Africville Relocation Report and the sale of St. Pat’s

The #9 bus picks up passengers in the part of Halifax formerly known as Richmond, near what once was Africville, and drives along Barrington Street towards downtown. On the way it passes the Irving Shipyards and a navy base. Across the harbour, on the Dartmouth waterfront there are three huge red and white striped smoke stacks of a gas burning power plant and near the harbour’s mouth sits the borg-like maze of pipes which is an oil-refinery. Each morning when I take that bus to work downtown I’m conscious that everything which is wrong with the world is present right here in little old Halifax.

The military-industrial complex occupies the majority of Halifax’s waterfront. Side by side they sit: the navy who, under Stephan Harper’s command, have awarded a huge contract to their neighbour Irving Shipyard to build fleets of warships. It was largely through the growth of these industries that the black community which had been established here two hundred years ago was forced to move into ghetto housing while their homes were torn down and paved over.

Recently I stumbled on “The Africville Relocation Report” by Donald H. Clairmont and Dennis W. Mcgill in the Halifax North Memorial Public Library and spent a couple afternoons reading it, learning a lot about how the decision was made to appropriate that land. The situation looked like this: the north end of Halifax near the Bedford Basin had been set aside for everything which the ‘fathers of Halifax’ did not want in their neighborhoods: a garbage dump, a prison, and a hospital for infectious diseases. Though a black community had been there almost since the time when British soldiers had built a fort here in 1749 and gradually extended a city around this military outpost, city council had done nothing to provide services for them from that time till 1962 –when council began to seriously debate what to do about ‘the slums by the dump,’ as a Halifax counsellor referred to what former residents emphatically remember as a thriving and loving community.  In the late fifties there had been talk of needing to appropriate more land along the harbour and basin for industrial purposes –building warships and another shipping port.

Though the Africville Relocation Report makes it clear that council already had eyes on Africville to open the land to industrial usage, connect roads, and extend the city’s urban plan, much of the debate in council between 1962-64 was framed altruistically as being concerned for what was best for the residents of Africville. Members of council argued that since most of the houses were in poor condition; since there was no sewage, running water, or electricity; since there was a network of paths between houses rather than a grid of streets; and since many of the claims of property ownership were unclear and problematic, that it would be best for the residents to be moved to a new location instead of providing basic services to those citizens in their chosen homes. Africville residents themselves surely did not want to move. They just wanted warm homes, clean water, to be able to sing in their own church and swim at their own beach.

Now, two hundred years after the British promised American slaves that they could be free on their own land if they fought in the War of 1812 –which was when many of the ancestors of Nova Scotian black people settled here, Halifax’s black community is again being slighted by Halifax Regional Council. A school which was built to educate the uprooted children of Africville near the ghetto they were forced into has been closed and sold to a developer –after three community groups, the North End Community Health Clinic, the Mi’kmaq Friendship Centre and the Richard Preston Centre for Excellence, appealed the sale saying that it was in violation of one of council’s own policy which says that community groups should be given opportunity to propose a use for abandoned schools before they are offered up for sale. In an article published this morning, Tim Bousquet clearly outlined the situation. It is unbelievable to me that council would rather change their own rules, which they voted to do two days ago, rather than listen to the people they claim to represent. This is not what democracy looks like.

If it is alright for city council to whimsically change their rules, why can’t Haligonians get them to change more about the way the local political system functions so that citizens can play a part in deciding what is to happen, or at least so that council is accountable for breaches of their own policies?

How systematic oppression hurts everyone involved.

James Baldwin aptly sums up the point I want to bring out in this post, which supports what was said in another post.

It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim one sees oneself. (Nobody knows my name, 78)

In this post I have a few more quotes to share which shed further light on how systematic oppression hurts everyone involved. Even if, in a clear example, slave owners believe they are profiting from owning slaves, they are doing harm to their own humanity. Frederick Douglass gives a stirring account of this happening through his own experience of being sent as a slave child to live with a young couple who had never owned slaves before.

My mistress was, as I have said, a kind tenderhearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of those heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me [to read]. She now commenced to practice her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension.  (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. 81-82)

While traveling in Africa in 1965 Malcolm X arrived at a new insight about the way in which a racist atmosphere sinks into the psychology of individuals.

I told him, “What you are telling me is that it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.” He agreed.

