“The word ‘brutalize’ is now employed quite wrongly to mean harsh or cruel treatment meted out by the strong to the weak…but in fact it means something subtler, namely the coarsening effect that this exercise of cruelty produces in the strong.” – Christopher Hitchens
In his book, Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens explores George Orwell’s time as a policeman in Burma where he was engaged doing “the dirty work of the Empire.”
Immediately upon his arrival in Burma, Orwell witnesses a white policeman savagely kicking an Asian man which elicits murmurs of approval from a group of British onlookers.
Hitchens explains that this illustrates two forms of brutalization. The white policeman brutalized the Asian man and the British onlookers had become brutalized, coarsened, by that act of cruelty.
We’re very aware of the first form of brutalization but are blind to the second, in fact we justify our collective brutal acts (the victim, those idiots wearing masks, had it coming) or excuse it (we’re frustrated by covid and acting out our stress).
Before we get to the connection with Pierre Poilievre, we’re going to take a slight detour to discuss an act of brutalization that occurred in Victoria BC.
The inner-city neighbourhood of James Bay was besieged by trucker protesters every weekend starting in January 2022. The residents, many like the man dying of cancer and his desperate spouse, were trapped in their homes, beyond the reach of ambulances, at the mercy of angry protesters who blasted their horns, gunned their engines, and screamed at them if they ventured outdoors. All this was justified (in the eyes of the protesters) because they were protesting restrictions that had been lifted months ago.
In March the police set up blockades to prevent the truckers from entering the neighbourhood. The protesters responded by gathering on the perimeter, standing their trucks, and screaming “honk, honk” at all and sundry.
Consider the lunacy of this.
If James Bay had been a worksite and an employer demanded the protesters come into work on their days off and perform a repetitive, stupid task, outdoors in the pouring rain for hours on end, he’d have been cited for violating OH&S and labour laws.
And yet, the protestors had been so brutalized, their humanity and compassion so coarsened. that they continued to intimidate the residents of James Bay (while also making assess of themselves).
Enter Pierre Poilievre
After test driving Andrew Scheer, a social conservative masquerading as a centrist of sorts, and Erin O’Toole, a sorta-centrist pretending to be a hard-right conservative, the CPC finally elected a guy they could all get behind, the pugilistic, belligerent Pierre Poilievre.
Poilievre won by blaming Trudeau (it’s the government’s fault and if it isn’t, they’re not doing enough to fix it) and then going one step farther. He whipped up his supporters’ rage, fear, and frustration by pandering to conspiracy theorists, hobnobbing with the trucker convoy, attracting the support of extremists like Diagonal, and hitting all the right notes with the anti-vaxxers.
He appears to take no responsibility when the angry horde interprets his call to action as permission to carry on with blockades and continue to harass and intimidate healthcare workers, politicians, journalists, and ordinary people going about their daily business.
This is irresponsible and dangerous and has to stop.
This time is different
Just to be clear, politicians of all stripes try to tap into the public’s fears to garner votes, and yes, everyone is frustrated by the years of uncertainty over covid, inflation, the high cost of food, fuel and housing, but this time it’s different.
Why? Two reasons.
One, Poilievre’s behavior is more extreme than anything we’ve seen in the past. (No conservative politician in their right mind would have been caught schmoozing with the crowd blockading downtown Ottawa, let alone arguing their case on their behalf).
Two, we’re at a point in history unlike any other. The country is coming out of a pandemic that upended the global economy. Russia is fighting what appears to be a losing war with Ukraine, making Putin even more unpredictable. The EU is under stress, the UK is reeling, the US is on the verge of a major meltdown and authoritarian governments are on the rise around the world.
This is the time for Canadian politicians to pull the nation together so we are prepared to meet the challenges facing us; this is not the time to brutalize its citizens and enflame us with half-truths and conspiracy theories.
Because unlike George Orwell, who escaped the brutalizing effect of colonial Burma, we have nowhere to go. Canada is our home and we cannot allow Poilievre or anyone else to brutalize its citizens in a ruthless quest for power.