Sunday, January 11, 2015

Harper and the Ignorance Factor. . . . .

My esteemed peers Montreal Simon and Owen Gray at Northern Reflections have highlighted today Bob Hepburn's op-ed piece in the Toronto Star asking the thorny, but essential, question of how Harper has gotten away with the slow but sure destruction of our country and our democracy. Strangely enough, though he asks the many important questions of how Harper has gotten away with the various, and atrocious, anti-democratic things he has done, Hepburn has no ready answers. He seems to point to apathy or simple complacency as the primary culprit in Harper's ability to undermine our democratic system. And there is no doubt that the Canadian public has been apathetic and have ignored much of what Harper has actually done. This apathy has been fed by a media that, despite Conservative efforts to portray themselves as the underdogs hated by a "Liberal" media, has utterly failed to do its job in exposing what the government has been doing. But beneath the hapless, rightwing media, the efforts of the Conservatives to change things quietly behind the scenes and through legislation hidden in omnibus bills, there is another central factor in this debate that people just don't want to talk about - ignorance.

The plain and simple fact is that Harper has systematically disassembled our democratic system and has gotten away with it because the vast majority have absolutely no idea how our democratic system is supposed to work and has worked. At the level of practical political science, most Canadians don't know how parliament is supposed to function. They don't know what prorogation is, they don't know how legislation gets written and put through parliament,  and they don't know how the Westminster System has traditionally functioned. As a result of this ignorance, many of Harper's outrageously anti-democratic efforts don't register with most of the Canadian public. When Harper was found in contempt of Parliament, for example, it appeared that the vast majority of Canadians didn't understand what that meant and what the implications are of the first government ever to use the Westminster System to be found in contempt. Many people might know at a very basic level what an 'omnibus' bill is, but few understand its implications. Most people don't know how parliamentary committees work so it means little to them when they hear that the HarperCons are manipulating them and shutting them down. Canadians don't know that one of the functions of parliamentary debate is to help inform citizens about what the government is doing, so when the HarperCons shut down debate people don't really know what that does to public discourse. The simple fact is that if you don't know how your parliament works, it is easy for the government to pervert that parliament without people's notice.

But at a more troubling scale, Canadians don't understand how the Canadian Government has traditionally functioned in its wider relations with civil society, the civil service, and with other branches and parts of government. Thus, when Harper dismantles the freedom of information system, when he muzzles scientists, when he dispenses with environmental review processes, when he attempts to interfere with the Supreme Court, when he refuses to meet with the provinces, or when he intentionally thwarts the efforts of Elections Canada to ensure fair and legal elections in this country, most people don't care simply because most people don't know what any of these things mean or how they work. Furthermore, people have little clue about how previous governments have conducted themselves in their relations with government appointees who are meant to monitor our system, or with NGOs, or on the international stage.  So when Harper fires government monitors like Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen, when the HarperCons refuse to release documents relating to residential-schools, when the Harper government undertakes a surveillance program of a lawyer like Cindy Blackstock simply because she is an advocate for First Nations peoples, when Harper signs trade documents that de facto give foreign governments powers over our citizens and resources, when Harper instructs Revenue Canada to audit only those organizations which dare to question government approaches and policies, when the Harpercons end almost all funding for literacy programs across the country or organizations that advocate for women's rights, when the Harper Government actively criticizes provincial governments and their policies against all Westminster traditions, or then Harper dispenses with every tradition of diplomacy on the international level, these things don't mean anything to most Canadians. Most people just don't know that our democracy, though far from perfect, has been protected by a particular approach of governments to civil society that prevents governments becoming tyrannical organizations and has traditionally maintained a certain degree of openness in our society and our social and political discourse. Harper has been able to eliminate these traditions simply because the majority of people didn't know that they were traditions.

I think we can say that the HarperCons have been able to destroy our democracy because most people didn't actually know we lived in a democracy. For most people democracy means nothing more than voting every four years or so and it ends there. They just don't understand that a healthy democracy requires an open civil society, an open political and social discourse, a system with arms length advocacy groups and systems of review, and significant controls on arbitrary powers. The Harper government has undermined and destroyed all of these things. But the majority of Canadians go happily on because they just don't know what is going on. MSM and even many bloggers don't want to talk about this because they fear that it would sound elitist and condescending. But it is time to admit that ignorance has been Harper's greatest ally and in many cases that ignorance is not only willful but a matter of pride for many people who advocate a know-nothing ideology.