We both agreed that American society makes it impossible for humans to meet in America and not be conscious of their color differences. And we both agreed that if racism could be removed, America could offer a society where rich and poor could truly live like human beings.

That discussion with the ambassador gave me a new insight –one which I like: that the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly. The society has produced and nourishes a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings. (The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 371)

The last quote I want to relate to these others is from Michel Foucault.

Do not regard power as a phenomenon of homogenous domination –the domination of one individual over others, of one group over others, or of one class over others: keep it clearly in mind that unless we are looking at it from a great height and from a very great distance, power is not something that is divided between those who have it and hold it exclusively, and those who do not have it and are subject to it. Power must, I think, be analyzed as something that circulates, or rather as something that functions only when it is part of a chain. It is never localized here or there, it is never in the hands of some, and it is never appropriated in the way that wealth or a commodity can be appropriated. Power functions. Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power. They are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays. In other words, power passes through individuals. It is not applied to them. (Society must be defended, lectures, 14 January 1976)

In all of this I see the importance of forming new networks so that power can circulate in liberating ways rather than oppressive ways. The problem with systematic oppression is that the oppressive system is within –and functions through –each individual. It is not just the 1% who are to blame for perpetuating this system. Each person relays power through everyday interactions. How can this situation be changed? In my opinion an important change happens when individuals choose to give power to each other –share power through solidarity –rather than exercise power over each other.

A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government

Nakae Chomin wrote a wonderfully entertaining and insightful book in 1887  entitled, A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government.  Here is the opening.

Master Nankai loves drinking and discussing politics. When he drinks only one or two small bottles of sake, he is pleasantly intoxicated –his spirits are high and he feels as if he were flying through the universe. Everything he sees and hears delights him; it seems unthinkable that there should be suffering in the world.

When he has two or three more bottles, his spirits soar even higher, and ideas spring up, unrestrained. Although his body remains in his small room, his eyes scan the whole world. They instantly go back a thousand years, or else span the next thousand, charting the direction for the world’s course or giving instructions for public policy. At such times, he thinks to himself, “I am the compass for human society. It’s a great pity that the world’s nearsighted politicians haphazardly take control of the rudder and cause the ship to strike a rock or to be grounded in shallow water, thus bringing calamity upon themselves and others. (47)

. . .

After this opening, Master Nankai is greeted by two visitors. One is known as the Gentleman of Western Learning. He is a young Japanese man who has recently returned from studying in Western Europe, as many Japanese men did in the late 19th Century, including the author of this book who was a journalist and a member of Japan’s first parliament till resigning over reasons of conscience. The other visitor is an older conservative Japanese man. He provides balance to the idealistic notions of the Gentleman of Western Learning. Most of the quotes included here, which seem to me to be of relevance to our contemporary world –over a century after they were written,  are from the Gentleman of Western Learning.

If a small nation which is behind the others in its progress toward civilization were to stand up proudly on the edge of Asia, plunge into the realm of liberty and brotherhood, demolish fortresses, melt down canon, convert warships into merchant ships, turn soldiers into civilians, devote itself to mastering moral principles, study industrial techniques, and become a true student of philosophy; wouldn’t the European nations who take vain pride in their civilization feel ashamed? Suppose, however, these great nations are not only unashamed but also stubborn and villainous, and suppose they impudently invade our country, taking advantage of our disarmament. What could they do if we have not an inch of steel nor a single bullet about us, but greet them with civility? If you swing a sword to attack the air, nothing happens to the thin, free air no matter how sharp the sword may be. Why don’t we become like the air?

It’s like throwing an egg at a rock for a small and powerless nation dealing with a big and powerful one to exert a physical force that is less than one thousandth of its opponent’s. Since the opponent takes great pride in its civilization, it cannot be that he lacks the moral principles that are the essence of civilization. Why shouldn’t we, a small nation, use as our weapon the intangible moral principles our opponent aspires to but is unable to practice? If we adopt liberty as our army and navy, equality as our fortress, and fraternity as our sword and cannon, who in the world would dare attack us?

