Monday, November 23, 2015

The Real Weakness of the Rightwing. . .

It seems that an increasing number of people are beginning to see the irony (and correlate hypocrisy) in the rightwing messaging around the issue of ‘terrorism.’ The right continually tells us that we have to be ‘strong’ and that we can’t be afraid of terrorism. They tell us that we have to go about our business (sometimes even literally – recall Bush telling us to go shopping after 911) and lead our normal lives because this is the way to beat the terrorists. Yet the entire rightwing narrative is about the very opposite; they are entirely driven by fear and are willing to change the very principles of our government and society in the face of a handful of terror related deaths.

But we are slowly seeing the emergence of different narrative and it is coming around the refugee issue. While our rightwing politicians are telling us to be afraid, to change everything about ourselves (thus essentially by their own standards letting the terrorists achieve exactly what they are aiming at), progressives are the ones really telling us not to change for terrorists, not to be driven by fear. A central element of this narrative is that we continue to take lots of refugees. Though this effort is motivated by a desire to do the right thing, it has the knock-off effect of doing exactly what the terrorists don’t want us to do. Because by not being driven by fear, by welcoming thousands of refugees countries like Canada can show that we are a welcoming society and not the anti-Muslim monsters that groups like ISIS tell their potential constituency we are.

This is exactly the kind of strategy that progressive need in their current struggle against the right. For far too long we have let the rightwing get away with portraying us as weak when exactly the opposite is true. The rightwing are the weak ones. They are weak because they are driven by fear, because they don’t have the courage to be straight-up and honest about their agenda, because they are willing to let a couple of relatively small terrorists attack undermine the principles of openness and freedom that we have worked so hard for, because they are too weak to compromise on anything, to ever admit they’re wrong, or to engage in actual discourse. That is real weakness!

Remember the old Lincoln quote that “no one stands as tall as when they stoop to help a child.” The real strength, the strength that the rightwing doesn’t have, is the ability to lend a helping hand when someone is trying to stop you, to stick to your principles in the face of hardship, to look for new solutions and take thousands of refugees when ISIS wants us to hunker down, abandon our principles, be driven by fear, and adopt our worst instincts of hate. The rightwing is quick to lower themselves to the very attitude of their supposed enemy. But progressives know better and it is about time that we demonstrate that we are the ones with real strengths – the strengths of acceptance, of love in the face of hate, of principle and hope in the face of fear, of discourse in the face of violence, and of helping the weak and vulnerable. Violence doesn’t take courage, hate doesn’t require bravery or determination, and anger doesn’t require will power. Anger fear and hate have always been the watchwords of the rightwing, not ours. The rightwing and the racists in this country are small, petty people who want to appear strong but are only guilty of peddling fear and weakness. When Harper and his cabal tried to generate fear of religious freedom to win an election, they were demonstrating their true weakness. They were so weak that they attempted to abandon hundreds of years of progress because they were trembling with fear in the face of one woman in a niqab. The rightwing are similar to the terrorists in this sense – it is not bombs and war that they fear; what they really fear is the effort it takes to accept, to cooperate, to embrace, to love, and to build.

As progressives we won’t embrace their fear and we won’t be turned aside. Brad Wall and Rona Ambrose and the rest of the cowardly lot may be shaking in fear in the face of 25 thousand refugees but I’m not.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Aesthetic Politics and the new (neo) Liberal Era. . . . .

In the modern era particularly since the Victorian times onward, politics has been a surprisingly aesthetic matter. This is because the rich and powerful people who overwhelmingly control government and politics in Western democracies are dependent on a largely lazy and ill-informed public to continually ratify and legitimize the continued dominance of an economic elite over the political establishment. Thus the political process has been one of creating the prevailing impression that the wealthy elites are somehow concerned with such trivialities as generalized prosperity, the well-being of the nation, jobs, education etc. If they don't effectively sell this package of benefits, they (as individual parties) risk being tossed from power. But more importantly, if the entire political class can't sell this illusion, they run a much bigger risk of actual social justice discourse intruding into mainstream political discourse, and that threatens the wealth and power of the small percentage of people who continually rule our democracies; democracies that are, I am sad to say, almost entirely illusory.

