louisiana, or how it spread widely enough that even a perceived-left website like Vox gave it oxygen – but that only establishes that there is definitely a narrative. I’d much rather look at what religious conservatives are getting at, when they use the phrase.

“Every answer to why abortion is viewed as still ‘needed’ stems from a deeper-seeded issue which we could be fighting against… we need to combat the issues which give abortion supporters reasons to think it is the better ‘option.’ Abortion needs to stop being an excuse for not addressing the larger issues at hand…” – Paul Collier

If anti-abortion groups wanted to turn their attention toward addressing poverty, it would probably be a welcome development. Sadly, you won’t find a whisper of that, and doing so would probably frighten the megadonors with whom they collaborate to form the Republican / Conservative political base. But getting religious conservatives to speak candidly about specific objectives isn’t always easy. Afraid that too much transparency might allow opponents to organize effectively against them, they often restrict their public musings to dog whistle terms (of which “unthinkable” is arguably one), and stay effectively mum about which political candidates they’ve managed to get nominated as candidates in an election. But in venues seen as relatively safe and exclusive, or from pundits who are seen as less prominent, sometimes you’ll find some elaboration.

One such pundit is The Federalist’s Georgi Boorman, who actually proposed a 6-point plan. Chief among these is to “Improve Reproductive Education” – but you won’t find her making any mention of contraception (elsewhere, Boorman reveals herself to be not a fan of The Pill), condoms or family planning. There’s no direct mention of sex education in schools, either, even though it would clearly be the necessary vehicle for what she has in mind. The “reproductive education” that she speaks of is predominantly “to educate women on the dangers of” abortion (by which she means the usual far right claims about health dangers of the practice), a fetishization of the stages of fetal development, and more fearmongering about the current medical process (i.e. she cites “the horrid conditions of abortionist Kermit Gosnell’s facility” as a typical example… it’s far from it).

The remainder of Georgi Boorman’s suggestions include more criminalization (elsewhere, she openly supports the death sentence for women who abort) and the vague “celebrate life” mantra, as well as increasing support for adoption (“especially cross-racial,” she adds, stealthily riffing on anti-abortion groups’ efforts to portray the procedure as a kind of racist genocide perpetrated by leftists) and – of course – ramping up funding for anti-abortion fake pregnancy centres.

On these points, her proposals are within the purview of those of Abby Johnson, whose own proposals are steeped in proselytizing and expanding anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers into additional areas that beatify motherhood, but do not provide any hints of information about contraception or family planning (other than, perhaps, the “rhythm method”). But Boorman also adds a notable comment about “support[ing] fatherhood”:

“… what if fathers were asked to step up as parents and providers, instead of being written off as unqualified sperm donors? What if our culture demanded it? … Millions of fathers have been robbed of this opportunity since Roe, and our welfare system has enabled this by disincentivizing marriage and fatherhood obligations. … Instead of affirming mothers’ unilateral decisions by default, we should encourage fathers’ involvement (including marriage)…”

When religious conservatives frame opposition to gay and trans human rights as “protecting marriage,” LGBTQ+ organizations and spokespeople often quip about the hypocrisy in their seeming lack of worry about divorce and cohabitation. But the fact of the matter is that anti- groups have never stopped tilting at those particular windmills, either. An outright ban on divorce is only touted by the most extreme among them, but “disincentivizing” and creating an institutional system that heavily favours marriage come up often, and the idea of restricting divorce or making it difficult retains some level of popularity.

Other religious conservatives are more ambitious. Around the same time that Kristen Waggoner was proposing that abortion be made unthinkable, the Heritage Foundation hosted Sue Ellen Browder, who claims that “the sexual revolution hijacked the women’s movement” to make abortion and contraception priorities. This, too, is not a new argument, but it is gaining new popularity with organizations seeking to keep the money rolling in after an overturn of Roe. And with anti-trans, anti-sex work and anti-porn feminists partnering with religious conservatives like never before, there appears to be a sense that they have an opportunity to co-opt womens’ rights, which can then be used as a shield against accusations of homophobia, Islamophobia and puritanism, while at the same time purging it of reproductive rights advocacy and sex positivity, maintaining a subordinated role for women in administrative areas, and asserting the doctrine of complementarianism (a teaching used both to mandate motherhood as a woman’s integral life goal, and to invalidate LGBTQ+ peoples’ rights to live their lives as they need to).

