A Tale of Two Trucker Stories
The New York Times and the Toronto Star on Canadian class resentments
In her New York Times column, Michelle Goldberg has written a very nuanced and searching analysis of the Freedom Convoy and the siege of Ottawa. She profiles some of the people she met at the protest. They come across not as far right ideologues but as lost souls who became unmoored during the pandemic and have latched on to protest as a way of gaining agency during a painful time. The opening paragraph makes this point memorably:
When I asked Matthew Wall, a 36-year-old electrician from Manitoba, what brought him to this city, which has been overwhelmed by a giant protest encampment, he answered with one word: “Mushrooms.” Searching for his purpose in life, he said, he went on a psychedelic spiritual journey and had an image of the Freedom Convoy, a demonstration against Covid rules that has converged on the Canadian capital with trucks and other large vehicles.
In the second half of the article, Goldberg dives into the sinister reality of the leadership of the movement: racist, far-right activists who are openly courting violence and sedition.
Although she doesn’t use these words, Goldberg is trying to see the Convoy dialectically: there’s a far right activist core that can fairly be described as protofascist which has found a recruiting and radicalizing tool in the widespread discontent with the way governments are handling the pandemic.
Some liberal commentators are now criticizing Goldberg’s column for, they say, whitewashing the convoy. On Twitter, the journalist Lindsay Beyerstein contested my claim that Goldberg’s article helped explain the attraction of the Freedom Convoy movement. “Credulously platforming people based purely on their personal insistence that they aren't fascists, despite their enthusiastic participation in a fascist street action, is not a responsible way to go about that,” Beyerstein argued. “Got through interview without dropping racial slur. Check! Gave me a hug: Check! Clearly this person deserves to be the main focus of my report. No credibility issues here.”
I think the question of the appeal of the Freedom Convoy is a crucial one. In The Toronto Star, Frank Graves, a pollster with EKOS Research, has noted that while most Canadians have a negative view of the Freedom Convoy a sizable minority (roughly 33%) are sympathetic. It’s very dangerous for 30% of the population to be sympathetic to a protest movement led by the far right.
Graves demographic analysis of the social base of these Freedom Convoy sympathizers is worth quoting:
The most important driver is generational. Half of under-50 Canadians are sympathetic to the protests and their cause. Other key drivers include education, with college graduates more sympathetic and university graduates more opposed. Social class is also a key factor with working class drawn to the protesters and middle and upper classes opposed.
Moreover, it may be that economic anxieties are driving these protests as much as the named issues of vaccines and mask mandates. Those most adamantly opposed to masks and mandates have (by far) the bleakest economic outlook, resulting in a generational resentment toward an economy that has seen younger Canada faring much worse than their parents or grandparents at a similar stage of life cycle. Wage stagnation exacerbated by inflation and affordability is a key force expressing itself in housing and many other pocketbook issues.
Nation-wide, stress has been well above normal levels for more than two years. Stress is much higher in poor people and declines with upward movement in self-defined social class. Under-50 Canada is experiencing much more stress than over-50 Canada. There is also a striking interaction between age and gender with under 35-women registering 25 per cent higher levels of stress than comparably aged males.
Most alarming, 65 per cent of Canadians believe — and have believed for more than a decade — that if the present trend in the concentration of wealth at the very top continues, Canadians may well see “violent class conflict.”
In other words, class polarization and economic stress are making Canadians more receptive to extremist right wing politics. It doesn’t do to simply say the protestors and their sympathizers are bad people or in a minority.
I think we should be clear-eyed about what's happening: a far-right movement (with a definite fascist component) is hijacking wider public discontent and they're likely to continue doing that thanks to the flat-footed response of the powers that be. Unless there's an alternative politics offered, the Freedom Convoy is going to continue to have a terrific opportunity to recruit and radicalize.
(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)
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