The Harper Government was a particularly graphic illustration of a failed aesthetic strategy. Over estimating public ignorance, racism, hostility, and nastiness is easy to do if your own attitudes tend in that direction. In the past decade we have seen this attitude become more and more public and explicit in the so-called 'Tea Party' phenomenon, a tendency that spilled over into Canada and found a home in Harper's Conservatives and Hudak's PCs in Ontario. But ignorance, racism, and religious fanaticism are much more widespread in the US, so as our Canadian politicians watched their southern cousins gain in popularity they over estimated what they could get away with here. Thus Harper and his ilk imagined that they could effectively sell an aesthetic of outright nastiness and contempt of democracy and still get reelected. In the weeks since losing power the Conservatives have dramatically illustrated the degree to which politics are about aesthetics and the degree to which they need to hide behind those aesthetics. So Jason Kenney tells us that the Cons got all the big issues right, but their tone was wrong. And in so doing he has failed to understand the central message of aesthetic politics, to wit: the illusion has to be complete, you can't admit that you are only pretending. By saying that they only got the tone wrong, Jason Kenney (entirely unwittingly) is like a magician who is revealing his secrets to the audience as he goes along. This is because the 'tone' that the Conservatives have now admitted to getting wrong was, at the core, a blatant contempt for democracy itself, so in this case their tone was their substance. This is why the Cons will be unable, in the short term, to renew their party. They have to come to grips with this sad fact; in a context in which most parties are still attached to the same socioeconomic model, politics is tone and little more! In admitting that they got the tone wrong, Kenney is admitting that they got the substance wrong too.

This is the strength of Trudeau, he understands that the illusion of modern politics has to be complete. You need to make people feel like they are stake-holders, like they are an essential part of the process and that the government is there to 'serve.' As long as you can sell this aesthetic, then you can continue to implement a neo-liberal agenda and make people feel that somehow it is just an inevitable, 'natural' outcome of democracy. But this brings up one of the real subtleties of modern politics, which is this - the great fear of the rightwing in this stage of capitalism is that an open, stake-holder political aesthetic will open up civil society just enough for people to realize the real practice behind the curtain. They fear that an open politics will gradually shift public discourse to things like climate change, economic inequality, the breakdown of the education system, the corruptions in the legal system, and the history of resource and land theft perpetrated against the indigenous population. In other words, what the rightwing fears is that by selling an open political aesthetic they must just end up creating the atmosphere of substantive change. The Liberals have taken another tack (a position taken by liberals for a long time in capitalism) - they realize that if they don't allow public discourse a degree of openness, an ability to slowly shift, the result will be a society so corrupt and unequal that revolution will eventually result.

In other words, the Liberals still know (like the Conservatives once knew but seem to have forgotten) that you don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. But the Liberals also know that if you don't give the people a little steak now and then they will eventually take it for themselves. The Conservatives seem to have forgotten that simple lesson altogether.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Affirmative Action, Merit, and Wealthy, Middle-Aged White Men. . .

Sometimes I think of Andrew Coyne as our national poster child for intellectual impairment. There are, as we are painfully aware, certainly more obtuse, dim-witted individuals on the national political and journalistic scene than Mr. Coyne. But more of these, such as Margaret Wente for example, are so thick that they are really beneath contempt. And such people only hold their positions of notoriety because they are shills for neo-liberalism and corporatism; if the prevailing social ideology were different, Wente would have trouble getting a writing position on a church newsletter, let alone a job as a nationally syndicated columnist. But Andrew Coyne is a great illustration of Woody Allan's dictum from Annie Hall, that you can be "brilliant and have no idea what it going on." This is Coyne in a nutshell. Like many people Coyne has attained his position in part because he comes from a rich and important Canadian family. But he is by no means incompetent. But his status as a white male from a well-to-do family makes today's Editorial piece extra ironic.

