All posts filed under: Human Rights

The Language of Totalitarian Dehumanization

A week before the massive protests erupted in Cuba, I was celebrating Fourth of July at a friend’s house in Oakland, California, and listening to her tell me stories about her adventures there. She is a Jewish red diaper baby and today seems to identify as some sort of “libertarian socialist.” I found myself squirming as she enthused about the Left radicals she knows, and lamented the persecution of communists in the US. During the years of McCarthyite paranoia, American communists did indeed have their reputations, careers, and occasionally their lives ruined. A few were sent to prison, and in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of spying for Stalin and executed. I wanted to point out that the persecution of communists by communists during the Cold War was far worse, and that the Rosenbergs were in fact guilty, unlike the millions of people murdered or worked to death in Gulags by Stalin for allegedly operating as Trotskyist or Western agents or spies. Still, I was a guest in my friend’s home, so I …

On the Dangers of Big COVID

Since initial reports of the coronavirus outbreak in late 2019, America has witnessed a rapid and unprecedented transformation within nearly every aspect of mainstream society. At work, many Americans settled into their new daily routines of working from home, hunched over computer screens for hours of caffeine-supported Zoom calls frequently followed by app-delivered box dinners. In elementary schools throughout the country, young children began growing accustomed to wearing masks while sitting in socially distanced cubicles to learn about the dangers of hugging, shaking hands, or breaking social distancing protocols. In organs of government, state governors around the country invoked various emergency measures to help better curtail nonconforming human behaviour; from doling out stiff fines and penalties to non-compliant small business owners, to offering monetary incentives for snitching on one’s own neighbors, to surveilling parks and beaches with aerial drones, to conducting police raids on non-socially-distanced children’s birthday parties, to imposing $1,000 fines for those citizens refusing to wear a mask. On television, radio, and social media, daily reports from federal, state, and local medical experts …

The Prophet of Dystopia at Rest: Margaret Atwood in Cuba

Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. ~Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale As a Cuba scholar, a student of literature and politics, and an enthusiastic reader of Margaret Atwood’s work, I have collected articles and media clips over the years related to the Grande Dame of CanLit’s many private and official visits to Cuba. Frankly, the file is thin. Generally, scholars engage with her important body of work (more than 60 books, fiction and non-fiction), without mentioning this topic. It is an interesting footnote, no more. Why interesting? Because it illustrates, in her case and as a pattern, how an inquiring mind sincerely committed to human rights and democratic values can turn off its critical antennae. Atwood allowed herself to become a compliant guest in a country that checks almost all the boxes of totalitarianism, minus extensive terror: a single-party state, no rule of law, arbitrary arrests (2,000 of them during the first eight months of last year), stultifying media (even Raúl Castro says so), and a regime of censorship …

The Route to Re-Enchantment

The modern world cries out for definition. But only a handful of thinkers have been bold enough to answer the call, searching for that overarching essence which distinguishes the modern age from all that came before it. What does it mean to be Modern, as opposed to Medieval or Early Modern? Max Weber, the German sociologist, landed on the idea of Entzauberung, or disenchantment, when more than a century ago, he asked himself that question. Borrowed from Friedrich Schiller, the term disenchantment was meant by Weber to capture what it meant to live in the early 20th-century West, with its bureaucratic systems and secular rationalist values. This was a culture which, after the Enlightenment, had outgrown piety and religious myths. Past cultures, honouring their local religious stories, certainly regarded the world as “a great enchanted garden”; but modernisation was the process of replacing these bygone charms with the rational administration of society by scientifically minded bureaucrats. Science and reason, thought Weber optimistically, would guarantee freedom for the citizens of this disenchanted world. Weber had no …

The ‘Gender Supremacist’ Threat to the Progressive Alliance: Part One of a Three-Part Series

There have always been conflicts within the LGBT+ community. But the recent capture of Western political and cultural institutions by a faction of radicalized transgender activists presents a more existential type of crisis. The backlash against this clique’s overreach, which we are already beginning to observe, won’t be felt merely by the LGBT+ movement in whose name these activists present their demands, but by progressive causes more generally. Gender supremacists (as I call them) seek to entirely replace sex with gender as a legal category, an unpopular project that is squandering decades of hard-won LGBT+ social capital; contradicts the arguments that led to our most important policy victories; alienates our allies (especially in the women’s movement); and redefines gays and lesbians in a way that effectively erases us out of existence. To be clear: Trans people should have the same rights as everyone else to live openly, freely, and safely. Gender identity and expression deserve legal protection under human-rights and anti-hate-crime laws. I am not arguing that the LGBT+ community’s component groups and their progressive …

