Who’s To Blame? Not “The State”

I’ve been having an interesting “discussion” on Twitter regarding the recent uproar over Indigenous kids representing a ridiculously high proportion of children in care being kept from their parents for long periods of time.

At issue in my end of the discussion is the tendency of people upset by this situation to want to blame it on “the state”.

As someone who spent 7 years working with kids and who sat in on various meetings related to child placement in foster care, returning kids to their families, and assessing progress in ‘treatment’ and thereby justifying continued residential care, I find the notion that this is somehow “the state” behaving badly as “the state” somewhat ridiculous.

To begin with I admit my take may be somewhat biased because of my Ontario-centric point of view. Indigenous kids are not as overwhelmingly predominant in Ontario foster care as they are in other provinces- 30% vs 80-90% according to the Macleans article I linked to above. Not only that, but child protection services in Ontario are the purview of Children’s Aid Societies, legally designated NGOs, so not what we normally associate with “the state”.

I have a very clear memory of a series of meetings my agency had with social workers from Children’s Aid as part of the process of having one of our children adopted after years in our care. The CAS people came with profiles and analyses of potential families and we discussed the appropriateness or inappropriateness thereof. There was a lot of disagreement and argumentative discussion about two of the families, the characters of the would-be “moms”, the jobs and attitudes toward child-rearing of the wannabe “dads”.

The third family, however, offered the possibility of a “kumbaya moment” for the two sides in these meetings. Dad was a politician, a sitting provincial MP if I recall correctly, and both the “hippies” from our children’s mental health center and the “bureaucratic authoritarians” from the CAS agreed wholeheartedly that there was no way this child was going to be given over to the sleazoid hypocrisy of a politician for a dad.

I remember leaving that particular meeting feeling vaguely dirty. I was probably the most “hippoid hippy” on our team- and so more or less hated politicians and government and “the state” as a reflex- and yet when I really thought about it, I couldn’t help wondering whether our shared prejudice was what determined the outcome of that discussion rather than any sense of what was actually best for the child. After all, the family was well-off, well-educated and mom was at home to give the kind of time and attention that our soon-to-be former “patient” would doubtlessly need over the next few years.

Our center served a large area of the province because we were viewed as the “last resort” for kids who either couldn’t be cared for by other agencies or who other agencies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole: too violent, too crazy, too little likelihood of progress. I loved most of the people I worked with and respected their attempts to do their best for the children that we worked with. I also loved the kids. It was a rich time for me in many ways and I have been permanently affected by my experiences with the people I met and worked with, children and adults alike.

But by the time I left I was disappointed in how we worked with our kids and their families.

ADHD was in the process of “being invented” and so more and more our kids were being medicated. I entered the field in the dying days of psychoanalytic influence in treatment modalities. We read Erikson and Anna Freud, attempted to generate a treatment approach based on a combination of Erikson and Piaget, and most of us believed that the Browndale approach to retrogression therapy, while flawed and potentially dangerous, was nevertheless essentially correct in its understanding of how our kids had been damaged by toxic relationships. Using Ritalin and antipsychotics to mask symptoms and suppress behaviour was chemical imprisonment, not therapy.

I spent years campaigning to put an end to “therapeutic holding”, first in my unit and finally in the agency. Around the time I left, the ministry issued guidelines that therapeutic holding was to be avoided. I have no idea how consistently that has been upheld or whether in fact another change in the weather has led to holding making a comeback in therapeutic spaces. I hope not. The line between ‘therapeutic holding’ and corporal punishment is one that is too fine to be left up to the momentary judgement of an adult who has just been spat upon and is being told to go fuck his mother.

But perhaps most significant was my recognition that all of our jobs- CCWs, social workers, psychiatrists, pediatricians- were dependent on kids remaining in treatment. I can’t recall the number of times I or someone else asked at an assessment meeting when we were going to finally acknowledge that one or another of our kids was “done” and ought to go home. Occasionally someone would joke that if we let them all go we’d all be out of work.

It seemed that someone, often the designated case worker, was always arguing that either the child or the family were just not ready. If the kid seemed to no longer need our support, then it was noticed that on return from home visits he was antsy or depressed. If mom was back in a stable relationship and no one was drinking to excess in the new family home, then there was a fear that everything would fall apart if our kid was sent back to live in that environment. The child would ruin the family’s progress or the family would ruin the child’s.

Most of the children I worked with from 1974 till 1980 stayed in treatment for at least 3 or 4 years, some longer. When we opened up an adolescent unit some of our kids just “graduated” from our center to the other unit. Saying goodbye to the majority of kids we had had in care for most of the workers was always a wrenching experience. It seems that being kicked in the shins almost daily for years on end can be a stimulus for a kind of love that I can still feel at a distance of ten thousand miles and almost forty years.

