There may be a problem if your primary measure of failure is the success of a minority group.
I haven’t told many people this, but about a month ago I did something that has angered many Canadians and sent shockwaves across our political landscape.
I, a South Asian Canadian, became more politically engaged by paying attention to the NDP leadership race for the first time.
The real problem is that more than one South Asian Canadian took up an interest. One of us, Jagmeet Singh, even crossed the line and ran for party leader.
It’s been called “manipulative”, “illegitimate”, and “a threat to democracy” — an “insurgency”, even.
And it’s mostly rolled off our backs, because let’s be real, this is how Canadian racism functions. It’s not loud, brash, and printed on banners (mostly), but steeped in clean and polite policy and rhetoric. Less go-back-to-where-you-came-from, and more you-can-help-the-party-by-bringing-samosas-leave-the-policy-work-to-us. It’s harder to notice, because samosas are dope and everyone’s happy when you bring them. But it happens every single day.
Canada’s NDP party is currently in the midst of a leadership race with an unprecedented level of public interest, and this election cycle has blessed us with establishment politicians and “thinkers” being more open about their prejudice than normal. I appreciate the opportunity to break it down this more direct approach. I can also recommend great places to get samosas because I contain multitudes.
Today, The Tyee, the herald of progressive media in Canada that consistently asks me for money to run their business (and generally does a pretty good job of keeping people informed), published the following:
Not “Former Politician Highlights Broken Thinking in the Federal NDP”, not any calling out of said politician for the well-packaged racism that is consistent with most critiques of Jagmeet Singh. Just a regular, credible guy with a totally regular, credible grievance to air and no arguments to the contrary across the article. An op-ed in news’ clothes.
I hate bringing race in to this because I wish it was irrelevant, but just IS relevant here: the opinion of an older white man is news, and the opinions of politically engaged South Asians citizens are statistical anomalies that only deserve coverage as a subset of said opinion. I might be phrasing things a little harshly here, but this is literally just what’s happening today.
The politician in question is one Don Scott, former NDP MLA in the province of Manitoba. And without going in to his voting records in the legislature, let’s go ahead and assume that he always voted perfectly and has the best interests of Canadians in mind. This is as much context as The Tyee gave me, and if a publication that “aims to inform and enliven the democratic conversation” saw fit to give the man a clean slate, I’ll go ahead and do that too.
So let’s focus just on the words they quoted directly. The implication is that Jagmeet Singh getting more Canadians than ever before interested in and supporting Don’s Party is manipulative and causes the entire process of selecting a leader to lose legitimacy… but is that true?
“In the NDP race, Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh is seen as the likely front-runner thanks to his success signing up a reported 47,000 new members.”
That’s a significant portion of the 124,000 members the party said it had when the window closed in mid-August for new members to be eligible to vote in the leadership. The party had tripled its membership from four and a half months earlier.
“It’s all bullshit. Most of these memberships won’t be renewed next year.” [Scott] cautioned.
Oftentimes when Canadian with above-average amounts of melanin complain about “the system” or “the government”, the stock answer is that they must be More Involved™ in the democratic process. But here we have the classic response to that actually happening: that their involvement is somehow less “real” than that of others.
Consider the inverse of this problem, an issue also used to undermine Jagmeet Singh’s legitimacy: The “Québec Problem”, or the idea that Jagmeet has too much hair on the bottom of his face, we can’t see enough hair on top of his face, and that because of this combination white Quebécois will short-circuit and stop voting NDP… and that their lack of engagement is a true and valuable loss to the party.
Besides the lack of data to support the “Québec Problem” view, Scott’s argument here is essentially that if South Asians get involved, and the reason they got involved ceases to exists, there’s a chance they may not remain involved, and that the very possibility of this happening thereby negates the validity of their initial involvement. Yet the mere perceived risk of Quebeckers not remaining involved is so beyond legitimate that it is worth never getting the support of South Asians.
Compare this to how Charlie Angus’ potential supporters were spoken about by Tim Harper in the Toronto Star:
Many […] let their memberships lapse, had drifted and were still bruised by a spirit-breaking 2015 campaign defeat.
One group is deemed disloyal with illegitimate alliances. The other group “let their membership lapse”, but are still considered legitimate supporters. The contrast is stark enough that the article barely needs Harper to call Singh’s campaign “insurgent” no less than three times in his article. I mean he still totally did, but he didn’t have to. But he did.
Of course, people get politically engaged and sometimes their alignments change over time. We traditionally think of this as part of a process called “democracy”.
“The only people who can really take advantage of [a surge in memberships] the way it is are the ethnic groups,” Scott said. “It’s a group of people who are orchestrated.”
People “orchestrating” for change also used to be called “democracy.” Until South Asians got involved. Now it’s considered a problem, and political engagement in Canada must be slowed down. Canadians’ 68.5% voter turnout is unmanageably high to begin with.
If some NDP members think the party’s core brand value is a lack of engagement and relevance, then Jagmeet is really ruining the flawlessly executed strategy of never having won a federal election.
Governments could require Elections Canada and provincial agencies that oversee elections to handle memberships for the parties, he said. The independent bodies could vet the memberships to make sure the individuals exist and that they are citizens.
“I think you need to protect your political system so it has some credibility,”
It’s crazy to me that if this is an issue now, it hasn’t been an issue before. That Don didn’t personally verify the existence of every single one of his voters during his career.
This one doesn’t even feel like Canadian racism to me, it just feels straight-up Canadian. The idea that popularity is so unfathomable that it must be fraudulent, and that the only thing credible in this country is a lukewarm response is ingrained enough in our psyche that it affects Justin Trudeau as well. His supporters find his selfies amusing, but his opponents are so obsessed with them that they actually believe they’re actually the reason people vote for him. A Canadian with a likeable personality goes against most of our political establishment’s mental model and the possibility of two party leaders being guys who’ve made it in to GQ is just too much to handle.
Trudeau selfies aside, the racial element of Jagmeet Singh criticism is still hard to ignore. Anyone who grew up as a minority is used to a common cycle of friendly racism:
- You’re a problem
- Unless you follow these rules
- You follow the rules
- The rules are changed as a result
- You’re a problem
British Muslims’ main fault was not integrating enough, until they integrated so well that Zayn Malik was one of the country’s biggest pop stars, Amir Khan was one of the biggest sports personalities, and Sadiq Khan became the mayor of London. Then British Muslims’ main fault was “taking over”, or integrating too well.
What Don Scott is suggesting in terms of election reform actually falls in line what we’ve all experienced a hundred times at school, work, or in civic life. The rules are there for a reason, until the brown kids figure it out, at which point wow, we must not have examined the rules hard enough, there’s gotta be a flaw here.
Which leads us to a litmus test for policies: we’re all involved in corporations or organizations that have some form of rules or policy, and I’m not saying yours is bigoted, but if your primary indication of failure is the success of a minority group, let’s all be willing to take a look at what’s going on beneath the surface.