Thursday, May 31, 2012

Women Writers and Historical Bias. . .

What follows is a brief list of a number of interesting English Women writers (mostly active during the first half of the 19th century). They are mostly writers I have run across during my research for my biography of Mary Russell Mitford. I have finished the first draft of that bio and am now working on a rewrite and the compiling of the footnotes. Besides the very interesting knowledge I have gained concerning the life of Mary Mitford, my research has allowed me to discover a whole group of women writers who as fascinating as they are ignored by the literary establishment. I had done years of research concerning authors of English Romanticism but my experience demonstrated the degree to which women writers have been ignore. Many of these women writers are fascinating figures as well as very accomplished authors and the more I read, the more I am convinced that their historical oblivion is the direct result of their gender.

Here is a short list. (I have not included Jane Austin, the Bronte sisters, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning becasuse they are by far the best - and sometimes only - known English women writers from the era. Though it should be said that EBB is particularly interesting because she is arguably the first woman poet in English who has been given an historical status exclusively as a poet.)

-Baillie, Joanna (1762-1851)
-Barbauld, Anna Laetitia (1743-1825)
-Cook, Eliza (1818-1889)
-Edgeware, Maria (1767[8?]-1849)
-Eliot, George (1819-1880)
-Elizabeth, Charlotte (Tonna) (1790-1846)
-Ferrier, Susan Edmonstone (1782-1854)
-Gaskell, Elizabeth (1810-1865)
-Gore, Catherine Frances (1799-1861)
-Hamilton, Elizabeth (1756-1816)
-Hemans, Felicia (1793-1835)
-Hofland, Barbara (1770-1844)
-Howitt, Mary (1799-1888)
-Inchbald, Elizabeth (1753-1821)
-Jameson, Anna Brownell (1794-1860)
-Loudon, Jane (1807-1858)
-Martineau, Harriet (1802-1876)
-Mitford, Mary (1787-1854)
-Morgan, Lady (Syndey) (1776-1859)
-Oliphant, Margaret (1828-1897)
-Opie, Amelia (1769-1853)
-Owenson, Sydney [Lady Morgan] (1781?-1859)
-Proctor, Adelaide Anne (1825-1864)
-Rowson, Susanna (1762-1824)
-Scott, Mary (1751-1793)
-Seward, Anna (1747-1809)
-Taylor, Ann (1782-1886)
-Trimmer, Sarah (1741-1810)
-Trollope, Frances (1779-1863)

I would be interested in an honest confession from readers of which of these authors they have heard of or, better yet, read. The most famous names on the list are surely George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. For me the most interesting names on this list these - Eliza Cook who published a journal for a number of years and advocated for a number of progressive causes. Jane Loudon who published a book called The Mummy which is, by many accounts, the first real science-fiction novel in English. And Maria Edgeworth whose short novel Castle Rackrent was groundbreaking in a number of ways including being one of the first stream of consciousness books, one of the first historical novel (it influence Sir Walter Scott in a significant way), and one of the first novels written from the point of view of an unreliable third-party character.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list but it is a good reflection of the women writers during the period. As I said, any thoughts on the list would be interesting.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Strikes Help rather than Hurt. . . .

Just a quick blogpost to ask does anyone really buy the "this strike is hurting the economy" argument??

I find it amazing that even rightwingers aren't up in arms about the fact that the government, any government, can legislate workers of a private corporation back to work. By extension rightwingers should believe that the government should be able to set your hours of work, what clothes your wear to work, and how high your wages can be. It is clear to any economist worth his or her salt, for example, that a large wage gap hurts the economy. Yet I don't see the government telling bankers and CEOs that they can't make ridiculously high salaries.

The Harper Government is hurting the economy every day, why don't the legislate themselves out of work?

Question - Why is it that the central argument of all rightwing ideology seems to be the claim that governments don't know anything about the economy and they should just stay out of it, but the first thing they do about anything that they don't like is attempt to legislate a solution?

Answer - Because the rightwing believes in legislated economies just as much as anyone else - they just think the legislation should help big capital. History is our witness to this very basic fact and yet the lie of the so-called "free-marketeers" goes merrily along.

