Diversity and the dilemma of identity politics

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Canada beach umbrella. Photo: George Socka/Wikimedia Commons

Canadian multiculturalism began, in the days of Trudeau the Elder, with an emphasis on white(ish) Europeans. Over time it shaded into a focus on visible minorities (Indigenous or immigrant), and nonethnic gender minorities, all with undeniable grievances. So it acquired a social justice aspect. It became identity politics. If you ask the young today what Canada means, they point overwhelmingly to this kind of challenging diversity. They're simultaneously proud and angry about it. That's to our credit.

But it doesn't win elections, aside from some local ones. Issues of diversity tend to divide people and create tensions (affirmative action programs or land claims), which should be honestly faced and are messy. For electoral purposes OTOH, you need an agenda that brings people together in a short time under a simple umbrella.

Economic projects, like medicare or TMX qualify. (In less diverse places, racism and hate can be umbrellas.) So a unifying economic agenda is our elusive electoral grail. If you succeed, you can use that success to address issues raised by diversity. It's not a perfect fit, but there aren't a lot of other ways forward.

Martin Luther King Jr. ran into this dilemma in the U.S. In the early phase, civil rights leaders mobilized Blacks on buses and at lunch counters. But King knew major change required a larger political canvas, and sought alliances with middle-class "moderate" whites.

Their support, however, proved unreliable and fickle -- you can hear his frustration in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail -- and he began building bridges to working-class whites, based on common economic interests. He organized a multiracial "Poor People's Campaign" on Washington and was assassinated in Memphis, rallying alongside striking sanitation workers.

There was an echo of this in the Democratic leadership TV debate last week. When the focus and emotion turned to racial issues, Bernie Sanders almost seemed to panic. He's undoubtedly committed to racial justice but he also fears, if identity politics dominates the campaign, Trump will triumph again. He began ranting, a bit incoherently, about economic justice and having the guts to take on the 1 per cent. Otherwise, he pleaded, the vast majority who are being ground down, will fail to unite, yet again, and nothing will change.

Wave another flag

My favourite Canada Day moment involved a gathering of Argentian-Canadians who celebrated by belting out folk songs from their country of origin, long into the night. Most had been imprisoned, tortured, or, far worse, "disappeared" -- since that left no record of any arrest -- under the military dictatorship in the 1970s.

They came here when they got out. In the heyday of my own nationalism back then, I'd have been dismayed. How, I'd have fretted, can we build a coherent, progressive nationalism without our own symbolic resources? But context is everything. Think of the uses to which nationalism is being put today.

The U.S., this July 4, is embroiled over Nike's decision to ditch an ad campaign built around the original Stars and Stripes, which Colin Kaepernick and others objected to because white supremacists have adopted it for harking back to a slaveholding era when America was still "great." What if they could do what we do: wave any damn flag you want on your national day (as K'naan sang Monday at the official Ottawa celebration)?

Sidewalk labs

Charlie Angus -- the NDP's ghost leader, the one who might've been -- put it best: "Welcome to Googleville," he said, about the eerie plan to construct a data-driven slice of Toronto by the lake. He called it the company town reborn.

A little historical memory never hurts. Company towns once dotted the landscape. They often came larded with paternalism and utopianism: some rich boss's vision of his own benevolence, imprinted on his workers and customers. (Another version is Bill Gates' foundation perverting a collectively built public education system.)

The objection to Sidewalk Labs isn't over privacy, it's about power: subjugation by algorithm. Richard Florida, U of T prof and "creative cities" burbler, calls it "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to catalyze our leadership in this field." If talk like that thrills you, c'mon down. St. Peter don't you call me cuz I can't go/ I owe my data to the company store!

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. He is based in Toronto. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: George Socka/Wikimedia Commons

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