All who possess mind and body are equally human. What is the difference between the Europeans and the Asians, much less between the British, the French, the Germans, and the Russians, or between the Indians, Chinese, and Ryukuans? Today we invariably refer to Great Britain, Russia, or Germany, but these are merely the names of the sovereigns’ properties. If, however, sovereignty rests with the people and there is no other ruler, a country’s name simply designates a certain part of the surface of the earth. Therefore, to say that one is a citizen of a certain country ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no border’s between oneself and others and there arises no hostility. Nations with a single master, however, are named after the master’s house. In such a nation, to say that one is of a certain nationality ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no borders between oneself and others. This slicing up of the various parts of the earth, causing divisions among its inhabitants, is the course of monarchy. Democracy! Democracy! Country A or B is merely a division made for the sake of convenience in naming various parts of the earth. These names were not meant to build walls among its inhabitant. Democracy creates a single, large, complete, circle embracing the entire earth by bringing together the wisdom and love of the people of the world.  (75)

. . .

The Gentleman continued. “Democracy is necessary for abolishing war, promoting peace, and making all the nations on earth one family. The theory that all nations should give up war and promote peace was first advanced by the Frenchman Abbe de Saint-Pierre in the eighteenth century. At that time, very few people agreed with his idea, and many said that it could not be put into practice. Some went so far as to ridicule him as a high-minded ideologue. Even Voltaire, a man of uncommon intelligence who was deeply interested in the progress of society, tried to appear clever by making some derisive remarks concerning Saint-Pierre’s theory. Only Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wielding his mighty pen, completely agreed with the theory, and praised Saint-Pierre’s book as ‘indispensable’. Later, Kant built upon Saint-Pierre’s theory and wrote a book entitled Zun ewigen Frieden, which advocated the necessity of abolishing war and promoting friendly relations. According to Kant, ‘Even if we grant the contention that the desire for fame and love of victory cannot be removed from human beings and that the realization of peace is impossible in our actual world, as long as we value moral principles, we must make every effort to move forward toward that realm. This, and nothing else, is the responsibility of human beings.’ (82-83)

. . .

Today, in the nineteenth century, it is indeed an insane nation which takes pride in military power, makes aggression its national policy, and tries to own the earth, regardless of means, by usurping someone else’s land or by killing someone else’s people. (87)

. . .

Many of the strong nations on earth are cowherds. Fearing each other, they maintain troops and line up battleships and thus fall into danger. Why don’t the weak nations voluntarily and firmly dismiss their soldiers, dissolve their fleets, and choose peace?

Later in the discourse Master Nankai mildly rebukes Mr. Gentleman by saying that the time was not ripe for global democracy –at the end of the Nineteenth Century –but suggests that after another century the seeds that were sown then would be ready to bear fruit.

I tell you, Mr. Gentleman, ideas are seeds planted in the field of the mind. If you truly love democracy, talk about it, write about it, and sow its seeds in the minds of people. Then, in several hundred years, democracy might flourish all over the country. Today, the plants of the sovereign and the aristocrats are still rooted  in the public mind. Isn’t it wrong to try to gather a rich harvest of democracy immediately, simply because the seed of democracy has sprouted in your own brain?

“The public mind is a storehouse for the ideas of the past. All social undertakings are expressions of past ideas. Therefore, if we wish to build a new enterprise, we must first plant the necessary idea in the people’s minds, so it, too, can someday become an established idea –an idea of the past. Why? An action always bears fruit in the present, but an idea always has its roots in the past. Mr. Gentleman, please read your history. What has occurred in all nations is a result of the ideas of those nations. But ideas and actions do not align themselves in neat rows; they form a crooked line –and this the history of all nations.

. . .

An age is silk or paper, ideas are colors, and great projects are paintings. A society of a given period is a painting that has already been completed. Mr. Gentleman, is it not madness to paint a picture of the future on a piece of paper called the present with pigments which are not yet completely ground? If you make diligent efforts now to refine your ideas or grind your pigments, a hundred years later the colors will pour richly onto the palette of society. At that point, if someone paints a picture on the piece of silk or paper of his present, the radiant colors you have mixed in his past will dazzle the eyes of all spectators, who will admire and praise the painting as a masterpiece surpassing those of Rubens or Poussin.

Democratic traits?

Last week I bought a book which was first published in 2009 as Democratie, dans quel etat? The English translation has just been published this year.  It is a collection of essays examining what is meant by the word ‘democracy’. The first essay, “The Democratic Emblem” by Alain Badiou, is what I am focusing on in this post.

