My Shame and the Shameless Racist

An interesting part of being an author is being invited to address groups about one’s books. You shake off the office, library, and archive dust and meet those who share an interest in books and ideas. Sometimes, though, you meet folks who are not curious but angry. They seek not to learn but profess. Last week, I encountered one such gentleman and wish I had handled him differently.

Last Wednesday I addressed a group of 60 or so folks about my book, Last Steps to Freedom, which addresses the history of racism in Canada. I said that at racism’s core is the belief that in creating some people, God made a mistake. I explained the book’s idea that racism is like a ladder we ascend, climbing the rungs of stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, state-sanctioned discrimination, and, finally, genocide. In Canada, I explained, we have been on every rung, including, with respect to Indigenous peoples, attempted cultural genocide. I illustrated the point with stories of Ukrainian-Canadians, thousands of whom were locked up during the First World War, and Black Canadians who endured slavery and then discrimination that persists today.

The two most important rules in public speaking are to be brief and be seated. I did both. Then came the question period which is always my favorite part. But last Wednesday was different.

He thrust his hand in the air. I nodded his way and he leaped to his feet. The slight man, in his late sixties, asked if I knew the meaning of a hate crime. I began to answer when he cut me off and said that it was hateful to attack another person’s opinions. He then said that according to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, all slave ship captains were Jews. There was a gasp in the audience. I began to respond when again he cut me off asking if I had heard of Ernst Zündel. Yes, I began to reply, when he said that, according to Zündel, the Holocaust never happened. How can I prove, he asked, that the Holocaust happened and that 6 million were killed?

A microphone is a good thing. You can pull it close to increase your volume while moving toward a speaker. All but the truly crazy usually fall silent. He did. I said that, yes, I had heard of both Farrakhan and Zündel and knew them both to have been rejected by all real historians. He began to speak again but I kept going. As for those men and you holding opinions, well, in my opinion, I am Robert Redford’s virtual twin. But no matter how fervently I believe it does not make it true.

Racism

He began to speak again but I said he had made his point and now it was time to allow others to pose their questions. I pointed to a gentleman in the back and as he started his question, our friend huffed from the room.

The questioner continued but I was only half listening, noticing the heads turning to watch our angry friend go, and seeing the nudges and whispers. With the question posed, I said thanks but paused. I said, now that was interesting. Opinions and facts are not the same and are seldom friends, I said. There were smiles and shoulders sank back down as people relaxed. I then answered the second question, well, really the first question.

There I was, having written a book about the horrors of racism and speaking about how we need to atone for our collective crimes and ignorance to work together in building an egalitarian, non-racist society and yet I had allowed an obvious racist to hold the floor for what I believe was too long. I should have challenged him sooner, harsher. I should have said more directly that his sources were known anti-Semites and that the bile he was spewing was anti-Semitic hooey. But I didn’t. Was I too polite? But then again, would my moving more aggressively have simply employed the same ugly weapons as his hate-based tribe? We must always confront racism and I should have done so quicker, firmer, perhaps ruder – polite be damned.

We are now enduring a moment in which too many people see political correctness as weakness, compromise as lacking principle, and critical thought as elitism. This challenge to the post-1960s liberal consensus has invited racist, sexist, homophobic, nativist, bigoted talk to be dragged from the shadows and waved like a flag. Those confused by complexity find solace and community in dividing the world into me and you, us and them. Facts can then not be sought to learn but cherry-picked to confirm. It’s sad and dangerous, but I sincerely believe we’ll be OK.

History used to evolve in spans but now leaps in spasms. This moment will pass. It will pass quickly. The racists and bigots will return to their shrinking circles of confusion and fear. Love will trump hate and that which gave rise to Trump will fall. The better angels of our nature will again sing.

I believe it. I have to. The alternative is too frightening. Next time, I’ll do better.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others through your social media of choice. If you wish to read the book that brought the folks together on a cold, snowy evening and made one gentleman so angry, you can find it here: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/last-steps-to-freedom-the/9781896239408-item.html

 

 

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Who’s Your Klingon?

Captain Kirk hated Klingons. We understood why. Kirk’s Federation was Athens in the stars, or perhaps America. It sought peaceful exploration. Klingons were the militaristic Spartans, or Soviets, spoiling for battle in their drive to conquer and rule an empire. We got it. We also viscerally understood that the Klingons were to be feared and fought because they represented “the other”.

Who's Your Klingon

(photo: ro.wikipedia.org)

We have always struggled against the other. Since the Reformation, and certainly from the outset of the Industrial Revolution, the West ruled. Its rules and rulers were white, male, and Christian. Everyone else was Klingon.

Like all countries, Canada harbours tragic tales of past fights with the other. Consider the Jewish story. Twenty-year-old Esther Brandeau, disguised as a boy, had worked aboard the Saint-Michel for four years. The captain discovered her deception and, in 1783, put her ashore at Quebec. According to Quebec’s 1627 founding charter, Jews were not allowed in the colony so she was shipped back to France.