Some of our kids we tried to place in foster homes, but were rarely successful for the same reasons other treatment centers and agencies had passed on the kids we treated. I can honestly say I never met a foster parent I liked. Often they were moralistic Christians who you just knew were going to be into “spare the rod”, even if the “rod” in question was just going to be harsh words and time outs and constant criticism and preaching. It was also obvious to me that financial supplement to family income was often the real motive behind fostering and I don’t care how small the stipend is or was. I have never been a fan of “good intentions” and I doubt my view of foster parents would change much if I were to get back involved in the system now.

At one point after I left the agency and was studying at university, I ran into financial difficulties and tried working in a group home for adolescents. I lasted about two weeks if I recall and was just about ready to start a movement to have the private company running the chain of homes shut down. It was so much not what I expected from my years as what I came to realize had been spent as a prima donna CCW in a well-funded treatment center that I was in a state of outrage for months. The kids were no problem but my coworkers, my “supervisor”, and the corporation itself were a travesty. All of them. Talk about systemic abuse, here was the very definition.

The center that I worked at for six years from ’74 to ’80 was located in my hometown. I noticed at one point that out of the 18 boys we had in residence, roughly 70% of them came from the neighborhood that I grew up in. None of the other workers had grown up there and I often felt that my distinctly working-class background set me apart from my coworkers, especially where judging the appropriateness of certain behaviours was concerned. What was normal and necessary for my brother and I and all of our friends growing up and living on the streets of our neighborhood was nothing more or less than pathological for my coworkers and especially for the solid bourgeoise who came in as consulting psychiatrists and pediatricians at regular intervals.

So, yes. The state. We were established and funded under the Ministry of Health when I started and had been moved under the Ministry of Community and Social Services by the time I left. Every year we had to shop like madmen to spend our budget on new canoes and tents and backpacks because we couldn’t afford to lose funding for the next year. At some point we started having problems with getting our kids out of our in-house classrooms and into regular classes at local schools because a funding battle was looming with Boards of Education making moves to take over responsibility for all special ed service provision. Some kids died on a canoe trip organized by some agency so word came down from the Ministry that we had to start cutting back and reconsidering our focus on outdoor programs.

When they started closing “reform schools” in Ontario we were more or less commanded to hire one or two people from those facilities but the philosophy and approach of people in corrections could not have been a worse fit with an agency built on treatment approaches. One of the people we hired was let go within a year because I had initiated a campaign to have him fired for abusing one or two of the kids. “The state” made us hire him and we decided to fire him. And that is a paradigm case for the relation between our agency and this “state” that so many people want to blame for Indigenous kids being taken and kept away from their parents. “The state” mandates that children be protected and sanctions certain powers to be exercised by those working in agencies established to enact that protection, but the individual agencies and workers make all the decisions within that broadly established mandate.

There is a series of tweets from @DepencyLaw that I think get at exactly why it is absurd and vaguely infantile to identify “the state” and the currently popular “systemic racism” as the ultimate cause of the problems experienced by Indigenous families in this regard:thread

It seems to me impossible to read that series of tweets, which corresponds to what I observed very closely, and see it as confirmation that it is somehow “the state” which is responsible. Workers and their agencies are empowered by the state but not directed by the state to behave in the way that series of tweets suggests is common. You don’t blame automobiles for the accidents their drivers cause and this is not a case of “the state” somehow mistreating citizens. It is citizens of one race and class mistreating citizens of another race and class.

It is very far from fashionable to point to “classism” in a discussion of “racism” in the contemporary environment, just as it is anathema to point to individual responsibility and moral/ethical failings when a handy “state” can be blamed for “systemic racism”.

But fashion and genuine understanding are far from the same thing.

As long as there is such a thing as Child Protective Services mandated by Child Protection Legislation there is going to be discrimination based on race and class, not because the state embodies systemic racism or classism but because the definitions involved in establishing what constitutes a “safe” environment, “potential for harm” and “nurturance and care” are always and inevitably going to be expressions of class and culture.

In the end, the only way to avoid the horror of a mother and her children being kept apart for a decade by “well-intentioned” social workers is to dismantle any and all legal systems backed by state power that permit such things to happen with state sanction. There is no “tweaking” these agencies so that race and class will no longer matter as long as they are staffed by human beings.

Just as there is no chance that children are not going to be abused and neglected by their parents as long as their parents are recognized as sovereign within the family structure.


Canayjun, eh?

