"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A uniform does not a hero make

Ignore the dust and cobwebs in the corners of the blog, it has been a long time since I've spent much time around here and obviously the whole place needs to be stripped to the wall studs and rebuilt, but that is a project for another night.
No, tonight I want to tug on your coat sleeve about something else. A bunch of related something elses that all connect to an issue that has been bugging me for a long time that seems to be getting more and more out of hand in North America and by extension the rest of the Western world.
It's time we talk about the troops.
The precious, precious troops.
Now, let me be crystal clear: I am not actually talking about actual members of our actual armed forces. By and large, they sign up to do a shitty, often dangerous, usually frustrating and absolutely necessary job that no one else generally wants to do, and I thank them for it. I'm not talking about them, I'm talking about The Troops.
You know, the ones that we must all support by tying ribbons around anything that will hold still long enough. The ones we were supposed to wear red on Fridays to show our support for.  The ones every sports team feels obliged to salute with light shows, colour guards and camouflage team uniforms. The ones we are accused of not supporting if we question the orders they have been given by our idiotic leaders.
The ones who are obviously going to feel so betrayed that they won't be able to aim their weapons for the tears if we don't all march in lockstep, trumpeting our enthusiastic admiration for them every single minute.
Not the ones we refuse to pay a living wage. Not the ones we are nickel and diming to death by letting successive governments screw up equipment procurement until they are riding to war in jets and helicopters and ship and submarines and vehicles that are well past their best-before date while we cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
Not the ones who aren't in combat in Iraq because the government say they aren't, despite regularly engaging in firefights with the enemy and flying sortie after sortie over hostile territory to drop bombs.
No, I'm talking about The Troops. Our glorious, brave, wonderful men and women in uniform whom our dear leader and his followers love and cherish and would never dream of mistreating or using as a political prop to show how tough he is when dealing with international terrorists or sucking up to allies or posturing in international diplomatic circles.
Not the ones who need equipment and decent pay while they are serving, or the ones who might need a pension or medical treatment or mental health counselling or a hand with getting a job and adjusting to civilian life. Not those very real people who fought and spilled their blood in foreign lands and came back damaged and expecting to be treated with a little dignity and respect. Let them drive the extra two or three hours to one of the remaining veterans affairs offices, the government has a budget to balance.
No, I'm talking about The Troops that are so beloved by politicians. The ones that only conservatives really love. The ones we stick those magnetic ribbons on our SUVs for. Those troops.
Those marvellous manly warriors and plucky gals in their magical uniforms that transform them from people who are doing a sometimes dangerous job for crummy pay into the glorious Olympian heroes  whom we all worship (or else, you commie liberal socialist hippie! Whaddya mean you don't think we should be bombing water plants in Iraq? Don't you support the troops?)
Those Troops.
When I was a kid, you didn't hear much about The Troops except on Nov. 11 and every now and then when the Canadian Forces went on a peacekeeping mission - something we do seem to do anymore, since the government decided peacekeeping didn't make them look tough enough or some damn thing.
Back in the 70s and 80s, Canadians didn't feel the need to wave the flag quite so much. We'd brag about how we could wear it on our backpacks anywhere in the world. That was a great trick, because then no one would think we were Americans. And you know what those people are like. No, we were positively smug about not wrapping ourselves in the flag and beating our chests. Every once in while, you'd see a think piece in the Globe and Mail asking why Canadians weren't more openly patriotic, why we didn't wave the flag wide and high like our neighbours to the south. Usually the writer would come to one of two conclusions: either we were really insecure about our national identity and therefore not comfortable strutting around in public waving our still fairly new flag and by the way what is our national identity anyways?; or that we really were patriotic and proud of our country in quiet typically Canadian way, but not so insecure about it that we needed to paint a flag on everything in sight and run around chanting about how we were No. 1 all the time like some people.
Those Remembrance Days back then were all about aging vets from First and Second World Wars and Korea. They were somber occasions with small ceremonies at schools and cenotaphs, not grand national pagents of nationalistic fervour and warrior worship. We didn't talk about how we kicked the Kaiser's ass at Vimy Ridge or opened a can of whup-ass on the Nazis at Monte Casino. We mostly were told -- by the guys who had been there -- that war was a terrible, terrible thing and we shouldn't have them anymore.

