Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Scott Neigh's "Talking Radical: Resisting the State"

So, my friend Scott Neigh has asked me to review his book Talking Radical: Resisting the State - Canadian History Through the Stories of Activists. So here's the review!!

First off, I finally think that I understand Scott's antipathy to working through official channels to achieve lasting gains. Many of the activists (either interviewed or described third-hand) who accepted government funding found their freedom of action constrained and their campaigns co-opted and neutered. Of course, I've always proposed going in with our eyes open to actually take-over and implement revolutionary change, and not to accept some pragmatic compromise that flushes the core of what you want to do down the toilet. Still, you can see from the stories inside "Resisting the State" where Scott's fears come from.

In "Resisting the State" Neigh speaks with ordinary Canadians from many different backgrounds who work on many different causes. His first story is about an elderly couple of peaceniks and about their experiences as war-resisters in World War II. Isabel and Frank Showler were inspired by the same Christian pacifism that informed J. S. Woodsworth of the CCF. Personally, while I understand that WWII was a tragedy caused by the fallout of the First World War, I still believe that it was necessary to have stopped Hitler. The Showlers still believe it was wrong for Britain and France and Canada to have gone to war in 1939 and they have respectable reasons for believing this. Where we agree is on the right of citizens to be free of the threat of conscription. If a democratic people do not feel strong enough about a cause to risk death and possibly kill their fellow human beings, they should not be compelled to do so.

Isabel was a 19-year old Occupational Therapist who did not want to sign an oath of allegiance to defend the Queen if it meant bearing arms and vocal about not wanting to register people for war work. In the end, she was allowed to sign an oath with specific caveats and allowed to opt-out of war administration. Her account makes clear though that this stand took some courage. Her parents had made many sacrifices for her education and if she had been fired and given a black mark on her record it would have destroyed her career and her parents' sacrifices for her would have been in vain.

Frank was conscripted in 1944 and for refusing to serve in the military he was relegated to working in labour camps under military-style discipline. He stayed at that until the government realized that there were more productive uses for all those men trashing around in the woods. He was allowed to return to Toronto as a hospital worker (where he took the opportunity to organize his fellow workers into a union).

It's a nice little opening chapter. I've spent more time than I wanted to on this. So I'll talk about another chapter next time.

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