Monday, January 26, 2015

Makayla, cancer and colonialism

The tragic death of Makayla Sault—who died of leukemia after stopping chemotherapy—has triggered a backlash. “First Nations parents can now doom their sick children,” warned the Toronto Star. “Dying, because her parents were likely weak and uninformed, possibly misled, and our institutions could not find the backbone to protect this child,” wrote an infuriated doctor in the Ottawa Citizen. “Just how aboriginal rights should matter to any of this in the first place is something that beggars belief,” exclaimed the National Post. What beggers belief is the way in which these remarks ignore and reinforce colonialism.

Cancer, colonialism and capitalism
Makayla died from cancer, an invasive and destructive disease that colonizes the body and extracts its life force without its consent. This is what Canada has done to Indigenous peoples. As Indigenous academic Leanne Betasamosake Simpson explained, “Colonialism and capitalism are based on extracting and assimilating. My land is seen as a resource. My relatives in the plant and animal worlds are seen as resources. My culture and knowledge is a resource. My body is a resource and my children are a resource because they are the potential to grow, maintain, and uphold the extraction-assimilation system. The act of extraction removes all of the relationships that give whatever is being extracted meaning. Extracting is taking. Actually, extracting is stealing—it is taking without consent, without thought, care or even knowledge of the impacts that extraction has on the other living things in that environment. That’s always been a part of colonialism and conquest. Colonialism has always extracted the indigenous—extraction of indigenous knowledge, indigenous women, indigenous peoples.”

As a consequence of living in a system that treats people and the planet as mere resources, regardless of the toxic consequences, we're in the midst of a cancer epidemicwith half of all people in Canada developing some form of cancer. This has been normalized (blamed on our genes or the natural aging process) or blamed on individual "lifestyle choices" like smoking. But much of the cancer epidemic is rooted in the economy that contaminates the earth, water, air and food on which we depend. The pollution of Indigenous territory from the tar sands has led to high cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, and the carcinogenic economy also affects those on whose labour it depends. 

As the Unifor Prevent Cancer Campaign explains, "Workers in certain carcinogenic-laden industries are contracting cancer at rates well beyond those experienced by the general population. At last 60 different occupations have been identified as posing an increased cancer risk. Studies show that the auto industry is producing laryngeal, stomach and colorectal cancers along with its cars. The steel industry is producing lung cancer along with its metal products. Miners experience respiratory cancers at rates many times higher than the expected levels in the general population. Electrical workers are suffering increased rates of brain cancer and leukaemia. Aluminum smelter workers are contracting bladder cancer. Dry cleaners have a elevated rates of digestif tract cancers. Firefighters contract brain and blood-related cancers at many times the expected levels. Women in the plastics and rubber industry are at greater risk of uterine and possibly breast cancer. The list goes on...Why do we hear so much about the dangers of tobacco but so little about the other 23 lung carcinogens? The reason is that tobacco is claimed to be a 'lifestyle' choice, so industry and the medical profession can blame the victims. The other 23 known causes of lung cancer are related to industry. They can be prevented and removed from our workplaces and our environment."

Colonial medicine
Colonization has included medical arguments and institutions. As the physician and philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote in A Dying Colonialism, “The fact is that the colonization, having been built on military conquest and the police system, sought a justification for its existence and the legitimization of its persistence in its works. Reduced, in the name of truth and reason, to saying ‘yes’ to certain innovations of the occupier, the colonized perceived that he thus became the prisoner of the entire system, and that the French medical service in Algeria could not be separated from French colonialism in Algeria.” The same is true in Canada. As Laurie Meijer Drees writes in Healing Stories: Stories from Canada’s Indian Hospitals, “As early as 1914, sections of the Indian Act allowed the government to apprehend patients by force if they did not seek medical treatment.” This forced treatment denied traditional medicine and included segregated facilities (“Indian hospitals”) that medically experimented on Indigenous people. The same happened in residential schools that stole Indigenous children from their communities—a practice that continues today through other means.

The denial of traditional knowledge included imposing a highly restricted view of healthcare (“Western medicine”) that reduces health to an isolated individual and pharmaceutical intervention—ignoring social, economic, environmental and cultural factors that determine health and the accessibility and effectiveness of pharmaceuticals. There’s nothing inherently Western about this biological reductionism. In his 1845 work Conditions of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels outlined a social model of health, and called diseases “the necessary consequence of the present neglect and oppression of the poorer classes.” But a biological reductionist view came to dominate capitalist healthcare—undermining the potential of its own treatments, by ignoring broader factors that shape people’s susceptibility to illness and their potential to access and benefit from medication. Profit-driven pharmaceutical corporations dominate healthcare, creating skepticism and reinforcing a market in equally profit-driven “alternative” medicine like the Florida clinic that treated Makayla.

