Moving Beyond Electoral Politics and the Sedative of Empathy

Mar 29, 2024

Moving Beyond Electoral Politics and the Sedative of Empathy

A recent op-ed by Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow reminds us that just as we must divest from companies complicit in the ongoing genocide and apartheid, we must divest ourselves from governments and nation-states that are ultimately projects of empire.
An illustration with hands and arms on the outside in white and red, and then maybe green thyme or rosemary leaves inside in green and blue with Arabic text in red.

“A slaughter isn’t a slaughter if those being slaughtered are at fault, if they’ve been quietly and effectively dehumanized — in the media, through policy — for years,” writes Palestinian-American writer, professor, and psychologist Hala Alyan. “If nobody is a civilian, nobody can be a victim.”

Over the last few months, Canadian politicians have continued to normalize the ongoing genocide against Palestinians. Trudeau repeated Zionist talking points about Israel’s “right to defend itself” to justify their genocide; five MPs visited Israel to “learn about the trauma and toll of the Hamas invasion.”

Many politicians, like Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow, claim “what Hamas did on Oct. 7 was horrific and without justification.” They fail to recognize or perhaps cannot engage with the facts: that Palestinian resistance did not occur in a vacuum, but was an effort to resist the well-documented abuses, apartheid, and dehumanization enforced by Israel upon the Palestinian people.

Our politicians have made every effort to manufacture consent for Israeli war crimes, either through clear racism or more covert forms of normalizing rhetoric. Mayor Olivia Chow’s recent Toronto Star opinion article is part of this effort, which is no more than an attempt at pacifying a public increasingly frustrated with our politicians’ absolute failure at ending a modern-day genocide. I’m relatable; I’ve suffered; here is proof, she seems to say. And just like you, I don’t want bad things to happen.

But reading her article, it would seem that this genocide against Palestinians is being committed by no one, that Canadian banks are not invested in the arms that Israel is now using to murder with impunity, and that compassion and empathy alone are acceptable substitutes for material action, namely: an arms embargo and ending international support for an apartheid state.

If there’s a potential to recognize our present as a corollary moment, for Chow to call for resistance in the present just as resistance fighters did in the past, it’s smothered in this piece. Her reluctance to draw parallels between the violence of the past and present is why Chow tells Star, “my mother was a hungry child in a war zone,” without drawing the correlation that Israel is starving children in Palestine, just as the Japanese Empire did to civilians all across the Asian continent during the Second World War, including to Chow’s family.

On Oct. 9, at the beginning of the current genocide against the Palestinian people, Chow called a pro-Palestinian rally “the rally to support Hamas,” insisted that it was organized “without a permit” (rallies don’t need permits) and that she “unequivocally denounce[s] it.” But on Oct. 8, she deleted a Tweet acknowledging “Palestinian pain and severe loss of life,” followed by a retraction and apology “because of the harm and confusion.” 

By conflating a recognition of Palestinian suffering with “harm,” Chow set the stage, however unknowingly, for the racist dog whistles we see in the present: the idea that Palestinian suffering must always be spoken about in absences, and any acknowledgement of Israel’s well-documented violence against Palestinians is “harm.”

Palestinian writer and organizer Mohammed El-Kurd writes:

To be Palestinian today is to feel like you are caught in a fever dream — trapped in someone else’s hallucination, where the question ‘What happens to the settlers?’ is offered with more urgency than questions about the welfare of six million stateless Palestinian refugees who are scattered around the world. It is to be interrogated about the hidden insidiousness of our chants, while Israeli politicians boast about ethnically cleansing Gaza in newspapers and interviews. It is to be shouted over, silenced, by people who claim to fear for their lives from the safety of apartments that have never been blistered by white phosphorus — that have endured nothing fiercer than a US winter — while people in another corner of the planet dig for loved ones buried beneath the rubble of demolished buildings.”

Like many other Canadian politicians, Chow has not mentioned Israel’s longstanding aggression even as she called for a ceasefire a month later on Nov. 10. Now in her Star article, she barely acknowledges Israel as a military force decimating a civilian population, naming Israel’s actions only once in the article as “unbearable,” preferring easy platitudes of claiming she “will always choose hope and compassion.”

Tellingly, Chow also fails to draw connections to the Chinese history of resistance against Japanese occupation — including the 1939-1940 Winter Offensive. One wonders which of our politicians today would condemn the same efforts to liberate the Chinese people from Japanese imperialism as “horrific and without justification.”

Indeed, our politicians’ brand of hope and compassion has led them to refrain from commentary as police violently brutalize pro-Palestinian protestors at peaceful rallies, terrorized citizens with pre-dawn raids that policing experts have said “cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions”, and clamped down on lectures in universities. This, of course, did not keep Chow from actively contributing to the McCarthyist repression of those calling for an end to the genocide, as she increased the Toronto Police budget by $20 million to $1.186 billion amid rising police brutality against pro-Palestinian protestors.

