Rose-tinted spectacles indeed: Dave Backwith questions my naivete

In this guest blog, Dave Backwith, a dear friend and comrade takes me to task in respect of my naive support for the truckers and their supporters in Canada. In the end I continue to disagree with him about how best to understand what’s going on. Momentarily it’s tempting to enter into a point-scoring argument, which might remind us both of our involvement in Marxist polemics back in our younger days. This would be deeply unhelpful. As it is I’m scribbling something about ‘why I believe what I believe’, which seeks to trace the conflict between dominant and dissident ideas in the unfolding of my consciousness, however false and flawed. In doing so I end up musing upon why I find it ground-breaking that we can now watch live streams of what’s happening on the ground in Ottawa, of interviews with participants and of daily press conferences as a counter to the opinions expressed in the mainstream media or that of a hate researcher! Of course. both must be gazed upon with a critical eye.

SHOULD WE KEEP ON TRUCKING?

Tony says readers, “might be wary of my rose-tinted version of events”.  Well, yes: rose-tinted is certainly how it looks to me.  I don’t get the unqualified support for the truckers and it’s not obvious to me that the blockade is a ‘joyous festival of the oppressed’ which the left should welcome – far from it.

The global spread of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ movement and that the Canadian Truckers’ ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ had over 300,000 signatures before it was withdrawn, suggest that the truckers’ grievances are widely held.  But what those grievances are isn’t entirely clear.  According to David Maynard, the Ottawa resident Tony quotes at length, their “overwhelming concern” is that Covid vaccine mandates are “creating an untouchable class of Canadians”.  The truckers, Maynard asserts are:

“…our moral conscience reminding us – with every blow of their horns – what we should have never forgotten: We are not a country that makes an untouchable class out of our citizens”.

This claim about the country Canada is doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, as the history of its indigenous peoples shows.  It also overlooks the fact that capitalism, by its nature, marginalises and ostracises people all the time.  Maynard, nonetheless, seems to have arrived at this view because he went out his front door, talked to some truckers and found that they are run-of-the-mill, friendly folk and not “a monstrous faceless occupying mob”.

It seems to me that Maynard sets up a false dichotomy: the ‘monstrous mob’ against the conscience of the nation.  On one side are the horn-honking, racist neo-Nazis, on the other the culturally diverse, polite, friendly folk he meets.  Maynard seems to accept a truckers’ claim that, “No one’s a Nazi here” and finds, “not a hint of anti-vax conspiracy theories or deranged ideology”.  During his stroll among the truckers Maynard doesn’t meet any racists, misogynists or Nazi’s. 

The implication is pretty clear. The, “white supremacists, racists, hatemongers, pseudo-Trumpian grifters, and even QAnon-style nutters” which, according to Maynard, the media say are encamped outside his window, are an invention of reporters remote from the blockade: they don’t really exist.  And yet reports of less than saintly behaviour by the truckers are not hard to find.  The Guardian, for instance, reports spreading anger at the protest among Ottawa residents and finds, “that truckers and their supporters had harassed or threatened locals”. Reuters, meanwhile, reports that:

  • Some convoy participants have been photographed with racist flags and accused by residents of vandalizing pro-LGBTQ businesses.
  • Cornerstone Housing for Women, an emergency shelter, said in a statement that “Women and staff are scared to go outside of the shelter, especially women of color.”

The reporter, Julie Gordon, adds that, “three women were heralded as heroes in shawls after a photo of them blocking a truck on a residential street went viral on social media”. She quotes one of the women, Marika Morris, as saying, “That was the only way to communicate that we don’t want them to terrorize us and we don’t want them to occupy our streets”.  Meanwhile Pam Palmater,  an Indigenous lawyer, contrasts the apparent reluctance of the police to remove the blockade with the policing of  indigenous people’s protests, “It’s OK if angry white men do it, because they are politically aligned with you, but it’s not OK if Indigenous people peacefully protect their own rights”.

