Radio Tadamon! Racism & ‘Reasonable Accommodation’ in Quebec.

September 24th, 2007 | Posted in Radio Tadamon!, Religion, Solidarity, Tadamon!, War and Terror

    Produced for Radio Tadamon! by Stefan Christoff.


    Download / Podcast the program from the Rabble Podcast Network.

Listen to an interview with Nazila Bettache of No One is Illegal Montreal on ‘Reasonable Accommodation’ in Quebec. A governmental commission began last week in Canada, on the growing racism faced in Quebec by immigrants.

Immigrants in Quebec have faced a growing political storm throughout the past year, as a Provincial debate on what is referred to as ‘reasonable accommodation’ has attracted international headlines.

A series of public hearings will occur throughout the coming months in Quebec, as part of the state commission lead by two Quebec academics who are not new immigrants. These government initiated take place within the context of growing racism toward new immigrants in Quebec, a pattern of racism directly targeting the Arab / Muslim community.

“Using the term accommodation simply put really, sort of implies to me a hierarchy of identities, where by, the identity the one that has been framed in the mainstream media as the so-called Quebcoies national identity,” explains Bettache within the interview.

Debate on immigration in Quebec reached extremes in the past year, when the rural town of Herouxville passed a resolution which demanded that “new arrivals, abandon the way of life from their countries of origin, as it cannot be recreated” in Quebec. Civil liberties groups throughout Canada slammed the resolution as racist.

* For more information on No One is Illegal visit HERE.

* Radio Tadamon! is produced by the Tadamon! collective in Montreal, a social justice group focusing on building solidarity with movements for social / economic justice in the Middle East and Montreal, while also working within Diaspora communities in Canada.

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Imagination becomes Reality: An Instance of Racism in a Book Review

This is an account of a factual mistake by someone who, in view of his educational and professional credentials – he teaches philosophy and regularly reviews books of ideas—
does know better. He puts forward and claims as true something that is not the case. But for that it is not nonsense. The mistake has a point and makes a point.

In the course of one of his regular week-end book reviews in a rightfully respected Quebec daily, the reviewer wrote: “There have existed and there still exist unjust Christian societies, but those that are the most just are also, almost always, of the Christian tradition”. (This and other quotations from the review as well as references to correspondence with the reviewer are translations from French.) Having just made this affirmation, the reviewer asks rhetorically, in the very next sentence: “In this respect [just societies] how does Buddhism compare?” Why Buddhism rather than another or all non-Christian religions and why Christian rather than Catholic tradition we will come to see.

In reaction I wrote the reviewer: “There have existed and there still exist unjust Christian societies, and those that are the most unjust, by their colonialism, imperialism and wars […] are also, almost always, of the Christian tradition. In this respect how does Buddhism compare? […] Your version of this proposition suggests, but does not establish, a causal link between Christianity and ‘most just’ societies. In fact, did not our societies based on concepts of human rights and constitutional governments have to overcome the absolute power exercised by the absolutist universal Church? Accordingly, apart from and despite colonialism, imperialism and wars that make your evaluation debatable, is it right to suggest that our societies called ‘most just’ are so thanks to and because they are Christian? Catholicism has long fought against the idea that the moral authority of man is man.

“As for the Christian tradition, given its long history on inwardly and outwardly aimed persecutions, its divisions and its expulsions, which are the trademark of Christianity, it is better to speak of Christian traditions, in the plural.”

To my comment I got this terse reply: “In spite of your reservations, it remains that the most just societies are those of Christian traditions. I don’t prematurely conclude from this a causal link, but I find it pertinent to note it.”

What is it to which the final “it” refers? What would be the point in drawing attention to an association or connection between just societies and Christianity if the association were accidental, fortuitous: if it just happened to be that way but it could have been as easily that Buddhism was so related? No. Our reviewer would have no grounds for comparing societies in terms of those two religions if the difference were mere chance. There is something strong, something tightly locked about the link. Could it be a causal connection? The reviewer admits to the possibility. However, following up on the possibility is vain.