Politicians like Chow — who frame themselves as inherently more committed to justice by virtue of their identities — are instrumental in counter-insurgency by placating those who might otherwise demand more radical change. Having undergirded her campaign with the importance of being Tkaronto’s first Chinese-Canadian mayor, Chow has repeatedly promised more progressive changes and not only failed to deliver them, but has weaponized the performance of being progressive to introduce more repressive measures.

In the Star piece, as Chow explains, “There is a desperate need for humanitarian aid… Aid workers in our city, our country and around the world have been responding with compassion.” This statement fails to pinpoint Israel’s control over entry points into Gaza as the root of this man-made famine, with countless images of aid trucks stuck outside the Rafah crossing as Palestinians in the north of Gaza starve to death. Her call to provide humanitarian aid without dismantling or even naming the perpetrator behind this engineered starvation — namely, the Zionist entity — reveals this is an empty gesture aimed at pacifying those who insist our politicians do more to end the genocide of Palestinians.

A feeling is not an action,” Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo writes. “And the overemphasis on empathy is an overemphasis on feeling over action, on eliciting feeling rather than insisting on action.” In other words: from our politicians, expressions of empathy without meaningful action are distractions.

“Every act of compassion brings hope, in Gaza, in Toronto and around the world,” Chow writes. It’s a safe statement, empty without being coupled with a call for an arms embargo. No amount of compassion can absolve Canadian politicians of aiding a military force starving the children that Chow — and so many of our politicians — claim to care so much about.


This is much larger than Olivia Chow. What’s interesting about the piece is how Chow exemplifies the sentiment that many politicians who consider themselves well-intentioned or progressive are fond of: that compassion and thoughtful critique are mutually exclusive, and that the former will allow us to actualize a mythical post-racial society free of all harm and conflict. Her calls for compassion suggest that, at this juncture, self-investigation is the only action worth taking, that people should look to themselves and stop demanding those with power and privilege to offer anything more than compassion. This individualization of actions to take amidst a genocide obfuscates our material present: that structural asymmetry of political power between the government and its people is what’s preventing an arms embargo and cutting off ties to a genocidal Zionist entity.

In Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, African-American political activist, professor, and author Angela Y. Davis states, "I don't think we can rely on governments, regardless of who is in power, to do the work that only mass movements can do.” The last few months have been more than sufficient proof. 

On 8 December, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres addressed the Security Council about Israel’s genocide of Palestine, saying, “The eyes of the world — and the eyes of history — are watching. It’s time to act.” Yet the UN has also allowed the US to exercise its veto three times with regards to resolutions calling for a ceasefire since Oct. 7.

Likewise, since Canada voted for the UN resolution supporting a ceasefire on Dec. 12, little has changed. Our politicians have intentionally misled the public about weapons exports to Israel, failed to address how Canadian pension funds invest $1.6 billion in companies tied to Israel’s apartheid, and implemented “onerous and unfair” immigration requirements on Palestinian refugees, requirements that have not applied to Ukrainian refugees.

Canadian bureaucratic processes impose such impossible hurdles on Palestinian survivors that as of Feb. 6, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller confirmed that no one registered with Canada has been able to flee Gaza under the new program — all while Israel continues to murder Palestinians with the permission of the global north.

On Monday, Mar. 18, Canada passed a non-binding motion that had initially included a call to recognize Palestinian statehood. However, last-minute changes and backpedalling by careerist Liberals ensured that recognition of Palestinian statehood was left out of the amended motion. And while Canadian politicians debated — from the comforts afforded by the House of Commons and their positions of privilege — if there was indeed a genocide of Palestinians happening before their very eyes, Al-Shifa hospital was under siege yet again, circled by warplanes and drones as the Israeli Occupation Forces carried out another massacre.

“While this motion is a step in achieving the end of Canada’s collaboration in Israel’s genocide on Gaza,” The Palestinian Youth Movement wrote, “the Liberal Party amendments made clear what the red lines of Canada’s political class are: Canada must remain able to purchase weapons from the Israeli occupation regime, there will be no increase to the 1,000 cap on temporary visa applications for those fleeing Gaza, there will be no sanctions on Israeli occupation leaders who incite genocide, and there will be no official recognition of the Palestinian state.”

In other words, the material effort that must accompany such a motion remains to be seen. Already, according to a report by The Maple, Canada “won’t revoke existing permits for exports of military goods to Israel despite this week’s motion in Parliament calling on the government to ‘cease the further authorization and transfer of arms exports to Israel.’”

