Freedom of (Hate) Speech

January 29th, 2009

“You’re not wrong, Walter.  You’re just an asshole.”
-The Dude, from The Big Lebowski



Freedom of speech is one of those issues that gets me tied up in so many mental knots that I need a couple hours to unwind after thinking about it.  I think part of the problem is that it’s one of a very few issues that the very progressive and the very hateful both agree on.  I have yet to find a fully satisfying answer, but at this point I’ve decided that a neat solution is unattainable.  Life is hard.

In theory, I am of course in favour of freedom of speech across the board.  It protects people with critical/unpopular views of the dominant order, allows for some cutting humour, and for music with swear words.  In practice, I get really confused when it comes to things like KKK rallies (to use an easy example), or more contemporarily, some of the extreme anti-Islamic trash coming out of people’s mouths and pens worldwide.  That’s the kind of stuff that need to stop, and right now.

But literally stopping it (through legal means or otherwise) won’t erase the ideology that gives birth to it.  The best answer I’ve been able to find to all this is to meet the speech in question with a whole lot of positive dialogue that counters it.  Meet a hate rally with a bigger anti-hate rally.  It’s certainly not a quick fix, but it can help stop the spread of violent ideas, and is better than the alternatives.

For some more concrete examples, I’ll talk about the kinds of things that have been happening in Europe, lately.  In Holland, the supreme court has decided to put Geert Wilders in jail [The article I linked is pretty one-sided, and I disagree with some of the editorializing, but it's where I heard the news], in part due to a film he made called “Fitna” – which, from what I hear, is highly “problematic” to say the least.  He has also called for the Quran to be banned.  Not a particularly tolerant guy, from the sounds of it.  Still, putting him in jail for it doesn’t set a good precedent.  All this is related to the “Danish Cartoons” nonsense that blew up a couple years ago, and is part of a long-string of anti-Islamic speech coming from government officials, editorialists, and right-wing groups across Europe.  Or North America, for that matter, but that’s not my focus here.

Now, I’m not going to blame the victim and say Theo Van Gogh “had it coming” (nobody does), and I’m not going to suggest that the rioting in Muslim countries was anything but a very bad response to the Danish cartoons [update: please see this reply in the comments for a bit of context].  Those are just two of the poor “alternatives” to positive dialogue that I mentioned above, Wilders’ jail term being a third.  I’m also going to admit that there are things about Islam – or any religion – that warrant a great deal of critique.  But deliberately stirring up hatred (which is what much of the ham-fisted European “critique” is really doing) is the wrong way of going about it.  The bulk of it is little more than thinly-veiled xenophobia without any real substance.

When the Danish cartoons fiasco really got going, cartoonists and journalists worldwide ranted and raved about what an outrage it was that the cartoons were banned.  Muslims were told to “grow a thicker skin” and that nobody’s got a right “not to be offended.”  Fair enough.  To an extent, that’s certainly true.  But there’s a very big difference between speaking truth to power and mocking an already marginalized group.  It’s easy to talk from a position of privilege (ie. the dominant race/religion/class) and tell the downtrodden to “buck up,” but not so easy to deal with what is essentially institutionalized prejudice.  After all, Christianity is almost never spoken about in the kinds of terms that Islam is, despite the fact that the bible has just as many inflammatory passages.

All this meandering blabbering (sorry about that – like I said, this topic ties my brain in knots) can be summed up by that Big Lebowski quote above.  All too often, “freedom of speech” is a wall that racists hide behind, tossing slurs at whatever minority is within range.  Still, the only way to ensure that valid, useful critique is fully protected is to protect everything – even the most bile-filled garbage.  Let the rest of it become social taboo.  Mr. Wilders should be allowed to say whatever he wants to say, if only because censoring him will serve only to bring more people to his side – and it won’t change his mind.  He’s not strictly wrong about freedom of speech, but he’s definitely an asshole.

On the photo: I saw this paste-up on the side of a “Metro” daily newspaper box.  While it’s likely that some poor employee was just trying to clean up, I wonder if someone tried to tear if off because they didn’t like the message (which, I am guessing, is “Your Time Is Now.”)  At any rate, I’m glad someone is going around Vancouver sticking up positive (if trite) messages.  It’s something that I myself had been planning to do a couple years back, but never got around to doing.  Maybe one of these days I’ll join the party.

Why Conspiracy Theories are Useless

January 25th, 2009
Posters at Main Station

Posters at Main Station

I think most of us know a couple people who carry what could be called a “conspiratorial world view.”  This can mean a lot of things: anything from the tinfoil-hat wearing caricatures who know that the government is watching them from inside their own blood, to the followers and copycats of the prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.  I’m not going to attempt to disprove conspiracy theory – that would be an exercise in futility (not unlike trying to disprove God to the devout).  Instead, I’m going to address a few reasons why conspiracy theory is irrelevant and unnecessary.

