June’s riot here in Vancouver was gradually being forgotten (we realized that the sky hadn’t in fact fallen down on our heads), but then the disturbances in England rather rudely brought it briefly back into consciousness.

The observation that other people riot too (and the sky doesn’t fall down on their heads, either) should give the lie to some of the more ridiculous reactions to our own little affray. “World class” cities are just as likely, if not more so, to experience social disturbance of this sort. And I doubt anyone likes the English any the less (or any the more) than they did before the violence broke out. In the end, for better or worse–for better, I think–Vancouver’s just not so very special. It’s much like other cities its size in many ways. But with more mountains (and more rain).

It was strange to see elements that had marked Vancouver’s riot reaction mirrored or repeated in London. It’s true that in the British capital nobody was quite so stupid as to suggest that the rioters were somehow not the “real” Londoners. But there were some other tricks that they may have picked up from us.

For instance, there was an attempt make an exhibition of ostentatious community spirit by coming out with brooms and cleaning up the streets the morning after. But, as here, they found that the bulk of the work had already been done by municipal crews in the early hours. Local councils such as Croydon and Hackney politely said “Thanks but no thanks” though they took people’s phone numbers just in case. Not that it’s likely they ever got in touch later: public sector cuts already mean that there’s nobody even to manage volunteers. Unable to show off their civic virtue by volunteering, then, as in Vancouver people had to make do with scrawling graffiti or sticking post-it notes on boarded-up windows to convey their messages of pride and social scapegoating.

The big difference between Vancouver and England emerged in the courts. In London and Manchester all-night sittings of magistrates meant that hundreds of people were processed within days (effectively, hours), and some extraordinary sentences were handed down while everyone’s pulses were still racing: four years for a Facebook update, for instance, even though it was fairly obviously a joke (in however poor taste) that led to no violence at all.

Seeing the speed with which these grim punishments had been doled out rather woke us up over here as we were led to wonder if anyone had actually been charged over our own riot, some two months later. It seems in fact that two people have been charged, but none so far convicted. The police are still building their case,

The good citizens of Vancouver have reacted rather shame-facedly to this disparity between trigger-happy England and dilly-dallying Canada, asking why the wheels of justice couldn’t turn a little faster over here. But I’d have thought we might be proud of the fact that we haven’t resorted to the kneejerk response of what are effectively kangaroo courts under pressure from political rhetoric and general public hysteria.

In British Columbia, we still hang on to old liberal shibboleths such as the principle of the separation of powers. If we’re going to be smug (and we are), let’s be smug about that for a while.



Ethan Canin’s America America is, as its title suggests it sets out to be, a Great American Novel. It ambitiously portrays a vital part of the core of US society over several generations… indeed, to trace the process by which what was once vital becomes sclerotic and corrupt, and what was once core becomes marginal. Moreover, it shows us the dark underside of even the most refined elements of North American civilization–to demonstrate how it was always in some sense corrupt, and how violence underpins (both undermines and enables) the best of intentions. And yet Canin’s aim is not so much to denounce as to explain, to portray the inevitable ambivalences that undo and sustain American liberalism. Finally, the novel is also, simply, great: it’s a quite marvellous achievement, beautifully written, with an extraordinarily measured and thoughtful tone.

The story begins in 2006, with a funeral in small-town upstate New York. Senator Henry Bonwiller, a beacon of New England progressive politics, has died at the age of 89. An impressive crowd turns up to pay their respects, as the establishment mourns the loss of one of its own but also (as with any figure who has made their share of enemies as well as friends) to ensure that he is at last safely dead and buried. Among the crowd is Corey Sifter, middle-aged editor of the local paper, the Speaker-Sentinel, but here now for personal rather than professional reasons. Sifter’s life has, we discover, long been bound up with that of the deceased senator. So although the newspaperman initially presents himself as something of an outsider to the social elite gathered by the graveside, it soon emerges that he, least of all, is hardly untainted by the slight whiff of scandal that still surrounds the Bonwiller name.

