Friday, June 01, 2012

Esther's protest


I have been hesitant to write anything here pertaining to the student protests in Montreal, partly because I didn't believe I had any solutions to offer and partly because I just wanted to stay out of the controversial mess it has become.  Besides, I have studying to do.  But this weekend, something changed.  I read the book of Esther.

First, some background:  the unrest started early in the year when a group of students decided to protest the tuition hikes proposed by the Quebec government ($325 a year for the next 5 years).  Seeing that tuition rates have been frozen for almost ten years, it seemed reasonable to the government to increase them to reflect rising costs.  This did not sit well with some students, and they organised an ongoing protest in which students were encouraged to boycott classes and refuse to hand in assignments.  It has now grown into a movement which has staged several organised, peaceful marches numbering in the hundreds of thousands as well as many smaller gatherings, temporarily closed some colleges, and earned student representatives a chance to negotiate with the government.  Sadly, the latest talks again resulted in an impasse. 

The movement has also been tainted by vandalism, interruption of the city's public transportation system, and the continuing disruption of the lives of peace-loving students and citizens.  While I appreciate the fact that some students are willing to stand up for accessible, quality higher education, I also observe that their motivations and their methods seem less than altruistic.  Asking corporations or taxpayers to contribute more and more while students pay less and less (in 1964, Quebec students contributed 26.4% of the actual cost of tuition; in 2009, it was 12.7%) is a good deal for the students involved, but taxpayers already carry heavy financial burdens and corporations don't have unlimited resources; Quebec has been witness to the fact that businesses will leave the province if conditions become unfavourable and they believe can be more profitable elsewhere.  In the same way that proposed tuition hikes have had consequences, increased taxation or shifting funds away from one source and channeling it into another will also have ramifications.  Every action has its consequences (beyond the intended ones) and in my observation, those involved in the protests have not shown much appreciation for this fact.  I for one, am grateful to benefit from some of the lowest tuition rates in all of North America, even after the proposed tuition increases. 

Anyway, I don't mean to argue a particular point.  What I see is that there are two sides of the issue and neither group is willing to give in to the other or offer much in the way of creative compromise.  The government is demanding that students pay more.  A minority of students believe they are justified in demanding that someone else foot the bill.  It is indeed an impasse and it makes me sad.

Back to the story of Esther.  Esther was queen to King Xerxes and also a Jew.  The Jews were not well-liked by Xerxes' right-hand man, Haman, and he proposed that the kingdom of Xerxes would be better off without them.  Xerxes gave Haman freedom to do what he wanted, since he was using his own funds, and Haman began to plan how he would extinguish the Jewish people in Xerxes' lands.  Esther's uncle, Mordecai, informed her of Haman's dastardly plan, and at first she was hesitant to get involved because her own position and very life could be in danger if she approached the king.  But Mordecai responded with these words:  "Don't think that just because you live in the king's house you're the one Jew who will get out of this alive.  If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive for the Jews from someplace else; but you and your family will be wiped out.  Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this."  (Esther 4, The Message). 

Esther then approached the king (and fortunately he extended a welcome to her and didn't put her to death for showing up unannounced, which he had a right to do in those days) and invited him and Haman to dinner.  I will stop the story there and you can read how it ends for yourself (a rather brutal turn of events), but the point that leapt out at me when I read it this past weekend was this:  Esther was threatened and her response was to extend hospitality.  She did not first demand justice; she invited the people she had issues with to her quarters for a fine meal.  And at that first meal, there was no discussion of her agenda and no requests made.  I believe there is something to learn here.  Esther had a life and death issue that urgently required action, and her first action (after praying and fasting) was to extend hospitality.  Not to demand something, not to be forceful and aggressive, not to manipulate or malign, not to induce guilt, but to offer hospitality.  Everything else stemmed from that.  

If we want people to extend generosity to us, I believe we have to be the ones to first show generosity.  Before we ever bring up our agenda, there must be hospitality.  This is how we must deal with each other if we are ever to cultivate a just and mutually beneficial society.  Otherwise, we all end up selfishly grabbing for our own piece of the pie and inevitably putting an elbow in someone's face or jostling them out of the way.