I don’t know much Canadian history. I’ve tried but always found it boring. I don’t find it necessary to apologize for that and neither do I agree that it invalidates any opinions I may have regarding social issues in Canada.

I don’t know much about First Nations people in Canada. The few times I’ve made the attempt to correct that I get annoyed and bored in equal measure. I am put off by mythologized “histories” of people who had no written language and no historical tradition beyond the “oral tradition” and its “stories”. I find notions of “racial guilt” passed down through generations of such indefensible constructs as “white people” to be offensive in the extreme- intellectually and morally offensive.

I have no problem accepting the truth and relevance of the history of treaties signed and treaties broken that characterizes much of the history of relations between the “Crown” and various indigenous peoples in Canada. As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies and a healthy mistrust of the state and the middle-class people who administer it, it would surprise me if the history of treaty relations were any different.

I have no problem accepting that the issue of the Residential Schools which has come to act as a cynosure in the discussion of indigenous rights in Canada is an issue whose real history is replete with abuse of all kinds. As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies who spent 7 years of his life working in what were once known as children’s “mental health centres” I have no difficulty accepting that in such institutions as the residential schools there will be adults whose wielding of power will result in sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children. I look back with pride on the one occasion when I worked hard to have a coworker fired for what eventually people in authority in our agency agreed was abusive treatment of some of the children in our care.

I do, however, have a problem with “blood and soil” approaches to politics and identity. As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies I find the sacralization of land and culture and racial identity that characterizes so much of the discussion around indigenous issues offensive. “Blood and soil” is often a shorthand phrase used to refer to a predominant aspect of fascist, specifically Nazi, ideology and I use it here fully conscious of that fact.

Private property is theft. Leaving aside the utter unreality of mouthing such a principle in the world we live in, it is nevertheless a guiding principle in any approach to socialist ideation. We hear often that the indigenous peoples of North America did not have a notion of private property and this is often emphasized when we are discussing the pre-colonial idyll that European invasion and conquest interrupted. For indigenous people to attempt to grab and hold parcels of land and the various mineral and other rights associated with it on the basis of never having held a notion of property rights is odd, to say the least.

As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies I have come to accept that in the case of a country like Canada it is probably true that the best we can hope for in the 21st century is a defense of the liberal democratic system that is laid out in the constitution and the charter of rights and freedoms.

There are things in our constitution and our charter that I disagree with, specifically those which provide for “group rights” and those which provide for the protection of the “cultural practices” of identified minorities like the indigenous peoples. I believe fervently that wherever or whenever “group rights” or traditional “cultural practices” infringe on the rights of individuals, the rights of the individual must always take precedence.

Just as I find it offensive and absurd to refer to the “two founding peoples” of Canada as if their predominance in the early days of the establishment of modern Canada gave them some special status, I find it offensive and absurd to assert that the people who were on “Turtle Island” before Europeans arrived should have some special status.

As an atheist I object to any and all special treatment for religions and religious institutions. I object to government funding of religious schools, as happens in the case of Ontario and Catholic schools, and I object to the tax-free status of any and all religious organizations. I don’t want “prayer spaces” to be made available for Muslim students in public schools and I don’t want Christian theology or Native Spirituality taught in public schools. From my point of view, one woman’s “oogy-boogyism” is as absurd and counterproductive as any other man’s.

I believe that freedom of speech and thought and opinion and belief are the bedrock of the minimal good that is provided by liberal democratic institutions like Canada’s charter. I also believe that these freedoms are under attack from many sides in contemporary democracies like Canada.

“Hate speech” legislation is bad enough but it at least requires lengthy and unwieldy legal procedures to be implemented. The censorship algorithms and the “algorithmic chanting of racism-sexism-transphobia” that are more and more coming to dominate in social media, thereby arbitrarily limiting debate on issues of pressing importance in free societies, are more likely to act as the death of liberal democracy than the protection of the minorities they ostensibly set out to protect.

The virtue-signaling crowd who most definitely dominate discourse in Canada are not interested in debate or discussion of any kind. They know what is right and, probably more importantly, who is right. Neither are they interested in the “democracy” half of the liberal-democracy equation, because that involves a recognition that each and every single person in the country is equal to each and every other single person, regardless of colour, creed or level of education.

I think it is a shame and a troubling sign of things to come that “the left” has abandoned the notions of freedom of thought and belief and expression to the scheming, devious buggers on the right, because dimes will get you dollars that the day will come when all of the virtuous refusals to allow for the free play of thought and expression wielded presently by the authoritarian “good” people of the contemporary “left” will become justification for the absolute shutdown of dissidence by the authoritarian right.