Inse said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head.I also thought the same when I read this piece about a month back

Owen Gray said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Kirby.

lungta said...

i have not once in this country been able to vote on a single issue that that affected my life
every 4 years i get to vote for a undefined political platform represented by a meatsack in some popularity/beauty contest with the remote possibility that when something important to me goes thru parliament they will show up and do my considered will
number of times this has happened in 50 years?
whether it is bombing brown people, legalizing anything, providing social
granted whatever our system was before harper was much more civil in most ways
i am hard pressed to believe that i have ever been living in an actual democracy
what we are experiencing is a longing for something that never was even tho we thought it was
and waking up to that fact is painful
harper is just making it patently blatant

the salamander said...

.. many people are unaware of the different aspects of 'ignorance' .. You describe one.. that aspect affecting many many ordinary Canadians.. but another aspect is one that typifies Stephen Harper and anyone who enables his process. That ignorance is mean, shallow and self serving.. extremely dangerous when it is a primary value of a government.

Your current essay is exceptional.. as all of them have been. I would like to post it to my Facebook page. And as always, I will re-read it several times. I am currently working on a project to address exactly what you are identifying.. but plan to utilize a series of Audio Podcasts with a particularly dramatic twist. Perhaps you might have some suggestions and/or contributions!

Keep up the fine work.. would love to hear your readership could expand dramatically.

The Mound of Sound said...

Harper's former BFF, Tom Flanagan, explained it in a tell-all lecture he gave on Saltspring Island a few years back. Harper's M.O., said Flanagan, is incrementalism. It's a stealth tactic. You can get away with policies the public would never tolerate if you go slow, take baby steps that eventually bring you to a position where your effort cannot be undone. Flanagan went on to say that Harper will freely tell the public whatever they want to hear, promise action (i.e. on climate change), and then do absolutely nothing or worse.

Kirby Evans said...

@lungta - you haven't lived in an actual democracy because no one ever has. Because democracy is not an ideal state that exists but a process - a constant moving toward greater equality and more participation. With this in mind, while we can admit that our society has been deeply flawed and not been very far along the democratic path. However, we were once, I believe squarely on the path at least - getting a little better bit by bit has time passed. One the other hand, Harper has stopped that progress and is moving us in the other direction. I agree with a lot that you say, and agree that Harper has highlighted or demonstrated many of the problems that already existed in our society. But we can only move forward to a better democracy if we have a healthy system with a lively and engaged civil society. Given that part of Harper's aim is to close down civil society, it is safe to assume that we are moving in the wrong direction.

Simon said...

hi Kirby...good post, and for once I almost agree with you :) Democratic ignorance is at the core of our problem. However, there is a fine line between ignorance and apathy, and I think the following needs to be said.
(1) The Cons have done their best to turn Canadians off politics. Their antics in Parliament, their lousy Senate appointments, their scandals etc etc are just another way of suppressing the vote.
(2) No people in any other modern democracy as far as I know have ever been subjected to so much self serving propaganda. A billion dollars worth of brainwashing paid for with their own money. Their ads may look crude to us, but they are focus tested to the max, and they do have an effect.
(3) When it comes to young voters, the parties make absolutely no effort to connect with them or explain why they should get involved. Because younger Canadians they get no attention, because they get no attention they don't vote it's a vicious circle. And our educational system is a total failure, with useless teachers, and not enough civic education courses.
(4) Canada is an aging society, where pessimism is more abundant than optimism.
I should hasten to add that I didn't include any of this in my post, but that doesn't make it less true.
As for the solution it too is complex, but the democratic disease is so advanced, I think they best way to start fixing the problem is to make voting compulsory, like it is in many other countries....

Kirby Evans said...

Thanks for the comment Simon. "For once you almost agree with" me?? I didn't know we were that far apart in opinion. I agree with you that most these points are important (though I am not sure point 2 is entirely correct) I suppose this is a kind of "chicken and egg" kind of argument. It kind of depends on how ones looks at it. But it seems to me that all the other problems that you mention couldn't exist if people weren't so ignorant.

Simon said...

hi Kirby... we do disagree more than occasionally, but only on minor matters, only in the friendliest manner. And I enjoy you and your blog immensely and always have. So in that spirit I will repeat that in my opinion, the difference between apathy and ignorance is one that must be taken into account. But more importantly, one cannot ignore the effect that a billion dollars of advertising can have on a population, and help keep the Cons more popular than they should be. Those ads and photo-ops are everywhere, it's almost impossible to escape them. And as I pointed out in a post a while back, they are all connected. For if you read the key words in a Harper speech, you will see they are reflected back at you in those porky ads, even on websites set up in preparation for Canada's 150th birthday. It is as even some in the MSM have pointed out a gross violation of the rules governing our democracy. But somehow in this country we have come to take them for granted. Still, that's all academic. What you and I surely do agree on is that we must come up with ways to counter this ignorance and apathy, because the Cons are counting on them to help them win the next election. And that election could be much closer than most imagine...

