Chris Pecora

Ritual Nonsense

Call and response

By Fred Stenson

All of us respond automatically to verbal stimulus. Even if we have a raging headache or are in mourning, we’ll still reply to “How are you today?” with “Just fine” because we’re programmed to. Many of us probably learned our first stimulus-responses in church as children. The priest or minister would say, “Lord, have mercy,” and the congregation would answer, “For we have sinned against thee.” As a ritual it was comforting, and I don’t recall feeling one bit sinful when I said my part. The words had lost their meaning, as is often the case with automatic speech.

In the political world, this sort of thing tends not to be as pleasant. In the tragic last US presidential election, Donald Trump’s average stump speech contained a litany of accusations against his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Anything even tending in the direction of Ms. Clinton, and The Donald’s supporters would shout, “Lock her up!”

Then there was “Make America Great Again!” Well, their man won, and America is not great again. But Donald can still make them chant it, because that’s how stimulus-response works.

This isn’t my own country’s mass hysteria, so it doesn’t upset me all that much. But such is the infectiousness of stimulus-response that, in the same time period as the Trump election campaign, December 2016, 1,000 people at a rally in Edmonton started chanting “Lock her up!” Rather than Clinton, it was premier Rachel Notley they wanted incarcerated. As well as being damned odd behaviour, it lacked any shred of sense. Premier Notley had committed no crime. Nor was she accused of one. “Lock her up!” had somehow morphed from a suggestion of possible Clinton–Democrat Party dishonesty to anger over the Alberta government’s carbon tax. And it had to do with misogyny. There would have been no such chant if Alberta’s leader had been a man.

When political gatherings become like unruly crowds at yesteryear public executions, that’s a problem, but my point today is that when people make statements automatic, they generally aren’t making sense. As time goes by, they make less and less sense. Still, the crowds go on shouting the familiar responses, not seeming to notice or be embarrassed.

Another example close to home is the call–response that starts in Alberta with a reference to a demonstration against a pipeline or against anything else related to fossil fuels or climate change. The person hearing it, if they are right-wing, responds: “Of course they drove to get there.” (Let me interrupt to make a short prayer: “Oh, Lord, please give me five dollars for every time I’ve heard this so I can retire to Monaco.”) If anti-fossil-fuel activists are supposed to gather on bicycles or ox-carts, wearing loincloths, doesn’t that imply that oil advocates gathering in Calgary to chant “Build that pipe!” should have rented Hummers or private jets to get there? (I wish I hadn’t said that. They probably will in future.)

Thanks to Trump, who loves a nonsensical cliché, especially if it’s brief and can be misspelled, we have a resurgence of people saying, “If they don’t like it here, they should go back where they came from.” The begged question to this one is always: “Who the heck are “they”? Donald aimed just such a statement at four US congress members not that long ago, all of them women, all of them brown—and all of them US citizens. So Donald’s “they” apparently referred only to their being non-Caucasian women. Good old racism, misogyny and McCarthyism baled into one.

As we head into Canada’s federal election of 2019, I fully expect the federal Conservatives to use the same kind of rhetoric. Canada has too many immigrants. Let’s send them back! Okay, fine. If we’re going to do it, let’s really do it. Trudeau to France and Scotland. Scheer to Romania. Singh to India. I don’t want to hear about where they were born. It’s where their genes originate that counts.

The rest of us can head back to whatever corner of the earth our ancestors came from. If we turn the time dial back far enough, poor old Africa will have a population of 7.7 billion. There is another alternative. If we favour the 6 per cent of ourselves that is Neanderthal, we can go extinct.

Okay, it’s ridiculous, but not a great deal more so than telling certain Canadians they can’t wear niqabs, turbans or kippahs if they work for the government. (What about St. Patrick’s Day? No shamrock stickpins?) Or picking on farmers and calling them “settlers,” as if there are any non-First Nations persons in Canada who don’t descend from settlers in some sense. “I swear my ancestors never put a seed in the ground!”

But if this is too tall an order, something else we could do would be in the same spirit. Instead of sending all Canadians (immigrants by definition) back, we could declare instead that only First Nations people are fit to govern, anywhere in this nation. Yes, it’s inspired. You’re welcome.

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday). Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.

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