I’ve always liked Lady Gaga.

In spite of the fact that her “friend of the marginalized” routine was done better by David Bowie and Madonna, she has always seemed like a genuine pop talent. It’s hard not to like Just Dance.

I will say though that Born This Way struck me immediately as a ripoff of Express Yourself and so maybe it would be better to say I used to like Lady Gaga.

Taking a bit of persona from Madonna and Bowie is one thing; blatant plagiarism is another altogether.

I wish now that I’d gone to see Madonna when she came to Bangkok doing that sarky mashup of the two songs as a way of letting everyone know what she thought of the bitch stealing her music.

And then came the recent Democratic primary. Both Lady and Madonna came out for the warmongering Saudi supporter Hillary Clinton and blew all respectability right out their celebrity asses.

I mean, Margaret Thatcher was a woman too, right? She who destroyed British unions and led the Anglosphere charge into atomistic neoliberalism? She didn’t so much break a glass ceiling as smash a champagne bottle and shove it right up the workers.

But the show Gaga just did for the ever-tawdry SuperBowl was the last straw.

After showing up in Michael Jackson’s Prussian drum major outfit at a Hillary rally and causing a TwitStormFuhror over her apparent Nazi appearance, it was hard not to read her mouthing God Bless America against a backdrop of drones rendering Old Glory in a night sky subtly reminiscent of Baghdad back in March ’03 as a paean to the perpetual fascism that is and has been America since The Donald was just a lad.

I don’t really care who’s land that land is or who it was made for. It sends its sons and daughters of all races and sexual orientations to kill kids wherever brown folks live in relative poverty.

And celebrating that puts Lady Gaga right up there with Leni Riefenstahl, except of course that Leni was blessed with a brilliant visual sense and Gaga’s choreographers on this occasion could only have been blind.

Trump(ets) of Doom

February 3 2017

These two tweets are a perfect distillation of one of the many things ailing “the left” these days:

It’s possible that Murtaza isn’t old enough to know what the “decades of struggle” he is talking about were actually about. They were not about getting racist speech out of the public sphere. They were about voting rights and discrimination in housing and employment.

One of the side effects was to make public expression of racism impolite and extremely unattractive and uncool.

People like Murtaza apparently think it’s the side effects that matter. And that politics can be conducted as a class in deportment and etiquette, and so long as saying racist things is uncool, all is right with the world.

Question: What if they instituted a new Jim Crow and no one ever said the n-word?

Islamic Exceptionalism: Challenging Liberal Universalism


Living in Thailand for the past decade has changed me or, if not ‘me’ exactly, my view of the world, human nature, and the role and relevance of history and culture in shaping both.

To be more precise, these changes started when I first became interested in reading Japanese history some 25 years ago, which led to an exploration of Chinese history and then Korean history, and on and on. A visit to in-laws in Japan combined with a rock climbing holiday in Thailand in 1998 introduced me to the Asia I had only read about in history books and online forums like Dead Fukuzawa Society and soc.cult.japan. Eight years later I decided to move to Asia, choosing Thailand as a base.

An interest in Thai politics has led me to question the universality of liberal values. Not that my belief in individual rights, human rights, equality before the law, or democracy and the rule of law have wavered even a little. I have simply come to accept that not all people who do not share my liberal faith are either evil or tragically mistaken, brainwashed or otherwise abusively coerced into denying the tenets of contemporary liberalism. It’s a difficult thing to communicate to liberals, this questioning of the universality of our values, not least because one of those values appears to involve the celebration of diversity and tolerance.


One of the recurring obsessions in the expat community in Thailand is a question regarding “real Buddhism”. The commercialism, materialism and nakedly hierarchical class divisions that are on display in daily life here apparently give the lie to Thailand’s claim to being a Buddhist society and culture for many foreign observers of Thai life.

Only ever half-seriously, I sometimes point out that looking at the origin stories of Buddhism and Christianity should be sufficient to explain why so many of the children of liberalism, itself, arguably, a child of Christianity, are shocked by the venality and illiberalism of Buddhists and Buddhist societies, preferring instead to privilege the version of Buddhism that they have absorbed through books written for westerners, often by westerners, that have become recognized as forming a distinct school; i.e., Western Buddhism.

Each of these two very different religions, like Islam, has one primary founding figure:

Jesus of Nazareth, in the most common telling, was born in a barn, surrounded by farm animals, to parents scurrying to register for the first ever imperial census, ordered by Augustus Caesar. After a few years working as a carpenter and debating theology and law in the public square, he took up life as a wandering prophet followed closely by a number of fishermen and at least one former tax collector. He taught the value of every individual life, emphasized the moral superiority of poverty, and performed miracles: healing the sick, feeding the masses, and even bringing the dead back to life. Ultimately seen as a threat to the imperium,  Jesus was put to death by local authorities. The most prominent symbol of Christianity is the image of the body of Jesus hung on the Roman cross, dead or dying. His teachings slowly spread out among mainly poor people in the eastern regions of the Roman sphere, eventually becoming the state religion of the Roman empire.