I don't know exactly what this means for me.  Perhaps I should invite Mr. Charest over for waffles.  Or take some disgruntled students out for Thai food.  Or make cookies for both parties.  All I know is that I can't sit by and do nothing.  I must extend hospitality.  I must show generosity and hope that it multiplies.

the photo:  a group of protestors blocking the street in front of Concordia University.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Protests and strikes are an important part of a vibrant and healthy democratic state. The low tuition that you appreciate is the fruit of Quebecois labour and there is absolutely nothing new about it.

Inviting protesters over for Thai food seems like it might produce something good. 400 000 people do not mobilize over $325/year.

As for inviting Xerxes over for waffles, he might accept, but only if you serve him naked and also offer him your virginity.

Anonymous said...

"What I see is that there are two sides of the issue and neither group is willing to give in to the other or offer much in the way of creative compromise. The government is demanding that students pay more. A minority of students believe they are justified in demanding that someone else foot the bill. It is indeed an impasse and it makes me sad."

Pulitzer prize winning journal Chris Hedges (M.Div, Harvard) on the student strikes in Montreal:

"Those of us who care about a civil society, and who abhor violence, should begin to replicate what is happening in Quebec."


The student strikes are the response of an educated demos. You might disagree with this movement, but in order to disagree you must first understand, which requires examination of the issues.

You might start by looking at Quebec's corporate tax rates.

You might consider the larger political, economic, and philosophical issues that lead to mass mobilization such as the Maple Spring.

You might study the post-WWII philosophies/politics (Neoliberalism) and heterodox economic practices (Pubic Choice Theory) that inform our global leaders.

You might examine growing wealth inequality in United States, Canada, and Britain.

You might look at federal policy and our Prime Minister's thesis outlining his political/economic thinking. You might consider that the logical implementation of Harper's views is the elimination of public education, and all public institutions. You might consider that this dismantling has already started through the defunding of our Universities.

You might consider that our students feel the effects of the undemocratic, plutocratic, actions of our government because they are poor.

You might consider the tuition increase as an austerity measure. You might consider the effects of the austerity policies of our global leaders, and that such austerity has arrived in Canada. You might consider that Pulitzer Prize Winning Economists disagree with these kinds of economic actions, for economic reasons.

You might consider that what is happening in Greece can happen in Canada & Quebec, and that our economic and political leaders are poised to lead us down this path.

You might consider that there are entire branches of theology that consider political action such as the Maple Spring the incarnation of Christ's hope for the world, the materialization of the gospel. You might consider that these theologies view surrender to hegemony as spiritual failure and a subversion of Christianity.

Or you can remain "hermeneutically sealed".

The choice is yours.

Matte Downey said...

Thanks for the comments.

I wouldn't say that protests and strikes are important and vibrant ingredients in a healthy democratic state. I believe it is more of a symptom of a problematic adversarial system which sets people up against each other instead of encouraging them to find solutions together.

Other considerations to take into account, besides the ones you have listed, are the economic factors: nothing is free; someone always has to pay the bill for the benefits we enjoy.

I am in no way minimizing the problems that we face in our country, but a tuition hike seems the least of our worries, imho. At this point, it is taking publicv energy and government resources and attention away from much larger and more urgent issues.

One of my friends indicated that he believes higher education is being devalued. He knows of several PhD graduates who are homeless because there are not enough jobs commensurate with their education. Flooding the market with more degrees seems counterproductive.

The other thing I find slightly concerning is the militancy with which the protestors engage with those who do not share their views. If they want to be heard, they must also be able to listen respectfully.

Just adding some thoughts to the conversation.

Anonymous said...

"Other considerations to take into account, besides the ones you have listed, are the economic factors: nothing is free; someone always has to pay the bill for the benefits we enjoy."

Please watch the following interview with Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. It covers a good chunk of why movements like the Maple Spring are happening, why funding universities is important, and why what our students are asking for makes economic sense. He is talking about the United States. But as the Citi Bank memo I posted previously indicates, growing economic inequality is happening in Canada, and under Harper austerity is growing in leaps and bounds. It is both undemocratic and economic suicide.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three


I think you are upset because you pay too much tax. You should be mad. But not at the students. The rational response is to fight to pay less tax, to side with the students, and demand that the rich pay.

