1. On Board the Eisenhower
Despite my faithful participation in the No Harbour For War protests against the Halifax International Security Forum (thanks Peter McKay!) it turns out that I am not considered a security risk, and so I was invited to a reception to celebrate the “241st Anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America” on board the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Why on earth would they let you on the Eisenhower, questioned the skeptics among us. The answer is that ever since I went to the International Writing Program in Iowa, I am on the mailing list, and they have yet to remove me. I received the invitation when I was hanging with my brother, an ex-military dude who did two tours as an analyst in Afghanistan, who informed me “that’s so fucking cool” and “that N in the name means nuclear” and “it’s really, really big.” Apparently I “had to go.”
The party boat (“the hottest club on the water”) took us out to the carrier. Apparently Halifax has a bit of a shortage of dignified water vessels ready to be requisitioned for military use.
Let me say here that the crew were incredibly welcoming and generous. They spent the night answering questions, escorting people around, and describing their jobs with admirable poise and patience. They could not have been more lovely, and the hospitality to the guests was impeccable.
At one point, when I asked two Black crew members where they were going next, they said, “as long as it’s not back to Chicago, I’m good.” One of them spoke about how relieved he was to be able to leave Chicago violence behind. Later, as we looked at stencils on planes of all the bombs dropped in the last deployment, I thought about how Black men’s survival and the limited options they face to “make it out” come at the cost of signing up to take the lives of Muslims across the ocean. The structural violence of poverty and racism felt most acutely by the descendants of slaves is connected to the global violence waged by the American empire, when joining up becomes the only viable option for survival.
The reception was held in a huge hangar, where ice sculptures of angels melted over bowls of shrimp, next to fighter planes and helicopters brought in for us to sit in and take selfies with.
“Did they serve hummus?” asked a friend, sarcastically.
This is the point when you realize how indoctrinated you are by Hollywood movies and G.I. Joe figures. To quote my brother, it’s hard not to find all the weaponry “really fucking cool.”
And this is how violence becomes normalized, and how we distance ourselves from it. Watching the Twin Towers collapse, people observed that it looked like the special effects of a movie. Surrounded by deadly technology you spend your childhood watching roaring across screens, it’s easy to think of it as the adult version of a toy.
When the Eisenhower is docked off Halifax, it’s just a piece of cool technology, a marvel that’s “really, really big.” For people in Lebanon, or Iraq, or Somalia, it might more accurately be described as a “floating fortress of death.” As Tony Seed wrote of the Gerald Ford:
The modular built, nuclear aircraft carrier – also dubbed the “deadliest” ever built – is a lethal, offensive creation. Capable of long deployments thousands of miles from the American continent, the supercarrier constitutes a virtual seaborne military base – the flight deck is five acres – that can lie like a fortified island just outside the territorial sea of the target country, the twenty-first century equivalent of twentieth-century nuclear blackmail and nineteenth-century gunboat policy.
This same cognitive dissonance induced by mingling with white wine and canapés while walking around the flight deck that launches planes heading out on bombing runs was felt in the reporting about the Eisenhower, which treated war as entertainment. Amid descriptions of the “spectacular” airshow put on for politicians and journalists, Canadian Press copy also mentions the “lethality of the vessel,” as though that is simply another statistic to be noted. All of the numbers about size, and weight, and number of football fields, and thousands of crew and dozens of planes work to dissociate us from thinking about who is killed by all of this force.
The size and scale of the weaponry not only only have the effect of intimidating their targets, but also of dehumanizing them. In the descriptions of all these technological marvels, the humans in its sights disappear.
The FA-18 Super Hornet revs its engines to maximum thrust, and the jet fighter’s nose wheel is locked into a steam-powered catapult on the aircraft carrier’s flight deck.