Siddhartha Gautama, on the other hand, is usually presented as having been born a prince in a minor kingdom in what is now Nepal. Due to a prophecy that his son would become either a great spiritual leader or a great king and soldier, his father the king surrounded young Siddhartha with luxuries and prevented him from having contact with religious notions or with the realities of death and suffering through illness and poverty that might incline him to think about humanity in spiritual terms. On escaping this sheltered life, Siddhartha was so shocked by aging and illness and death that he ran off and lived in the woods as an ascetic till one day he discovered the middle way and started preaching his wisdom. Not long after, various wealthy merchants and kings and other notables wished to be associated with his teachings and granted him tracts of land on which to build a shelter for his monks to remain apart from the world. The usual symbol of Buddhism is Gautama himself, sitting cross-legged with a smile on his face, apparently removed from all human concern through meditation.

So, a poor working-class lad grows up to lead a small band of potentially subversive fishermen and others and is put to death by the oppressive Roman state versus a coddled princeling who grows up to abandon his wife and child in order to gather followers from the upper classes who grant him land and domicile and a long comfortable life. Where Jesus preached the value of human individuals, emphasizing the equality of all, Buddha denied the existence of individuals and taught that we are born into situations determined by our actions in past lives.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, in their beginning is their end, just as in their end is their beginning.


Shadi Hamid, author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World, in a much more serious vein, points to the “founding moment” of Islam as a significant determinant of the problematic nature of Islamic societies and their relationship to the modern nation state. It is what makes Islam “exceptional”:


Islam is different. This difference has profound implications for the future of the Middle East and, by extension, for the world in which we all live. This admittedly is a controversial, even troubling claim, especially in the context of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and Europe. “Islamic exceptionalism,” however, is neither good nor bad. It just is, and we need to understand it and respect it, even if it runs counter to our own hopes and preferences. Second, because the relationship between Islam and politics is distinctive, a replay of the Western model— Protestant Reformation followed by an enlightenment in which religion is gradually pushed into the private realm— is unlikely. That Islam— a completely different religion with a completely different founding and evolution— should follow a similar course as Christianity is itself an odd presumption. We aren’t all the same, but, more important, why should we be?

Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (p. 5). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

Hamid traces this difference to two aspects of Islam’s founding: one, the fact that Mohammed was, besides a prophet through whom god spoke directly, a military leader and, most significantly, a head of state. It follows from this that Islam was necessarily concerned with rules and laws and other elements of the state that Christianity obviously was not. And secondly, Muslims tend to emphasize the inerrancy of the text of the Koran in a way that Christians do not and have not. This is because, unlike Christian scriptures which are acknowledged to have been written by men, albeit inspired by god, the Koran is believed to be the actual words of god as spoken through Mohammed.

Hamid is at pains to emphasize that this “founding moment” does not mean that Islamic political society could never take on the lineaments we associate with liberal modernism, but that it is highly unlikely to do so within any reasonable time frame.

This part of the book, while carefully argued and presented with due circumspection, is open to serious criticism and will not likely find many adherents in any of the communities where this sort of theorizing might be relevant. In many ways, it is a more sophisticated version of the kind of “Just So” story that I presented above.

To begin, there is very little hard evidence that the “founding moment” of Islam as presented here is anything more than a carefully crafted fiction developed over the decades and centuries following the initial surge of Islam out of the deserts of the Arabian peninsula.  Once that has been taken on board, much of what Hamid suggests is a cause may in fact be viewed as a post facto justification that has continued to be useful to authoritarian governments and individuals down to today.

The suggestion that theocratic governments have not characterized Christian history because Jesus himself was not a head of state and was therefore not concerned in his teachings with rules and laws that could be taken directly into a state’s institutional structures ignores the theocratic leanings of the Byzantine Empire and the long intermittent struggle between Rome and western European secular authorities during the middle ages.


Be that as it may, the question of the continuing influence of the founding moment of Islam is not really central to Hamid’s book. It is in his refreshingly personal and anecdotal presentation of contemporary Islamism and Islamists that this book offers its most accessible insights. “Islamic Exceptionalism” provides a number of necessary correctives to our generally blinkered view of political Islam.