Sometime in the late 80s and early 90s this started to change and a large segment of the Canadian population got seduced by aggressive flag-waving, chest-beating nationalism. Maybe it had something to do with the huge flag at the "My Canada Includes Quebec" rally in Montreal before the last referendum, maybe it was the need to top last year's Parliament Hill Canada Day show -- I don't know -- but the fact is, in the last 20 years we have gone from quiet true patriot hearts to loudmouthed, flag-waving, jingoistic nitwits with a maple leaf fetish.

Part and parcel of that has been this growing admiration for The Troops, until it has become non-stop wall-to-wall insistence that we must all worship anyone in a uniform.

It has been building for years, but especially since 9/11, no one in the public eye would ever dare suggest that any police officer -- from Dick Tracey to Barney Fife to Harvey Keitel's bad lieutenant -- is anything less than a paragon of virtue, justice and wisdom as well as a warrior badass who is the only reason we haven't all been murdered in our beds.
Ever since 9/11, no one would ever dare publicly refer to a firefighter -- from the most gung-ho well trained professional to the most inept small-town volunteer -- as anything other than a bona fide Hero.

They have become part of The Troops.

Don't get me wrong, police officers and firefighters (and paramedics and emergency room nurses and snowplow drivers and utilities workers and so many others), like soldiers and sailors and airmen (and airwomen? not sure of the terminology here), sign up to do a shitty, often dangerous, usually frustrating and absolutely necessary job that no one else wants to do and I thank them for it.
But again, I'm not talking about the actual humans who do these vital jobs, I'm talking about the secular totems that the government invokes whenever they need to bathe in some radiated glory.
I'm not talking about the "bad apples," the bullies who hide behind their badge and abuse their power  and beat and arrest honest citizens just because they can (only filthy pinko hippies ever mention them), who cut corners because they can't be bothered to do their job right. I'm not talking about the unionized featherbedderss who hide behind seniority and the indispensable nature of the services they provide to charge the taxpayer all the traffic will bear while putting in minimal effort and working a second job.
I'm not talking about them because they are as common as the genuine honest-to-god heroes are.
I'm not talking about the reality, about flawed humans who mostly do the best they can in awful situations and sometime rise above to do heroic things, but just as often fail with the best of intentions. I'm not talking about the people in uniforms who do the best they can with the few resources they have left after all the endless cost-cutting and layoff to improve efficiency and ensure value for tax dollars.

No, I'm talking about THE TROOPS! Who we must all admire as loudly and as often as possible in the most hyperbolic terms we can muster, because it keeps us from thinking of them as people who are just like you and me.
People who bleed. People who make mistakes. People who might fail. People who might be as flawed as the rest of us. People who we shouldn't be sending into harm's way just to look tough at the next G20 or NATO conference.

THE TROOPS are imaginary. They are a bullshit construct the right has pulled out of the memory hole of the 1940 to use as cudgel anytime anyone disagrees with their creepy authoritarianism. Question why a cop can gun down a teenager who his hands up or why a cop who chokes a man to death or why dozens of cops who needless beat or maced people at peaceful demonstration and suddenly you are accused of hating all cops everywhere.  People in uniform are no different from you and me. They are you and me, the only difference is they volunteered. So let's spend a little less time, money and effort telling each other how great they are and little more time, money and effort taking care of them and making sure they can get their jobs done properly and weeding out the ones aren't worthy of the job and the uniform.

Stop the blind hero worship and prosecute bad cops and war criminals. Stop balancing the budget on the backs of people who are trying to provide essential services. Provide them with the ships and jets and helicopters and search and rescue planes and submarines and basic kit and coworkers they need and pay them a living wage. Live up to our end of the bargain and give them proper pensions and the best physical and mental health care available. Stop excusing lapses in behaviour or performance that would be prosecuted in other fields and stop badmouthing the public servants who don't subscribe to your party's politics. Take these heroes off the pedestal and start treating them like human beings.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

funerals and politics

RIP RCMP Constable David Wynn

Constable Wynn was murdered while performing his duties as a sworn officer of the law and by all accounts was a pretty good guy who leaves behind a wife and children who will never see him again. He was a former paramedic who joined the Mounties and did a nasty, occasionally dangerous, often thankless, probably often frustrating job that the vast majority of us would not care to do and for that he is owed our gratitude. We mourn his passing and grieve for his loss and sympathize with his family.

I got into a bit of a discussion on Twitter tonight about the supposed politicization of Wynn's funeral by the prime minister and it may shock you to see me defend him, at least in part.   I don't think Stephen Harper politicized this funeral any more than any other. I emphatically do not wish to politicize Wynn's death. It is tragic and has little or nothing to do with political issues in Canada. I hope his family can be left to mourn without having to make any pronouncements on public policy or electoral politics.