The novel then shifts to the early 1970s when Corey, as the sixteen-year-old son of a local plumber, is called in to help fix a broken sewer on the estate of a prominent landowner, Liam Metarey. Metarey is taken by the young boy’s industriousness and desire to please, and so gradually hires him to do more and more jobs around the estate. Soon young Corey is also invited into the house itself, and not always to work. Gradually he becomes the older man’s protegé, enjoying a remarkably intimate relationship with the entire Metarey family, though always with the recognition that a vast gulf of class difference divides him from them. Frequently, this combination of intimacy and distance, with all the awkwardness that attends it, plays out in Corey’s relations with Metarey’s young daughters, Christian and Clara. Clara, particularly, likes to tease the young interloper, both to remind him of his subordinate status but also to indicate her interest in whatever he’s up to.

But Corey isn’t really up to anything particularly nefarious. He is portrayed (though we should remember that this is all from his own perspective) as a hard worker who merely likes to be liked by these people who have had so much power and influence in his community. Indeed, Sifter presents himself as rather naive, and the point of narrating his story in extended flashback is so that the middle-aged man can judge the youth he once was, not so much for his drive and ambition but more for not asking enough questions about the circles he finds himself frequenting. Everything comes to a head as Metarey decides to back a rising political star for what will turn out to be a campaign for the presidency. And so we turn to Senator Bonwiller again.

Bonwiller, it turns out, is something of a Ted Kennedy figure: well-meaning, perhaps, and voice for the unions and the working class, but tragically flawed. In an incident reminiscent of Chappaquiddick, Bonwiller’s political hopes are derailed and, more to the point for the novel’s purposes, Corey finds himself involved in the attempt to cover up the scandal. Again, it is not that the young man is calculating in his actions; more that his unwittingness is what makes him useful, and what allows him to be used. Fundamentally, the novel is telling us that neither ignorance (on Corey’s part) not good intentions (in different ways, on the parts of both Bonwiller and Metarey) are sufficient alibis. Corey finds himself at the dark heart of a political morass that brings tangible human suffering. The fact that he only realizes this later (and perhaps never fully realizes it at all) is no proof of his innocence.

It’s perhaps inevitable that a Great American Novel should be a tragedy that involves the loss of innocence, the failure of high-minded aspirations, and the slip of social masks. Here, the tragedy is threefold: it is Bonwiller’s, it is Metarey’s, and it is Corey Sifter’s. In the end, however, the Bonwiller story is mere pretext or catalyst. The real interest lies in the relation between Metarey and Sifter, as the servant comes to stand in for the patriarch’s missing son. For almost despite himself, Sifter comes to be an inheritor, both literally and figuratively. Metarey pays the the young man’s education, for instance; and ultimately (a fact that isn’t revealed until we are a long way into the narrative), Sifter also marries into the family. Sifter “makes it,” and if he never achieves quite the same position as Metarey had, this is merely because that position can no longer be filled or is no longer relevant: the big estate is sold off, and developed for suburban housing and fancy apartments. As Corey’s father says on surveying the scene, “That’s the way progress is. It’s always half criminal” (375). But of course, as Corey himself replies, it alway was half criminal: “that’s a hell of a lot of land for one family” (376). Any inheritance is mixed: it’s right that there should no longer be local oligarchs such as Liam Metarey; but the fact that they have disappeared doesn’t mean that the mark they’ve made in the American way of life is gone. It’s merely buried, a trauma lying in wait to be rediscovered by succeeding generations.

Ultimately, this is a book that’s more about history than about politics in the strict sense of the word. Or rather, it is about politics as affect, as the bid to either harness or forget deep-rooted feeling, “a primal battle that is more charismatic and animalistic than either ethical or reasoned” (394), and about history as it is constituted by affects and habits that are never fully available to consciousness. By this, Canin is referring both to the fickleness of the potential campaign donors who have to be wooed by lavish parties and also to the engrained habits and affections of ordinary people. Sifter spends the entire course of this tale trying to understand such processes of loyalty and betrayal: ultimately he himself is both the most loyal and the most traitorous of all. He feels, it’s suggested, that it’s only with a certain distance that he can sift (as his name suggests he should) through his legacy–America’s legacy–to piece together the clues of the scandal of violence at its heart. But in distancing himself from his own roots, he also loses sight of the “ingenuity of the American working class man” (436). There is here no Copernican position from which any final judgement can be made, except for the realization that we are all guilty whether we know it or not.