Right to refuse, and right to access
Given the legacy of colonialism it’s not surprising there might be suspicion towards hospital treatment—especially when accompanied by threats of apprehension, in order to enforce such a difficult regimen as chemotherapy (despite its effectiveness in treating leukemia). We might disagree with the choice to stop chemotherapy, though Makayla did brave it for nearly three months before stopping it (contrary to media headlines that she simply refused it). But as the courts found, “(Makayla’s mother’s) decision to pursue traditional medicine for her daughter is her aboriginal right. Further, such a right cannot be qualified as a right only if it is proven to work by employing the western medical paradigm. To do so would be to leave open the opportunity to perpetually erode aboriginal rights.”

Despite media claims, “Indigenous rights vs Western medicine” is a false dichotomy. While Makayla died after stopping treatment, there are far more Indigenous people who die from being denied access to treatment and prevention—and this sparks far less fury from the mainstream media. “Racism can doom sick patients,” could have been the headline after Brian Sinclair died in a Winnipeg ER, denied treatment for 34 hours. “Our institutions could not find the backbone to protect this community,” could be written about the Ontario government’s refusal to support the community of Grassy Narrows against mercury poisoning. “Cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan beggar belief,” should be included in every discussion of the tar sands.

If we’re concerned about private clinics profiting from dubious claims and treatments, then the response should not be to blame Indigenous families who chose that option. Instead we need to strengthen public healthcare, including creating a national pharmacare program and stopping Harper’s $36 billion cut to health care (and the federal government's denial of chemotherapy to refugees).

Decolonizing medicine
Thanks to Indigenous sovereignty and solidarity movements there are growing attempts to decolonize medicine. As Brantford physician Chris Keefer wrote last spring in the Two Row Times, “By behaving in a manner consistent with a colonial master’s mentality, McMaster Children’s Hospital and members of the medical team have very unfortunately created a lack of trust and a break in the therapeutic bond between the medical team and the family. Threats of apprehension of Onkwehon:we children, the dis-respect of elders in family meetings, and denigrating remarks about traditional medicines have no place in a respectful two row relationship. Such actions, comments and behaviours extinguish the opportunity to build trust with the family, trust that is necessary to encourage the family to pursue a very difficult two year treatment plan marked by severe and even life threatening side effects. As a medical doctor trained within Canadian society with no experience of traditional Onkwehon:we medicines, I am not sure that the family is making the right choice by refusing chemotherapy. However it is not my right as a member of Canadian society to impose my will upon Onkwehon:we people.”

The Canadian Medical Association Journal has taken the same progressive approach. In their article “Caring for Aboriginal patients requires trust and respect, not courtrooms,” Lisa Richardson of the UofT Office of Indigenous Medical Education and magazine deputy editor Matthew Stanbrook write: “Media coverage has fueled a narrative of polarized paradigms that is unhelpful and misleading, implying false choices. Medical science poses no inherent conflict with Aboriginal ways of thinking. Medical science is not specific to a single culture, but is shared by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike. Most Aboriginal people seek care from health professionals—but nearly half also use traditional medicines. Aboriginal healing traditions are deeply valued ancestral practices that emphasize plant-based medicines, culture and ceremony, multiple dimensions of health (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual), and relationships between healer, patient, community and environment. These beliefs create expectations that Aboriginal patients bring to their health encounters; these must be respected. Doing so is not political correctness—it is patient-centered care…For the state to remove a child from her parents and enforce medical treatment would pose serious, possibly lifelong, repercussions for any family, but such action holds a unique horror for Aboriginal people given the legacy of residential schools. To make medical treatment acceptable to our Aboriginal patients, the health care system must earn their trust by delivering respect.”