Alain Badiou offers a rather cynical view of democracy. He first criticizes the Western tendency to suppose that the “democratic world” is superior to the rest of the world. Fair enough. Then he harks back to Plato, specifically book 8 of The Republic, in which “Plato applies the term demokratia to a way of organizing the business of the polis, a certain type of constitution.” (8) After a few words about how both Lenin and Plato saw democracy as no more than a particular form of state, he says, “The capacity of the democratic emblem to do harm lies in the subjective type it molds; and, not to mince words, the crucial traits of the democratic type are egoism and desire for petty enjoyments.” (8)

Here I have to take issue with what Badiou takes for granted. In the shadows of the words, “the subjective type it molds” many debates of twentieth century French philosophy lurk. Specifically, Louis Althusser seems to have influenced professor Badiou’s perspectives. Badiou was a student of Althusser and has built his intellectual career on Althusser’s peculiar slant on Marxism. Althusser’s cryptic remarks on ideology and how it molds the subjectivities of individuals haunted my university studies as well. It was pivotal to the raising of my political consciousness to puzzle through what it means for mental and physical habits, hopes, preferences, styles of reactions, all that constitutes subjectivity, to be shaped by the various ideologies that exist in the societies we are immersed in. Althusser at times in Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses seems to think of “ideology” as a mysteriously united force in the universe –sort of like the Nothing in The Never ending Story –which threatens to swallow everything that is not it. Badiou appears to be thinking along similar lines when he accuses democracy of molding a subjective type with the traits of egoism and desire for petty enjoyments. He makes no attempt to distinguish the subjective type that the democratic emblem molds from what any other ideology molds, such as capitalism, protestantism, science, or the communism which he endorses. He seems to just see contemporary society as egoistic and desirous of petty enjoyments and blames that on democracy. What is it about democracy that could create such traits? It is much more complicated than Badiou’s sweeping statement implies.

Continuing on with Alain Badiou’s article, he goes on to accuse democracy of being stuck in a perpetual youthfulness void of the wisdom of age.  This, again, he claims is based on Plato. Badiou says, “Plato’s thesis is that sooner or later this manner of existence, grounded in the indiscipline of time, and its correlative form of State, representative democracy, will bring about a visible manifestation of their despotic essence. Because that is what it comes down to: the real content of all that youth and beauty is the despotism of the death wish.” (13). Badiou implies that “death wish” is a Platonic term –though it is a Freudian generalization –when, immediately after the last quoted sentence he says, “That is why, for Plato, the trajectory that begins with the delights of democracy ends with the nightmare of tyranny. ” (13)

If democracy is to end in tyranny, it seems to me that it is because it has never really been separated from the economic tyranny of the aristocracy, not because of the youthful lustiness which those old Greeks saw everywhere they looked. If democracy is to become the organizational principle of empowering communities to thrive and encourage positive traits it will be through becoming conscious of what non-democratic traits are woven into our institutions and minds, rooting those out and envisaging new ways to organize our communities and free our minds.

Howard Zinn’s vision


From the chapter, “The coming revolt of the guards,” in Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States.

Let us be utopian for a moment so that when we get realistic again it is not that “realism” so useful to the Establishment in its discouragement of action, that “realism” anchored to a certain kind of history empty of surprise. Let us imagine what radical change would require of us all.

The society’s levers of powers would have to be taken away from those whose drives have led to the present state –giant corporations, the military, and their politician collaborators. We would need –by a coordinated effort of local groups all over the country –to reconstruct the economy for both efficiency and justice, producing in a cooperative way what people need most. We would start on our neighborhoods, our cities, our workplaces. Work of some kind would be needed by everyone, including people now kept out of the work force –children, old people, “handicapped” people. Society could use the enormous energy now idle, the skills and talents now unused. Everyone could share the routine but necessary jobs for a few hours a day, and leave most of the time free for enjoyment, creativity, labors of love, and yet produce enough for an equal and ample distribution of goods. Certain basic things would be abundant enough to be taken out of the money system and be available –free –to everyone: food, housing, health care, education, transportation.

The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires, which in the past have been used by the state in times of war, but also by social movements that gave hints of how people might behave in different conditions. Decisions would be made by small groups of people in their workplaces, their neighborhoods –a network of cooperatives, in communication with one another, a neighborly socialism avoiding the class hierarchies of capitalism and the harsh dictatorships that have taken the name “socialist.”