In the long run every strike that ever was helped the economy because it helped build the standard of living that the Harpercons are so eager to destroy.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Third World is just around the Corner. . . .

In his article today Andrew Coyne returns to his standard praise of the Harpercon government, this time praising them for a so-called renewed sense of purpose and a move away from a "guardianship" approach to government to one concentrating on "the economy."

First let me say that it is an odd tendency in political discourse to praise politicos simply for their determination or their sense of purpose. Government cannot, so Coyne tells us, afford inertia. However, Gengis Khan was never one to rest on his laurels and was always full of a sense of purpose. But I don't praise people simply for their determination, and am more interested in what they are determined to do.

The primary economic reforms that Coyne credits the Harpercons with recently pursuing are EI reform, Old Age Security reform, the pursuit of free trade agreements, etc. Coyne conveniently leaves out the destruction of unions.

The problem is that the agenda which this government has begun to pursue in economic terms is de facto a third-world agenda. Third World economies have traditionally been characterized by a number of essential aspects. These include and economy centered largely on some form of resource extraction, an extreme degree of income inequality ( with a small extremely wealthy group which holds all of the economic cards), a small middle-class, a lack of any form of employment insurance or state-sponsored pension system, sever restrictions on organizations of workers' solidarity like trade unions, deep ties to the ruling elite of a much more economically powerful nation (which often expresses itself in the form of undue dependence), little protection or investment in its own manufacturing or resource refinement, and little concern for environmental protection.

Does all this sound familiar? This is precisely the economic path that this government is pursuing with renewed vigor. Of course Canada is not, at the moment, a third-world economy. But with the Harpercons in office, this is exactly where we are headed. The income inequality is rapidly increasing, Harper is turning our economy into one that is almost entirely dependent upon resource extraction (with no development of increased resource refinement), there are increasing attacks on unions and the principles of collective bargaining, we are becoming ever more connected and dependent upon other nations like China, Harper is mounting significant attacks on EI and the public pension system, and he has entirely thrown out any pretence to environmental protection.

You don't have to be an economist or political scientist to understand that if our government has any real sense of purpose it is to turn our economy into a classic third-world system. The facts are simply unavoidable. The question of exactly why they are pursing this path is unclear.

Rather than praising our politicians for pursing one particular goal with a zealous spirit, we should condemn them when they blindly pursue an agenda that will guarantee disaster for some vague ideologically blind, quasi-religious reason.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Quebec, Protests, Activism, and Threats to Power. . .

So-called "radical" political protest and activism, from the great peasant revolts to the 'velvet' revolution, has always been, in the final analysis, about the big issues of justice, social and economic equality, and political representation. Sometimes activist movements have erupted into distinctly anti-capitalist efforts, more often such efforts are more modest and localized in nature. In the past thirty years or so in Western 'democratic' nations, activists' movements have generally been focused on protecting the gains that were made during the long post-war boom. The issues in this cause have been connected to holding the line on wages, workplace safety, tuition rises, public (and private) pensions, environmental protection, and the expansion of democracy. However, in the past decade or so we have seen a gradual change in discourse which has begun to subtly shift back toward the bigger issues of overall inequality and capitalism in general. Though this change is too general to be reduced to any one moment, I often think of the great WTO riots in Seattle. The reason for the change in discourse is fairly simple - the the post-war gains in economic and political equality are being lost and these losses coupled with a looming environmental crisis are causing a slow ideological change. Though the concentration in media control has made this ideological shift weaker and more gradual than it might otherwise be, the change is becoming palpable. The three primary areas that are changing people's minds are an awareness of the startling growth in income inequality in Western capitalist nations, the distinct attack being waged upon democracy by Western elites, and the environmental crisis. As usual, capitalists and economic and political elites have blithely ignored the general impact of their thirst for money and power and this is resulting in a growing number of people who are searching for the underlying causes of our big social and economic problems and the basic issues of capitalism will increasingly become a target for political activism. The more you take away from people the less they have to lose and the more they will look toward the economic system that is at the root of their perceived suffering.