At the same time we can learn from Indigenous teachings to broaden our conception of health and healthcare. As the National Aboriginal Health Organization explains, health indicators include not only individual lifestyle behaviours like smoking and physical activity, but also health knowledge, personal resources, health services (both access to physicians and Aboriginal representation in health professions), physical environment, and social and economic environment. Rather than blaming a family for their tragedy, we should be collectively working to improve these determinants of health, so that we can treat and prevent cancer and replace the cancerous system driving it with one that respects people and the planet. As the Six Nations of the Grand River and the Mississaugas of the New Credit explained “We sincerely hope that this decision is part of an emerging era of healing and reconciliation between Canada and our nations. We hope that our children and generations to come will no longer experience the mistrust, misunderstanding, and mistreatment by the Canadian government that have been our daily reality for over 200 years.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

10 crimes of John A Macdonald

Rather than a celebration of the “father of Confederation,” the 200th birthday of John A Macdonald on January 11 provides an opportunity to remember the history of Canada’s first Crime Minister—and the ongoing movements undoing his legacy.

On January 11 there will be state-sponsored glorifications of John A Macdonald across Canada, but also Indigenous-led teach-ins about his real legacy. Wilfred Laurier said that “the life of Sir John A Macdonald…is the history of Canada,” and it’s true: John A Macdonald shows us that Canada is built on colonialism and oppression, driven by capitalist expansion, and armed with state violence.

Obviously he was not singularly responsible for these policies, many of which began before or continued after him. But as Prime Minister for nearly two decades (1867-73 and 1878-91) he presided over these policies. His defenders, like biographer Richard Gwyn, claim that “to describe Macdonald as ‘a racist’ is pure, and smug, ‘presentism,’ or the judging of the past by the standards of the present.” But this assumes the past was universally reactionary and the present universally progressive—which ignores the resistance to his policies at the time, and ongoing movements against his continued legacy.

1. Founded Canada on stolen land
John A Macdonald is called the “father of Confederation” for signing the British North America Act of 1867 that created Canada. But this “accomplishment” created a colonial settler state built on the colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples, and the national oppression of the Québecois. Two years later Macdonald bought “Rupert’s Land,” nearly a quarter of the continent, from the Hudson’s Bay Company, without consultation of its population. As Macdonald admitted, “All these poor people know is that Canada has bought the country from the Hudson's Bay Company and that they are handed over like a flock of sheep to us.” But the history of Canada is also the history of resistance, from the 1869 and 1885 rebellions during Macdonald time, to Idle No More today.

2. Criminalized abortion
Canada imported British anti-abortion laws under Macdonald  who claimed that abortion “saps the very life blood of the nation.” This law lasted a century, sapping the very life of thousands of women. The law was liberalized in 1969 but it took a mass movement to defeat it in 1988, a movement that continues.

3. Criminalized homosexuality
Canada also imported British laws against homosexuality—which was punishable by death during Macdonald's first two years in office. Though this was dropped, the homophobic persecution continued. As his justice minister said in 1890, explaining an amendment to the Criminal Code,”The third section of the Bill contains a penalty for gross acts of immorality committed in reference to a male person…The maximum penalty of two years imprisonment is, I think, entirely inadequate.” The criminalization of homosexuality also lasted a century, and it was a mass movement—from Stonewall in the US, to protests against the Bathhouse raids in Toronto—that launched the gay liberation movement.

4. Used of starvation as a weapon
As a tactic of colonial expansion, Macdonald used starvation as a weapon against Indigenous peoples. As James Dascuk documented in Clearing the Plains: Politics, Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, “For years, government officials withheld food from aboriginal people until they moved to their appointed reserves, forcing them to trade freedom for rations. Once on reserves, food placed in ration houses was withheld for so long that much of it rotted while the people it was intended to feed fell into a decades-long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness from tuberculosis and other diseases. Thousands died.”

This tactic continues, as Mi’kmaq lawyer and activist Pamela Palmater explained: “Can you think of any Prime Minister, President or World Leader that would withhold food, water, or health care as a bullying tactic to force its citizens into compliance with a new government law, policy or scheme? Can you ever imagine this happening in Canada? I don't think most of us could.
Yet, this is exactly what is happening with Harper's implementation of the illegal C-27. Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt has threatened to cut off funds for food, water and health care if First Nations do not get in line and abide by this new legislationdespite the fact that it was imposed without legal consultation and is now being legally challenged. How many First Nations children will have to die for Harper to sit down and work this out with First Nations?”

