What is it about news from the United Nations conference on racism in Durban that's supposed to shock us? Grisly ranter Rex Murphy, on CBC-TV, calls it "disgusting." Young, gay, Toronto Star columnist Rachel Giese says it's a "fiasco." MP Irwin Cotler says it had the "worst kind of anti-Semitism" he's ever experienced. Lawyer Anne Bayefsky says it's become "a racist anti-racism conference." I think that's supposed to seem paradoxical. I'm afraid I don't find it so.
My news flash is: Racism makes people crazy. Just the perception of being a target of racism drives people crazy. Even talking about racism can do it. Experiencing racism can turn people into racists themselves. It's a hideous force that deserves all the efforts to constrain it, including conferences bound to be messy and possibly useless. Racism is not, as Mao might have said, a dinner party.
The conference is set in South Africa because the defeat of apartheid there is seen as a model for overcoming racism. But it wasn't easy. There were battles in the anti-apartheid movement over whether to focus on being pro-black, thus anti-white and, implicitly, racist. At times, people seemed ready to kill their own allies who disagreed with them. Sometimes they did. It is to the credit of the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela that they maintained a clear anti-racist stance and policy. But it makes them more the exception than the rule.
Take the Mideast. For a Palestinian under occupation, any daily trip - to shop, work or visit - can turn into a hell of delay, humiliation and possible death, in his homeland! It could drive any of us mad. Every case of Canadian road rage has less provocation. As for Israel, its behaviour sadly mirrors much of what was inflicted on Jews by others in the past. I don't consider this statement controversial. We know most abusers were abused. Their sense of justification is genuine.
Racism also has the capacity to make those who comment on it from afar seem a little crazy, or at least irrational. Rex Murphy says those who accuse Jews of genocide and racism are guilty of "hypocrisy and disrespect and racism ... beyond the capacity of words to express." But if blacks or Arabs who have suffered racism are capable of racism themselves - as he charges - then why aren't Jews capable of the same tragic shift?
Columnist Richard Gwyn writes, "There is not a scintilla of evidence that Jews as a people have ever espoused or condoned racism throughout their long history." Not a scintilla? Are Jews not human, too? Do they not have their heroes and their haters, like everyone else? From the biblical command (Deuteronomy 25) to Israelites to "blot out" an entire people, Amalek, including women and infants; to Israeli leader Golda Meir's claim that there was no such thing as a Palestinian.
Or - to enlarge the subject matter to Durban's other flashpoint, reparations for slavery - The Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson says the notion that "some definable line can be drawn between a transatlantic practice that died out a century and a half ago and today is historical nonsense." Yet he doesn't call the Jewish claim to Israel nonsense, though it harks back 2,000 years. It gets hard to find rationality or consistency anywhere in these discussions.
Should Canada leave the conference, as the U.S. and Israel have? Anne Bayefsky writes, "Canada should not continue to discuss the place of anti-Semitism or the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination in a UN declaration against racism." Well why not? Why do you go except to discuss things you disagree on? You're free to vote against the final version, or against the parts you can't stomach. At least you've shown your respect for others who are there, and for the pain they feel. Leaving is the Conrad Black model for disagreement: you go away until they change things to what you want, thus helping assure things won't ever change.
Walking out is normally a power play. It reveals who and what counts to the walker. Trade counts, so you don't walk out of the World Trade Organization, but racism doesn't, not as much. For the U.S., Israel counts, but not the black Americans who wanted it to stay. Nor Palestinians (big surprise), nor the entire African continent. If Canada walks, it will show the U.S. counts, but not the Arab or black Canadian delegates, who want to stay.
On College Street, there's a frayed poster peeling off a pole. It calls for a public inquiry into the killing by provincial police of native protester Dudley George at Ipperwash Park in 1995. The details of the case, with its racist hues, are finally emerging, as the denials of Premier Mike Harris about his role start to unravel. It's all been due to the persistence of a few souls like the George family, Liberal MPP Gerry Phillips, Toronto Star reporter Peter Edwards and, for that matter, the postering people. If the Durban talk-fest on racism doesn't work out, you look for hope somewhere else.
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