Obviously the reaction of the economic and political elites to such activism will be predictable. They desperately attempt to portray economic inequalities as the outcomes of a "natural" and unchangeable process. Marx called it 'reification,' which is the portrayal of relations between people as only relations between things. They want you to believe that the control of our wealth by a handful of people is the result of some natural, unavoidable process rather than a result of a conscious effort by rich and powerful people.

Outside of the elite, a surprising number of people emulate the ideology of corporatism. The reasons for their support of such an ideology are multi-fold, but the primary reasons are pretty simple - ignorance and fear. Their ignorance is an almost total lack of historical and political knowledge, and their fear is the standard fear of, to borrow a phrase from Edmund Burke, the 'swinish multitude.' Many people see political activists on television and they imagine that any such activism will necessarily result in the rise of another Robespierre and the guillotine. The most unfortunate factor in this public ignorance and fear is that it often becomes the primary push toward greater and more dangerous radicalism. Events such as the French revolution are generally easily avoided through simple reforms. But elites, in their greed for money and power, get comfortable in their power and their egoism gradually convinces them that their positions and wealth are somehow 'god-given' and a natural expression of their merit. They are loath to succumb to reforms which may cede any of their wealth or power and in an effort to protect that power they gradually push the nation toward revolution. The scenario plays itself out over and over again until it begins to look like a comedy of errors, as it has over the past week in Quebec.

The political and economic elite in Quebec (and by association the rest of the nation) see the growing threat of radicalism expressed in a what began as a relatively simple student protest. Because the political elite are desperate to shift economic wealth away from the people and toward the rich and the corporate class, they gradually take the tax burden away from corporations and the rich and they slowly throw it onto the middle and working-classes. Anything that begins to threaten that shift strikes fear into the capitalist class, as it did in the Swing Riots of the 1830s or the anti-corn law riots in the 1840s. (In the early 1840s the Anti Corn-Law League whipped up the revolutionary fervor of working-class in an effort to overturn the Corn-Laws but it quickly betrayed the workers when it realized that the working-class didn't care that much about the corn-laws but they actually wanted real reforms in the system of industrial manufacturing.) In Quebec the ruling class was comfortable in ignoring the protests as long and it felt no threat to their overall plan to maintain their power. However, in the face of a perceived threat, it was the political elite that quickly expanded the issue beyond a protest over tuition fees and made it an issue of controlling dissent in general with a law that de facto attempts to stop protest altogether.

The efforts in Quebec may simply die away (as many such protests do). But make no mistake, these protests are part of a larger historical moment in which people are questioning the radically expanding wealth of a small group of people and a growing power of a corporate elite. Each time I see someone deride protestors as "selfish" or "stupid" I shake my head. As France inched toward revolution in the 1770 and 1780s the elites dismissed anyone who protested inequality as simple 'troublemakers" and "malcontents." And instead of reforming their shockingly unjust system of wealth, they further oppressed and attacked any and all opposition until it was too late and they found themselves at the wrong end of a guillotine. Deride radicals and activists if you will, but you do so at your own risk. Today they are only trying to protect their jobs, their right to an education, their pensions, and their basic democratic rights. Leave their demands unheeded and tomorrow you will find them in your gated communities, in your legislative buildings, in your corporate headquarters. And instead of carrying signs they will be carrying guns and bombs. And if you think it can't happen -- open a history book! It has happened time after time and it will happen again. As long as Western elites continue with their system of radical inequality it will not be a question of "will there be another revolution," rather it is only a question of "when will the next revolution be on our doorsteps?"

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Frances Trollope and Capitalism. . . .

I have been reading a remarkable book entitled Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy, written in the late 1830s  by Frances Trollope (mother of the more famous Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope). This was, as far as I have been able to tell, the very frist serialized novel by a woman and it is a solid, expertly written work that deserves a much wider audience than it has heretofore enjoyed. In fact, I would say that it should be required reading in every high-school and university. The reason for this praise is that Michael Armstrong is finest novel I have read concerning the conditions of the working-class in England during the 19th century, beating out anything by Dickens and certainly more descriptive and enlightening than Engels' rather drab The Condition of the Working-Class in England written around the same time. Trollope travelled extensively through Lancashire (sometimes incognito) to research her novel.

