In two separate court cases of recent months, an elderly Canadian woman was either cleared or conditionally discharged for her refusal to fill out the 2011 national census forms. Normally a required civic duty, each woman chose not to complete the documents on the grounds that the software used to tabulate the census data is owned and operated by Lockheed-Martin, a major American tech firm with longstanding ties to the US military and security apparatus. The women’s lawyers argued that their clients could conscientiously object to handing their personal information to a foreign company which works closely with a foreign government. Public opinion, too, was on the defendants’ side, as the optics of the cases – the full force of Canadian justice wielded against little old ladies, one of them a World War II veteran – made the state look petty and vindictive.
But there is another side to the story. For Canadians of a certain age and inclination, personal politics has always begun and ended with opposing anything linked to the United States. At the same time, many of the same Canadians, during the Cold War and after, had a not-so-secret admiration for the achievements of the USSR, which they perceived as a grand and largely successful experiment, delivering economic security to all its people in a way the capitalist west never could. (Partial disclosure: one of the women on trial was an old friend of some of my relatives, and I met her at family functions two or three times.) Obviously this leftish habit of mind has persisted down to the present, as with the pair of seniors recently exonerated. What bothered them about the Canadian census forms likely never bothered them about the Canada-Russia hockey series of 1972, or Canadian grain sales to Leonid Brezhnev’s gerontocracy. Lockheed-Martin equates with imperialism, war criminals, and the military-industrial complex. But the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan; bread lines; the OGPU; and the Gulag? Don’t bother us with your bourgeois propaganda.
Of course, this attitude is more naive than subversive. So it was with my parents, who had lived through the Great Depression and witnessed the western alliance with the Soviet Union during World War II, when they drove a Russian-made Lada vehicle in the late 1970s out of a vague sympathy for the socialist ideal; like the USSR itself, the notoriously ill-made Lada disintegrated within a few years. And conversely, there were many knee-jerk anti-Communists who rejected anything that smacked of the Red menace, such as labour unions, public television, and folk music. Forty years ago, what was honorably progressive in some circles was dangerously radical in others, and where high school history teachers saw creeping fascism, Chamber of Commerce boosters saw good old law and order. But the point is that we are all pretty selective in what we approve and disapprove of politically, and anyone can cite a private reason to drop out of an otherwise mandatory obligation.
Maybe the camera that takes my driver’s license photo was made in China, a well-known violator of human rights – no ID for me, Your Honour. My tax dollars, subsidizing scientific tests on lab rats? Over my animal-loving, non-paying body. Religious beliefs prohibit me from sending my kids to a school that teaches about same-sex marriage, so you’ll have to haul me to jail. And no way will I let the details of my age, ethnicity, and marital status fall into the hands of Yankee warmongers: see you in court. In each instance, the principle invoked – freedom, nonviolence, faith, pacifism – can be conveniently ignored in other situations with other parties. When it comes to civil disobedience, people are pretty flexible about which civil institution to disobey. So before we celebrate the defiance of the raging grannies, we should recall that not only is one man’s terrorist another’s freedom fighter, but also that two women’s heroic resistance might still be two women’s useful idiocy.