Lesbians Aren’t Attracted to a Female ‘Gender Identity.’ We’re Attracted to Women

There is commonly held to be a difference between a sexual preference and a sexual orientation. Sexual preferences include preferences for blondes over brunettes, or macho men over pretty boys. At the more exotic end, they can include predilections for cars, chandeliers, and dalliances with farm animals. None of these are sexual orientations, though. Opinions differ on what makes an orientation an orientation, but my preferred explanation says that for a preference to count as an orientation, it has to be stable in individuals, widespread among the human population, and have a range of relatively important social consequences. Two such orientations are heterosexuality and homosexuality. They are defined in terms of specific patterns of attraction. You are heterosexual if you, a member of one sex, are stably sexually attracted only to members of the opposite sex to you. Alternatively, if you’re stably attracted only to members of the same sex as you, then you’re homosexual. If you’re stably attracted to both sexes, you’re bisexual. In addition to these terms, equally applicable to both males and …

Book Burning at Midnight, May 10th, 1933

At the stroke of midnight on May 10th, 1933, the National Socialist German Students Union ignited a bonfire that—in the American imagination, at least—would never entirely flicker out. Illuminated by floodlights and flames, broadcast live on German radio, filmed by the newsreels, and rewound in archival documentaries ever after, the book burning by the Nazis, a festive confab held at 62 institutions of higher learning throughout Germany, was a picture-perfect metaphor for totalitarian thought control. The origin story for the grandest of the Nazi bonfires is instructive. Staged for the media with all the premeditation of a Nuremberg rally, it was held at the Opera Square in Berlin, between the Opera House and the University of Berlin, two sites formerly dedicated to art and education. In another sign of the times, the event was very much a student-sponsored extracurricular activity. After meeting with like-minded professors and coordinating with Nazi party officials, the students fanned out across Berlin ransacking libraries, book stores, and private collections. On the big night, a raucous procession of 5,000 torch-bearing undergraduates, …

James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature

“The hardest thing in the world to do,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1934 article for Esquire, “is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn and anybody is cheating who takes politics as a way out.” Of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, he quipped, “see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are.” Hemingway was not discounting the political, merely clarifying its relationship to literature. “Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.” Be it a piece …

Australian Indigenous Activists Call Out White Feminism’s Deadly Blind Spot

In March, three Indigenous women flew to Canberra in an attempt to draw attention to a horror story playing out in their communities. These were Alice Springs Deputy Mayor Jacinta Price, who heads up the Indigenous Research Program at the Centre for Independent Studies; and Cheron and Meesha Long, cousins of 15-year-old Layla Leering, who died in 2017 after apparently being sexually assaulted in the Northern Territory. Layla’s death—along with that of two other girls, Fionica Yarranganlagi James and Keturah Cheralyn Mamarika—has been the subject of a coroner’s inquest, and has brought renewed attention to the threat that Indigenous girls and women face within their own communities. Unfortunately, the scope of that attention has been limited, because the narrative of intra-Indigenous abuse is seen as unfashionable to report. Since reporting my own story of childhood sexual assault, I’ve been closely attuned to the many other survivors who’ve shared their own. I’ve also observed how these stories are variously ignored or signal-boosted according to the political and cultural agenda of journalists and politicians—adding another layer of …

Rinaldo Walcott’s On Property—A Review

A review of On Property by Rinaldo Walcott. Biblioasis, 96 pages (May 25th, 2021) The true founder of civil society was the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying, “This is mine,” and came across people simple enough to believe him. How many crimes, wars, murders and how much misery and horror the human race might have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch, and cried out to his fellows: “Beware of listening to this charlatan. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the earth itself belongs to no one!” Even if most sober-minded readers might dismiss Rousseau’s counter-factual history as a symptom of a dangerous utopianism, his critique of private property has fired the imaginations of radical thinkers and activists since before the French Revolution. While Rousseau himself did not believe we could return to a propertyless state as the “solution” to modernity’s problems, his view of history as a “fall” from …