Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power and Politics.
Toronto has its first black chief of police and Desmond Cole has been "carded" over 50 times by Toronto cops. Mr. Cole is an ordinary young black man who, as he tells the readers of Toronto Life this week, has repeatedly been stopped by the cops for no other reason than EWB – existing while black.
The U.S. may soon have a female president and yet you can't escape hearing about the latest gang rape of a woman somewhere in the world. Canada has had six female premiers at the same time, and yet from dental schools to frosh orientations to sports teams to the Mounties and yes, to the armed forces, rape culture continues to flourish.
It makes you think.
Martin Luther King said that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. I studied history at the University of Toronto, where most of my profs adhered to the Whig interpretation of history, a belief in the inexorable progress of humanity. Yet no one knew better than Dr. King the suffering his people endured and many of my professors had not only lived through but some fought in the two most terrible wars in history.
In my early days of social and political activism, our major obsessions were economic inequality, war, racism and discrimination against women. Other struggles soon emerged – rights for gays and the disabled, the environment, and above all aboriginal rights – but for various reasons these weren't as high on the agenda in my universe. Environmentalism was important but somehow not all-important. Aboriginal rights, sadly and mysteriously, weren't given a high priority. Few of us knew that gay rights were even an issue and hardly any of us had ever met a real homosexual.
When I review this list of our ideals I find myself torn between a certain sense of achievement on the one hand and a real sense of failure on the other. In every case, vast strides have been made yet vast strides are still desperately needed.
Ironic juxtapositions characterize every one of the great causes. The 20th century introduced the United Nations and international peacekeeping and is known by historians as the era of genocide. We have world peace and incessant local conflagrations. Nations only rarely fight other nations but vicious internal wars are commonplace. Powerful nations try to end conflicts in which their own proxies are causing mayhem. The Permanent Five members of the Security Council are responsible for keeping the world safe while their arms manufacturers thrive and flourish.
More people have emerged from poverty than during any other period of history while inequality between individuals has never been greater. The world has never been richer while great poverty is still the fate of billions and the richest 1 per cent will own more than 50 per cent of the world's wealth by next year. Consumers in western nations face undreamt of abundance while our cities are growing more blatantly divided by class and race – often the same thing. Human rights, justice and equity are widely espoused while hard-rock conservatives win elections, implement neoliberal economic policies, exacerbate inequality and undermine democratic rights.
The rich world boasts of helping poorer regions to develop while we drain them of tens of billions more than we provide.
We have Barack Obama in the White House and half a nation who refuse to accept a black president. The U.S. has a swelling black middle class and plagues of cops murdering unarmed black men. In Canada, virtually every public figure celebrates our diversity while Toronto's new black chief of police continues a policy called carding that instructs cops to treat all black men as possible criminals.
Multiculturalism has become the great Canadian conceit while demagogic politicians and media incite fear against the entire Muslim people.
More and more women attain public office and have become respected professionals while aboriginal women in epidemic numbers disappear, are beaten, raped and murdered.
The demands of aboriginal peoples are widely considered just and fair yet somehow they are almost always abandoned by the governments they deal with.
Disabled people have rights and opportunities that were unthinkable in the past yet the limits of society's concern are only too evident – ask those with mental health problems, parents with autistic children, or the survivors of thalidomide.
While western nations are in the process of an unprecedented revolution in gay rights, many conservative politicians and religious leaders continue to preach hate and bigotry, too often successfully.
Here is the ultimate irony. My generation of progressives can look back with some satisfaction at the very real, even remarkable, progress made in so many critical areas. Yet I'm sure that when my granddaughters are ready to take up their activist roles, they will be outraged to find that the very same causes still face them. They will care little about the progress that's been made, and they will be right. But does that mean my generation failed? Will war and inequality and racism and misogyny and demagogy forever characterize the human condition?
Injustice, it seems safe to say, never rests, but hopefully neither do those committed to combatting it.