The connection would be expressed as ‘Christian traditions cause just societies’. But both the event and that which is said to cause it are hopelessly too large, complex and vague to do the task. To understand, consider ‘Good weather causes plants to grow’ and ‘Fertile soil causes plants to grow’. But it happens that neither weather nor soil are necessary to grow plants. (One can and does grow plants by hydroponics in artificial climates.) What kind of causes are these when the event happens without their participation? In other words, to find our causes we must refine our search to specific elements of the first part whose indispensable presence account for specific elements in the outcome. But just what aspects or features of Christian traditions do the trick?

Whatever they may be, it is important to keep in mind that we need something theologically or ecclesiastically Christian, not something philosophical or other that was thought of by someone who happened to be Catholic or Protestant. Otherwise ‘Christian’ in ‘Christian tradition’ has no force. Unfortunately I am unaware of anything that passes for any kind of several kinds of justice in our societies that is attributable to anything peculiarly theologically or ecclesiastically Christian. I am aware that in the recent centuries leading up to our time there has been a widespread reaction against the grip of religion on thought and act. Descartes, with reason, feared the Inquisition; Hobbes’ books were on the Index; Locke, a devout believer, was branded as an atheist and fled his country for his personal safety, to mention just these three fathers of modern thought. (Of the last named The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy writes, “Voltaire, Montesquieu and the French Encyclopaedists found in Locke the philosophical, political, educational and moral basis that enabled them to propose and advance the ideas which eventuated in the French Revolution. In America, his influence on Jonathan Edwards, Hamilton and Jefferson were decisive”.) By the 18th century the decline of the influence of the Christian Churches in our societies was palpably on the way. Our political, civil, judicial, economic and social justices and human rights, such as they are, have their roots in soil not contaminated by Divine Right and Divine Justice doctrine, whatever secular ideas revelation religions have historically recently adopted and called its own.

Our book reviewer may have had something other in mind than a causal link, perhaps: ‘God according to Christians is the sum and source of all virtues; justice is a virtue; there is an unbreakable bond between Christianity and just societies’. The trouble here is that the conclusion is assumed in the premiss: ‘There is an unbreakable bond between Christianity and justice; Christian justice is a virtue; all virtues are bestowed by God’. Nothing compels anyone to take this circle as truth. Let us move on.

I had included in my rejoinder two further points which the reviewer did not take up. “The most just societies” I wrote “are almost always those peopled by Caucasians” and also “The most just societies are almost always north of latitude 30N”. Thus a Martian asking where in the world will she find a just society could be directed in three equivalent ways: by religion, race or address. These are plain facts of distribution over a surface. Only that? Are they not, in a sociological (rather than geographical) context, burdened facts? Knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, imagination, imaginings and feelings issue from us and reach out and interpret objects (including people) we notice distributed over a surface.

What we see is inseparable from how we see it. Our knowledge, beliefs and the rest— stuff we remember and feel— are inevitably part of our immediate experience of actually perceiving. So what we see is not identical with that we are observing, the objects in the external world. What the eye takes in does not tumble into an empty mind. What you see is what you make of it. (A striking example is reported in Le Devoir (Aug. 16, ’08) in a feature article on the police shooting of a teenager in North-Montreal. “The police does its work, it has a vision, but, unfortunately, it isn’t present on the ground. The culture of street gangs is mixed with gangster rap. Adopting it does not necessarily make one a criminal” (tr.). The cop saw, shot and killed. Imagination becomes reality. More of this below.)

With this in mind let’s reason. Rewriting the sentence that got us going we have: ‘Societies that are least just are, almost always, societies of non-Christian traditions’. We know where in the world societies of non-Christian religions are. Substituting and rewriting: ‘Societies that are least just are, almost always, societies in Asia and Africa’. That sounds objective and respectful, which are good reasons for putting it like that. But haven’t we changed the meaning? Is location of just societies the only information the reviewer intended when invoking Christian societies?

