A Short Essay on Idle No More

 

 

When Idle No More (INM) hit the front pages of the newspapers and the internet on Facebook and elsewhere I felt a certain amount of hope but also trepidation.  Having taught sociology and Canadian History for decades and thinking about social movements I wondered how long Idle No More would stick to its original program especially because there were mixed messages coming from various quarters in and around the movement.  There is no question that the early impetus for the movement came from aboriginal women in Saskatchewan.  Idle No More, from my perspective, had as a prime objective an ‘awakening’ of aboriginal people and their mobilization to protest their continuing colonial relationship with the federal government partly expressed in the very structure of reserve politics.  Since the beginning in our area, the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, INM events have been very First Nations focused and recently have been held exclusively on reserve.  There was an initial demonstration at John Duncan’s office in December then a week later or so another much larger demonstration at Simms Park leading to a march to Duncan’s office.  The next event was held in front of Duncan’s office in downtown Courtenay.  Since then, events have been held on the Komoux reserve along the Dyke Road between Courtenay and Comox.  In all cases, aboriginal and First Nations leaders were the featured speakers at these events, rightly so, in my estimation.  As I noted earlier, INM was in its inception an aboriginally led movement for and by aboriginal people.  In my mind, as a movement, this is its raison d’ètre.  That being the case, the First Nations people who arose to lead the INM demonstrations made it clear that they welcomed the support of non-aboriginal people.  In fact, many people recognized that the movement could not be successful without broad support from ordinary Canadians.

 

To repeat, Idle No More very early on asked all of us to support its objectives of the emancipation and empowerment of ordinary aboriginal people and to help in the struggle against Bills C-38 and C-45.  They asked us to support Idle No More. Many of us, non-aboriginals, attended and still attend the INM events as supporters of the movement.  But there was also talk that this movement was not just an aboriginal movement.  According to the proponents of this view, the movement must involve all of us because we are all threatened by environmental degradation.  We were (and still are) urged to come together in a common cause, one that includes all Canadians.  I don’t want to be misunderstood here.  I very much support the environmental movement and I deplore the Harper government’s erosion of democracy although it’s been clear to me for a long time that ‘democracy’ as it’s practiced in most places, including Canada, is a slight diversion for politicians who are clearly the servants of business corporations and not of the people.

 

It’s important for us all to support Idle No More while understanding the special legal and moral status that aboriginal people have in Canada.  We must support aboriginal people in their struggle for unity when the government has had a clear agenda to divide them, marginalize and dehumanize them while sowing disunity as much as possible in aboriginal communities and on reserve.  Make no mistake.  Idle No More is about First Nations.

 

It just so happens that many First Nations and individual aboriginal people, not all, are also very concerned about the state of the planet, environmental degradation, pipelines crossing pristine wilderness and oil tankers in our coastal waters.  We, as human beings with families, children and grandchildren, must be concerned about our planet, our home, and its future.  We cannot continue to foul our air and water.

So we do have a common worry and need to act collectively, First Nations and otherwise, on the issues we have of common concern.  But we also need to act respectfully toward First Nations as they rise to their challenge of finding ways to communicate with each other, organize at the grassroots and unite the over 600 bands in this country into a powerful force the Canadian government cannot ignore.  I support Idle No More.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners meet your Potential Modern Inheritors

Yes, the title is a wee bit provocative but let me explain.  In 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.  This book, from the back cover on my edition, “…lays to rest many myths about the Holocaust: that Germans were ignorant of the mass destruction of Jews, that the killers were all SS men, and that those who slaughtered Jews did so reluctantly.  Hitler’s Willing Executioners provides conclusive evidence that the extermination of European Jewry engaged the energies and enthusiasm of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans.”  Goldhagen systematically addresses many conventional explanations for The Holocaust: 1) the perpetrators were coerced, 2) that they were merely following orders, 3) that they were under very severe psychological pressure, 4) that they were petty bureaucrats needing to perform whatever tasks assigned them for the sake of their own career advancement, and 5) that people performed isolated and fragmented tasks so that they couldn’t appreciate the significance of their actions.  He then addresses each of these explanations and rejects them categorically.  He argues that a great deal of horrifying brutality and genocide was exercised not by insane people, but by ordinary people carrying out their sacred duty to The Fatherland.  This may be hard to believe, and the only real antidote to this scepticism is a thorough reading of Goldhagen’s book, but he is very convincing in his argument.  His book is carefully researched and highly insightful.

