Friday, September 24, 2010

To Hell with Democracy. . . .

Now that the gun-registry vote has taken place I feel the need to say a few words about the whole affair. I, and I think many people, found a number of things disturbing in the whole process.

Firstly, I found the tone of the debate very troubling. The vitriolic, often angry, sometimes paranoid level of discourse (and it hardly qualifies for such a dignified word) on the part of those who object to the registry was odd, one might even say worrying. On the other hand, I understand why some of those who lost loved ones to guns might be very emotional and heated; rightly or wrongly many of them believe the registry saves lives like the ones they have lost and they are bound to become heated during the course of the debate. However, in a society where we are so accustomed to getting licenses and registering things, I certainly have trouble understanding the level of vitriolic and emotional objections that most anti-gun registry advocates demonstrated. I was constantly reminded of the Shakespeare quote "Methinks they do protest too much." And I have yet to hear a single good argument of why such a simple thing is so vile. But the nature of the debate got even uglier after the vote took place. Conservative spokespeople and bloggers called it a sham, a fraud, and I even read one blogger who called it a coup! Well Conservatives might call it a coup when the majority of representatives of the majority of the population vote in a certain way, but the rest of us call it democracy. And talk by the PM of "refusing" to accept the vote is genuinely frightening because it undermines the very principles of democracy. Furthermore, talk of Toronto "elites" by people who have 200 thousand dollar salaries and chauffeurs, is not only laughably ironic but does nothing but divide the country in ways that ultimate harms the whole nation.

Secondly, I was troubled by the underlying nature of the debate. Neo-Conservatism has been very successful in convincing people that everything in the realm of public policy must be quantifiable and have measurable and immediate results. This is, as I have said before, the colonization of normative debate by technical-rational discourse which the philosophers of the Frankfort School warned of several generations ago. The truth is that much law and public policy does not, and has never, worked this way. Take an issue like the anti-segregation movement that happened largely under the presidency of LBJ. The moves to integrate African-American children in all white schools was not public policy that had directly measurable results. In fact in many cases it actually inflamed racial tensions for some time rather than helping the overall race relations. But one of its intended goals was to change the way people reacted to the issue of race, to contributed to a change in what people considered acceptable or appropriate behaviour. Many types of public policy works precisely this way. And normative discourse should always take this kind of thing into account. Individual gun laws in themselves have very limited results in the quantifiable sense, rather they are intended to shift the way that people react to guns and gun ownership. Just like forced integration didn't suddenly make racists into nice tolerant people; rather, it helped to create an atmosphere in which younger people growing up were less likely to find racism acceptable.

Thirdly, I was very disturbed by the American nature of many of the anit-gun registry arguments. For example, the primary argument against registering guns has been that such a program is wasteful and doesn't actually have any effect. Now, the fact is that once the money has been spent to establish the registry(and it has) it is not particularly expensive to run. In fact, in relation to much of the country's policing costs, it is relatively cheap. But more importantly is the claim that registering guns doesn't do anything. The implication of this argument is that we should not register hand-guns either, this is very clear and it points to a huge hypocrisy on the part of Harper and gun-registry detractors. Why don't we hear them out there saying "I shouldn't I have to register my handgun?" If they believe that registering long-guns does nothing, then the same applies for handguns. But the Tories know it would be political suicide to make this argument. This is how we know that the whole argument on the part of Harper and his Cohorts is entirely disingenuous. The other American-style part of the argument is this idea that making people register guns is tantamount to "treating them like criminals." The NRA commonly makes this argument and it is bizarre and non-sensical, and only made in order to stir people's emotions. The fact is that no one "feels like a criminal" when they register their car. However, part of the reason that they register cars is to ensure that people registering them are not in fact violating the law in some manner. Furthermore, I don't hear throngs of right-wingers complaining that when they are searched to get on an airplane they are treated like criminals. Again this demonstrates the disingenuousness of the anti-gun registry arguments. But more than this is demonstrates a creeping Americanization of politics in which people throw around emotional and deeply divisive arguments solely to sway public opinion.

All of these things are troubling and speak to the various ways in which Harper's poisonous attitude is eroding democracy in this country and undermine genuine political discourse.

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