Today Coyne railed against the affirmative action approach toward women in the cabinet taken by Trudeau. The crux of Coyne's argument is summarized when he says that this affirmative action is like "asking the country's interest to take a back seat" to an abstract notion of equal representation.

This is a standard kind of argument against affirmative action, but it is particularly ironic here for a number of reasons. The first, and most obvious, reason is the one I have already mentioned. There are dozens of writers better and more astute than Andrew Coyne in this country, so to suggest that Coyne is a representative of a meritocracy is simply ridiculous. On the contrary, Coyne is an illustration of the fact that when it comes to being a national columnist in Canada's rightwing newspaper field, ideology, connections, and dare I say gender are all more important. And if you don't believe me do a small experiment. Go to your library (if you are fortunate enough to live in a large urban centre with a large central library) and look at as many Canadian newspapers as you can and count the number of bylines and classify them by race and gender. This experiment will demonstrate the shockingly lopsided representation in the national media, particularly when it comes to editorial work. (Incidentally, an interestingly similar experiment is one in which you simply count the number of images of men vs women in the national newspapers. You will see quite quickly just how gender biased our society really is) The fact is that it is ridiculously ironic for someone like Andrew Coyne to champion merit over everything else when you would have to be in a coma to imagine his own status and success is a result simply of merit.

The simple fact is that we don't live in anything like a meritocracy. That is the whole point of affirmative action. The obviousness of this fact is so startling to anyone who is even vaguely analytical is overwhelming. We live in a socioeconomic system that offers very lopsided degrees of education and opportunity at every level. We know this by this simple fact - if we believe that women are equal to men in ability (and I assume that everyone reading this does), then they would already hold more than half of all political jobs since they make up more than 50% of the population. The reason we need affirmative action of any kind is precisely because we don't live in a meritocracy! And if Andrew Coyne's ego wasn't so huge he would understand this very simple fact. But like most people who are successful, Coyne believes that his success is a direct result of his merit.

But I think that an even more important point is that even the notion of merit is much more nuanced than people like Coyne give it credit for, particularly in a field like politics where the criteria of 'merit' are vague and often unquantifiable. Being a 'good' minister does not necessarily mean being an expert or overly familiar with the nuances of a particular issue. God knows if that was the criteria for being an effective government minister then every government would have a hard time creating a cabinet since the real experts almost never run for office in the first place. Thus Coyne would do well to remember that where strict or regulated notions of merit are unclear, the very notion of merit is flexible and redefinable. One might, for instance, think that women or members of a racialized group are more likely to have a better take or grasp on certain portfolios, and they also may be better placed to communicate and deal with the major players in the field. This is a central point, the apparent complexity of which is missed on men like Coyne.

And this brings us to the most inflammatory thing in Coyne's statement above, the implication that ensuring gender parity in the federal cabinet is somehow putting the "country's interest" at risk. But here's the thing: it IS in the country's interest to have gender parity in politics for so many reasons. And it is Coyne's failure to understand this very simple point that makes me say that Andrew Coyne is, sadly, a poster-child for intellectual impairment. If you can't understand how the inequalities in our society are operating, how could you ever be expected to address them???

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Political Irony and Emotional Intelligence. . . .

It is interesting that it is only in the wake of Harper's downfall that the full weight of the irony involved in the decade of Conservative rule begins to become clear to many.

The last time a conservative party lost their federal majority they lost not only to the Liberal Party but they lost to another upstart conservative party, the ironically named Reform Party. It seems almost unbelievable now to recall that the Reform Party came to Ottawa on claims that they would have lots of free votes, their MPs wouldn't accept the rich pension plans,  their leader would never live in Stornaway if they became the Offical Opposition, and they would stand for a genuinely open government (in contrast to both the PC Party and the Liberals). WOW! That program of reform was so short lived that many people have forgotten it altogether. It also seems easy to forget now that Peter MacKay sold out the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada even after verbal and written agreements that he would not do so. But like the proverbial toad in the slowly heating water, many people seemed blithely unaware that a political party that had begun its life devoted to openness and honesty became the very symbol of secretiveness and corruption. Conservative all over Canada readily accepted (and still accept) this wild perversion of our system. If nothing else, this past decade has confirmed to me (along with some other personal experiences) how little people really are committed to democracy, openness, honesty, fair play, and responsible representation. I fully realize now that people just don't care about that stuff, they are fine with corruption and secretiveness etc. as long as it is their side doing this stuff.