The Canadian government’s bureaucratic theatre should reveal the deep moral impoverishment of our political institutions, but this comes as no surprise. In 2022, when Amnesty International had issued a 280-page report on Israeli apartheid, Canada “reject[ed] the view that Israel’s actions constitute apartheid” but could not provide evidence about why. More recently, an investigation by The Breach revealed that after Oct. 7, “the Israeli consulate in Toronto was secretly behind an opinion poll that experts say manipulated Canadian public opinion about Israel’s war on Gaza.”

Our politicians have, of course, not engaged with these facts. But more crucially: the very structure of our electoral system will not allow them to. Anyone who poses a real threat to the established protocol of politely smiling through genocide is summarily punished and removed, as Sarah Jama was for her principled statements regarding Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Our governments and electoral politics are self-cannibalizing because the very recognition of Israel as a settler colony committing genocide means admitting Canada is a settler colony that was founded on genocide and continues to violently dispossess and disappear Indigenous peoples. And therein lies the problem; Canada recognizes that “Palestinian liberation targets the very premise of the colonial equation,” as Egyptian writer Abdelrahman ElGendy explains, because “it aims to dismantle its self-perpetuating structures.” That is why we must also recognize the promise of reform for what it is — an illusion that will only ever provide the same symbolic gestures we’ve seen before, empty of material action or consequence.

We are in a prolonged moment of “sharpening contradictions,” as the Palestinian Youth Movement stated, quoting revolutionary theory. It is becoming increasingly clear that political elites have no qualms about lying to the public if only to feed their aspirations, as it is clear that electoral politics will not save anyone. Since Canada called for a ceasefire at the UN, our politicians have not moved to enact material consequences. The Mar. 18 motion that was just passed is non-binding, and whether it will manifest in material outcomes remains to be seen.

Yet this motion is, as the Palestinian Youth Movement says, “a testament to the incredible power that the masses hold and can wield.” It’s clear politicians are terrified of how quickly and fervently people have mobilized around the cause of Palestinian liberation, leading two Liberal MPs to break rank and call for an arms embargo ahead of the Mar. 18 motion vote. In fact, a Liberal source reportedly stated “Liberals had argued that the political temperature needed to be lowered at a time of increasing public protests.”

The heavy-handed tactics of repression are a symptom of fear at the turning tide — and now is the time to press forward. It’s as Chicago-based anthropologist and lawyer Darryl Li wrote: this “[elite] panic, manifested in crackdowns on dissent, has clarified to growing numbers of people a basic truth: any hope of building a multiracial left strong enough to confront the resurgence of fascism depends on solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle.”

It is imperative we understand this. It’s not enough to celebrate the Mar. 18 motion as a victory, as some of our ever-well-meaning politicians are. Symbolism is insufficient in the face of the material reality of hunger, genocide, forced starvation, sexual violence, collective punishment, and war crimes. While we continue to pressure politicians on all fronts to act on their so-called empathy and understanding, we must also move to destabilize the structures that afford them their privileged positions. Just as we must divest from companies complicit in the ongoing genocide and apartheid, we must divest from governments and nation-states that are ultimately projects of empire, and invest instead in each other.

“The conflict between anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist forces and the capitalist, imperialist state will almost certainly remain asymmetrical in the short to medium term,” Tkaronto-based writer and organizer Daniel Sarah Karasik writes. “Still, even amidst those complicities, it’s not impossible that a movement of the left could build enough power to change everything — if, as much as we can, we create the conditions for it to grow.”

Indeed, continuing the long legacy of organizing — including, as Karasik mentions, the Black Panther Party’s community survival programs — multiple grassroots groups are organizing to educate and build people power while staging everything from die-ins, rallies, sit-ins, and more. The Palestinian Youth Movement invites allied organizations to speak at rallies and stages joint teach-ins as part of political education efforts, and draws links between interconnected struggles such as the anti-Vietnam War movement.

For over a month now, multiple McGill students are persisting in a hunger strike that demands the university divest from companies funding Israel’s genocide and apartheid, with one student being hospitalized to date.

Everywhere, Palestinians and their supporters are ensuring there’s no business as usual at universities, art galleries, arms factories, MP offices, and in the streets. This mass mobilization for the liberation of Palestine embraces the Palestinian Youth Movement’s proposal that “[we] must continue to advance a revolutionary zeal among our youth to see that any solution to any problem we face lies in the building of revolutionary power, not in liberal demand-making.”

Revolutions have happened before; they will happen again; they are happening now. There is an unstoppable trajectory at this very moment. It demands we abandon lingering sentimental attachment to beliefs that politicians will do the right thing, and instead that we act, escalate tactics, and most importantly, centre Palestinians. As El-Kurd asks, “What are the pretenses that absolve us from participating in history?”

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