“The battle against feminism is better fought by women because the public has been convinced that men are not qualified to speak about issues that affect the fairer sex…”John Horvat II

On this point, James V. Schall suggests that religious conservatives need to target the entirety of the sexual revolution: “The path, when spelled out, is a direct line from divorce, contraception, and abortion to single-sex ‘marriage,’ in-vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and designer babies and now to a refusal to continue to increase and multiply with transgenderism, population decline, and, ultimately euthanasia… If we were to eliminate abortion, we must freely stop committing the sins that initiate disordered conceptions… Without this conversion, we will continue on the same path on which we now are traveling…”The Federalist’s Cullen Herout (which, admit it, must be a pseudonym) agrees at least on the point about contraception, saying “… if the goal really is to make abortion unthinkable, that cannot and will not happen without a large-scale shift in our cultural attitude toward human sexuality and contraception…”

So the next time your local political representative muses about making abortion “unthinkable,” it’s only reasonable to press them to elaborate. Because there clearly is more to that statement – and while religious conservatives obviously don’t think in total homogeneity, there’s enough like-mindedness to view this sort of dog whistle with alarm.

The Alberta Advantage was Dependence

In the end, the “Alberta Advantage” was dependence.
And in retrospect, undoing that dependence on the oil industry — a mixture of real and perceived — needed to be the number one priority of the Notley NDP government. When Albertans (even to their own surprise) overthrew the 40-year Progressive Conservative dynasty in 2015, they were hungry for change, and they knew that change was both inevitable and urgent, given the realities of global climate change — something they had been increasingly experiencing (most notably when the third “one-in-a-hundred-year flood” in ten years ate High River and parts of downtown Calgary).
Instead, industry managed to keep the focus on oil development and pipelines, and sucked all of the rest of the political and economic air out of the room.
Of course, Alberta’s energy sector is well-versed in fostering and using the dependence on its jobs and products — whether manipulating gas prices, making punitive and excessive layoffs whenever an administration or policy it doesn’t like is in place, or dangling illusionary carrots, like job creation estimates that factor in a hundredfold of jobs that they imagine might be generated by their project (and which nobody ever follows up on to debunk). In reality, building a pipeline creates merely a small number of regionally-shifting jobs aimed at transporting the longer-term refining jobs out-of-country, but nobody really ever remarks on that, because of how overwhelmed with industry propaganda Albertans are, and their eagerness for what little crumbs industry is willing to toss their way.
Now, the rest of Canada might not be overly sympathetic to Alberta’s plight, right now, because the province has had a pretty good run, riding waves of oil prices over the past few decades to sustained prosperity, while labour markets elsewhere have dwindled, automated, and relocated to other countries. Consequently, Alberta may feel the coming change more acutely than the rest of Canada — but feel it everyone will.
Change is hard. It’s disruptive. And with the level of budgetary dependence on energy royalties and the perceived dependence (thanks to the hard work of neoliberal institutions like the Fraser, CAPP and corporate media) of everyone’s jobs on oil development, Alberta has had four years of reckoning that haven’t really done anything to assuage any of the associated fears that come with that change.
To be fair, that transition was never something that was going to be able to take place in a scant four years.
Additionally, the Notley NDP have tried to break some of that sense of dependence through diversification. It’s something that hasn’t been well-publicized, but it also needed to be more aggressively pursued. And diversification is only one step — job retraining and the economic support and optimism needed to get through it are more critical. Albertans looked to Rachel Notley to lead them into and through a transition, and somewhere along the way, industry convinced the government and the public alike that the transition was yet another pipeline.
Consequently, we find ourselves at a crossroads in which Albertans seem receptive to old, failed conservative policies of austerity and corporate giveaways, regardless of the ethical concerns with a guy who may have broken electoral laws in order to become party leader, and regardless of whether he has surrounded himself with lake-of-fire social conservatives and semi-open white nationalists. It’s why we’ve seen people who’ve never protested before come out to agitate for pipelines, and naively allowed themselves to get hijacked by and aligned with racist wingnuts who’d previously floundered on the fringe for decades. Despite the stereotype of the Albertan redneck, Albertans have always tended toward worrying about the money, and not caring about the social positions that have aligned themselves with it (which is, in a way, even worse).
But here’s the clincher: a pipeline isn’t going to slow or stop the one-in-a-hundred-year floods, or the summer seasons that might soon be renamed “Smoke,” or the fracking-triggered earthquakes. And electing a traditional oil crony is more likely to undo the first steps that Alberta has taken than to make those hard choices. Because the longer Alberta tries to forestall its transition, the more abrupt, disruptive, and devastating that eventual change is going to be.
(crossposted to rabble.ca)