In an effort, perhaps, to double down on the irony, next week Brian Mulroney is giving a speech at Toronto's Albany club in which he is widely expected to make some kind of case for the return of civility, openness, and even centrism to the Canadian conservative movement. Fact, as they say, is stranger than fiction. Many of my peers are watching with a certain amount of glee as the knives begin to come out in the days after the Conservative fall from power. Will we see the so-called 'Red' Tories attempt to reassert themselves in the wake of a leader who more or less gutted the party of any position short of his own maniacal hunger for power? Is there anything left to recapture at this point? Let's face it, over the past ten years there was hardly a single voice of dissent in the conservative movement against the over the top centralization and nasty one-man rule of the party. There were a few of course, but the fact that they were such an exception, demonstrated the rule of discipline and centralization in the Party.

The past decade has made me think that what we need in politics is something like a Turing Test. The Turing Test is a test designed by Alan Turing intended to determine whether a machine or robot can display true intelligence and can appear to a person as conscious. We need a kind of Turing Test of politics, not to show us whether a politician is conscious or intelligent, but whether they possess enough human empathy to qualify to be political representatives.  Few of us have any doubt at this point that Stephen Harper would fail such a test miserably. The real question is- will those who seek to replace Harper try to apply some standard of meaningful social behavior to their new leader, or will they accept the status quo?

Of course, the real dilemma of the Turing Test is that it might always be unclear whether the robot you are testing is truly an "artificial intelligence" or just a very well programmed simulation of intelligence.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Did we Reject Harper or his Agenda?

On the back side of an election loss the Conservative Party is desperately trying to spin a narrative that Canadians rejected Harper but not his rightwing agenda. We should be quick to disabuse the Conservative Criminals of that myth. The fact is that Canadians always rejected the Conservative Party agenda. Harper's Conmen were able to gain political power not because Canadians liked their agenda but because of a perverse combination of our FPTP electoral system, a deeply sympathetic media, an ineffective opposition, and radically divisive strategy on Harper's part.

Of course, we have to ask, after ten years of a disastrous government, what exactly is this "conservative" agenda to which Harper's trained seals continue to refer?? When any of them (and one has to figure that most of the ones speaking up now are seriously considering running for Harper's job) speak about this "conservative" agenda all they offer is "lower taxes and smaller government," as though those two points could possibly constitute a real political program. And even those two pillars of the so-called conservative brand are largely myths. First of all, though corporations and the well-off certainly got some tax breaks from the Harper government, for most people these tax breaks were nothing but smoke and mirrors. Any average Canadian who looks at their tax bill last year and compares it to what they paid in 2005 knows this. But the problem with so-called tax breaks is deeper than this. Because even when you save a few bucks on your taxes, in many cases you end up spending more on services which are suddenly unavailable or suddenly user-pay. The rightwing strategy is to lower taxes by a very small amount and then down-load services to provincial and municipal governments who either have to significantly cut these services or offer them at a much higher cost because of the simple principle of economies of scale (you would think that capitalist, of all people, would understand this basic law). Furthermore, not only is the whole "lower-taxes" narrative a myth (and where it is real it only benefits the wealthy), but so it the "smaller government" narrative. The Canadian government is not measurably smaller today than it was ten years ago. It is smaller in some areas and larger in others. This is just one of those things that rightwingers say that has no basis in fact. (Incidentally, this is also true of the two great "Heroes" of the rightwing, Thatcher and Reagan. They both left the government measurably bigger than they found it)

In other words, the only thing that the CPC seem to be able to point to when they talk about their agenda is simply irrelevant because it is just made up to begin with. Furthermore, I think an increasing number of Canadians are waking up to this and, as I have said before, the new political generation of millennials are wholesale rejecting the idea of a less involved government.