Scotian said...

This is a point I have made many times in the past, both in terms of the existence of the ignorance and the way Harper preys on it knowingly as one of his keys to power. It has bothered me since my own public school days over three decades ago now how poorly our system of government is understood, and from late jr high onwards I've been a firm believer in the need for a non-optional civics course at the jr/sr high level to make sure all youth learn the basics of our system. When I was growing up many of my peers believed that their speech was protected by our first amendment, and that they had Miranda rights when arrested by police, and this was because of that ignorance combined with the overwhelming power/influence of American media in our society.

This ignorance existing is hardly a new phenomena either, and I know that most people who are active in politics have been aware of it over the last few decades, which is yet another reason why I hold such fury with the leadership of a certain party for their decision to play petty partisan politics instead of stopping Harper when it counted, because they, unlike those ignorant voters understood who Harper was AND how vulnerable our system of government really is. I refuse to ever accept that I can be that aware of these things about the way our system is actually structured and they were not, and to this day I am blessing the foresight of PET, because as bad as it has been under Harper, imagine what we would have had without the protection of the courts and the Constitution/Charter which makes up so many of their metaphorical sandbags against the Harper floods.

This ignorance is something that was always a major weakness in our society, because as in all societies that have a democratic nature, if you do not understand, exercise and defend your rights to creating our government you will lose them, and almost certainly to large power interests who rarely ever have individual citizen rights/concerns as a consideration in their way of looking at/running thing. The one possible upside to the Harperium I can see over the long run is that it shakes enough Canadians out of this stupour of ignorance, out of the "I don't have to worry about it, it can't happen here" mindset which Harper so skillfully preyed upon and those that claim to be the defenders of progressive values and social democracy let take power, indeed aided.

I have been beating my head against this ignorance for decades, long before Harper was seen as a serious threat, because I knew that it created a very dangerous vulnerability for someone like Harper should they ever manage to gain power, and that our system assumed the integrity and honour (and the quaint idea that those that sought high office actually were doing so to govern and create for their fellow citizens, and not be a Destroyer and Salter of the Scorched Earth like Harper) of those elected to govern. That we had so little in the nature of checks and balances against someone out to betray the values of our society as we have seen over this past decade and especially once Harper got that majority.

As always Kirby well thought out post, and one I am in agreement with, and yes, I've been called an elitist snob more than a few times in the past when I've made this point too, but I maintain because I deal in factual realities as they are, not as I might wish they were, and sadly this is one of those.

Rural said...

After such a excellent post followed by such informed comment by some of the best bloggers on this subject there is little to add except this:- "At the level of practical political science, most Canadians don't know how parliament is supposed to function." This is exactly how and why Harper gets away with it, and even the opposition seem confused as to how parliament SHOULD work. When I started dissecting Harpers actions as it relates to "democracy" I spent almost a year finding out just that, most of my learning was for nothing as its almost all gone by the wayside now, rules and 'conventions' are for others, not The Harper Regime!

doconnor said...

The ignorance is only willful in the small ideological minority. Most people just don't have the time or interest to even watch the often dubious news.

Governments of all stripes have been criticized for undermining democracy in the past. They probably don't think this government is any different. (Is it?)

Kirby Evans said...

Good to hear from you again doconnor. It seems to me that someone not having the interest, as you say, is a form of willful ignorance. As for the time issue, I just don't bye that argument. It just doesn't take much time or effort to be informed. My grandfather was a tool-maker in London with little education. He raised three children and worked five days a week, probably well over sixty hours a week. Yet he was a radical member of his union and an active member of the communist party, he knew how the Westminster System of government works and knew what was going on.

As for the other question. Indeed many governments in so-called Western democracies have actively undermined democratic processes. My point I suppose was that for a long time we seemed to be expanding civil society and democracy, albeit very slowly. Now we seem to be on a backward slope.

doconnor said...

You're grandfather sounds like an extraordinary man and that's the problem. Most people aren't extraordinary in that way.

That's the same problem right-wing economists have. They assuming people are extraordinarily good at managing their own risks, keeping themselves from getting scammed and maximizing their utility, when even most CEOs do a very poor job at it.

Democratic improvements seem to come in fits and starts. Even the Harper government further limited political donations and made other improvements in the Accountability Act in his first few months in office.