Free Speech, When The “Debate” is You (and You’re Not Invited)

There’s a duplicitous game of sleight-of-hand that is taking place in discussions about freedom of speech in academia and the public square.

Here’s how it works: at first, a person fishes for controversy by saying several things that they know will offend people.  If this garners enough attention, then the process recurs organically — say, whenever a politician wants to reference the controversy as a coded dog whistle to their base, or when a teaching assistant replays a recording in class because she thinks the discussion is interesting and challenging.

And the moment the people targeted by that discussion get angry and protest, they’re described not as being upset about the content of what is being said, but rather their protest is reframed as opposing freedom of speech itself.  Whether you see that as accidental or deliberate probably depends on how cynical you are about the whole issue. Continue reading Free Speech, When The “Debate” is You (and You’re Not Invited)

Trans* Human Rights Bill C-16: A Look Back

Although I’ll be remarking on the passing of Bill C-16 elsewhere, I wanted to post Bill Siksay’s closing speech from February 7, 2011, back when the bill was in its third incarnation (of five), Bill C-389.  To me, it’s a profound moment to look back on, and realize just how far we’ve come.

It took 12 years to pass this bill.  For the first six, it was completely ignored, as was the trans* rights movement. Shortly after this speech, the bill did pass at Third Reading, and the effort finally was taken seriously… but was then very hard fought.  This speech was the moment (if there was any single one) that things changed.

I hope that Mr. Siksay’s efforts are remembered now.  Trans* people have usually been told to wait their turn, that legislation is incremental, that we should work for gay rights, and then the LGBTQ movement would come back for us.  This was a rare exception in which someone actually did come back. Continue reading Trans* Human Rights Bill C-16: A Look Back

Free speech, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect

jordanpeterson2

In Canada, we tend to value freedom of speech very highly, and it’s often said that the best way to counter objectionable speech is with more speech.

That’s the first thought that crosses my mind in the case of U of T professor Jordan Peterson, who declares in a series of YouTube videos that he will not honour trans* peoples’ chosen pronouns, and opposes trans* human rights protections, all in the name of combating “political correctness.”

Of course, that would be an ideal world. In the real world, it’s still not that unusual for discussion of trans* issues to devolve into a “balanced” debate between pro- and anti-trans* academics over whether they exist at all, without any annoying context like actual trans* people being present to discuss their lived experience of, well, existing.  In the real world, there are real problems about who gets to speak, and how widely they can be heard… and the marginalized are often not given much voice to matters that affect — and are specifically about — them. In fact, the established and prolific voices in today’s media are more often quick to reject attempts to “inflict” change, or energetically create a lopsided portrait.

Speech is not a truly universal and equitable thing in the first place. Rather, it is something that is dependent upon access to favourable platforms, and is usually pre-emptively muddied by characteristic value judgments made about the speaker’s class, gender, race, etc.

Nevertheless, we strive for it as best we can. And in doing so, we arrive at the next irony: the very act of protesting ignorance with speech becomes itself heralded as evidence of censorship — as if the only way one’s speech can be truly free is for everyone else to remain silent.

The outcry and protest of ignorance [edit: example removed, was based on bad information – M] is speech, too — that of the protestors.  But in a disparate society, privileged speech is defended, while protest of it is often minimized, marginalized and dismissed as rowdiness, whinging, totalitarianism (!), censorship, and noise.  It becomes: “a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it for you.”

But let me back up for a moment.