The thunderous noise reaches an overwhelming, bone-jarring intensity, and in less than three seconds, the jet is gone — hurled over the bow of the ship at 200 kilometres per hour…
…The spectacular 45-minute air show, which was kept secret until Wednesday for security purposes, included a simulated dogfight between two screaming Super Hornets, a search-and-rescue demonstration with a MH60 Sierra helicopter and a high-speed pass featuring a Super Hornet hurtling past the flight deck at more than 900 kilometres per hour…
…Named after the 34th U.S. president and launched on Oct. 11, 1975, the 86,000-tonne Eisenhower is the second-oldest Nimitz-class vessel in the U.S. navy’s fleet. Its flight deck, which can carry about 60 aircraft, is larger than three football fields, and its crew can include up to 6,200 sailors and airmen.
On this trip, there are 3,100 crew aboard, mainly because its air wing is taking a break, having completed a seven-month tour of the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf in January, where there were combat missions over Iraq and Syria.
As part of a seven-ship strike group, the Eisenhower’s lethality is hard to comprehend.
This same sensation of being awed by the sheer size and power of the technology is something I felt throughout the reception. The “incomprehensibility” of the ship is actually part of a deliberate military strategy of dominance: the “shock and awe” doctrine depends upon this massive show of force. The sense of the spectacular felt by Canadians hosted on board is the flip side of the terror visited upon targets of the strike group. Both sensations have propaganda value: the awed sense of wonder, and the terrified sense of impending death. Both friends and enemies in their own way are overwhelmed.
(In the midst of this successful charm offensive by the joint American and Canadian forces, with media outlets breathlessly repeating military propaganda, the Proud Boys chose a poor time to generate bad publicity for the military.)
Consider that the bombs stencilled on the aircraft above represent what was dropped in one deployment. Multiply that by 70 planes and the “lethality” of the carrier comes into starker focus. We may want to pretend every bomb finds a “bad guy” as its target, but, for example, we know that hospitals are being regularly hit in conflict.
This December, 2016 article in The New Arab, who were granted access to the Eisenhower, describes operations a bit differently than the copy repeated in Canadian outlets:
In the past five months, the Eisenhower has launched more than 1,600 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq — some 20 percent of the coalition’s total in that time. The vast ship, along with its accompanying destroyers, cruisers and other supply vessels that make up this strike group, left its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, in June, and carried out operations, including 116 airstrikes, from the Eastern Mediterranean on its way here.
Aerial firepower from the US-led coalition has been credited with turning the tide in the fight against IS. The militant group has lost thousands of square miles of territory it once controlled with its perverse violence. But civilians have also been killed. Ordinary, everyday people trying to get on with their lives, as if they didn’t already have enough to cope with, have died fiery deaths as a direct result of these airstrikes.
The bombing of Syrian troops by US-led coalition aircraft was also blamed in the collapse of the fragile ceasefire in Aleppo.
Estimates of the civilian death toll vary widely. The coalition has acknowledged 19 civilian deaths from around 8,000 raids on Syria, using the sanitised military term “collateral damage.” Monitoring groups such as Airwars put the toll at close to 900. In October, Amnesty International said at least 300 Syrian civilians had died in US-led airstrikes.
Back at the reception, no effort has been spared in hospitality to the guests. A cake replica of the Eisenhower features linked American and Canadian flags, to symbolize the friendship between the two nations. The cake is impressive. Someone jokes that they just switch out the flag every new country they go to.
The cake perhaps contrasts uncomfortably with the imagery of the “gunslinger” painted on the fighter jet also available for tours in the same hangar.
Is it worth noting that while the “crisis of gun violence” in Halifax is persistently attributed to Black men, this cowboy image, decorating a plane used in lethal airstrikes, should remind us of the violent founding ideologies of America. This violence, however, is so present and persistent that it is invisible, so that we can have media reports simultaneously horrified by the Proud Boys, but laudatory of the violence of white America embodied by the Eisenhower, and represented in the image of a skull in a cowboy hat toting six shooters and “riding” on the non-Western world.
And while images of Black men making gun signs in hip hop or on social media are seen as a threat, and as glorifying violence, these kind of images (the cowboy who clears the land of Indigenous peoples) adorning armed forces weaponry used to go to war against brown people, is received as unremarkable, no more than a harmless cartoon.