Sifter recognizes that in the end there is no redemption for him. And not because he has been himself bad, but because he’d “been involved in something–not that [he] did something, but that [he] was involved in something–something unforgivably wrong” (332). The only hope is for a subsequent generation: both his own daughters and a young woman reporter with who he has a rather similar relationship of mentor and protegée that he once enjoyed with the thoughtful and generous Mr Metarey. And yet it is was precisely because of such thoughtfulness and generosity that Sifter had become embroiled in the unspeakable evil at the core of the narrative. And it was precisely in order to make amends, to leave a good legacy, that Metarey had embroiled him in it. In lieu of redemption, then, even for subsequent generations, we are left merely with a few reflections, deliberately limited, homely, and simple:

that love for our children is what sustains us; that people are not what they seem; that those we hate bear some wound equal to our own; that power is desperation’s salve, and that this fact as much as any is what dooms and dooms us. That we never learn the truth. (455)

This is truly a brilliant novel, not least in the restraint that leads it only to these quiet conclusions, a restatement of “the old verities” that we will necessarily have to forget before we can re-learn them. It is, moreover, in the best sense a deeply humanistic novel: about the making and unmaking of humanity itself.


Smug liberality is one of Canada’s less endearing traits. Some (too much) of that was on display yesterday at an event I attended that went under the title of a “Foreign Policy Camp” organized by something called Canada’s World. The basic impulse was to ask how Canada could lead the world, as it was apparently born to do, by spreading its fine liberal values to the less fortunate mass of humanity who sadly live elsewhere on the globe.

I participated in person (with a call for Open Borders that went down surprisingly well), but some of the discussion can be found on twitter. In the fray, I seem to have started a bit of an argument with one of Canada’s best and brightest after she was quoted as saying that the influence of “diaspora communities” made the country “vulnerable”. Oh well.

(And yes, those who are so minded can follow me on Twitter here.)

I also, incidentally, got to meet up with my old buddy and sparring partner Carlo Dade, who mentioned what to me is the astonishing fact that immigration has never yet been on the agenda of the Summit of the Americas.

Anyhow, I happily admit to having an ambivalent relationship to Canada. But increasingly I come to discover that such ambivalence is itself rather Canadian… and in so far as it can be considered a potential antidote to the temptation to smugness, it is one of the country’s virtues.

Perhaps the same fundamental insecurity drives the smugness, too. But far better for it to be articulated as openness to others, and a willingness not to tout “Canadian values” but to rethink them. For indeed, this country is far more hospitable to others than many. And, for instance, fear-mongering against immigrants has yet to make great inroads here, unlike (say) in the UK or the US.

But all this is prelude to the following video, which I was indirectly recommended by a guy, Gord McIntyre, whom I first met twenty years ago, at a very difficult moment, in Guatemala, when we were both attached to a human rights NGO in Santa Cruz de Quiché. (It was that experience that first really made me doubt the whole discourse of human rights, by the way.)

Recently Gord got back in touch, and it turns out he now lives in Winnipeg. He suggested I might like one of that city’s local bands, the Weakerthans, and I find that they wrote this marvellous song that encapsulates something of Canada’s virtuous ambivalence and self-doubt. Long may it continue thus. And long may Canada continue “weaker than” it would rather be.

To put this another way: let us all hate Canada in exactly the same way as the Weakerthans hate Winnipeg.


Ball posterThe Secret Policeman’s Ball is back. After a hiatus of over fifteen years, the comic fundraiser for Amnesty International is returning.

The event was first organized in 1976, as human rights were high on the international agenda, thanks in large part to a series of military takeovers in the Southern Cone (Chile, 1973; Uruguay, 1973; Argentina, 1976).

