Thursday, May 24, 2012

Quick reflections on the coverage of the ongoing Quebec student strike

Having passed 100 days, now, the strike that's been undertaken by University students in Quebec appears, amazingly, to be growing in strength. The latest major demonstration, on Tuesday, attracted more than 400,000 protesters (well, estimates seem to range from 150k to 500k) to the streets of Montreal. That's pretty damn impressive.

Judith Butler notes that the past 100 days "raises fundamental questions about whether students in Canada have a right to an affordable education". An incredibly wise letter in Le Devoir (which I can only read, and paste here, in translation) suggests that the argument against the strike has to do with inertia, and that the merits of the strike should have nothing to do with "whether or not [increasingly expensive university education]'s the norm in Anglo-Saxon North America" - even if that's precisely how the debate has been framed by most talking-heads. That's probably the most frustrating part of the discussion - people who take the default position that Quebec's Universities need to be more expensive because everyone else is more expensive, rather than considering that perhaps Quebec has it right and we should find ways to enable everyone else to charge less. What happened to accessibility? What happened to class mobility? But, regardless, these are very cool, and very necessary, conversations to be having. (As is the related, and unavoidable, conversation about what a critical mass of people can/must resort to when their elected representatives won't act for them.)

Partial picture of the protest on Tuesday, from

Equally amazing, I think, is just how many people either don't or simply refuse to understand what's happening and why. The political pundits of every party and every mainstream English-Canada op-ed seems to find it especially abhorrent that the student-movement has drawn parallels between itself and the Arab Spring. It's not the same thing, clearly, no. But when you dismiss the comparison outright, you ignore the parallels that do exist, and you ignore the reasons why they're doing what they're doing.

Of particular note, I think, is the fact that a lot of the political and media establishment continues to be surprised at the movement's momentum and power, and doesn't understand why and how they could think these "entitlements" to higher-education are "rights". That head-stuck-in-the-sand mentality, that complete failure to understand and empathize with people who are quickly losing hope in the system and that they can be happy and fulfilled within it, is precisely the sort of delayed reaction that doomed certain powers during the Arab Spring. It's a failure to understand, and even more than that - a total refusal to try and understand. And it's pretty stunning to see it happening again, here.

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