Wynn was investigating a stolen vehicle when he walked into the wrong place at the wrong time and paid for it with his life. That can happen to police officers and no amount of training, equipment, backup or draconian throw-away-the-keys legal code will ever change that.

Unfortunately to my mind, we have reached the point in our culture where the death of any uniformed public servant requires politicians to respond. Wynn's funeral was attended by both the Prime Minister and the Premier of Alberta along with thousands of police officers from across the Canada and around the world. Such funerals get bigger and bigger as we attach more and more moral superiority to police officers. Wynn was murdered in the line of duty, but even funerals for police officers killed in traffic accidents bring out other officers en masse in a show of solidarity, which is in many ways admirable.

I am, however concerned about the question of politicization. The prime minister and the premier are important people, yes, but the prime minister is not the head of state, nor is the premier the highest official in Alberta. (Where the hell were the Governor General and Lt. Governor?) They attend either out of a sense of sincere solidarity or at the very least to show the voters how much they support law enforcement. The former does not require them to do anything but attend, the latter usually means speeches and crass politicking. To complain publicly about their presence at such an event in the absence of such speeches or politicking is rather like protesting the funeral of a soldier killed in combat because you oppose the war. In such a case, I emphatically do not condemn opposition to war, but I question the appropriateness of the time and place of the protest.

If such speeches are made, if politicians do what they do and try to curry favour by their presence, let them. Let the family mourn. Let the funeral proceed without any further distractions. I would compare it to having an estranged family member or ex-spouse or lover suddenly show up at the funeral of a loved one. Especially if they feel compelled to give their own eulogy about how the deceased wronged them. For me, it is simply pragmatic good manners not to raise a fuss there and then, not to scream and shout and make their unwelcome appearance the one thing that everyone remembers from the funeral. At the same time, there is every reason to show up at the unwelcome party's doorstep the next day and give them all the shit imaginable.

For political reasons, Stephen Harper and Jim Prentice had to attend Wynn's funeral. Their base, and probably their opponents, would never let them forget it if they hadn't. Whether they would have attended if they were not in politics is another, more personal question none of us can answer for them. That said, I do not think that they politicize the event by their simple presence. Whether they deserve to be vilified for their actions the next day depends on their actions. (though given the CPC's track record of issuing a plea for funds to help the Prime Minister fight the evil Muslim terrorists who would murder us all in our beds only hours after the Charlie Hebdo office attacks, one might just wonder about the purity of their motives in such a situation). The coverage I have seen has been limited and none of it mentioned speeches by either politician or any role played by them other than attending the funeral. Whether they attempt to make political hay out of it after the fact remains to be seen, though I have seen enough of this prime minister to have little doubt that he would gladly load Constable Wynn's corpse onto his political bandwagon and parade it through the land if he thought it would get him more than a handful of votes. I hope he proves me wrong, it would be a nice change.


a self-fulfilling paranoia

We are told again and again by various right-wing fantasists and push-button death machine fetishists that the oppressive near-fascist-marxist-Islamist-Freemasonist dark-complexioned devil in their White House will be sending out his jackbooted-New Black Panther Party-hoodie wearing-thugs to pollute our precious bodily fluids with fluoride seize everyone's precious, precious constitutionally-protected guns. Probably from their cold, dead hands, even. And so to stick it to The Man and show the world just how very small their penises are  brave and patriotic they are and that the Black Man in the White House is not the boss of them, these 'responsible gun-owners' have decided to show up at gun-control rallies and fast-food restaurants and coffee shops armed to the teeth. Not with the intention to intimidate anyone, heavens no! They are just exercising their God-given constitutional rights as Americans!

Now, you might think I have a problem with this kind of behaviour, but you'd be wrong. Thinking in terms of the long game, I think it is terrific that these ignorant redneck weapons fetishists brave souls are taking their AK-47s to Starbucks. Because sooner or later, one of these assault-rilfe toting nitwits  is going sufficiently startle the wrong 7-11 clerk or run into the wrong armed mall cop or armoured-car guard and shots will be fired. And then there will be a massive armed response from North America's over-militarized police and a whole bunch of people are going to get dead. And then maybe, just maybe the gun people will start realize they don't need to go around armed to the teeth all the time.......or they will decide that the great second civil war of patriotic citizens against the oppressive socialist government that wants to give all their hard earned money to the moocher class is finally at hand and take up arms against The Man, at which point the U.S. Army will pretty much wipe them out, so y'know...win/win.