PHOTOS: The Famine Memorial in Dublin. The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and ’50s is ignored in current Canadian political discourse while the Ukrainian Famine of the 1930s is frequently evoked. Both are real historical events with ideological roots. One fits the narrative of the political right. The other does not. Below: Mike Davis, author of Late Victorian Holocausts, a chronicle of the 30 to 60 million people killed by famine in the colonial world during the late 19th Century in the service of laissez-faire economic ideology; the Ukrainian famine memorial near Edmonton’s City Hall; Wildrose MLA Rick Strankman.
I imagine the nine Wildrose MLAs who published a blog post absurdly suggesting having a carbon tax in Alberta is sort of like murdering several million people were gobsmacked when they were slapped down for it.
Preposterous false equivalencies of this sort have been stock in trade for the respectable Canadian right at least since the Harper era began in Ottawa, and the perpetrators rarely get called out. Political extremists of all stripes have always indulged in this kind of intellectual excess.
What’s more, there was a day the political right in Alberta didn’t have to pay much attention to criticism of this sort from the NDP. But that was before New Democrats formed a majority government, back when Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous was just a powerless quarter of a four-member, fourth-party caucus.
But since Mr. Bilous, who led the charge on this issue, is not only a powerful minister of the Crown but a member of the large and influential Ukrainian diaspora in Alberta, his attack carried weight – and attracted serious news coverage. From the Wildrose perspective, the criticism was on the unnerving grounds that the comparison in the Wildrose blog insulted the victims of a horrendous historical crime, not merely that it was insultingly illogical.
Fingers burned, the Wildrose MLAs – Rick Strankman, David Hanson, Grant Hunter, David Schneider, Wes Taylor, Ron Orr, Mark Smith, Don MacIntyre, and Drew Barnes – hastily apologized and made the post disappear. Mr. Strankman had to do it all again a few days later, when the story reappeared in a couple of weeklies in his Drumheller-Stettler riding well after his original apology.
As ever with the right, though, the apology was carefully parsed – the MLAs were sorry that “any interpretation” of their comments upset anyone. Tacitly, they stood by their point.
And that point was that the policies inspired by “the socialist collectivist mentality,” such as “the Alberta government’s movement to remove incentives through taxation in the name of ‘progressive policies,’” always leads to catastrophe.
This, of course, is market fundamentalist dogma repeated so often many otherwise sensible people have started to believe it – never mind that it is based on two demonstrably false premises, first, that taxation eliminates all incentive and, second, that tax increases are therefore the top of a slippery slope to totalitarian collectivization.
This is why the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s is a powerful political symbol for the Canadian right, as is the Chinese famine of 1959 to 1961. The first is commonly said to have resulted in the deaths of six to 10 million people, the second 15 to 20 million. But it also explains why other murderous catastrophes, similarly motivated by ideology, but by ideologies that don’t fit the prevailing right-wing narrative, are ignored and washed down the Memory Hole.
How useful a symbol is the Ukrainian famine in particular? Well, consider the Harper Government’s determination to build a brutally ugly “Victims of Communism” memorial on the front lawn of the Supreme Court of Canada, and the Trudeau Government’s cautious efforts to slide the project to a back burner without quite turning off the heat.
As the Conservatives exploited and the Liberals warily understand, the memorial is popular with certain voter blocks. But the purpose of the memorial at a moment in history when the NDP formed the Opposition was the same as that of the nine MLAs’ blog post: to entrench the false narrative that social democracy inevitably leads to collectivist totalitarianism. In other words, to connect dots that aren’t connected.
The Ukrainian famine of the 1930s – an undeniable historical reality – is a particular issue in Alberta because of the large population descended from Ukrainian immigrants in this province, which has kept the memory of these tragic events alive.
But it is also an issue here because, in a jurisdiction recently dominated by highly ideological right-wingers, it conveniently reinforced the nonsensical market fundamentalist narrative of the Harper Conservatives and Wildrose Party (who are usually the same people) that modest redistributive measures reduce our “freedom” and thus lead to catastrophe, when in reality they do the opposite.
We have come to think of the Holocaust, the genocide perpetrated by Hitler’s German government between 1941 and 1945, as sui generis, the product of a perverse racial ideology which we no longer examine in the context of our usual notions of right and left.
Other similar historical events are ignored, denied or minimized because they don’t fit the right-wing frame.
Consider the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Turks between 1915 and 1917, another historically undeniable event.
Like the Holocaust in World War II, the mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians used active means, rather than starvation. But because our contemporary NATO allies the Turks continue to aggressively deny that the Armenian Genocide even took place, and support for NATO as a mechanism to encircle Russia remains strong among conservatives, this catastrophe is unlikely ever to engage the Canadian ideological Right.
Moreover, the Turkish government of the time, while revolutionary, doesn’t today have the reputation of having been particularly socialistic, so the utility of this tragic episode is limited to the political right.
The same, and more, can be said of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852. It was also caused by circumstances that today would certainly be perceived as political and ideological.
Potato blight may have been what killed the principal crop grown by poor Catholic Irish, but land ownership laws, absentee landlords, religious bigotry and English imperialism were the ideological and economic cause of the famine that killed a million people and forced another million to emigrate out of a population of only eight million.
But in English Canada, the right will never acknowledge this genocide in the British Isles because the perpetrators were capitalists and imperialists, and English-speakers like us.
For the same reason, there will be no mention of the staggering 30 to 60 million people killed by famine throughout the colonial world during the late 19th Century. The direct cause: the laissez-faire economic ideology of various European colonial powers. The era, wrote Mike Davis in his seminal Late Victorian Holocausts, was “a new dark age of colonial war, indentured labour, concentration camps, genocide, forced migration, famine and disease.”
But this genocide as well is barely on our radar because of both cultural myopia and obeisance to market-fundamentalist ideology. In the frankly imperialist education system to which my generation was subjected, the legacy of colonialism was blithely ignored, or, when occasionally confronted, openly denied in a way that would do the government of Turkey proud.
By now we have been thoroughly programmed to think of the murderous depredations of 19th Century imperial capitalism as the nobly intended results of the “the White Man’s Burden,” rather than the strange fruit of an unrestricted capitalism not dissimilar to the economic system advocated by the Wildrose Party and the Conservative Party of Canada today.
This is as true in our instinctive interpretation of the appalling treatment of Canada’s First Nations people in the 20th Century as of the mass starvation of Asians in their own homelands in the 19th.
So while the embarrassment of the Wildrose MLAs at this latest unexpected setback is unsurprisingly the focus of journalistic coverage, it is helpful to remember why only certain tragic catastrophes make the grade for public discourse in our society, and those are the ones that can be interpreted as “proof” socialism is evil.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.