People in time, in friendly communities, might create a new, diversified, nonviolent culture, in which all forms of personal and group expression would be impossible. Men and women, black and white, old and young, could then cherish their differences as positive attributes, not as reasons for domination. New values of cooperation and freedom might then show up in the relations of people, the upbringing of children.

To do all that, in the complex conditions of control in the United States, would require combining the energy of all previous movements in American history –of labor insurgents, black rebels, Native Americans, women, young people –along with the new energy of an angry middle class. People would need to begin to transform their immediate environments –the workplace, the family, the school, the community –by a series of struggles against absentee authority, to give control of these places to the people who live and work there.

These struggles would involve all the tactics used at various times in the past by people’s movements: demonstrations, marches, civil disobedience; strikes and boycotts and general strikes; direst action to redistribute wealth, to reconstruct institutions, to revamp relationships; creating –in music, literature, drama, all the arts, and all the areas of work and play in everyday life –a new culture of sharing, of respect, a new joy in the collaboration of people to help themselves and one another.

There would be many defeats. But when such a movement took hold in hundreds of thousands of people all over the country it would be impossible to suppress, because the very guards the system depends on to crush such a movement would be among the rebels. It would be a new kind of revolution, the only kind that could happen, I believe, in a country like the United States. It would take enormous energy, sacrifice, commitment, patience. But because it would be a process over time, starting without delay, there would be the immediate satisfactions that people have always found in the affectionate ties of groups striving together for a common goal.  (638-640)

What would Howard Zinn have to say about new possibilities for global revolution now that the world has changed so much since Zinn’s death about a year ago? I think he would expand on the vision articulated above, applying it to global networks of local communities, pointing to the joy and community spirit felt in Tahrir and other squares where people stood together in solidarity as examples of how new kinds of struggles can lead to new mentalities of cooperation.

Bertolt Brecht’s interpretation of “The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House.”

Bertolt Brecht‘s poem, “The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House,” relates a parable of the Buddha’s, found in the Lotus Sutra, to not fearing the changes which a revolution would involve.

Guatama the Buddha taught
The doctrine of greed’s wheel to which we are bound, and advised
That we shed all craving and thus
Undesiring enter the nothingness that he called Nirvana.
Then one day his pupils asked him:
“What is it like, this nothingness, Master? Every one of us would
Shed all craving, as you advise, but tell us
Whether this nothingness which then we shall enter
Is perhaps like being at one with all creation,
When you lie in water, your body weightless, at noon,
Unthinking almost, lazily lie in the water, or drowse
Hardly knowing now that you straighten the blanket,
Going down fast –whether this nothingness, then,
Is a happy one of this kind, a pleasant nothingness, or
Whether this nothingness of yours is more nothing, cold, senseless and void.”
Long the Buddha was silent, then said nonchalantly:
“There is no answer to your question.”
But in the evening, when they had gone,
The Buddha still sat under the bread-fruit tree and to the others,
To those who had not asked, addressed this parable:
“Lately I saw a house. It was burning. The flame
Licked at its roof. I went up close and observed
That there were people still inside. I entered the doorway and called
Out to them that the roof was ablaze, so exhorting them
To leave at once. But those people
Seemed in no hurry. One of them,
While the heat was already scorching his eyebrows,
Asked me what it was like outside, whether there was
Another house for them, and more of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here, I thought,
Must burn to death before they stop asking questions.
And truly friends,
Whoever does not yet feel such heat in the floor that he’ll gladly
Exchange it for any other, rather than stay, to that man
I have nothing to say.” So Gautama the Buddha.
But we too, no longer concerned with the art of submission,
Rather with that of non-submission, and offering
Various proposals of an earthly nature, and beseeching men
To shake off their human tormentors, we too believe that to those
Who in face of the rising bomber squadrons of Capital go on asking too long
How we propose to do this, and how we envisage that,
And what will become of their savings and Sunday trousers after a revolution
We have nothing much to say.

This was published in 1949 in “Kalendergeschichten”, a collection of stories and poems which Brecht had written while in exile during the war. In English, “Tales from the Calendar,” translated by Ivonne Kapp and Michael Hamburger, London: Methuen, 1961.