We have attitudes and imaginings about the East and the South of our earth. In one (polite) word, people who live there are unfortunate. (We say their societies are still or newly ‘emerging’ {from the primeval slime?}.) Unfortunate? Let me count the ways. Writing of India during England’s “fine tradition of paternal government” (‘tradition’ once again), E. M. Forster, in A Passage to India, tells us that “the most reflective and best educated of the Chandrapora [Anglo-Indian] officials […] had a theory about climatic zones. The theory ran: ‘All unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of latitude 30. They are not to blame, they have not a dog’s chance—we should be like them if we settled here’.” ‘I don’t prematurely conclude from this a causal link between the South and criminality’, the District Superintendent of Police might have added if pressed. His less reflective and less educated colleagues, seeing that the “unfortunate natives” were “niggers”, acted on another theory, it being: ‘All niggers are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they are niggers. They are not to blame…etc.’ These officials also wouldn’t draw hasty conclusions. Missionaries, had there been any in Forster’s masterpiece, would have seen Muslims and Hindus and have acted on a theory of their own: ‘All Hindus and Muslims are irredeemable, for the simple reason that they are Hindus and Muslims. They are not to blame, but they do have a dog’s chance, now that we’re here.’

Our book reviewer has quite the similar theory: ‘All unfortunate societies are unjust at heart, for the simple reason that they are not Christian (or white or here). Our society should be like theirs if it were not Christian (nor white and there).’
Has the book reviewer expressed or self-exposed an incident of racism? You might well protest that my whole argument rests on one sentence stripped from its context. You have not told us what part it plays in the review, what significance it has in the totality of the essay. So how can we evaluate a part of a whole that you have made into an abstraction? Good objection.

The book, according to the review, is a personal account of its author’s psychological and spiritual journey starting from Quebec Catholicism in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, passing through a five year stint in Portugal where “Catholic Fascism” moved him to give up his faith, stopping in Paris for a bout of psychoanalysis, discovering and adopting Buddhism in California before returning, armed with his new spirituality, to Quebec. The traveller insists that his newly adopted religion must be adapted to blend with our political principles – rule of law, consent of the governed, and the like, that the concept of karma must be modified, and that the dogmatism of some recent converts must be contested. The reader will note from this outline (taken from the review) that there is no mention of Christian traditions and just societies. Those things do not appear to be the book’s author’s concerns. They are strangers to the book.

It is the reviewer who introduces them, and that in a most extraordinary way. It is the job of a reviewer to say things, whatever he will, about the text he has read. The reviewer who is our subject, made it his business to take to task the author himself. He cannot understand how the author allowed Catholic fascism to wipe out his Catholic faith nor how he allowed some Buddhist elites to inspire him to indifferently shrug off the excesses of that religion. “Let’s go even further,” continues the reviewer, whereupon he gives us that “There have existed and there still exist…” thing. It’s a lesson made up by the reviewer and delivered to the book’s author, to teach him a lesson.

The author is rebuked a second time. He “has turned his back on the teaching of [the Catholic philosopher and theologian] Jean-Paul Audet”. What’s his lesson? “In this theology the first place belongs to God, Creator and Father, […] who has made man good, and who, before giving him eternal life, gave him on earth a lot of good things: love, children, family, brotherhood, milk, honey, mountains and natural springs, vegetables and fruit. Human life is, first off, the just sharing of these goods received from God.” Just how mountains and children, to mention just these, are and are to be distributed fairly I leave to you, good reader, to ponder. In the meantime note that this is the one and only time in the review that we have some reference to ‘justice’ (a kind of distributive justice) apart from “the most just societies” thing. It turns up, as said, as part of an extraneous reproof of the author, extraneous in that it has nothing to do with the author’s book or with the fact that he wrote it. It has to do with the author’s life: he had deserted Catholicism in favour of an “Eastern tradition”. The reviewer is so angry that he ends his review by calling the author “a bit of a freak”.