Jordan Peterson is a University of Toronto (UofT) psychology professor who began his rants — especially about, but not limited to, trans* people and a “radical leftist ideology” — in late September, saying from the beginning that he felt he could face consequences, and even feared government or university reprisal because of existing human rights and hate speech laws.  He told Postmedia:

“I think (Bill C-16) risks criminalizing discussion about aspects of human sexual behaviour and identity that we need to discuss,” said Peterson, explaining that there are layers to C-16 — the biology of sex, gender identity and gender expression, for example — that could cause problems down the road.

One of his top stated concerns has been with the inclusion of trans* people in existing hate crimes legislation. The thing that people forget about this when it pertains to speech, though, is that the law has already been tested and shown to apply only exceedingly sparingly. If Bill Whatcott’s homemade but mass-distributed “anal warts” flyers equating LGBTQ people with pedophiles, and lyrical invitations to “kill the homosexual” skirt the edges of hate speech — some permissible and some not — then Peterson probably has nothing to worry about. Speech can indeed be hateful, and yet still not be legally actionable as hate speech.

But given that he seems only (or at least primarily) worried about human rights and hate crimes legislation when it pertains to LGBTQ people, one has to wonder if the concerns are cover for fears about the growing acceptance of trans* people in society.  He stated from the beginning that he will not use non-binary pronouns for other people, even if they request that.  He also said in his first video that he is “scared by the people behind the doctrines,” and attributes them to a radical Marxist ideology (reminiscent of the “cultural Marxism” panic making the rounds among social conservatives). He even compares the latter to Naziism, because of what he considers “murderous” and “Marxist” policies around the world.

Peterson frames his views in an academic and perhaps libertarian perspective, rather than a religious perspective, but he has been enjoying the support of religious conservatives.  This is probably because his views are quite compatible with the right-wing narrative that accepting and acknowledging trans* people as they need to live is (as enunciated regularly at LSN) a “disservice” and “false compassion because it’s not true.”

Peterson’s remedy to all of this dreaded political correctness — and what he calls upon listeners to help him with — is to propagate a “No PC” sticker campaign across the campus, and beyond.

The response to his videos has been mixed, with fierce supporters and opponents.  It has reportedly spawned threats, and affected some students’ class attendance.  In recent days, personal information about trans* students was circulated in far right subreddits, and protesters were nearly overwhelmed by an angry mob that allegedly included neo-Nazis.  This puts the University of Toronto in a quandary, as calls for reprisal — including possibly firing Peterson — have arisen.

From my perspective, reprisals like firing are not really a preferable end goal. We do value freedom of speech in Canada, after all — especially in academic settings — so there is that kernel of validity, even if Peterson’s speech is disrespectful or hateful. He’s entitled to his opinion, and also to be a jerk about it, on his own time.  Restrictions on freedom of speech are too often used to oppress minorities rather than people of privilege, anyway — much like the “homosexual propaganda” ban in Russia, which conservatives are still trying to figure out how to lobby for in North America.  It’s that extra step that Peterson wants to take it with students and colleagues which makes the question particularly difficult.

When I say this, though, it’s also partly because I’m an avid reader of social conservative media, and understand the undercurrent of persecution narrative activism. It’s why I can recognize what likely motivates someone who — without anyone ever asking him to respect trans* people in the first place — took it upon himself to loudly and energetically pursue free speech martyrdom anyway.

And personally, I see no value in giving it to him. Peterson’s actions — whether deliberately or by coincidence — are destined to place him in a growing collection of social conservatives who self-immolate for a few moments of anti-LGBTQ fame. It’s become trendy to seek a place on the Kim Davis speaking circuit, alongside Fundie cake bakers, and the twice-suspended Alabama Chief Justice who tried to singlehandedly overturn marriage equality in the United States.  Free speech martyrdom is also Ezra Levant’s entire schtick (which he’s still trying to parlay into a media network), so it also has just as valid and active a presence in Canada outside of overtly religious circles.  Whining that someone’s “special right” to dignity and equality is trampling your perfectly ordinary right to discriminate seems to make you a far right folk hero, these days. One of the end objectives of this, of course, is to insert a special religious exemption in human rights laws, so that people can practice their faith by refusing to sell to, hire, or otherwise co-exist with heathens (I might have got the precise wording wrong on this, because I don’t remember the particular scripture where Jesus commanded his followers to willfully disrespect and refuse to do business with sinners — I keep getting hung up on the “love one another” and “give unto Caesar” parts, for some reason).