Contrary to popular belief, Islamists are, almost by definition, in favor of democratic governance, if by democratic we refer only to the practice of determining governing bodies through the process of elections. As Hamid points out, Islamists are and have long been in a constant state of negotiation with liberals and other secular groups as they develop strategies for involvement in democratic processes of varying degrees within their political communities.

Equally against the grain of common misunderstanding is Hamid’s insistence that rather than being representatives of some atavistic 7th century feudal ideology Islamists are in fact uniquely modern. Given the intrinsic interweaving of religion and governance that characterized centuries of Islamic history, it is only in the modern context that Islamism could stand as one ideological strand among others in competition for power over the problematic nation-states of contemporary Muslim-majority countries.

It is impossible to come away from an honest reading of this book with stereotypes intact and for that alone Hamid is deserving of respect and thanks. But the most substantial sections of the book are those presenting detailed examinations of the recent political histories of three Sunni-majority nations that embody the inherent conflict between Islam and liberalism.


Hamid’s choice of Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia as “case studies” in the problematic clash of Islamism with the nation-state and the implicit “liberal” assumptions that underpin much of its structure is telling in more ways than one, that is to say as much for what it deliberately excludes as for what it so astutely analyses.

The utter failure of Morsi and the Egyptian Brotherhood to hold onto power once elected in the wake of the ouster of Mubarak makes the perfect contrast for the equivocal “success” of Ennahda in Tunisia. Unlike Morsi, who once in power began to renege on promises of moderation, Ennahda actually stepped down after vaulting into the Prime Ministership of a coalition government as a result of the country’s first-ever democratic elections.

In neither of these cases does “democracy” triumph of course. The return of military dictatorship and a harsh, repressive, murderous regime in Egypt is blatantly a failure of democracy to take hold after the ebullience of Tahrir Square. Less obvious but perhaps even more pernicious is the perceived necessity for Ennahda to step down, adopt western dress and, arguably, deliberately “lose” the elections of 2014 in order not to destabilize the country as it struggles to transition to a more democratic model.

As Hamid has made clear in this as well as his earlier work Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, deliberately avoiding victory in democratic elections has long been a survival tactic for Islamist parties well aware of the violent reactions their winning would likely provoke. Anyone who doubts that “liberals” could possibly constitute such a threat would do well to consider Hamid’s description of those who cheered the massacre of Brotherhood supporters on August 14, 2013.

Turkey and the virtually uninterrupted 14-year reign of Erdogan and the AKP is the case most intimately bound up with the West and its liberal ideological pressures. Ostensibly a “secular state” since the Kemalist revolution of 1923, the Turkish state has nevertheless had to walk a tightrope between the people’s undeniable Muslim identity and  the strictures of Kemalism since day one.

In spite of winning election after election, the AKP has always had to recognize limits to its mandate. “Turkey wasn’t a normal democracy. Every day, AKP officials woke up wondering if the army or the courts would move against them.” The constant threat of military or judicial coup goes beyond what liberals normally refer to as “checks and balances”, so regardless of the electorate’s choice of an Islamist party to govern them, Turkey’s democracy is even more severely limited than the usual western liberal democracy with its in-built protections for individuals and minorities against the potentially hostile intentions of the majority.

The way the long drawn-out period of the EU accession process has impacted both Turkish democracy and the AKP is instructive and perfectly illustrative of the ironies that abound when illiberal democratic impulses get filtered through a relationship with powerful liberal states like the EU.

In order for the AKP to confidently govern as an Islamist party, and thus as a less liberal but more democratic one, it had to be assured that the military would no longer function outside civilian control as a sword hanging over the heads of any government mandated to move away from strict Kemalist secularism. At the same time, in order for the Turkish state to meet the demand for liberal reforms that were part and parcel of the move toward EU accession, “the military would have to respect the elected civilian authorities.” As Hamid succinctly puts it, “EU membership, then, became AKP’s most important cudgel against the Kemalist “deep state.””


What is left out in “Islamic Exceptionalism” of course is any treatment of Iran and the decidedly Islamist theocratic state with democratic characteristics that has been in place there for the past 37 years. It is, admittedly, outside the scope of Hamid’s study, partially due to Iran’s “outsider” status (as part of the “Axis of Evil”?) but primarily due to intractable theological differences between the Islamist strains within Sunni Islam and the Shiite “heresy”. As justifiable as this exclusion may be for the purposes of making the study manageable, it nevertheless leaves out a major element of modern Islamic history in regard to attempts to integrate the religion with governance in a modern state.

And while not ignored completely, the vast difference between the development of democracy in other nations outside the Arabic world, like Pakistan and more particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, and how things have worked out in the Greater Middle East is not given anything like its due.