In 1864, Pope Pius IX declared Jews among those unworthy of God’s love and, therefore, enemies. Beginning in the 1870s, a series of brutally anti-Semitic German books and then a forged Russian screed called the Elders of Zion, created and perpetuated myths including ritual Jewish killings of Christian babies and a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world’s banks. The Pope and publications instigated mass murders called pogroms. Jewish villages and neighbourhoods were burned. By 1919, over 1,200 pogroms had killed an estimated 50,000 European Jews.

The violence did not soften many Canadian hearts. Important public intellectual Goldwin Smith wrote a series of articles in which he called Jews parasites. He wrote that Jews were, “encamping in all other nations, absorbing their wealth by financial skill…and bringing pogroms upon themselves by their exclusiveness.” They could not be trusted, he said, and should be deported.

Quebec’s powerful Henri Bourassa said in the House of Commons, “The Jews are the most undesirable class of people any country can have…They are vampires on a community instead of being contributors to the general welfare of the people.” Abbe Lionel-Adolphe Grouix, an intellectual who former Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan called the “the spiritual leader of modern Quebec” once wrote, “Do not buy from the Jews…Buy from your own people…within a year, the Jewish problem would be resolved, not only in Montreal but from one end of the province to the other.”

William Aberhart was a Protestant fundamentalist preacher who created the Social Credit Party. He said on his popular radio program that Jews must accept Jesus as the Son of God and until they do, “they must expect the curses of the world and cannot expect the Blessings of God.” Aberhart’s party formed the Alberta government in 1935 and would rule there and elsewhere for decades.

On April 16, 1933 a Jewish baseball team was playing a non-Jewish team at Toronto’s Willowdale Park. The stands filled and a large Nazi flag was unfurled. Anti-Semitic abuse smudged the air. Two evenings later the team was back and tension was palpable. When the first punch was thrown, carloads of Jewish men arrived from one direction and non-Jews from another. Lead pipes and baseball bats were swung. Blood flowed. The riot spilled into the neighbourhood and raged for six-hours. Jewish homes and businesses were smashed and burned.

The next day, the Toronto Telegram blamed the Christie Pitts Riot not on the city’s rampant antisemitism and numerous Swastika Clubs but on the Jewish community that, it said, instigated it. Later that summer, Swastika Clubs declared that Jews were banned from Toronto’s Balmy and Kew Beaches. The police did nothing.

“Gentile Only” and “No Jews Allowed” signs hung or rules were enforced in a number Canadian restaurants, golf and tennis clubs, and kids summer camps. Many universities enforced quotas on Jewish admittance. Many insurance companies charged Jewish customers double or triple normal rates. Many boards of education refused to hire Jewish teachers. Real estate agents regularly warned Jewish families of neighbourhoods where they would not be welcome.

At that point Hitler had stripped German Jews of citizenship rights. He encouraged them to flee but few found countries willing to accept them. Canada was among those with locked doors. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had met the Führer and confided in his diary, “Hitler might come to be thought of as one of the saviours of the world…his ends, [are] the well-being of his fellow man; not all fellow-men, but those of his own race.” After an international conference discussed saving German Jews, King wrote “We must seek to keep this part of the Continent free from unrest and from too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood.”

In the spring of 1939, a ship called the St. Louis left Hamburg. It carried 907 German Jews with Cuban visas. Upon their arrival, however, their papers were invalidated. They tried to disembark at Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and then Panama but each said no. Americans dispatched a battleship to keep them from their coast.

The Saint Louis finally arrived at Halifax. For six years, Canadian newspapers had reported Nazi horrors. Canadians knew of the Ghettos and Hitler’s monstrous acts and threats. Mackenzie King was asked to save the 907 men, women, and children. His cabinet discussed it and declined. A reporter asked Canada’s director of immigration Frederick Blair how many Jews would be allowed into Canada and he replied, “None is too many.”

The St. Louis eventually returned to Germany. While all records were not later found, it has been proven that the majority of those aboard perished in Hitler’s gas chambers. We could have saved them. We chose not to.

Whose Your Clingon?

Two St. Louis Passengers (photo: ushmm.org)

Canada’s anti-Semitic past reflects the willingness of too many of us to let a fear of the other dictate attitudes and decisions. Perhaps its lesson is to consider who are today’s others. Are they Canadian Muslim women who wear headscarves? Are they gay and lesbian folks in Indiana and Arkansas who wish only to enjoy a restaurant meal or marry the person they love? Are they men pulled over by police for a DWB: “Driving While Black”?

Perhaps we should more carefully listen for the dog whistle code from exploitative politicians, pundits, and twitter trolls. When they urge us to be angry with or frightened of the other, we could instead ask the next question. We could react with reason rather than emotion – more Spock and less McCoy. We could simply replace the name of “the other de jour” with the word Jew. We could ask if the substitution instantly renders the actions, laws, or opinions under consideration contrary to whom we are or aspire to be.

So, with our being asked to be afraid of the other becoming an increasingly popular political tool, perhaps it is time for us to honestly consider for a moment who, indeed, are our Klingons, and why.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. I relate a much fuller story of Jewish Canadians and five other racial and ethnic groups in Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism. It is available here: http://www.amazon.ca/Last-Steps-To-Freedom-Evolution/dp/1896239404