Commentary | Listen, don’t drown out

I couldn’t help but establish an imaginary dialogue between both the immediate and ongoing reactions to the “Echoes of the Holocaust” event and George W. Bush’s recent visit to Montreal. Both instances speak to the nature of protest and its relationship to our inalienable rights to expression. It’s strange that Bush protesters were (forced to be) more courteous by remaining outside of the hotel, whereas “Echoes” protesters unapologetically usurped the spotlight. Imagine that an anti-Bush activist (my sympathies aside, Bush’s name can only be a stand-in for the ongoing legacy of neo-liberal intervention; the relative justness of the current wars is equally debatable) could obtain a ticket to the Bush talk: would it be worth the cost (and the possible complicity in providing Bush with arguably more than just his daily bread) to thrust the public protest onto the private scene, cutting the man off at the podium? Everyone recognizes that a criminal has rights; if he couldn’t speak, we wouldn’t have the justice system as we know it. If some alleged criminals are speaking at fancy hotels and not on the docket – well, this means that we should call and clamour as activists did on Thursday and petition our institutions and leaders in the meantime.

On the other hand, getting in the man’s personal space – metaphorical cock-blocking, as it were, in what was mostly a neo-liberal VIP love-fest – would have done little more than provoke personal anger, fuel fires, and give a legitimating excuse for revenge. And we already know that the Bush administration was keen on exploiting excuses for revenge with far wider consequences than “a swift kick in the butt” for one offender. I greatly admired Adrienne Klasa’s thoughts and conclusions (“The devil & the activists,” Commentary, October 26) on her decision to attend and actually listen to the talk and the implication that personal engagement – although sometimes difficult and morally compromising – is as necessary to effective critical discourse as public organization and protest.

I remember having my name picked out of a hat along with the names of four other high school classmates to attend a lawyer-sponsored, $100-a-plate schmoozer for Michael Ignatieff at a local MP’s private home when Iggy was campaigning for Liberal Party leadership back in 2006. The host assumed that my peers and I were not paid-for-guests but keen young student volunteers and assigned us to coat check duties. The $100-plates were actually trays of assorted cheese cubes. The exposure to all of the cheese (both big and small), the champagne-happy politicians, and the bubbly campaign rhetoric was a formative engagement with the show business of politics and triggered a lifelong obsession with trying to understand my relationship to it all. I am not particularly partial to Ignatieff’s politics and care even less for his intellectual work – I see him as part of the academic vanguard rushing to aid “War on Terror” big guns with the force of their pens. But I was so close to this guy at one point that I couldn’t help but observe the untrimmed bristles sprouting from his ears as he leaned close to my posse for a photo. Suddenly, the public persona became one private, discrete individual with his own quirks and personality, rather than a brick in the ivory tower or parliamentary walls.

With this recognition comes the acknowledgement that every fellow human deserves equal consideration and respect regardless of context. And to get the inevitable question out of the way: would Stalin or Pinochet deserve my respect if they came to talk at my school or in my city? Yes, they would. (What is a reverence for history but a perverted exaltation of millennia of bloodshed? For those same millennia were also the bearers of infinite beauty, compassion, and human achievement.) I would give them my ears and then I would give them my words, and if something meant more to me than could be described by words, I might also admittedly give them words torn asunder by emotion and faulty logic. I would only get in their way if their words were decrees: if they were pretending at some position of power beyond the civil forum of ideas, then, my words might also become strategic decrees to counter theirs.

The “Echoes” protest did not inspire personal or institutional revenge, nor did it feature a speaker that many people would rather see in court. But it got in another man’s space, and if anything, it stifled the possibility for constructive civil dialogue and promoted a lot of backlash about form and tactics and style, and less about the real issues. Tactics are important, too. There will always be instances where a full choir of praise or dissent is necessary: sometimes the tumult of drums and dancing and voices can shake the machinery of talking heads from their sleepy rhetoric. If the talking head is right in front of you, though, and is nothing more than a man, then for goodness’ sake, let him finish.

Rana Encol is a U2 English Literature student. Respect her humanity at rana.encol@mail.mcgill.ca.


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