5. Created a repressive police
In response to the Red River Resistance of 1869, Macdonald sent a military force, saying “These impulsive half breeds have got spoilt by their émeute, and must be kept down by a strong hand until they are swamped by the influx of settlers.” Macdonald institutionalized this repressive force in 1873 with the creation of the North West Mounted Police—the precursor of the RCMP—that crushed the North West Rebellion of 1885. As Métis academic and activist Howard Adams wrote in his 1975 work Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View, “According to popular explanation, the Mounted Police force was established to prevent whiskey traders from buying Indian furs, which the Hudson’s Bay Company claimed as its exclusive right. However, it is not just a coincidence that the Mounted Police were established during the development of Indian reserves to ensure the ‘success’ of he treaty negotiations with the Indians and ‘help’ relocate Indians and halfbreeds to their reserves and colonies…The Indians, who had lived in the area for thousands of years without police, saw no reason for the establishment of a force in the Northwest since there was no serious disorder or lawlessness in the country. To the native people, this military force was similar to the federal troops who had invaded Fort Garry in 1870. The Mounties were not ambassadors of goodwill or uniformed men sent to protect Indians; they were the colonizer’s occupational forces and hence the oppressors of Indians and Métis.”

These policies continue—from the disregard for missing and murdered Indigenous women, to the criminalization of dissent. As Indigenous activist Clayton Thomas-Muller explained to APTN regarding the RCMP’s surveillance of him and others: “We are challenging the most powerful corporate entities on the planet. What we have on our side is endless human resources. We have the power of our ancestors and traditions fueling us. We are intimately aware of the domestic surveillance that is happening as well as the agenda to criminalize Indigenous dissent.”

6. Expanded capitalism
Macdonald is called a “nation builder” for extending the railroad across the country. But this was intertwined with waging war on the existing Indigenous nations—using the starvation to clear the path for the railroad, and using the railroad to transport the police to crush the 1885 rebellion. The expansion of the railroad itself killed hundreds of workers—primarily Chinese migrant workers—as part of expanding capitalist industry across the country. While the 1872 Toronto strike and the movement for the 9-hour workday pushed Macdonald to pass the Trade Union Act legalizing unions, he followed this with a law criminalizing picketing. Right from its inception, Canadian capitalism exploited workers and fuelled corruption—and Macdonald had to resign in 1873 when the Pacific Scandal exposed his receipt of campaign donations from the owner of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Today the nationalism of “nation building” is used to justify expanding tar sands pipelines across the country—which also undermine Indigenous sovereignty, waste resources on harmful work instead of good green jobs, and rely on complicity between corporations and their government regulators like the National Energy Board.

7. Promoted residential schools
Resuming his role as Prime Minister in 1878, Macdonald continued colonial oppression, expanding residential schools. As he said in 1879: “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” Residential schools were Canadian concentration camps, and included torture and medical experiments.

While Harper apologized for residential schools in 2008, his government has blocked the release of documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, while continuing to remove Indigenous children from their communities through underfunding. According to Cindy Blackstock, member of the Gitksan Nation and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, “The number of First Nations children in care outside their homes today is three times the number of children in residential schools at the height of their operation.”

8. Outlawed the potlatch
Calling for “an iron hand on the shoulders” of Indigenous peoples, Macdonald outlawed the potlatch—because in his words, “It is not possible that Indians can acquire property or can become industrious with any good result while under the influence of this mania.” As the amendment to the Indian Act in 1884 stated, “Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the ‘Potlatch’ or in the Indian dance known as the ‘Tamanawas’ is guilty of a misdemeanor, and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than six nor less than two months in any gaol or other place of confinement; and every Indian or persons who encourages… an Indian to get up such a festival… shall be liable to the same punishment.” But Macdonald failed to extinguish Indigenous traditions and ceremonies, as can be seen from ongoing Indigenous sovereignty movements. 

9. Imposed a racist head tax
Macdonald extended his racism to anyone who did not represent “the Aryan race and Aryan principles.” In compensation for Chinese migrant workers dying to build the railway he’s credited with, MacDonald imposed a head tax and attacked their right to vote. As he said in 1885, “When the Chinaman comes here he intends to return to his own country; he does not bring his family with him; he is a stranger, a sojourner in a strange land, for his own purposes for a while; he has no common interest with us…has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations, and therefore ought not to have a vote.” (While Macdonald was in office the vote was also denied to Indigenous people, women, people with disabilities, and men without property.) The migrant justice movement continues to challenge modern day head taxes—from the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, to the cuts to refugee health.

