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Feb 19 / Great Apes

The Hockey Team Who Came In From The Cold

Ever since the NSA mass surveillance story first broke I’ve been reading a lot about spies and spy networks and spy operations and all that fun stuff.  This has lead to a sudden urge to read spy novels, so I’ve started in on that too.  I recently finished reading John Le Carré’s espionage novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.  The heroes of spy novels are often characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne, superhuman men who are obviously good guys trying to stop obvious bad guys.  Le Carré’s Alec Leamas is different though; the point of the novel is that ultimately Western and Soviet spy agencies were really not so different.  [SPOILER in the next sentence] The Brits, for example, are willing to kill an honest, hard-working Soviet in order to protect their own crooked asset, and they’re willing to use questionable methods to do it.  [end SPOILER] The point of the novel is not “the Soviet Union and Great Britain are completely indistinguishable” but rather “the so-called good guys often look a lot like the so-called bad guys”.

It’s been interesting reading The Spy Who Came In From The Cold during the Olympics, as a lot of Cold War sentiments directed at Russia have re-emerged.  Some of this came to a head today when the Russian men’s hockey team was upset by the Finns.  One of the things that I saw and heard in a number of places was a sense of moral triumph, that this was a fitting result for a country whose president has supported laws that seek to oppress and demean LGBT people.  And of course there are Russia’s attacks on everyone’s favourite excuse to say an unprintable word, Pussy Riot.  Just today people were enraged by reports that some members of Pussy Riot were physically assaulted by Russian security services.  These things are awful, and it is right to say so, but to claim moral victory for Western culture in these cases seems to me to require extremely narrow vision.  The recent history of Canada and the United States does not suggest a particularly strong moral high ground.  You may find that statement hard to believe, but I think even a cursory look at our own history will reveal some extremely troubling similarities.

Russia’s treatment of Pussy Riot is an affront to justice.  But Western governments are only too happy to attack – both literally and through the criminal justice system – their own political opponents.  The G20 summit in Toronto in 2010 provides numerous examples.  Remember when the Toronto police and the provincial Liberal government conspired to lie to the public about a non-existent law that they claimed allowed police to search anyone coming within 5 metres of the G20 security fence?  How about when the Toronto police held a press conference where they showed off weapons they claimed to have seized from protesters, only for it to later come out that they were props from a live-action roleplaying group?  They were only too happy to use the power of government and the police to promote propaganda aimed at limiting the political expression of people whose politics they disagreed with.

And we all know that it didn’t end with propaganda.  In order to stifle political dissent, the police engaged in mass arrests of people who had not committed any crime; 1,118 people were arrested.  The vast majority of those protesters were released without charge and just 24 people were convicted of any crime.  Police also used violent tactics against people who were not arrested, such as this incident where they were filmed charging a group of peaceful protesters singing O Canada or this incident where they used a controversial technique known as “kettling” to hold 300 people without charge for four hours in the rain.  Police also assaulted a journalist from Britain’s Guardian newspaper according to respected TVO reporter Steve Paikin.

Attacks on reporters covering politically contentious issues also take place in the U.S.  Here’s Democracy Now  journalist Amy Goodman being arrested by riot police at the Republican National Convention in 2008 while acting peacefully.  American political activists have also been subject to political prosecutions and exceptionally harsh sentences.  Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to 2 years in prison for the heinous crime of peacefully disrupting a land auction in the name of protesting inaction on climate change.  Police charged activist Aaron Swartz with a number of offences with punishments potentially totalling $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison because he downloaded (but never distributed) a large volume of academic journal issues; the charges were dropped after he committed suicide in response to the aggressive prosecution.  And so on.

Moving on to Russia’s anti-gay laws, they are indeed awful.  But while I think Canada generally has a good recent record when it comes to gay rights (even our most right-wing mainstream party is supportive of them), I couldn’t say the same for the U.S.  The Defence of Marriage Act, which barred recognition of same-sex marriages for purposes like insurance plans or Social Security survivors’ benefits (among many other effects), was only just struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.  “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, the U.S. military policy that barred openly gay Americans from serving in the military, was in place as recently as 2011.  Barack Obama, President of the United States, was opposed to gay marriage as recently as 2012.  Many American politicians still do oppose it; Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for President in the 2012 election, is among them.  Some U.S. states still have extremely troubling stances on gay rights.  For example, the House of Representatives in Kansas passed an insane bill last week that would have institutionalised massive discrimination against LGBT people.  Thankfully, after a massive public outcry, the state’s Senate Republicans announced that they would not pass the bill that the House had.

So, in light of these details, whose hockey team should karma go after?  Are attacks on political rights, political prisoners, journalists, and LGBT people only unacceptable when they’re done by an easy historical enemy?  Or, if we apply the same standards to ourselves, do we find that perhaps our own hockey teams ought to lose as well?  Maybe our spies are a lot like theirs.

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