But lets look at the areas of the Conservative agenda (areas that are significantly more 'real' than their mythical narratives) that Canadians are rejecting en masse. Racism, scapegoating, climate-change denial, fear-mongering, war-mongering, loosening up or eliminating environmental regulations, undermining freedom of information, muzzling scientists, disrespecting the public service, the FPTP electoral system, making the military and the RCMP a branch of the governing party, eliminating census data, eliminating gun controls, creating the rule of one man over the entire government, omnibus bills, crippling independent oversight, making a mockery out of question period, proroguing parliament to save your political skin, having the executive branch of government answerable to no one, mocking the courts, ignoring court orders, bribing senators, supporting Israel no matter what, ignoring your own election laws when convenient, the myth of growing crime rates and the need for a 'tough on crime' agenda, holding kittens in election posters, letting the PM be a fan of Nickleback, lego-man hair; these things make up the rightwing agenda and Canadians have rejected them! (Ok, so maybe I added a couple of my own rejections there at the end but you get the picture)

The rightwingers who licked Harper's ass at every opportunity, and stumped for his outrageous polices and even his criminal acts, are desperately trying to tell themselves that Canadians didn't reject their policies but were only tired of their leader. The longer they hold on to this myth, the longer it will take them to understand the changing mood of this country and the even more significant change which is coming. And if we can manage to eliminate the FPTP electoral system it will mean no more Conservative governments in the foreseeable. Now that is music to my ears.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Going Forward after Harper's Destruction of the Public Sphere. . . .

In the 1960s the German philosopher Jugen Habermas wrote a book entitled The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. When this book was finally translated around 1990 it helped to spark significant debate in the Anglophone world about what we usually refer to as Civil Society. It is a vague, difficult concept the meaning of which has changed through various historical times but Civil Society essentially refers to the area of society where public debates about norms, standards, ethics, and social goals are discussed and formed through various forms of public discourse. Because of Karl Marx's own use of the term as well as an inherent skepticism about capitalist social realms, many progressives have been understandably dubious about the role that public discourse can play in change and reform, and instead often see civil society as a realm of hegemony, an area of society in which the capitalist order finds legitimacy through falsely portraying its openness and flexibility.

Though I share much of this skepticism, I also think that the Harper decade has taught us something important about the public sphere. Stephen Harper had a number of policy agendas, but in a sense they all revolved around a fundamental effort to shut down discourse in the public sphere. Witness, shutting down debate in the House, muzzling scientists, attacking environmental organizations, ending the court challenges process, effectively shutting down freedom of information, refusing to reveal government financial information, creating and atmosphere of fear not just among government employees but among NGOs in general, etc. etc. Harper knew that it would be very difficult to institute his extreme rightwing agenda unless he could effectively truncate and cripple public debate on as many important issues as possible. The more people could talk about his policies, the more experts, public servants, NGOs, MPs etc could engage in open public discourse, the more people would be aware of just how dangerous and devastating his policies would be to our freedom and our future. I think it is fair to say that Harper's effort to cripple civil society was the most important part of his entire political agenda because without that effort the rest of his agenda would have been simply impossible. Furthermore, Harper and his ilk were hoping to create long term effects of limiting debate and discourse in the public sphere so that corporations and rightwing politicians at other levels of government would be able to continue his agenda long after he was gone.

Thinking in these terms, the election of a Liberal is important not because of any particular economic or social policy, but to the degree to which they allow the opening of space in the public sphere. Though I don't share the basic socioeconomic outlook of the Liberals or the Conservatives, I understand that various kinds of social and economic progress has occurred under both parties in the past. These efforts have happened in part because, through efforts in the public sphere, progressive people have been able to exert pressure on governments in acts of active citizenship through rousing public sympathy to certain positions. This, more than anything else is what Harper wanted to stop, he wanted to put an end to the very notion of active citizenship itself, to end public discourse, and to undermine the most basic elements of democracy.