If the cake represents violence made banal, this impression is strengthened at the end of the night, returning to the docks, where crew from the carrier are coming back from shore leave, and Theodore Tugboat has been requisitioned to ferry them back to the ship. The image of Theodore chugging up to one of the most lethal vessels in the world makes the contrast between the everyday life of the harbour and the military machine seem almost absurd.
But is the smiling, anthropomorphized face of Theodore, sailing up to the carrier, much different than the reception itself, or than the media coverage of the carrier? Putting a friendly face on deadly weaponry is what this visit of the Eisenhower was all about.
2. Some Notes on the Proud Boys
1. Why is it that while the Proud Boys are receiving endless coverage, the return of the Hells Angels has left people comparatively unmoved? The Angels aren’t exactly known for their progressive views on race either. And, as usual, it’s easy to find people actually supporting the return of the Angels, declaring that they’ll “clean up the streets” and “keep things under control,” which is another way of saying that people don’t mind white pimps, drug dealers, and murderers, as long as they get rid of the Black ones. It’s just interesting that while the Proud Boys have induced handwringing about white nationalism and violence, the Angels are still afforded a kind of cool “outlaw” status by many members of the public, despite their far more violent and criminal history and record of racist violence.
2. Treating the Proud Boys and their ideology as an anomaly, or simply as a reflection of Trump, ignores Canada’s history of homegrown racist violence.
Here, for example, is a cataloguing of racist incidents in Toronto in 1976-1977, including items such as:
December 1975: 1. Two black men were assaulted by six white men, members of a motorcycle gang. The men were beaten with crowbars, chains, hog saw tables, and knives.
2. A 27 year old Guyanese man was dragged from a cab by two white policemen. It was alleged that the policemen forewarned him of the beating by asking “Were you ever beaten by a honky, nigger?” He was taken to the station, then released.
In June 1976, the report recounts:
For three weeks, black and white youths in the Regent Park Community engaged in violent confrontations. The violence was precipitated by the Western Guard, which had gone into the area passing out anti-black literature and encouraging white youngsters to attack blacks.
A fair percentage of the attacks listed are committed by police against Black people and immigrants.
The Proud Boys are only the latest in a long tradition of white supremacist gangs in Canada.
Similarly, the dedication to flying Confederate flags in Halifax and across the Maritimes indicates that white supremacist symbols are not hidden, fringe, or seen as extreme. Yet when Black people called for these symbols to not be present in public spaces, nothing has been done. People continue to defend these flags as symbols of “Southern Pride” or “being a rebel.”
3. Is the “west is best” ideology of the Proud Boys so shocking in a city where a Black Studies minor only became available at Dalhousie last year, and no majors in Indigenous studies exist at any universities in the city? When I taught in the Foundation Year Program at King’s College, they declared themselves “proudly Eurocentric,” and resisted efforts towards a more inclusive curriculum. (Although, to be fair, the unit on the Medieval world at that time included many Muslim scholars.) If our universities maintain that white Europeans are responsible for most of the knowledge worth teaching and there is little space given to any intellectual contributions from the rest of the world, then what is it in the Proud Boys that is being condemned? If their ideology seems jarring, then perhaps our institutions of higher learning should be making more of an effort to teaching young people about scholarship from outside the Western world.
4. In his apology, rear Admiral John Newton claimed that the Proud Boys’ “values run counter to those of the Canadian Armed Forces.” Presumably he is talking about the same Canadian Armed Forces involved in neo-colonial activities in Africa.
While Canada’s most progressive English daily offers its pages to embarrassingly simplistic pro and con positions, the Star has all but ignored the economic, geopolitical and historical context necessary to judge deploying 600 troops to the continent. While the Star published 19 stories last year discussing a potential Canadian peacekeeping mission in Africa, only one mentioned Canada’s main mark on the continent and that story simply noted, “officials also considered the extensive business interests of the Canadian mining industry” when deciding not to deploy troops to the Congo seven years ago.