There are many economists out there who know there are better ways than austerity. Other than Stiglitz, Paul Krugman (also Nobel Prize), Yanis Varoufakis, come to mind. They have dedicated their lives to these issues.

Anonymous said...

"I am in no way minimizing the problems that we face in our country, but a tuition hike seems the least of our worries, imho. At this point, it is taking publicv energy and government resources and attention away from much larger and more urgent issues."

The Maple Spring is using the tuition increase to address the larger issues. As I have been saying, this is not about $325. It is also a "French Thing": this is about the contract between the Quebec government and their people, one that Charest has slowly but surely renegotiating. Consider that Charest is asking students to pay more for tuition than he did! You can consider that generational warfare is being waged against our young people. The Boomers and the Busters got cheap education, good jobs, houses with big price tags, and a climate that is not overheated. All of this is going away, mostly because of Boomer and Buster policy.

We need to think of Education as a social investment. As Stiglitz mentions in the interview, a very large portion of real and significant innovation has its origins in the the public sector. In many economically powerful countries, such as Germany, University fees are kept very low. This benefits all sectors of the economy.

Anonymous said...

"One of my friends indicated that he believes higher education is being devalued. He knows of several PhD graduates who are homeless because there are not enough jobs commensurate with their education. Flooding the market with more degrees seems counterproductive."

This is true. But I don't think low tuition is fuelling this devaluation. Mostly, this is happening because of issues related to the workforce, the elimination of manufacturing jobs, and austerity focused on universities.Today, young people need to go to college or university of some kind so that they can participate in the "creative-class" economy.

Interestingly, in the US where post-secondary education is very expensive, there is an even greater devaluation of education. The quality of the education is also less. It turns-out that when students become customers, they can never be wrong (and can never fail). In other words, there is pretty good evidence that the more students pay, the more post-secondary education is devalued.

"I wouldn't say that protests and strikes are important and vibrant ingredients in a healthy democratic state. I believe it is more of a symptom of a problematic adversarial system which sets people up against each other instead of encouraging them to find solutions together."

There are certainly ugly and annoying sides to protests and strikes. BUt there is, also, beauty. You need to take a good look at the State and at the protestors and ask yourself who is more violent?

If you don't believe in protest and strikes, if you don't believe in social movements, where do you think your right to vote comes from? What about your right to pursue a PhD without being discriminated against? What about segregation? I'll tell you this much, these improvements to our social structures did not come from the 1% or from prayer.

If you are seriously considering these issues, then the student protests are working, because they are meant to work on you, to get you out of your comfort zone and start asking some serious questions about our society.

One last thought: what if the crucifixion of Jesus was the ultimate protest?

Anonymous said...

"One last thought: what if the crucifixion of Jesus was the ultimate protest?"

Meaning that Jesus allowed himself, as a political dissident, to be crucified.

Matte Downey said...

Thanks for your comments. All very interesting. Again, my point in this post is not to argue one side or the other. Both sides of this issue have their merits and faults. Yes, there is corruption and inequality in our government. There is corruption and inequality in each of us as well.

Just to correct a point you made: I am not upset about paying tax. I am happy to pay my share in order benefit the community and country.

However, demanding that the so-called rich pay more than everyone else is unjust, heavy-handed, and counterproductive. If the government can't demand that students pay more, then students can't demand that others pay more.

We do not have the right to other's wealth. What we CAN do is foster an attitude that encourages generosity where we all share what we have freely and with hospitality. This attitude is rare indeed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Matte.

I always like the spirit behind what you write, even if I disagree with you.

Just one last link of interest:

A TED talk from Richard Wilkinson on economic inequality.

Wilkinson shows quantitative data from a large series of studies indicating that societies with more equality are healthier.

What I find particularly interesting is that inequality effects the health of the rich as well as the poor in a a given society, and that the mechanism responsible for creation of equality doesn't seem to matter that much. He gives the example of Japan where there is less "progressive taxation of the rich", and more "equal pay".