Though it is difficult to read (due to its emotive descriptions), Michael Armstrong makes short shrift of the notion that capitalism is somehow about freedom, that trade unions are unnecessary, or that capitalism would treat people humanely in the absence of workers' solidarity and government legislation. The novel describes in painful detail the condition of those working in the cotton mills in the 1830s in Lancashire, particularly the children. Children worked in the factories from the tender age of five, often for 16 or seventeen hours a day. If they survived their tasks of climbing under the fast-moving and dangerous machinery ( a task given to them due to their small size) to clear cotton from the equipment, they were then subjected to brutal and monstrous beatings from their overlords, often suffering concussions and broken limbs during these beatings. They often lost limbs from the fast-moving machinery (or even died in accidents) and there was nothing given to the parents to compensate for these events. In some cases the children were indentured into apprenticeships. Though these were often legitimate, in some cases these apprenticeships were a front for a form of modern slavery in which the children were taken to remote factories and gradually worked to death. The manufacturers who owned these factories worked hard to hide the conditions under which their workers laboured, particularly the children, and they actively attempted to stop any legislation that would restrict their ability to exploit their victims.

As startling as the terrible working conditions were, Trollope's novel illustrates another, perhaps more shocking aspect of this awful exploitation - the ideology of class and the practice of blatant deception. In the early years of manufacturing the factory workers lived on the lowest rung of the social scale and Trollope shows the terrible ways in which other working-class people such as servants and farmers looked down on the factory workers as little more than animals. Meanwhile the manufactures propagated the idea that these workers were overpaid and lazy, and that the only reason that they were poor was that they were spendthrifts. Since few people associated with the factory workers, this notion was widely believed even by other working-class people.

It is striking the degree to which this ideological view of working people is still widely believed, as demonstrated any time a worker anywhere goes on strike and is instantly treated with derision by countless people who call them all selfish, shiftless, and lazy.\

Reading Trollope's Michael Armstrong; Factory Boy has been profoundly depressing to me. I know that the conditions therein described still prevail in many countries today and I have seen some of them myself in maquiladoras. It depresses me too because I know that though not all capitalists are evil, these conditions would quickly return everywhere if capitalism was given a free hand, and it is deeply naive to think otherwise. We are only ever one generation away from complete barbarism.

The other reason I find it depressing to read Michael Armstrong is because it reminds me of the degree to which little has really changed in the ideology of many people. Today on the radio I heard the student protestors in Quebec referred to as "spoiled, lazy malcontents." This is the exact sort of epithet which was given to the factory workers in Trollope's book and everyone else who has ever struggled for equality and justice. I would really like to take that radio announcer by the collar and remind him that everything our society has of value, from freedom from slavery to votes for women is a result of people who were once referred to as a group of lazy malcontents. In the 19th century the rich and powerful had the majority of people convinced that England would go bankrupt if manufacturers were not allowed to employ children under terrible conditions for 16 hours a day. Any notion of improving the condition of the working-class was not only treated as foolhardy but it was even looked at as treasonous. Today the rich and powerful, despite their ever-increasing wealth, are trying to march us right back into the past. They want us to believe that we can't afford a society where everyone has access to an education and the right to a decent pension.

Will it take children working in factories until people wake-up and fight back?

Monday, May 21, 2012

What do you get?


What does one get when you take a conservative lawyer who become one of only two elected members of a party that experiences the worst defeat in British parliamentary history. . .

Then you add an few pounds of opportunism in the form of a provincial Liberal leader (don't worry, there is ample evidence that they are the same party anyway). . . .

Then you add the greedy baby-boomer betrayal of a group of young people who want what their parents had and who understand that an attack on affordable education is an attack on everyone's future. . . .

Then you add hundred of police thugs who claim to love peace and order but really enjoy beating and abusing people for a living (because they are evil masochists). . . .

I think you get a fool who has over-played his hand

and a recipe for rebellion. . . . . . . .

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Gradual Unhinging of the Harpercons.