1) There’s already more than enough proof against the bad guys.
A year and a half ago I saw Naomi Klein give a talk about her book, The Shock Doctrine (which I still haven’t read, as much as I mean to).  In the Q&A period that followed, someone brought up the “9/11 Truth Movement,” which centers around the idea that 9/11 was an “inside job” orchestrated by or with the knowledge of the American government.  Her response was something to the effect of “I can’t prove that the Bush administration killed three thousand Americans by destroying the twin towers.  I can prove that they have killed over a million Iraqis as a result of the war they illegally brought to that country.  (See also the Lancet surveys.)  If that isn’t enough to ‘wake up’ Americans, nothing is.”

Bang.  If our goal is to prove that Bush and Co. are murderous and power-hungry, anything more than that should be unnecessary.  If we really wanted to get our hands dirty, we could bring up the USA PATRIOT Act, wire-tapping, the approval of torture, Guantanamo Bay, and any number of other crimes against humanity.  All of these have been heavily reported (in the mainstream media, no less), are easy to access, and are undeniable as fact.  The leaders are bad guys.  (I realize that this particular point is less relevant now that Obama is in power, but I am taking a “wait and see” approach.  For what it’s worth, the new crew is made up of more than few folks with some blood on their hands as well.  And, obviously, Obama himself is “centre-right” at the least.)

2) Our power as individuals is limited.
If global affairs are in fact being run by a shadowy group with an overarching plan for human civilisation (let’s call it the “New World Order”) – a plan that has been unfolding for literally hundreds of years – then there is nothing that we can do about it.  We have no access to the king-makers, nor to their sources of funding, nor to their secret planning meetings.  For all intents and purposes, trying to stop them would be like trying to kill God.

3) Our actions remain the same.
For those of us who want to build a better world, there are only certain actions that we can take at an individual level.  As it happens, these actions remain unchanged regardless of how much we know about any conspiracy theory.

If we seek independence, we organize and build alternative structures that operate without government or without multinational corporations (which are much bigger fish than government these days).  We grow our own food, in our backyards or on our balconies or in community gardens.  We start to break away from the grid by installing photovoltaic solar panels and micro-wind turbines and composting toilets and grey-water recycling systems.  We buy what we can from local sources.  We disrupt business-as-usual through street rallies, protests, and other direct action, until our grievances are heard and dealt with on a larger scale.  In short, we build resilient communities and render existing power structures irrelevant.  Working within the current structure is also useful, of course.  It’s undeniable that having Obama as President is far better than McCain would be.

None of these actions are easy or necessarily pleasant, and many of them are met with resistance.  This resistance exists regardless of whether any conspiracy theory is true.  People in power want to keep it.  That’s a truism.  You don’t need a global conspiracy to prove that.  Is the New World Order at work in Zimbabwe?  Or in Burma?  Or in any number of other tiny resourceless countries ruled with an iron fist?  To the people struggling on the ground, it’s irrelevant – their methods of resistance remain the same.

4) The learning curve is too steep.
In order to truly understand the depth of the machinations of the New World Order (or the Illuminati, or the Reptilians, or whatever), one must plunge themselves into a world of misinformation, black-background websites, over-the-top rhetoric, and obscure factoids.  JFK’s “conspiracy speech,” Bush Senior’s single reference to a “New World Order” (note the scary music at that link), and other fragments become essential touchstones.  Scraps of information from disparate sources are pieced together to form an “irrefutable” patchwork.

The problem, of course, is separating the wheat from the chaff.  One theory is absurd (and is therefore either the work of a lunatic, or a plant from the malevolent group itself), another is more plausible.  The writers who try to keep themselves factually grounded use the same fiery language as those who are clearly unhinged.  One photo renders a sympathetic interpretation and is published widely – another confuses or contradicts that interpretation, but is harder to find.

I’ll admit that this point is more of a complaint against conspiracy theory in general, rather than a reason why it’s useless, but I include it as a kind of corollary to my first point.  Developing a nuanced idea of a global conspiracy is difficult (if it’s possible at all), and it takes a great deal of dedication in comparing information, sifting through nonsense, watching video clips, etc.

Compare this to reading a single book by Klein or Chomsky, both of whom cite their sources very heavily, and draw the damning facts primarily from mainstream media sources, press releases and memos, official speeches, and freedom of information requests.  I’m not suggesting that the mainstream media doesn’t lie or omit information – it does – but in this case it gives any admission of guilt more weight, not less.  I’m also not saying that Klein or Chomsky are gospel – only that they are far more accessible (and fact-based) than conspiracy theory, and that they have at least as much power to radicalize.

The world is in a very rough state of affairs, that much is clear.  There’s no sense in cluttering up the view with shadowy global groups when the facts in front of us push us in the same direction.  What’s more, you’ll have better luck convincing others when you can point to a solid stack of info.  This is good, because we need all the help we can get.

Little Mountain Housing Complex

January 17th, 2009
Little Mountain Housing

Little Mountain Housing, boarded up.

So my plan was for this post to be something about the criminality of excess, or maybe to lay a bit of groundwork about the fundamental flaws of free market capitalism.  I’ve found something more pressing: the closure of a (formerly) provincially-owned social housing project, Vancouver’s oldest.