It is hard to ignore the rather obvious reality that how these very different Muslim-majority democracies have interacted with the west, primarily the US, since WWII, goes a long way toward explaining their very different experiences with democratization.

As Hamid points out, both Malaysia and Indonesia display more “Islamist” features, such as sharia ordinances, than most middle eastern nations outside the Wahhabist core of close American allies like Saudi Arabia. Indonesia is recently being hailed as the outstanding democratic success story of the whole of Southeast Asia, in spite of the fact that both Islamist and “secular” administrations at the local level throughout Indonesia institute and enforce a wide variety of Islamist-style legislation.

And this brings us to the most glaring absence in the book, which is simply the role played by American and other western involvement in “problematizing” the relationship between democracy and Islam in the oil-rich region of the Greater Middle East. As I write this review, American arms and American permission have been given to the Saudis and Qataris to reek havoc in Yemen. Neither the Americans nor the Saudi autocrats are comfortable with Islamist democracy in the region, threatening as it does to destabilize western hegemony there.

Regardless of Obama’s snap decision to pull American support from Mubarak at a crucial moment, the residual inertial tendency in American policy was to support a dictatorial regime and avoid any possibility of the chaos of democracy in Egypt, hence the instant recognition of the al-Sisi junta and the hesitation to call a coup a coup.

And although American law demands the suspension of all support for a military that undertakes a coup, within ten months both cash and weapons systems that were initially held back were flowing as usual to the murderous junta. So much for American support for democracy.


I have to admit that my enjoyment of Hamid’s book rests primarily on his careful presentation of an argument that convincingly undermines the assumed universality of liberalism implicit in almost every word spoken or written by westerners when discussing governance and politics anywhere outside the tightly drawn limits of “the west”. Like him, I hold firmly to my faith in the tenets of liberal democracy and cannot imagine ever letting go.

But I no longer believe that my faith is a universal one.

It’s just mine.

But neither do I accept the claim that Islam is exceptional in its resistance to liberalism. I think it is more the case that the “post-reformation west” is exceptional in its affinity for liberalism.

China is not and has never been a liberal state. Japanese “liberal democracy” has many features that are neither liberal nor democratic. India’s oft-celebrated “world’s biggest democracy” would likely not come even close to satisfying the expectations of the children of European or North American liberal democracies no matter how often and how many elections are held. Any suggestion that liberal democracy is about to take hold in any nation in Southeast Asia is a pipe-dream.

That is not to say that many governments around the world are not motivated to put up a facade that satisfies the demand of giant markets like the EU and even more gargantuan militaries like the US for an appearance of liberal democracy before access to the riches of the west will be granted.

It is, however, to suggest that this condition is being eroded in the present time. And if liberal democracies do not begin to tend to their own institutions and procedures, not only will the rest of the world stop pretending to struggle to achieve liberal democracy in order to access their markets, there won’t be any liberal democracies left for them to simulate.

Identity, The Left, and Never “Woke” At All


I think I can quite honestly say that I have never had a political awakening.

As far back as October, 1960, when Richard Nixon was still leading John Kennedy in the polls, I could cite chapter and verse of my dad’s trade union socialist credo when called upon to do so.

At a large Thanksgiving gathering in our tiny house in the poorest neighborhood of Canada’s biggest, grimiest, most heavily-polluted industrial town, my father pushed my 9-year-old self to explain to our guests what was at stake in the upcoming US election.

I launched into a tirade that held that the Republicans were the rich man’s party and that the rich men of this world wanted to take back everything that my father and his union forebears had won for the “working man”. The Democrats, on the other hand, were the party of the “working man” and would defend us and the “negroes”, our natural brothers in the struggle, against the efforts of the rich Republicans to keep us in our places.

That is what I remember most clearly about that somewhat embarrassing display.

My father went on to ask me questions about the characters of Nixon and Kennedy– neither one was a good man, and Kennedy was the spoiled son of a wealthy mafia-connected millionaire thief. So I  was also asked to explain that socialism was the best system, in theory, but since it had never been, and likely never would be, given the opportunity to work out in the real world we had to settle for people like Kennedy and the Democratic party.

When one of the men asked me about Canadian politics, I told him that the Progressive-Conservatives and the Liberals were more or less the same as the Republicans and that the New Democratic Party was the party of the unions and the “working man”.

By the time I was 12 or 13, I understood just how deeply alienated my father was from his family and from most of the people who’d politely listened to my harangue.