Audet’s neglected lesson is twice irrelevant. It is irrelevant to the reviewer’s argument. If the author should have remembered it, it logically must have something to do with “Christian tradition”. But does it? God left us all that good stuff and he left it to us, all of us, to distribute justly. You don’t have to be Catholic or non-Catholic Christian or of some religion or of any religion at all. Religious belief is dispensable for distributive justice, according to Audet’s unusual conception as it is among more intelligible ones. That is a tradition of thought that the Universal Church has long considered heresy. So is what fills in the little dots in Audet’s lesson: “God, Creator and Father, question rather than response,…”. Since when have doubts about God become part of Christian, particularly Catholic, tradition? It is true that thoughtful, devout Christians have asked whether God exists and speculated about His nature, but they questioned by courageously resisting and overcoming brutally enforced thought control as well as, and especially, inherited constraining patterns of thought. It’s not that Hobbes and the rest came up with new ideas; they came up with unthinkable ideas. (Recall that the Inquisitions were active for six centuries till finally suppressed in 1820. Have six hundred years of those ignominious institutions no bearing on “Christian tradition” conceived of as outcomes on habits of mind and methods of thought of the faithful?)

So, is the “Christian tradition…just societies” connection an expression of racism? We have seen that the connection—connection in an explanatory rather than geographic sense—is historically, factually, wrong. We have seen the connection is logically untenable. In addition, the proposition bears no relationship to the book’s content. In addition, it is part of an attack against the book’s unforgivable author. Furthermore, the statement is not supported by the witness Audet who had been called to defend it. Finally and for the sake of completion, the ‘connection’ gets no support from some omitted fact or argument which might have given it some intellectual standing. For the good reason there are none. And so it seems to me, for the reasons argued, that the “Christian tradition-just society connection” is a statement of racism. It gets that awful meaning, its power to be understood in this way and only this way, from its place and use in the book review. (You might prefer to call it religious intolerance. I would include that while not admitting it is all of it.)

Is our reviewer who expressed the discredited remark a fully intentional racist? No. To ask the question is to ask what it is the reviewer had active in his mind when he performed the acts of reading the book, reflecting on it and composing and writing his piece. The remark, originating in and associated with his already present ideas, judgements, and emotions escaped his critical attention. Critical reflection was a lethargic player. He was unaware, by stint of intellectual care and by abundance of passion, of his remark’s significance, significance in what it means and in importance. His ‘the West is where the presence of a accounts for or explains the presence of b’ does not decompose into the two independent statements ‘the West is where a is’ and ‘the West is where b is’. The independent statements are true and trivial and irrelevant; the composite statement is false. Its relevance is its use as a charge against a person who converted from a Western to an Eastern religion and happened to write about it. Its importance is its resonance for non-Catholic or non-Christian societies.

It is legitimate to add that that our reviewer had a second try. Having been alerted by my intervention, he nonetheless repeated the original, call it, error. I speculate his thoughts and imaginings, like so many of ours, in spite of our conventional denials, are nourished by what is obvious to each of us about all of us: we are all equal except in what we do, have, think, believe, value and aspire to, that is, we are all equal except in who we are. (What, indeed, is the point of persisting in our faith {or national feeling or group identity} when every other is equally as promising?) Sometimes these exceptions get the better of us. When they do we have reasons at hand to explain and justify our acts and feelings, reasons we learn from the norms and traditions of our identity groups of our societies. Christianity is indispensable for justice, for example, or, in a nod to tolerance, “almost always”

I have not been suggesting that through the analysis of one incident that I have discovered racism in our society. Bouchard-Taylor dispelled remaining doubts about that. All I have done is to express a reminder that race-based ideas, handled delicately, are alive and well in the most enlightened and liberal-minded circles. Should this be a surprise? Of course it would be illegitimate to draw such a broad conclusion from a single example. But consider what would be really astonishing: that the distribution of racist ideas across the whole population is such that racism is confined within low education and working class borders. Other than through illusion and deception, is it believable that large strata of society escape the force of natural inclination?

Richard Rothschild August 2008
393, Haut de la Chute
Rigaud (QC) J0P 1P0


Comment by Richard Rothschild — August 28th, 2008 @ 4:11 PM

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