Anyway, free speech martyrdom will allow Peterson to play hero… or at least until some other dupe comes along. After all, the whole value of the Kim Davises and Melissa Kleins to conservative activists only lasts as long as they’re useful to the two legal groups (Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel) trying to etch anti-LGBTQ discrimination into American law, plus the allied think tanks, religious organizations and media outlets that are parasitically fundraising off both their successes and their failures. The Kleins, for example, recently closed their bakery, ruined because they thought that refusing to do business with a lesbian couple was a noble idea — and now they’re almost forgotten, except by the vaguely-phrased legend of the cake bakers. In that circuit, the fate of someone like Jordan Peterson is irrelevant.  The point of beatifying the speech martyrs is to entice more dupes into creating more situations that help build a narrative which frames LGBTQ peoples’ rights to live, work and do business as automatically and inherently persecuting to people of faith… something that Peterson’s firing would fit into just as beautifully as any technical victory he might (though it’s a longshot) find some way to score.

Either way, giving Peterson the glory he seems to seek really only feeds an ongoing anti-LGBTQ political tactic — even if deceptive — and gives it power.

Yet, there does have to be some form of limit. There’s no denying the destructive effect of cumulative aggressions and microaggressions. It’s one thing to be told by someone that they think you’re deluded and that they refuse to respect you. It’s quite another to be told that in billionuplicate, at every turn, by several people you don’t know (and even worse: some you do), without you ever having done anything to warrant the hostility. If you pay attention to news related to trans* people, you know that stories of suicides due to bullying and harassment arrive on a weekly basis… and that’s only the reported instances.

Because as valid as the need to protect free speech is, it is also very often weaponized, and used to gaslight entire communities that just want to be able to participate in society and be accorded the same dignity and respect as anyone else. It’s used to minimize them, tell them they ask too much, and shame them into going away — back into their closets would be just fine, for example. Remember what I said about free speech in the real world being often a one-sided or lopsided thing.

But where to draw the line on hateful speech is almost impossible to determine. It’s easy to limit speech in cases of libel and direct harassment or incitement. Cumulative hatefulness, though, is difficult to realistically pin on an individual, especially given that an individual doesn’t always intend the hostile fallout generated by their supporters or the like-minded. I don’t know that it can be done legislatively, except in extreme and / or intended instances.

What has to happen is a mass awakening, and a mass rejection of ignorance — and unfortunately, the pace of that kind of change is glacial. Of course, mass backlash will still be framed as persecution and censorship, but it will be better recognized widely as a reasoned response to bigotry.  And that takes time and awareness… and continual revisitation.

And if there is no clear legislative solution, then there’s not a lot of guidance outside the court system, either. So I understand the position this puts the University of Toronto (and potentially the Ontario Human Rights Commission, if it came to that) in… particularly with the issue of pronouns.

The thing to keep in mind about pronouns is that deliberately misgendering someone is itself an act of hostility — an act of asserting that you know better than someone else who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean. It’s putting your inconvenience of having to adapt ahead of the reality of their entire lives. It’s not just about invalidating one’s choice of pronoun — it’s about claiming the right to authoritatively invalidate everything that they know about themself(/ves)*.

[* And if you paused for less than five seconds to look at that, understood it — however awkward that pronoun might have looked — shrugged and moved on, then congratulations: you’re far better able to cope with gender neutral and / or singular “they” pronouns than a UofT prof!]

Allowing Peterson to speak his opinions about “gender ideology” is one thing. Having him publicly vow to deliberately antagonize and disrespect students and other faculty members is quite another.  And as the increasing tensions and threats over the course of his campaign have shown, sustained, hateful free speech can have serious consequences.

So what is to be done?  The best scenario would be if Peterson would recognize where he has stepped beyond speech into deliberate antagonism and borderline incitement, maybe apologize, or at least leave things be, but that’s obviously not going to happen.  Probably, the only result that both he and trans* advocates and supporters will be satisfied with is some form of free speech martyrdom, in the form of firing or some lesser kind of censure.

And this will inevitably once more feed the conservative persecution complex, and the dreams of a Trump-like saviour to free them — in the words of the inimitable Samantha Bee — “from that prison, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect.”

(Crossposted to rabble.ca)