10. Executed dissidents
Not content with crushing the 1885 rebellion, Macdonald wanted to make an example of its leaders. He transferred the Métis leader Louis Riel from Winnipeg to Regina to ensure a white Anglophone jury, used the ancient British high treason law that carried the death penalty, and refused to consider a flood of petitions in support of Riel. As Macdonald said, “He shall hang, though every dog in Quebec shall bark in his favour.”  Macdonald also incarcerated Cree Chief Poundmaker, and used a mass execution of Cree warriors as a public spectacle. As Daniel PaulMi'kmaq author of We Were Not the Savageswrote, this was “the largest mass execution in Canadian history. The First Nations People abiding around the area, living in various states of starvation and malnutrition, were forced to watch the executions. The following is what the Father of Confederation had to say about it: 20th of November, 1885: In a letter to the commissioner of the Indian Affairs: ‘The executions of the Indians ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs.’”

January 11 is a day to remember Canada’s first Crime Minister, to celebrate the struggles that resisted his policies, and to keep building movements challenging his legacy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Celebrating the Christmas Truce of 1914

This week marks 100 years since the Christmas truce of 1914—which is usually dismissed as a minor episode of the First World War, sanitized as a celebration across all the ranks, or used as a commercial to sell chocolate. But the accounts of soldiers themselves show that it was widespread and in some places long-lasting, driven by rank-and-file soldiers and only stopped through repression from the higher command.

A century ago the imperial competition that had produced a scramble for colonies drove Western powers against each other. They each demonized the other side and claimed it would be a short war over by Christmas. But over the new few months the soldiers sent to die for the Empire experienced the brutal reality of trench warfare. Knee deep in mud, fighting frostbite and trench foot, soldiers shot and were shot at by people just like them, at close quarters. 

Governments had ignored the Pope's call for a one-day truce, and when it came it was not a “Christmas miracle” that simply materialized on December 25. Instead the truce emerged from the trenches themselves in the weeks leading up to the holiday, as minor episodes of fraternization amongst ordinary soldiers began to multiply—including breakfast truces, shooting matches, exchanging items and sharing songs. As one soldier wrote, “On a quiet night we used to sing to each other…Then an officer of one side or the other would come and stop it by ordering a few rounds of fire. We used to be sporting and fire high with the first round.”

As early as December 2, General Smith-Dorien wrote about the “danger” of the emerging friendship: “Weird stories come in from the trenches about fraternizing with the Germans. They shout to each other and offer to exchange certain articles and give certain information…There is a danger of opposing troops becoming too friendly…I therefore intend to issue instructions to my Corps not to fraternize in any way whatever with the enemy.”

A few days later he wrote instructions trying to prevent an outbreak of peace, so the slaughterhouse of war could continue: “Troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a ‘live and let live’ theory of life. Understandings—amounting almost to unofficial armistices—grow up between our troops and the enemy, with a view to making life easier, until the sole object of war becomes obscured, and officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises…Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistice (eg ‘we won’t fire if you don’t, etc) and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.”

But, contrary to military orders, that’s exactly what happened—though in an unorganized and uneven way that shaped its outcome. As Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton document in their detailed account, Christmas Truce, “It was possible for a battalion to be completely unaware as to whether its near-neighbours were or were not taking part in a truce, so that what happened on Christmas Day was not, so to speak, a contagion of goodwill spreading along the line, but a series of individual initiatives at a very considerable number of places and times…The Christmas truce held—to a greater or lesser extent—over more than two-thirds of the British-held sector; but elsewhere Christmas came and went leaving little trace.”

As early as December 20 in some places, soldiers used the holidays to put down their weapons and bury the bodies littered across No Man’s Land. By interacting with each other, working class soldiers discovered they shared much in common. As a British soldier wrote, “one of the two Germans jocularly remarking that he hoped the war would end soon, as he wanted to return to his former job as a taxi-driver in Birmingham.” Some remarked that “the papers had been responsible for the whole war,” and that “the Germans are just as tired of the war as we are, and said they should not fire again until we did.”

At its height 100,000 troops participated in the truce. German, French, Belgian and British soldiers (including troops from India) exchanged music, gifts, played games and took photographs, and held up Christmas treesa German tradition that was in the process of spreading across Europe. “We achieved what the Pope himself could not do and in the middle of the war we had a merry Christmas,” one soldier wrote.