That’s it? Even though Canada is home to half of all internationally listed mining companies operating in Africa. Even though Canada’s government has paid for geological education, joint NGO–mining company projects and extractive sector policy initiatives, as well as opposing debt forgiveness and negotiating Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements with a dozen African countries — all to support corporate Canada’s $30 billion in mining investment. Even though the two most cited possible destinations to send troops – Mali and Congo – are home to a significant Canadian mining presence.
Canadian mining companies have a horrific record of exploitation, atrocities, and violence in Africa and Latin America, and particularly of violations committed against Indigenous communities defending their land. Military PR around condemning and expelling the Proud Boys shouldn’t obscure the ongoing exploitation of Africa and of Indigenous communities committed globally by the Canadian military. That there is more attention paid to the actions of five members than to the activities of Canadian troops on deployment suggests a problem with how we understand and cover Canada’s military activity.
Given the Grizzly Mama was also speaking about sexual exploitation, the military’s record of sexual assault, and their coverups of rapes by military members should also not be ignored.
5. Doesn’t this show it is long past time to remove the Cornwallis statue? While condemnation of the Proud Boys interrupting the ceremony was swift and widespread, a majority of people in Halifax support maintaining Cornwallis’ name. Shouldn’t the appearance of the Proud Boys at the ceremony make obvious once and for all that the statue is not simply a benign representation of a long-disappeared past, or a neutral tribute to Halifax’s founder, but a potent symbol of ongoing violence towards Indigenous people? How can we tell Indigenous people to “get over it” while maintaining a statue that is defended by white nationalists? Can we finally explode the myth that we can celebrate symbols of Indigenous genocide in public spaces, but somehow maintain an “inclusive” and “diverse” and “welcoming” society? Without meeting Indigenous demands for change, outrage at the Proud Boys’ actions ultimately rings hollow.
6. Perhaps it’s also long past time to end austerity politics. With the loss of jobs, collapse of traditional industry, and rhetoric of “there’s only so much to go around,” Indigenous people, immigrants, and people who aren’t white become the easy target of resentment. Rather than blaming austerity policies, Indigenous people are imagined as freeloaders sucking up all the resources, and taking away from white people. Alienated white people who see the resources they felt entitled to disappearing target “those people” as the reason for their struggles, rather than global neoliberal policies. This rhetoric is being stoked by politicians and institutions who benefit from this “divide and rule” tactic, which is why we see editorials being published in the Vancouver Sun calling for Canada to remain a white country. The normalizing of this kind of rhetoric should concern us.
7. Some commentators are defending the Proud Boys by saying that they didn’t beat anyone up, or scream any racial slurs, so what’s the problem really? Alexandre Bissonnette had a long history of “chauvinist” and anti-immigrant postings that disturbed people who read them, but who ultimately saw him as harmless. Nobody reported him, and then he shot up a mosque. This rhetoric is not harmless, and these extremist ideologies also radicalize other people. It’s amazing the lengths some people will go to in order to minimize and excuse even blatant displays of white supremacy. To hear some people tell it, they were simply out for a stroll (just happening to be in a matching uniform, coincidentally) when they saw a disturbance at the statue, and approached to keep the peace. People are always telling you “focus on the real racism,” then when the “real” racism is right in your face, there’s still endless debates about “are they really racist.”
8. The Proud Boys intended to disrupt and overpower Indigenous women. The subsequent coverage of the group has buried the purpose of the protest and ceremony, and the demands being made by Indigenous women. This has had the effect of accomplishing after the fact what the Proud Boys desired: to silence Indigenous women. A small group of white men is getting far more attention than the grandmothers who have been camped out to protect the waters against Alton Gas. Attention to the Proud Boys will die out as the story fades: we should make sure that we don’t lose focus on why Indigenous women were mourning in the first place, and give the same space to have their voices heard.
El Jones is travelling and so will take a break from the Examiner for a couple of weeks. Her column will return when she returns to Halifax.
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