All this amounts to a very different view of the protest from Maynard’s. These and other reports suggest to me that the picture is a lot more nuanced and contradictory than the one he paints.  They also raise the question of whose freedom the ‘Freedom Convoys’ are so determined to defend.  The vast majority (over 80%) of Canadians have been vaccinated against covid – as have most truckers.  Vaccination does not, of course stop transmission of the virus and it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get covid.  But it is very effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19  (Canada.ca).  Yet Maynard perversely claims that “refusal to take the vaccine, however misguided, only hurts the unvaccinated person”.  This is nonsense and suggests a very individualistic mindset.  Humans are, lest we forget, social beings who live in complex societies.  What we do, what happens to us, inevitably affects other people (e.g. health care professionals, friends and family). The freedom asserted by the protestors is individual freedom; it is, as George Monbiot puts it, “freedom from the decencies owed to other people, freedom from the obligations of civic life”.

Another reason why I’m wary of Tony’s endorsement of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ is the similarities the convoy has with the populist mob which stormed the US Capitol last January last year. Tracey Lindeman describes the Ottawa protest as “overwhelmingly white” and says that what began,

“as a demonstration against vaccine mandates for truckers… has morphed into protest against broader public health measures – and as a rallying point for both conspiracy theorists and opponents of the government of Justin Trudeau”.

According to ‘hate researcher’ Dan Panneton, the Ottawa convoy includes, “a motley array of Western separatists, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, antisemites, Islamophobes and other extremists”.  And, he says, “Several of the convoy organizers have a history of white nationalist and racist activism; and (according to George Monbiot) of attacks on trade unions.  The convoys have also been endorsed by the likes of Donald Trump and Elon Musk.   To all this Lindeman detects the ‘same undercurrent of populism’ as fed the Capitol insurrection’, “a powerful current fed by disinformation, conspiratorial thinking and deepening social divides”.

Monbiot depicts the Freedom Convoy as an ‘incoherent protest’, typical of recent popularist demonstrations.  These are, he says:  

“gatherings whose aims are simultaneously petty and grandiose. Their immediate objectives are small and often risible… The underlying aims are open-ended, massive and impossible to fulfil”. 

Thus the Freedom Convoy’s demands go from the lifting of vaccine mandates, to removal of all Covid related public health measures to removal of the government.  Monbiot says such movements are likely to occur in hard times, particularly with growing inequality. After decades of neo-liberalism the Covid pandemic, gave a further boost to inequality.  During the pandemic the world’s 10 richest men have more than doubled their wealth, while 163 million people have been pushed below the poverty line.  Inequality is socially corrosive; it eats away at solidarity and fosters individualism.  In doing so it plays to conspiracy theories.  It is after all true that, in the age of tech billionaires, a very wealthy, largely unaccountable elite wield enormous power.  

Truck drivers have not been spared the ravages of neo-liberalism: it’s a tough, insecure, badly paid job.  And the left is, as Tony says, weak, struggling to offer a convincing alternative to people on the wrong end of the growing social divide.  So it’s not hard to see why popularism might have its appeal. That’s one thing. Portraying the ‘Freedom Convoy’ as, “the spontaneous rise of struggle from below” which we should celebrate is another.

Dave Backwith

POSTSCRIPT

I cobbled this together last night and intended to put it up without further comment but time stands still for no person. The police have moved in and arrested some of the organisers. And, evidently, even my bank account is under threat of being frozen because I’ve sent a donation to the truckers and have supported ‘indirectly’ their protest. Perhaps this is what I have come to, a hapless supporter of violent, illegitimate right-wing insurrection. And, thus, I presume all those dismissive of the Freedom Convoy’s credentials can only welcome in the interests of democracy the ‘necessary’ assault on its presence and motives.

For what it is worth a lawyer, sympathetic to the protest, offers a differing interpretationto be viewed with a critical eye

And this Canadian writer, Matthew Ehret writes as follows to be read with a critical ear

Ottawa Freedom Convoy Tears Down Illusion of Democracy in North America