Restoring “order”
While some officers were ambivalent about the truce, others quickly tried to stop the “dangerous” peace. As one officer wrote, “Hearing of the fraternization I hastened to the scene to investigate, and found the whole of No Man’s Land crowded with our men and the Germans amicably intermixed…For a moment I gazed at the curious sight, and then realized how absolutely wrong and dangerous it was, and decided to stop it.”

But the truce did not end so easily. As a frustrated General Smith-Dorien claimed, the only path to peace was more war: “Any orders I issue on the subject are useless, as I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposing troops. To finish this war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly intercourse. I am calling for particulars as to names of officers and units who took part in this Christmas gathering, with a view to disciplinary action.”

Far from being a “war for freedom and democracy,” WWI was not only launched to defend colonialism but it only continued by repressing the troops sent to fight. It was not human nature but military discipline that enforced the war. French officers replaced some of their soldiers who refused to shoot, while German officers threatened some of their soldiers with the death penalty. But even then, some soldiers did what they could to resistin a tragic last effort to maintain peace. According to one account, “The difficulty began on the 26th, when the order to fire was given, for the men struck…Finally, the officers turned on the men with ‘Fire, or we do—and not at the enemy!’ Not a shot had come from the other side, but at last they fired, and an answering fire came back, but not a man fell. ‘We spent that day and the next,’ said Herr Lange, ‘wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.’”

On December 29, the German army issued an order forbidding all fraternization, which would be considered high treason (which carries the death penalty). But still ordinary soldiers tried to maintain peace with their real comrades on the other side of the trenches. As a German message to the British trenches said, “Dear Camarades, I beg to inform you that is forbidden us to go out to you, but we will remain your comrades. If we shall be forced to fire we will fire too high.”

As Brown and Seaton document, “In certain sectors the mood inspired by the events of Christmas lingered on with incredible stubbornness… It can reasonably be claimed that the Christmas truce lasted in places almost to Easter, but there is also little doubt that by Easter it was over and done with, consigned to history, a thing of the past. The long truce was finally broken, after a little over a hundred days.”

From spontaneity to organization
The Christmas truce came only five months into a 52 month war that killed 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians; if soldiers had succeeded in maintaining the peace they would have saved millions of lives. But they were unorganized and up against a military command that used threats of execution to restore order. As the German army commanded in the lead up to Christmas 1915: “Any attempt at fraternizing with the enemy (agreement not to fire, mutual visits, exchange of news, etc) such as occurred last year at Christmas and New Year at several points on the Western Front, is strictly forbidden; this crime will be considered as verging on high treason. General HQ have issued instructions, dated the 12th December, that fire will be opened on every man who leaves the trench and moves in the direction of the enemy without orders, as well as on every French soldier who does not make it clear that he is a deserter.”

It took three more years of slaughter for the spontaneous instinct of the truce to become an organized opposition to war—including mutinies in the French army in April 1917, a revolution in Russia in October 1917 and a revolution in Germany in November 1918 (which gave us Remembrance Day). Similar organization—outside and inside the military—ended the Vietnam War, as a panicked US Colonel wrote in the Armed Forces Journal in 1971: By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse… Widespread conditions among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army’s Nivelle mutinies of 1917 and the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.”

The centenary of the Christmas truce reminds us of the real roots of war, the potential resistance from rank-and-file soldiers, and the importance of an organized anti-war movement. This holiday season support war resisters and the campaign for Peace & Prosperity not War & Austerity. And for a holiday movie watch Joyeux Noel

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Breaking the code about WWII

Building support for the latest US war, Hollywood seems bound by a code to produce at least a movie a year glorifying World War II by portraying the Allied countries as bastions of human liberation. By telling the true story of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game has broken the code.

Turing was a British mathematician who worked at Bletchley Park, a secret centre for cryptographers who were trying to break the German Enigma code—allowing the Allies to read Nazi military communications. By designing a machine that could rapidly process information, Turing broke the code—which ended the war an estimated two years sooner, saving millions of lives—and through the process laid the foundation for modern computers.

How was Turing rewarded? The British state drove him to suicide, and wrote him out of history, for being gay. He was persecuted in 1952 with the same law that destroyed Oscar Wilde, avoided prison only by agreeing to be chemically castrated, and ate a cyanide-laced apple in 1954 (urban legend claims Apple’s original logo of a rainbow apple is an homage to Turing).

