None of My Business
Appeared in Business in Vancouver – Issue 1149, November 1-7, 2011
About 45 minutes into the opening Occupy Vancouver rally I had, unbidden, a racial moment. Where were the visible immigrants?
The rally’s dominant theme was variations on the now well-known “1/99” – the one per cent of the fabulously rich and the rest of us. In truth scholarly research indicates that one per cent of Americans own about 40 per cent of the nation’s wealth. (And, glossed over, shell out something like that per cent in taxes.) Not to be smug. The Conference Board of Canada acknowledges that the wealth gap is smaller here but growing faster than in the U.S., and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty himself is advising retailers to cool down their prices.
But racial diversity at the rally was conspicuous by its absence. One leader whose photo ran in the public prints was Asian. The odd young ethnic Chinese, who looked like curious non-participating students. Few aboriginals. Here and there people whose origins could have been the Middle East, perhaps Iranians, and India. Not one black face did I see.
In this, allegedly the most ethnically diverse city on the continent, where a newspaper coincidentally reported that 60 per cent of Richmond residents are immigrants and 40 per cent are ethnically Chinese, the persons gathered in hostility toward capitalism were – almost to a man and woman – as white as a Mississippi town council around 1950.
Tentative conclusion: It is entirely possible that Third World immigrants had more pressing previous engagements – practising capitalism, shamelessly.
They had flown to capitalism. It’s always been a one-way street from regimes where medievalism, ties of religion, party, class, or family predetermine winners and losers, and to a better land, warts and all, than they had known, where they could prosper freely using their wits and sweat. Any deserved guilt there? As Dr. Johnson drily said, “A man is seldom so innocently employed as when he is getting money.”
But – if tempted, hold the applause. As a member of the upper working class (which I define as having a father who had a steady job in the 1930s, when I was born), I feel deeply for the confused, innocent victims of time and place, especially the children, the badly educated, the loyal, laid-off 50-year-old, the unemployable chronically ill. It is handy but ultimately witless to think in categories, either of the unfeeling rich, or of the deserved broke. Each of is a statistic of one.
You cannot preach Adam Smith to a desperate mother. You cannot lecture – and there’s some nearly obscene lecturing going on in some media – to a bewildered man that 99 per cent of the world’s people would consider Canadians among the one per cent that the protesters vilify, so be grateful.
Memories swim back half a century to a wallet-light honeymooning couple, assuring so many Mexicans who insisted on washing their Morris Minor car with a rag and a pail of water, “We are poor people!” – quietly scorned, like their bad Spanish, because self-evidently they were rich, they had a car, they were not scratching for a bare living but travelling, staying in hotels, lunching on sunny patios. A wise young man crystallized this for me with offhand brilliance: “You measure yourself against what you can see, not against what you can’t see.”
That is why the wider resentment exists, is legitimate, and why, assuming this isn’t a year like 1848 or 1968, and unless it gets much nastier in an age when violence can spread with the speed of so-called social media, it would be more than a pity if it sputtered out without action in this country of a coat of many colours.
© Trevor Lautens, 2011