In “Chase Heads Policeman’s Ball Bill”, the BBC quotes Amnesty’s UK director Kate Allen as saying “The reason we brought back The Secret Policeman’s Ball is that it’s never been more important to stand up for human rights. They are coming under threat in ways that we hadn’t anticipated.”

I take the return of this event as yet another sign both of a new era of rights discourse, and also of the distance between this era and the previous one.

We’re no longer, in fact, in an era of secret policemen, the leaden-footed apparatchiks of the Eastern Bloc or the national security state that could be so easily parodied by Monty Python et al. (A parody that no doubt drew on second world war folk memory, in which the dictator’s genitalia are offered up for derision.)

But what era are we in? And why did the previous rights discourse fail, it seems, so disastrously to anticipate it?


Princess Diana in AfricaI had the good fortune this week to read a wonderful book proposal about development work, and more specifically the “desire for development,” particularly among white women in the North.

The focus is on Canadian aid workers in sub-Saharan Africa, and the ways in which their investment in their work (and even their resistance) enables their self-constitution as moral subjects. The manuscript includes the following marvellous quotation about the ways in which the assumption of global difference constructs and confirms a sense of moral purpose in Canada above all:

A Canadian today knows herself or himself as someone who comes from the nicest place on earth, as someone from a peacekeeping nation, and as a modest, self-deprecating individual who is able to gently teach Third World Others about civility. (Sherene Razack, Dark Threats and White Knights 9)

This is another approach to the problems I’ve mentioned before inherent in the self-proclaimed mission to teach “global citizenship”.

The manuscript also notes something that surprised me, but probably shouldn’t have, that “there are likely more expatriate development workers operating in Africa at this point than there were ever colonialists in the era of empire” (cf R L Stirrat, “Cultures of Consultancy,” Critique of Anthropology 20.1 [2000]: 31-46).


[The first in a series…]

Are, then, rights–that cherished shibboleth of progressive liberalism–beyond redemption? Gilles Deleuze seems to think so, calling rights “softheaded thinking” and “a party line for intellectuals, and for odious intellectuals, and for intellectuals without any ideas of their own” (“On Human Rights”).

If we were to salvage rights, then on what grounds? The most frequently cited might be the tactical use of rights discourse, perhaps particularly as a mode of appealing beyond given territorial boundaries. So (say) a beseiged minority in a third world state (though why not also a first world one?) appeals to the UN charter of rights as a tactic within a local, punctual struggle. Rights then as a line of flight?

Perhaps more interestingly, surely we should also see rights, or the various declarations within which rights are defined and announced (however “self-evident[ly],” as with the US Constitution), as surfaces of inscription, sites within which the current balance of forces in a given struggle is marked? As such, though the danger is that the state of play is thereby reified and miscrecognized (always a temptation with rights: to see them as immutable and transhistorical), at the same time it might be worth considering how that act of inscription functions to complicate and feed back upon the struggle itself.


Following on from my recent posts “tautology” and “radical”, here is my draft review of Radical Democracy and Beyond Hegemony: “Radical Philosophy?”. As it is a draft, please do not cite without permission.

As a taster, the conclusion:

Schecter’s critique of purported post-liberalism, as simply a warmed-over liberalism that conserves the worst rather than the best of what it claims to supercede, is a useful antidote to theories of radical democracy. His analysis of liberalism’s paradoxes, while not always novel, is also sharp and to the point. However, he might have considered more the possibility that we are already living in a posthegemonic age. Bush, Blair, and Co. hardly stir themselves much to fabricate consensus these days–indeed, Blair’s main argument for the war in Iraq is now that precisely the unpopularity of his policies is a guarantee that he is not merely bowing to the court of legitimate public opinion. Moreover, is not Schecter’s dream of a “constant exchange of information between producers [. . .] and consumers” (138) not already with us albeit in the form of questionnaires, focus groups, and the information derived from loyalty cards on the one hand, and advertising and the ideologies of business transparency on the other? We are already beyond hegemony, and whatever else radicalism might be, surely it does not involve rescuing liberalism, whether in its purer, idealist, form or in its corrupt, democratizing, incarnations.