Reviving Turing
The Imitation Game intertwines Turing’s early life as a schoolboy, his work breaking the code, and his post-war persecution. Benedict Cumberbatch could win a well-earned Oscar for his portrayal of Turing, and took the role in order to restore Turing’s place in history. As he explained, “The feeling you have for the man after getting to know him through the duration of the film is really exacerbated by the frustration and anger, not just at the injustice served him, but also at the fact that, why don’t I know this story? It seems unbelievable that someone who is a war hero, someone who is the father of the modern computer age—and a gay icon—could remain in such relative obscurity to the scale of his achievements in his brief time on this planet. One of the main reasons I was really attracted to playing him was to try and bring his story to as wide an audience as possible.”

Bringing Turing to the big screen is a process that has taken decades. In 1983 Andrew Hodges wrote his biography, Alan Turing: the Enigma, which was adapted for the stage—and portrayed by the brilliant Derek Jacobi in the 1996 BBC film Breaking the Code (available on Youtube). In 2011 the new screenplay was voted the top of the Hollywood Black List—representing the best unproduced films in Hollywood—and was finally released this year.

Bringing Turing’s life to film has been part of a campaign to challenge his persecution. In 2009 the British government issued a posthumous apology but in 2012 refused to pardon him—and the other 49,000 gay men criminalized under the former law. Justice Minister, Lord McNally, claimed, “A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offense.” The Queen issued a royal pardon to Turing last year, but as Cumberbatch said, “It’s an insult for anybody of authority or standing to sign off on him with their approval and say, ‘Oh, he’s forgiven.’ The only person who should be (doing the) forgiving is Turing, and he can’t because we killed him. And it makes me really angry. It makes me very angry.”

The film also has a strong performance from Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, who worked at Bletchley and was briefly engaged to Turing. (The BBC mini-series The Bletchley Circle is another recent attempt to recount the role of women cryptographers, including the sexism after WWII that drove them back into the home.) The Imitation Game has been criticized for over playing their relationship and not showing Turing’s relationships with men (unlike the 1996 film). The film also reinforces the myth of the solitary genius, ignoring the role of Polish code-breakers in providing their initial work on Enigma to the British.

WWII: the good war?
As Cumberbatch said, “To think that a society and a democracy—that Turing could save from fascism in the second World War—rewarded him with that (punishment) is the most sickening irony of all.” But this irony pervades the history of WWII. Films that glorify WWII use the horrors of Nazism to obscure an understanding of how fascism arose, whitewash the history of the Allied countries, and pave the way for more Western intervention.

Fascism did not emerge from the deranged mind of Hitler but from the economic crisis of capitalism (which has reappeared and giving rise to new fascist parties across Europe), and the defeat of the workers’ movement in challenging it. Before WWII it was clear what the Allies thought of Hitler: Ford and General Motors collaborated with the Nazis, Hitler was Time Magazine’s “man of the year,” and Germany was rewarded with the Olympics. When Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King met Hitler in 1937 he described him as “one who truly loves his fellow man.” While many on the left supported the fight against fascism in Spain in the 1930s, the future Allied powers had a policy of non-intervention—while those who went to fight fascism in Spain were labeled “premature anti-fascists.”

WWII has been called a “war for freedom and democracy,” but at the time the US was running it apartheid Jim Crow system, Canada has its concentration camps—the residential schools—and both countries interned families of Japanese descent, and turned away boats of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. Canada had the same homophobic laws as Britain, criminalized abortion and had eugenics programs in BC and Alberta based on forcible sterilization. Meanwhile Britain and France were repressing their colonies while sending their soldiers to die. (France belatedly acknowledged the role of Algerian soldiers, documented in the movie Days of Glory). The Allies refused to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, and carried out their own atrocities—from the firebombing of Dresden to the atomic bombing of Japan.

After the war the US recruited Nazi scientists like Werner von Braun, while Britain supported fascists in Greece. The WWII mythology around Churchill erases the rest of his career, including sending troops against British miners in 1910, using chemical weapons against Iraqis in 1920, and after WWII supporting fascists in Greece. As a recent article in The Guardian pointed out, Churchill “switched allegiances to back the supporters of Hitler against his own erstwhile allies.”

The Imitation Game leaves the impression that the persecution of Alan Turing was an isolated abnormality in an otherwise noble war effort—instead of a symptom of imperial rivals bombing each other while repressing their own citizens. But by breaking the official code of WWII, The Imitation Game encourages us to learn more, and to challenge the bigotry on which war depends.