For Goldhagen, The Holocaust was not the result of aberrant individuals, bureaucracy, indifference, ignorance or individual pathology of any kind and it was only possible because Germany and Germans, ordinary Germans, were systematically changed  into anti-semites in very large numbers well before the war started. It was, he argues, the culmination of a process by which the German people, ordinary Germans, were convinced over decades that the biggest impediment to Germany’s apotheosis, its rise to true glory, was the Jewish people.  Over decades before the war, Jews were portrayed as the greatest evil that Germany faced as a nation.  So, it seems that Germans in their passionate love of The Fatherland were not only willing executioners of Jews (and other groups of people seen as a threat, either to The Fatherland, as in the case of Jews, or the Aryan race as in the case of people with mental or physical disabilities, the Romany, etc.), but enthusiastic, gleeful, inventive, proud and patriotic perpetrators of unbelievable brutality towards Jews.  There is a photograph in Goldhagen’s book of a German soldier, an ordinary German soldier, shooting in the back of the head a young mother while she holds her child in her arms.  He did it in front of the camera, proud of his patriotic deed.  Obviously, human beings are capable of incredible personal barbarism but that barbarism is more often than not released against ‘the other,’ the perceived source of all evil and danger to the group, whether it be the marriage, family, community, town, city, province, country or ideology (pick any one).  The soldier who shot the young mother did not see his deed as barbaric, but rather as patriotic, as one more step in the elimination of the Jewish evil infecting glorious Germany and threatening to weaken the Aryan race.  From this viewpoint, every time a German kills a Jew, man, woman or child, Germany gets stronger.  Essentially, the Jewish people were offered up as a sacrifice to ensure the future prosperity of the German nation. From here on, my argument gets a little complex and much of it arises in Ernest Becker’s work summarized in his posthumous book Escape From Evil (1975) in which he writes:

…the psychology of the Nazi experience, […] served as a grim refresher course on the metaphysics of mass slaughter.  Leo Alexander, in his outstanding paper on the SS, points out how much the Nazis were animated by what he calls a ‘heathen concept’: they had a whole philosophy of blood and soil which contained the belief that death nourishes life.  This was ‘heathen’ indeed: we recognize it as the familiar archaic idea that the sacrifice of life makes life flow more plentifully…Goering, for example, made a statement early in the war that ‘with every German airman who is killed by the enemy our Luftwaffe becomes stronger. (p.103)

So the logic of mass murder becomes clear. The ‘cleansing’ of Germany of the ‘dirty’ Jews was supposed to make Germany stronger, an idea that had been brewing for a long time in the German mind.  In essence, Goldhagen’s insistance that Germany was infected long before the Nazi era with a profound antisemitism fits in perfectly with Becker’s observation that The Holocaust was not an ‘event’ in history, but a consequence of a profound and longstanding insecurity that ordinary Germans had regarding the state of Germany.  Relief from this insecurity culminated in the execution and torture of masses of Jewish people.  It became the duty of all right-thinking, patriotic and heroic citizens to participate fully in the elimination of the Jewish evil, an evil inherent in every sub-human Jewish man, woman and child, the evil that threatened, in their minds, the very source of their life and power, The Fatherland.  Of course, the whole enterprise was a lie.  No amount of killing could save the German nation.

So, what can we now make of Goldhagen’s contention that it was ordinary Germans who were the perpetrators of Hitler’s program to eliminate Jews from Germany (and everywhere else given enough time)?  What we can say is that most evil in the world is not the result of the actions of aberrant individuals -although they definitely express their aberrance when permitted  to or encouraged by the state – but of ordinary people expressing their love for country or idea (racial purity, the uselessness of the poor, God, the glory of money, etc…).  As Becker states it, “…evil comes from man’s urge to heroic victory over evil.” (p.136)

What lesson can we learn from Goldhagen (and Becker – but more on that later)?  That blind nationalism and unquestioning faith in God and country have, and can still, lead ordinary people into committing the most atrocious, genocidal actions possible.  The Rwandan massacre of 1994 is an example of just such a thing and let us not think for a moment that it will never happen again.  From the vitriol I’ve been reading in comments following articles on the Idle No More movement, I expect that ordinary Canadians could be led into the same genocidal frame of mind as ordinary Germans were during the Nazi era.  Canadians are not anywhere close to becoming genocidal now, but systemic racism, scapegoating and a profound ignorance of the actions of their own government towards aboriginal people can set the stage for popular descent into crass racism and incivility.  When the government’s agenda are dominated by the private accumulation of capital, any perceived impediment to economic growth such as treaty negotiations will be seen by some as a threat to Canada as a nation and it’s sovereignty.  Once aboriginal people are openly scapegoated and blamed for a poor economy we will have to be doubly vigilant to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand and degenerate into widespread and open hostility towards First Nations.