The central political question in Canada has lately become "just how far off the rails will the Conservative Party go?" For a long time political watchers have predicted the eventual self-immolation of Harper and his self-absorbed, bullyboy whackos. It was clear to most of us that once these guys got a majority they would begin to go off the deep-end. They have long been peddlers of hate who are so wrapped up in their own state of bizarre paranoia that it is nearly impossible for them to see clearly let alone engage in any sort of 'normal' political discourse. But while in a minority government they were able to create a sort of barricade mentality in which they could portray themselves as under siege by a hostile media and 'coalition' that was always waiting in the wings take over. It was obvious to everyone that this story would wear thin pretty quickly in a majority situation (particularly when every newspaper in the country except one endorsed them). However, not only did their story wear thin, a majority has made the Harpercons careless and pompous, with feelings of invulnerability and entitlement. As they have grown comfortable in their ministerial offices and limousines (like so many governments have in the past), they have begun to   give up on any pretence to legality. Ministers like John Baird blatantly use their influence to divert funds to their friends, and seem entirely unconcerned that their malfeasance might be discovered. And under these circumstances ministers begin to reveal things that they would normally hide, feeling (as most tyrants eventually do) that their power entitles them to do as they please with public funds and ministerial power. As Susan Delacourt points out, they have begun not only more careless, but more childish as well. And as Lawrence Martin demonstrates, government ministers are beginning to come unhinged.

As they further entrench their power and get more comfortable in their positions (which will eventually bestow upon them the kinds of pensions that most Canadians can only dream of), the real problem for the Harpercons is that their hate and paranoia will become part of their everyday surface behaviour and that they will slowly become so despised by the vast majority of voters that they have no chance of ever winning an election again. Of course, this will be when they will become most dangerous. In the face of inevitable electoral defeat, Harper and his minions will look for ever more corrupt and illegal ways of maintaining their power and will slowly become like Putin in Russia, operating in total corruption while maintaining all the while that they are continuing to operate in a democracy. Paranoid tyrants are never so dangerous as when they become unhinged, and the hinges are breaking folks.

The real question in Canadian politics has now become "just how crazy will the Harpercons become?"

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bill 78 and the Slow Decline. . . .

If there were any doubts in your mind that we are inching our way toward a police state, there can surely be no doubt left after this week's passage of Bill 78 in Quebec. That part of the Bill that deals with public demonstrations is a deeply draconian measure that effectively puts an end to the very notion of public opposition. As written the Bill necessitates that anyone who wants to engage in a political demonstration of more than ten people must notify the police eight hours in advance, indicating place, numbers, and destination of the demonstration if it proposes to occur in more than one place.

Most police states in the world have such laws which are de facto meant to make political demonstrations illegal. The police appear to have the power under Bill 78 to exercise prior restraint concerning any demonstrations and can effectively keep any demonstrations (which they allow to proceed) away from any place that might be deemed 'politically sensitive.'

What Bill 78 really means is that if you and nine friends get together in the park to enjoy the afternoon and someone starts talking about politics, you can be arrested. Sound melodramatic? It's not. Just open a history book and read about how police-states have emerged and you will see that when it starts it all sounds innocent and harmless, and is always deemed necessary by the governments involved.

Our governments are full of hypocrites. They cry indignantly when citizens of Syria and Egypt are subjected to government oppression, but they don't miss a beat in oppressing their own people. Remember when Stephen Harper was the leader of the opposition and never tired of criticizing the Government of China for its oppressive practices? As Prime Minister he is a great advocate of those very practices as he guts our own human rights laws, seeks to fill the prisons, wants access to your home computers, and slowly shuts down any and all opposition. And Mr. Charest (like so many Liberals) is nothing more than a mindless follower of Harper's draconian ideology. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Just Take Any Job . . . (How about Revolutionary Leader?)

In a way I am happy that Jim Flaherty, that sad, pathetic, incompetent, shell of a man, has told Canadians that they just need to stop complaining and take any job they can get. I am glad because Mr. Flaherty's statement is a de facto admission that this government has no interest in creating a modern, dynamic, forward-looking economy. Rather, this government is on the path to the third-world economy where the rich are getting richer and the rest of the people can just piss up a rope for all the government cares. Despite the continual refrain that we hear from the Harpcons that their government is all about jobs and growth, they (along with their neo-con associates globally) have taken the most prosperous economies in the world (at a time of unprecedented wealth) and managed to throw most of the working population under a bus, relegating us and our expectations to McJobs for the rest of our lives. At a time when the rich have never been richer, Mr. Flaherty is telling you to go out and just deliver pizzas because that is all Canadians are really worth.

