Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Stop the Hate

I try to avoid insulting people, or getting people's bad sides, or flaming, or any other internet activity that is not conducive to peaceful and harmonious communication. Not because I'm a namby pamby fluffy bunny, but just because these things have a tendency to snowball and become massively unpleasant in very short periods of time. Life is too short.

So, that said, I don't want to start a flamewar with Sean T. Collins.

But please, dude, perhaps you should think about how you come off to other people. You didn't get my point at all, and your attempt at answering my wife's legitimate question was both pat and condescending.

We both know Phoebe Gloeckner is an autobiographical cartoonist. We just don't know why the cover of issue #261 of the Journal had to be a large photograph of her looking like a Vogue cover model. Name another autobiographical or semi-autobiographical cartoonist who had a photo cover on the Journal. Dave Cooper? John Porcellino? Debbie Dreschler?

There are issues of gender perception and double standard here that boil down to more than a simple unswerving defense of Gloeckner's every public action. Feminism is something that every woman defines for herself, and for my wife, regardless of what the artist herself was intending, the cover to TCJ #261 represented an uncomfortable mixed message. Maybe Gloeckner is OK with defining her public persona and critical importance in direct proportion to her physical appearance in a notoriously male-dominated field, but that's an uncomfortable line to have to draw.

I can't really speak on this subject other than to relay my wife's thoughts. She, being a woman, has a lot more authority on this subject than myself. She has to live in a society predicated on the constant and unremitting judgement of female citizens on the basis of their physical attraction. This is not a society that you or I can ever hope to fully understand. We live here too but there's a disconnect that we can never hope to bridge. There's so much self-loathing and trauma wound up in the average woman's self-image that most men can't even comprehend. Phoebe Gloeckner's work deals with some of these issues on a very visceral and combative basis - so why would she choose such a tone-deaf and easily misinterpreted image for her cover?

It's an interesting question.

Part Three – Indecision and the Axis of History

The initial Red River rebellion began as successfully as any rebellion in history. Despite periodic strife with the region’s white Protestant settlers, led by Dr. John Schultz and abetted by the frustrated Canadian governor-in-exile William McDougall, the rebellion had succeeded in forming a democratic provisional government composed of equal parts Metis and English-descendant settlers. Canada had recognized Riel’s government as a legal negotiating body. In striking contrast to almost every other historical uprising, this had been accomplished peacefully, with not so much as a single drop of blood shed through Riel’s actions.

But this couldn’t last. Tensions ran too high on both sides.

Doc Schultz was Riel’s most tenacious enemy among the English-speaking settlers. After his initial capture by Riel’s militia and subsequent imprisonment (alongside about 45 other members of Schultz’s force) at Fort Garry, Schultz escaped and fled to Kildonan. Whereas before Schultz had only been able to raise a handful of supporters, he was now able to raise a force of 300. This was primarily due to the 45 English militiamen still held at Fort Garry – Riel had given his enemies an impetus towards action that they had not previously possessed.

Although Riel was an intelligent and canny politician, his cardinal sin was indecision. A Metis named Norbert Parisien was taken into custody as he was visiting Kildonan, on suspicion of spying. Tempers were high at the Kildonan camp because Riel’s government had yet to free the 45 militiamen held in custody. Riel’s advisors and peers urged him to free the prisoners. They knew that as long as those 45 men remained in custody Schultz’s counter-rebellion would gain strength.

Riel eventual decision to free the Fort Garry prisoners is portrayed by Brown as occurring simultaneous to Parisien’s capture. John Sutherland, an English settler sympathetic to Riel, set off to Kildonan with the news of the freed prisoners almost immediately, but ceded the responsibility to his son, Hugh, after his family urged him to rest. Hugh Sutherland arrived in Kildonan just as Parisien made his escape from Schultz’s custody. Parisien shot Sutherland on the assumption that he was one of Schultz’s men. Sutherland was able to deliver his message before dying, but not before Parisien was beaten to death by a crowd of Englishmen, among them a violent Irish settler named Thomas Scott. Scott was a Northern Irish immigrant who also belonged to the vehemently anti-Catholic Orange League.

Riel sent an emissary to Kildonan and Schultz’s forces agreed to disband. But on the way home a large portion of Schultz’s force passed close enough to Fort Garry to be taken into custody by Riel’s provisional government. The men were taken into the fort and fed, which was a welcome development since their wilderness trek had left them very hungry.

Thomas Scott was not so easily appeased, however. He began to scream loudly at the Metis guards and prison staff, encouraging his fellow prisoners to revolt as well as actually attacking guards outside his cell. Finally, facing the threat of low morale and wishing to regain the respect of the prison staff, he authorized that Thomas Scott be tried for treason. Scott, who spoke no French, was tried by the Metis authority and sentenced to death.

Riel’s great weakness, as Brown portrays him, is indecision - a fatal weakness of character in a revolutionary. At the time of Scott’s education, Riel couldn’t have been any older than 26, an amazing age considering the position of respect and authority in which circumstances had placed him.

Certainly, Riel was not placed in an enviable situation. Whereas most historical rebellions have taken preemptive authority from violence and military force with the stated aim of creating new nation state, the initial Red River rebellion was conceived as a moderating force to protect the established Metis settlers from the perceived (and factual) injustices of a land-hungry Canadian federal government. As Brown emphasized in Riel, the provisional government had every intention of eventually joining Canada. They had every intention of working with the English settlers to ensure their communal property rights were preserved.

When Lenin took charge of the Russian state from the provisional February 1917 government, he made the decision that the Soviet Union would not honor any treaties or obligations entered into by either of the previous administrations – either the Romanoff dynasty or Kerensky’s ill-fated provisional government. Riel, on the other hand, had no desire to isolate the Red River settlements from the tradition of English rule under which they had been founded. Riel stated immediately on his assumption of the presidency of the provisional government that the settlements would still govern themselves as loyal subjects of the British crown.

A revolution grants itself moral prerogative through the abridgement of prior social contracts. The initial Red River rebellion was not a revolution in any sense of the word – it was a political movement. Under what authority did Riel’s provisional government execute Scott? Riel had no authority. Certainly, the story makes the case (and Brown’s footnotes underline the fact) that Riel felt he had no choice but to execute Scott. But he failed to fully perceive the web of consequences leading from this decision, and he failed to understand the legal repercussions.

He wanted to be a Canadian citizen. He would send a representative of his government to negotiate Manitoba’s incorporation into Canadashortly after Scott’s execution. If his provisional government had no extra-legal authority, how could he excuse Scott’s death?

Scott’s execution was a rallying point for the Canadian government’s persecution of Riel. The action would haunt Riel until his death, where the Canadian government would execute Riel under circumstances not dissimilar to those surrounding Scott’s execution. The only difference being that the Canadian government had every right to execute a perceived insurgent. Riel had none.

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