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A barbaric cultural practice: using racism to earn votes

By: Tom Regan
 Monday October 5, 2015 


About Author: Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. 

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There comes a moment when every country has to go through a “dark night of the soul.” That moment when the country loses its moral moorings and drifts off into a miasma of racism and bigotry and hatred of the Other.

We see it happening in Hungary, with its brutal treatment of Syrian refugees. Which is odd, of course, because in 1956 it was the Hungarians themselves who were the refugees from the political violence of the Soviet Union’s brutal put down of the Hungarian uprising. Then, it was Hungarians calling out to the rest of Europe and to America to protect them, help them escape with their families to safety and a new life. But people forget, and in the place of memory hatreds bloom like festering sores.

And I am sad to see it happening in Canada, where I am from. The most recent example of this embrace of racism came on October 2 when some buffoon named Chris Alexander, apparently Canada’s immigration minister, told the media that if his Conservative party is re-elected in the October 19 general election it would install a tip hotline, where people could inform on their neighbours practicing “barbaric cultural practices.”  In June his government enacted a Canadian law called the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.

It’s hard to express how deeply embarrassed I feel as a Canadian that any member of my country’s government could utter such a thing. I might expect to hear something like this in Russia, or Saudi Arabia, or Cuba in the 60s, or Hungary in the 50s. In Canada? I would have expected us to have landed a manned mission on Pluto first.

But in some ways I’m not surprised. The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shown itself more than ready to use racism and bigotry as a wedge to divide the public in search of votes. And when you look at who Harper’s friends are it should not come as a surprise. One of his best buddies, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, won reelection on an almost purely racist agenda of “scary Palestinians,” evoked at the last second when it looked like his party might lose. Harper,  in much the same position as was Netanyahu, learned from his friend to appeal to people’s worst instincts to garner more votes.

Now Harper and his band of thugs have gone Netanyahu one better. They are promising that if re-elected they will allow Canadians to turn into spies on their neighbors, with a tip line where they can report their seedy little observations.

Which brings us to the question of what exactly is a “barbaric cultural practice”? And, who gets to define it?

Personally, I think the wearing of lederhosen is a little barbaric. But that doesn’t mean if I was still living in Canada I’d be calling up to report neighbours of German descent.

I think eating poutine might fall in the same category. Or pickled herring. Or smoking Gitanes. They all seem kind of “barbaric.”

I don’t mean to make a joke. I mention these particular practices because they lead us to the real “barbaric practice” meant by Mr. Alexander’s obvious dog whistle: being Muslim.

In the same way that African-Americans males in the United States can be “guilty” of “driving while black,” “walking while black,” “standing on a street corner and doing nothing while black,” in the eyes of many American police departments, the Harper government has decided that “being a Muslim in any way shape or form” is a barbaric cultural practice.

I don’t live in Canada anymore, so I don’t get to vote in this election. I didn’t have any problem with that, as I wrote in a previous column. I didn’t until the emergence of the “barbaric cultural practices” tip line, which comes on top of the polarizing election issue over the two women who have attempted to wear a niqab while swearing an oath to become Canadian citizens.

All Canadians, who live in the country or outside its borders, should be embarrassed by this blatant display of arrogant, virulent racism. Stephen Harper seems to be turning into a second-rate version of Egypt’s El-Sisi, Turkey’s Erdogan, and Russia’s Putin in in his disregard for basic democratic rights and his appeal to the basest instincts of Canadians.

Is he really and truly who Canadians want to represent them? A man with such limited imagination and such vile ambitions? I remember a time when then-Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Kim Campbell tried to run a campaign ad that seemed to make fun of the facial paralysis suffered by her then-rival Jean Chrietien.

Canadians reacted with horror to the blatant attempt to use a person’s physical appearance or medical condition in an effort to get more votes.

Am I to understand the Canadians have so lost their moral compass that they will now gladly fall behind this pathetic Pied Piper of racism?

If so, Canada really is in its dark night of the soul.

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