Gone are the days when governments spoke inspiring words of hope (remember this is the Finance Minster who actually publicly eschewed investment in Ontario). If our government was a parent it wouldn't be the type who says "I have faith in you, you can go out and do anything you want with your life! No goal is to big!" Rather, this government would be the type of parent that said "Forget college or university, you are never going to amount to anything anyway. Just go out and take the first job that comes along and be thankful you could get that."

What Mr. Flaherty inadvertently did when he told Canadians to just take any job was admit that his government is not really about making a better future for you and your family. His government is about repressing wages so that corporations can make more money while you and your family wallow in poverty. Little did most people know that when Harper says his government is all about "jobs and growth," what he really meant was his government is all about "bad jobs and growth for corporate balance sheets."

Friday, May 11, 2012

MP Bruce Hyer's Confusion. . . . .

MP Bruce Hyer recently quit the NDP caucus and decided to sit as an Independent MP. In an article Mr. Hyer explains his resignation from the NDP caucus saying "I wil no longer belong to any party that "whips" (mandates) voting by their MPs, especially on issues not clearly laid out in agreed-upon written policies or platforms. Which mean that none of the main political parties is currently an option for me." Mr. Hyer laments that our current system leaves "little room for meaningful public debate . . .  or for putting constituents ahead of party politics!" (Notice the accentuation of his disgust and determination with the well-placed exclamation mark.)

Now, these are common laments among many Canadians (as it was so markedly expressed by the members of the so-called "Reform Party") and Hyer points out that Canadians "share" his disillusionment.   I understand, to a degree, Hyer's frustration (though it seems odd that he would be join an organization which had these rules of which he was entirely aware going in), but the problem is that his solutions to the problems that he thinks plague our system are meaningless at best, and strangely contradictory at worst.

Mr. Hyer sets out four primary solutions to our parliamentary problems; Randomizing Seating, Riding Level Candidate Approval, Collaboration Between Parties, and Proportional Representation. Now, his idea of randomizing the seating in the House of Commons sounds fine. However, this is effort in itself would probably be entirely cosmetic and would solve nothing as long as our political culture continues they way it is. Hyer's third solution "Collaboration Between Parties," similarly sounds good but is really just an echo of Rodney King's famous dictum "can't we all just get along."

These two idea are hardly controversial, but neither are they very meaningful either.

Mr. Hyer's other two solutions are much more problematic because their nature seems to contradict the very premises from which Hyer begins. For a start, the ideas of "Riding Level Candidate Approval" and "Proportional Representation" contradict each other. Though there exists a number of so-called 'mixed PR' systems in which there are some individual ridings while the rest of the MPs are simply representatives of the "party," overall PR generally eliminates the whole idea of 'ridings,' let alone candidate approval at the riding level. The thing is that Mr. Hyer seems to be suffering from a basic POLI-SCI 101 misunderstanding (or he simply hasn't explained himself adequately). Mr. Hyer's desire to truly represent his constituents rather than expressing the "mandate" (his word) of his party points away from Proportional representation rather than toward it. The US system is a case in point - there is almost no system of party discipline in the the US Congress and members vote however they want on any given issue. When a member of parliament is elected under a system of PR their constituency is spread out throughout the nation because they consist of all the people that voted for that party. Thus under PR individual MP almost always vote for the party they were elected to represent. If Mr. Hyer really wants to represent his individual riding he should be arguing for a system more like that in the US rather than for a more Proportional system.

(I am not getting into an argument about PR here. I am an advocate of PR but I know that it has its drawbacks. I just happen to believe that its advantages outweigh its failures. I also believe that we can create a mixed PR system which has some of the advantages of both First Past the Post and PR.)

