Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Zunera Ishaq has made Canada look stupid

After much internal deliberation about all of the symbolic dynamics of this story that make it a controversial and provocative one, I decided that I absolutely do not give a shit if Zunera Ishaq wears her niqab in her citizenship ceremony.  Why? I think the fact that she has managed to make Stephen Harper look stupider than the two opposition leaders makes her deserve to wear it, if nothing else.

Let's start by getting one thing out of the way.  The reason she is allowed to wear it under the law is that she is not harming anybody else by doing so.  Nobody else's rights or freedoms are impinged upon, and no undue burden is placed on the state,  Yes, it does feel at first like you are being played for a fool and how far does tolerance go in the name of political correctness, but if we are afraid of a regressive and oppressive islamic culture permeating the Canadian state, let's talk about matters of substance rather than little pieces of cloth.  There will be no legally recognized sharia court.  And "cultural customs" that cause or could cause harm to free Western citizens - honour killings or genital mutilation or whatever it is, will not and cannot be defended within a Western legal framework.  Niqabs and burqas are not a "gateway drug" that will plant these things at our doorstep.  Just look at the Shafia family in prison.  The system works.

One inconvenient truth of our modern, western, liberal democracy is that we have to tolerate free expression and free speech no matter how offensive they may be.  Whenever some blowhard politician starts talking about "things going too far" and "where do we draw the line", you know that you have to stop taking them seriously.  You cannot open that can of worms saying that you speak for the "majority of reasonable, common sense people" because then you arbitrarily get to decide what is acceptable and what is not.  This is a slippery slope that society cannot be permitted to slide down.

The gold standard we have to settle for is zero tolerance for intolerance.  That is why, despite all of Bernard Drainville's resurgent demagogic drum-banging for his no-religious-symbols-in-public-spaces  crusade in Quebec following the Ottawa and St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu soldier shootings and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, the PQ got destroyed in the last Quebec election.  Sure, the emotional appeals get momentum early on (I think "burqas" probably occupy the spot between "root canals" and "Chad Kroeger" on the "Things the general Canadian population loves" list), but the crusading turns into a massive liability as the politicians are forced to twist themselves into pretzels to defend a position that they themselves are making up on the fly ("No, no one will lose their jobs over this.  OK, maybe some people will. But only after a five year easing in period.  But not in this category.  But only for religious symbols with this degree of ostentatiousness").  Now, as Stephen Harper doubles down on his anti-niqab position, he is taking possibly the biggest risk of his political career, as Chantal H├ębert and other seasoned veteran political observers have duly noted.

Because make no mistake, this is pure and simple politics.  2015 is shaping up to be a volatile and bumpy year for Canada's economy, and people out there are hurtin' pretty bad.  Layoffs are mounting, real GDP growth is anemic despite a zero interest rate policy and materials, financials, and oil & gas - the cornerstone sectors of the TSX, are all susceptible to intense speculation, downward pressure, and extreme volatilty.  Amidst this backdrop, the country struggles with an unimaginable housing bubble (average Canadian home price: $431,000) the feds did nothing to prevent.  Just bear with me here for a second.  Median house price is $431,000, let's say the average Joe and Jill save 5% down (meaning the mortgage is now insured by the taxpayer), and now owe about $405,000.  Their monthly payment is $1900 for 25 years, but the average family income is only $68,000. That means they only have about $1400-$1700 a month left for property taxes, electricity, cars, gas, phones, groceries, cable, beer, shit I hope they don't have any kids because we just about broke the bank here already.  You see where this is going.  People across Canada are awash in debt.  Cashing out what meagre savings they have in futile attempts to service the mountains of it that they have.  Robbing peter to pay Paul.  I know its happening because I see it myself every single day.

Amidst this backdrop, oil's mini-recovery in February looks to have been a head-fake following the outright crash in the commodity in Nov-Dec-Jan.  Now crude is testing new lows and inventories are sky-high.  So when Joe Oliver said in February that the government was "delaying the budget until April to assess the impact of low oil prices", I'm sure what he meant that he was waiting until March so he could assess when they were lower still.  Every smart finance minister wants less dollars to spend on his budget than before.

As I said in my last column, there is no guarantee that Stephen Harper will lose the next election, due to the ineptitude of the two opposition leaders, but it is pretty clear that there are finally some macroeconomic conditions that make his hokey and worn out "steady hand on the tiller" argument weaker than ever (especially given the amount of public debt his government has rung up).  But maybe his terrorism/fear strategy will pay off.  This is a democratic country and polls say he has the support of the population to pick useless fights with Zunera Ishaq and ram through undemocratic, privacy-violating digital surveillance bills in the wake of the radical Islam fad.  But after nine years of endless tempests in teapots that saw the Conservatives duly sent back to Ottawa despite no end to the righteous indignation they provoked (Who can forget Michael Ignatieff's unbelievably dorky table-pounding: "Mr Speaker, when will the minister do the honourable thing and resign?!"), the economic picture might be shitty enough later this year to finally provoke a sea-change among the non-partisan undecideds.  At the end of the day, jobs and debt will trump niqabs.

And we will all remember, back in march, when modern, liberal, enlightenment democratic ideals prevailed.  We may not like Ms Ishaq's niqab, but we must defend to the death her right to wear it. Just like we must defend equally to the death Chad Kroeger's right to produce his shitty music.  By obsessing over things that offend us we become the parody of ourselves that loses all credibility.  Keep calm and throw on Nickelback's latest album while kicking back with the Sports Illustrated Burqini Edition.  Spring is here, baby

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