After a long afternoon walk around my neighbourhood, I passed by the Little Mountain Housing complex, an architectural oddity that I’d found on a similar jaunt months before.  Something had seemed strange about it – it was a little dead, a little sad.  What I didn’t know at the time was that the complex had been sold (in April 2008) to Holborn Properties, for development.  I saw an article in the Georgia Straight a couple months later, which was when I first learned the name of the place.

In November 2008, the city boarded up all the units from which tenants had already been relocated (read: displaced).  In December, there was an “Art-In,” in which activists, tenants, and artists painted images and messages on the boards.  A few days later, a graffiti removal crew was sent to remove “objectionable” content – including messages like “Love still lives here,” “Poor people need homes too,” and “Don’t destroy our house.”

Of course, as I was walking, I didn’t know any of this.  Because of that article in the Straight, I knew that the area had been set for redevelopment – but it had slipped my mind until I saw the boards.  Seeing the (almost) deserted complex through the soupy winter fog was surreal.  The doomed melancholy of the paintings (plaintive calls for homes, names of the families that lived there, etc.) was surprisingly moving.

Still, I probably would’ve walked on in bemusement if I hadn’t happened upon a couple of older men, one up on a ladder with a paint roller – working away at another boarded window.  I asked to take their picture, and received a cheerful affirmative.  I almost left it at that, but (thankfully) decided to press a little further and find out what was going on.  That’s when I found out that of the 224 units, only 15 are now occupied.

The complex isn’t actually slated for demolition until over a year from now (after the Olympics), possibly longer, given the state of the economy.  In a city with a 0.3% vacancy rate, where homelessness is rampant, one wonders why the complex couldn’t be left open until the demolition actually happens.  You would be hard-pressed to describe the buildings as anything more than unsightly blocks – but really, there are more important things than aesthetics.

Apparently there will be a “stand” next saturday from 1:00-2:00pm, in support of the residents .  I know where I’ll be.

More info:
Community Advocates for Little Mountain (CALM)
Displacement at Little Mountain Housing (Flickr)
Little Mountain Art In (Flickr)
Vancouver Riley Park Little Mountain Neighbourhood Pool (Flickr)
Little Mountain Housing Showdown Looms (Georgia Straight)

Development of Little Mountain Housing complex unlikely (Georgia Straight)

(It turns out that the guy on the ladder was the man behind the De-Elect Emerson posters that populated my neighbourhood while David Emerson was still in office.  Their design left something to be desired, but I dug the message.)

The Point of Art

January 13th, 2009
Streetlights on the 98

Streetlights on the 98

Art should be a challenge.  It should be a spotlight on the negative, a flare in a dungeon, a shake of the shoulders.  Good art instigates.

About a month ago, I started participating in a group art blog with some friends.  Something I noticed about the first couple projects was that they centered around personal, favourite things.  I realized that I don’t often make art (at least, nothing I’d bother to show anyone) with that sort of subject matter – part of why is above.

So what does that bit of rhetoric mean?  Art is nothing if it doesn’t change you somehow.  The effect doesn’t need to be enormous, but your mood or mental processes should take a new direction.  The best art can turn you around, flip you on your head, or propel you forward with remarkable force.  This is part of what distinguishes “art” from “entertainment” (the details of this idea will make up the body of a later post).

When I say that art should be a spotlight on the negative, I mean that it shows us the things we don’t want to look at – but should.  Everything is not okay, but good art makes us take our medicine.  All this sounds very inflammatory and strident, but art can be subtle and contemplative and still accomplish the kinds of things I’m talking about.  (For example, some of the most powerfully shocking images I’ve seen are the photos of Edward Burtynsky, which are silent and beautiful.)

Art can challenge the way we look at the world, and remind us that things haven’t always been the way they are.  Just because the status quo exists, it doesn’t follow that it is “natural” or inevitable or eternal.

And now I’m going to contradict myself, if I haven’t already.

As I was thinking about how some of my friends would respond to these ideas – friends whose work is overwhelmingly positive and happy – I remembered that positivity can also be a challenge.  In a sea of concerned frowns, a smile is more radical than a fist (I’m really pouring it on thick now, aren’t I?).

The key here is that both “positive” and “negative” art is necessary if anything is going to get done.  The two complement each other.  Showing people beauty will do little if they don’t realize that they are surrounded by ugliness.  Showing people ugliness will accomplish nothing if there is no beautiful alternative to work towards.  What unites the poles (it would be better understood as a spectrum) is the element of a challenge.

Lest people misunderstand me, I’m not only talking about representational artwork.  Abstraction can be (and often is) even more of a challenge.  By its very  nature, it forces the brain to work in a new way: interpreting colour, shape, composition, etc.  Abstract art doesn’t need to “mean” anything, in fact, it often doesn’t.  And, for what it’s worth, not every piece of art I do is dour and negative.  Sometimes I draw very silly things.