Mr. Hayer seems to be quite confused. If he wants to work for PR and a more democratic system, that's great. But he surely should have known how our House of Commons works before he got there and I am mystified by his apparent surprise. However, if Mr. Hayer's primary concern is the representation of his constituents in Thunder Bay-Superior North, it is not PR he should be fighting for - it is the renewal of the unfulfilled dream of the Reform Party to eliminate party discipline (a principle which that Party never lived up to).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The slow (whimpering) decline of democracy. . .

One obviously need not be an expert in 'political science' to understand that things are reaching a rather difficult point in political history. Almost every country in the world now refers to itself as a "democracy" and yet democracy has never really been subject to the concerted attack by mainstream political culture the way it is today. The past fifty years have witnessed a great deal of "democratization" all over the world, but while more countries have democratized, more people have searched for ways to thwart the process and to gut the already existing democratic institutions. Tyrants and dictators have realized that they don't need to actually be democratic they just have to say that they are democratic. Thus, Mr. Putin in Russia gives speeches about his election to office and the great Russian democracy and it doesn't matter how corrupt and undemocratic his nation really is. This is the old "tell a lie often enough and with enough conviction and it becomes the truth" kind of strategy. And this approach is becoming successful in more and more countries as the concentration of the media creates a situation in which governments simply need to keep the rich and powerful on side and they can be more or less as corrupt and undemocratic as they want.

Countries like Iran and Russia actively refer to themselves as "democratic," and so does Canada. Well, Canada is not Iran or Russia, not yet. But it is easy to imagine that if it stays on the path on which it has been set by Mr. Harper and his cabal, in a generation or so it will be a mirror of Russia; a country in which democracy is simply a label but has no significant meaning. We are already well on our way. Our government can prorogue parliament whenever it wants with no consequence, it can effectively shut down parliamentary debate on any issue, it can use its self-appointed speaker to avoid retribution for blatant violations of House rules,  it can use fraud to win elections while underfunding and under-informing the very body that is supposed to investigate such malfeasance, it can gut regulations to the point that we become little more than a mechanism for extracting resources and sending them to other tyrannical nations, and it can do all of these things while blithely bragging about its democratic principles.

There is no doubt that democracy is in trouble, here and abroad. And the most desperate trouble is to be found in the state of denial of our so-called leaders.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Political Language. . . .

Continuing on with the theme of political machismo, we should talk about the degree to which specific, everyday language reinforces the notions of machismo. Common expressions of attack against liberally minded or leftwing people use metaphors designed to view such people as weak. For example, environmentalists are often referred to as "tree-huggers." This expression is a denigration of the very notion of care or affection, connoting the idea that those who hug or are convivial are somehow weak and that this weakness demonstrates a naivety. It is no coincidence that this expression has overtones of the weakness of traditional notions of femininity, a tendency which shows itself in other such derisive idioms. Take, for example, the common denigration of any state-sponsored social efforts in the use of the expression "nanny-state." This is a blatant disparagement of the traditionally female role of child-care which lowers the ideas of raising children, femininity, and familial supportiveness all in one fell swoop. Meanwhile, in order to legitimize Margaret Thatcher as a political leader the epithet "iron" (connoting something strong and unbendable) had to be attached to her status as a "lady," as though a woman could not be a symbol of strength without  a base metal being grafted on to her. The common expression "bleeding-heart" is another example of macho denigration of all things feminine. By attaching this idiom to anyone who shows undue concern for the welfare of others, once again macho culture uses traditional notions of femininity to disparage acts of care and tenderness.

Meanwhile, violent or male-oriented metaphors abound when it comes to painting a positive picture of someone's political advocacy. "Straight-shooter," "Drug-Czar," "Stay the Course," "Tough on Crime," "War Room," "Political Muscle," are all more of less positive expressions which de facto glorify machismo while raising the masculine to a high place in political nomenclature. This is obviously no coincidence. The fact that the "Terminator" could so easily become the governor or California while popularizing the expression "girlie-man," gives one a quick glimpse into the workings contemporary political reality.

The world changes very slowly and there is little chance that I will see a significant change to political machismo in our culture. In fact, I believe that despite the gains made against sexism and racism during my lifetime, the machismo of political culture is still remarkably strong. The victory of Harper and his bully tactics are surely evidence that in recent years enlightened social concern has taken a significant hit.