I also understood how much my mother hated my father’s politics and his “unrealistic” attachment to his union, first and foremost due to his having turned down the offer of a foreman’s job because it would have meant becoming a “company man”. (To my mother it would have meant more money and getting out of debt.) But there was also how angry everyone became when my father started going on about “the working man” after a bottle (or a dozen bottles) of beer.

Where we spent many weekends, and sometimes even weeks, during summers was on the banks of the Grand River, some 30 miles outside Hamilton, where my father’s mother had a one-room cottage built next to her older sister’s “house”. On “our” stretch of the river there were five small cottages, four like my nan’s that were occupied only from spring till autumn, and my great-aunt’s permanent home which it always frightened me to enter. Our nan’s place was in the middle of the five.

On the far side of Aunt Nell’s house was a cottage that was often rented to a black couple from Buffalo, New York. On the far side of my uncle’s cottage was a cottage owned by a family from Welland, Ontario, who were often joined by a family from Buffalo, New York, especially on American holiday weekends.

Two things have stayed in my mind about the people from Welland and Buffalo in that cottage: first, Susie, a girl my own age from Buffalo, was my first serious and seriously painful “crush”; secondly, they all, Canadians and Americans alike,  hated the black couple in the cottage at the other end of our strip and resented my father for constantly wandering over to have a chat with the man and for sending my brother and I over with gifts of freshly caught catfish. My father told me that black people ate catfish even though we didn’t and we shouldn’t let them go to waste.

My father eventually lost his steward’s position in his local and became disillusioned with  the refusal of his generation to commit to the union movement, but not before he went up against the leadership by using union funds to charter a bus and take a load of Canadian machinists to Washington, DC to attend the March on Washington in 1963. I don’t think my mother had any idea where he had gone and we all only heard about it when he got back.

In those years, I loved to sit with my father while we watched the news and pepper him with questions. In memory, the early 60s was a time of heightened possibilities all round: Tommy Douglas leading the federal NDP, the Kennedy administration, the Civil Rights movement, my beloved Tiger Cats constantly in the Grey Cup and, of course, Cassius Clay. I have a distinct recollection of my father actually getting me out of bed to watch news clips of him winning gold as a light-heavyweight in Rome, but that might not be quite right.

Nevertheless, by 1966 my father and I had drifted so far apart that we hardly ever spoke at all, and the only thing we held in common was a respect verging on reverence for Muhammad Ali, so even though the longer my hair got the more I disliked boxing as a sport, I would sit silently in the living room with my equally silent dad and watch Ali fight. Maybe that’s why the boxing matches I remember best are those Ali fought against Canadian George Chuvalo and England’s Henry Cooper.

When Ali refused to go to Vietnam and either did or did not say the famous lines about the Viet Cong, my father and I had our last shared moment of political solidarity. And when I whooped and praised the American runners for making the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics a silence descended between us that would not be broached for a decade.

The grandmother, my nan, whose cottage on the Grand was the site of so many treasured and not-so memories from my earliest days, came to Canada on an “assisted passage” in 1910 at the age of 12 and went to work immediately in a cotton mill to begin to pay off the half of her ticket cost that her older sisters had not been able (or willing?) to afford. When the government inspectors came into the mill looking for evidence of child labour, my nan was hidden along with the other children somewhere in the machinery.

Her husband died on the loading dock at Eatons in Hamilton when my father was sixteen years old and dreaming of becoming an engineer. He quit high school to work in a factory to support his mother and older brother and sister, neither of whom was prepared to do so.

My mother worked in a cotton mill until I was five and my brother two. Her mother had died of cancer when she was 16 and her father was in England wooing the woman who would come home to Canada with him as my mother’s step-mother. This made her so angry that she left home and  I never really knew I had a grandfather until I was twelve years old.

I grew up across the street from another cotton mill, falling asleep every night for the first 6 years of my life to the humming of the spinning machines and often wondering how it was that my mother worked in a spinning mill but not the one behind the Frost fence across the street from our house.

The point of all this is to suggest that whether or not it seems either likely or possible to contemporary “identitarians”, I was raised anti-racist and have remained anti-racist to this day.

I don’t suffer from “white liberal guilt”, as is often charged by racists (usually attempting to deflect an accusation of racism by me), and neither do I feel the need to temper either my thought processes or my way of expressing myself, as is often demanded by the avatars of the “political correctness” that I myself helped formulate in the early  80s as a campus “activist” involved in various aspects of “left politics” as they manifested at that time.

I come from a solidly (and unusually consciously) working-class background, have been one kind or another of socialist-lefty-radical since I was too young for that to mean anything and I have never had a moment’s regret or doubt about either element of what I suppose I would have to say is my identity. There are many other aspects of that identity but those are what you might call foundational.