Perhaps the most obvious, and devastating, result of Harper's efforts to shut down the public sphere can be seen in his treatment of the Indigenous population. The Indigenous people have been the most startling example of our failure as a nation to treat people fairly, and the most obvious failure of our civil society to properly expand our discourse and understanding into real positive change. But Paul Martin, for all his faults, was trying to rectify those failures. Harper, on the other hand was desperate to put the issues and struggles of Indigenous people out of our collective minds and visions. His continual refusal to meet with Indigenous leaders, and his failure to respond to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were part of a direct effort to undermine the possible positive effects of public discourse. Recognition of the legitimacy of Indigenous struggles (a legitimacy that has been slowly rising over time in many people's minds) would have undermined not only Harper's image of himself as the only expression of government in the nation, but would ultimately have undermined his efforts to strip all the environmental regulations in the country.

What we really need to remember and keep clear in people's minds is that the most dangerous element of the Harper years was not his policies per se (though God knows that those were indeed dangerous), it was his effort to replace Civil Society and public discourse with his voice alone. Let's try to remind not only the new government about their responsibility in this regard, but let's remind each other that civil society is our collective responsibility and that active citizens are the only way that we can move forward with any kind of progressive agenda.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Mediaeval Agenda of Conservatives. . .

I know people are probably too involved in election day to bother reading too many blogposts but as I read through the Blogging Tories posts to see how the Rightwing faithful were reacting to the failure of their savour, I ran across an interesting blogpost that really expresses just how wacky and hopeless the rightwing in this country really are.

This post at the rather dubiously titled Blog "Barrel Strength" demonstrates just how far many Tories have gone in their rejection of constitutional democracy. In the post the author tells us that Harper's real failure was essentially "not going far enough" in attacking the so-called 'activist' courts which he laughingly refers to as the "court party." He tells us that the Charter is a "dangerous innovation." In typical (off-kilter) Tory fashion this blogger actually wanted Stephen Harper to do more to undermine the courts, to further erode the principles of constitutionalism, and to thereby 'stand-up' for the 'King and country element in Canada.'

This frightening individual, twists the principles of constitutionalism so dramatically that it is fairly clear he doesn't even understand them at all. But then I think that this is true of most of Harper's die-hard faithful. His rather pathetic argument rests on the notion that if a court defends someone's right then it "burdens" the rest of society with an obligation because the rest of the people are compelled to observe that right. What a sadly small vision of society and what a terrible misunderstand of the function of the Charter and the Supreme Court!

In all countries where a Charter-like document exists, they exists to protect minorities from the will of the majority. And if you think of this as anti-democratic then you really don't understand democracy. Modern democracy from the time of the French and American Revolutions forward were founded not just on participation and representation, but on a healthy fear of the majority. What good a democracy if, for example, a small percentage of the population can elect a majority of the representatives and those representatives have ultimate and arbitrary power?! Far from being a democracy, that is better called tyranny. In the southern US, the majority, even in my lifetime, would have 'democratically' sanctioned a complete lack of rights for African Americans. No, democracy must mean a lot more than simply duly elected representatives doing whatever they want.

Modern democracies are split into triads for a very good reason. The executive should function as a unifier, a diplomat, a leader, and an organizer of the legislative branch. The legislative branch should act as lawmakers, representatives, and activists. But these two branches of government by themselves are always in danger of adding up to tyranny. Only with an independent judicial branch of government that interprets certain principles of equality can we avoid the arbitrary force of representative government. And you can bet that rightwingers like "Barrel Strength" would be the very first to invoke this principle if their rights were threatened!

I quoted this rightwing blogpost on our national election day to remind everyone that even if Harper loses today, the dangers that he and his followers represent are out there all the same. And they will take any opportunity they can to send us back to an age when only rich white men had rights and privileges. If ten years of Harper has taught us anything it is that democracy is a very fragile thing and the racists, the bigots, the Royalists, the corporatists, and the elitists will take every opportunity to undermine and destroy it, all the while touting righteousness and goodness.