Progressive politics, ideas & culture


The Canwest Museum of Human Rights?

This Magazine Staff

Philip Gourevitch, in his essential We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, describes the ridiculousness of reading a newspaper article on Rwandan atrocities while waiting in line at the Holocaust Memorial in Washington.
During a speech at the museum’s opening ceremonies, Bill Clinton called it “an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead.” Gourevitch writes, “Apparently all he meant was that the victims of future exterminations could die knowing that a shrine already existed in Washington where their suffering might be commemorated…”
Gourevitch goes on to chronicle not only the horrors of the Rwandan genocide (a word the Clinton administration was loath to use) but the west’s complicity in the act. Not only for acting too late, and acting incorrectly but for a creating the historical circumstances that lead up to it and ultimately for supplying the resources with which to carry out mass murder.
This week we’ve been hearing a lot (especially if you live in a Canwest owned town) about Gail Asper’s coup in securing federal status for the Human Rights Museum to be built in Winnipeg. Stephen Harper, always the intellectual, described the partnership as such, “never before has there been a collaboration of this scale to develop a national museum, but if ever there were a Canadian cultural institution suited for a public-private partnership, it is this one, because human rights can never be the exclusive preserve of the state.”
According to Canwest News Services, “It’s unclear how much say the Asper family, whose private foundation is putting $20 million into the museum, will have in the running of the museum. However, Harper said major contributors will serve on its board.”
Call me an alarmist, but somehow “the Canadian state,” in partnership with a right-wing media behemoth, defining human rights in my community doesn’t sit right. Even worse, this is all happening in a structure expected to tower over Winnipeg in the form of an ancient Babylonian Ziggurat. Why such an obscure–and ugly–architectural reference, if we’re giving homage to the great slave-labour empires of antiquity why no go with something a little more pleasing to the eye, a Pharaonic Pyramid perhaps, or maybe a couple Kremlinesque domes.

Last summer I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. The memorial to one of America’s greatest heroes is a small National Park Service red-brick building across the street from his childhood home. The once thriving middle-class black neighbourhoood is now depressed. Only blocks away, I saw hundreds of people encamped underneath massive highway overpasses, many laying on bare concrete, amidst posters that said re-elect Ray Nagin as mayor.
The exhibit chronicling MLK Jr’s life and the history of the civil rights movement was moving as was the video presentation that acknowledged the radical path he was on right before his death. In the section of the centre aimed at children I found a booth admonishing us to make ethical purchases. The exhibit gave an overview of sweatshops around the world and listed some organizations fighting child labour. “Great,” I thought, but turning around I noticed a large plaque with the words “this exhibit is proudly sponsored by the Coca Cola corporation.”
Coca Cola is one of Atlanta’s biggest companies and they have a budget with which to sponsor culture, but this is the same brand that many student groups have been trying to kick of campuses world wide for human rights abuses in Colombia, India and other countries. The month before, I had watched a Colombian bottling-plant labour organizer weep as he recounted being tortured at the hands of the paramilitaries hired by Coke to imprison him and harass his family.
I’m not sure if it was the same feeling Gourevitch experienced outside the Holocaust memorial, a combination of shame and frustration, but my visit had been ruined and one of my heroes dirtied.
Cornell West talks about the Santa Clausification of Martin Luther King Jr, the rebranding of a political radical into someone cuddly and safe. I’m not sure if he knows that, like Santa Claus, MLK is now a shill for an authoritarian beverage company. And pretty soon, Canadian school children will have the privilege of learning about “Human Rights” from the number one purveyor of anti-labour, anti-muslim, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-women sentiment in this nation.

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