Monday, June 29, 2015

On Hope and Fear in the run up to the Elections. . .

Despite wanting to turn off recent political events, an urge that is motivated by a depressed feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, I have kept a careful watch on things over the past few months, almost like a addict who willingly engages in dangerous activity. Like someone addicted to gambling, I think many of us on the left watch political events because we are continually nagged by the hope that things will get better, that the big win is just around the corner, that people are going to wake up to the shocking evil that has become our government and that in the not too distant future we will watch Harper, like Del Mastro, led away in chains the way he really should be. After all, it is not hyperbole to contend that a man who has so consistently and blatantly disregarded the law (and the Constitution is, after all, the highest law that we have) should pay the price for that disregard. And so, despite my instinct to avoid depression and frustration, I watch the news, read the papers, and scour the blogs.

And I admit that I have been plagued by a tantalizing hope. There is, unquestionably, a growing fatigue with Harper's toxicity, his secretive pathological manner, and his continual attacks on everything and everyone that dares question his supreme authority. Even the MSM, which has been so shockingly remiss for so long, seems to be getting weary of a leader that not only refuses to answer any unvetted questions, but who seems to spend all his waking hours attacking everyone even while he seems hopelessly incompetent on every file and his front bench looks like a whose who of lightweight, mealy mouthed, parrots. Even former allies of Harper in the media now openly admit the remarkable weakness of his cabinet and their seeming inability to take on even the simplest issues without sounding misinformed and comically partizan. In the past few months Harper has looked increasingly Nixonian in his isolation and strangely vitriolic pathology. And it is a condition that has not gone unnoticed by almost everyone except the saddest of the hopeless partizans. Under any normal conditions, these realizations would be leading to a overwhelming defeat at the polls, a genuine condemnation of everything into which Harper has transformed our government and our nation.

However, optimism in this regard is still in fairly short supply because commentators are increasingly warning of the danger in events to come as a result of Harper's perceived desperation at his growing unpopularity. Given that the Conservatives have become serial cheaters in elections, and that they very consciously weakened Elections Canada, there is a growing fear that election fraud on a much larger scale is coming, to say nothing of a new level of vitriolic attacks on opponents. The fact that people even in the MSM are anticipating this turn of events speaks volumes about how low our democracy has sunk. We have now gotten to the point at which even Conservative commentators take it as plausible and even likely that our next election might be mired in fraud and will most certainly be awash with intentional misrepresentations that will try to scare and cajole the voters into voting out of fear. This is, in itself, ominous and depressing.

There are, however, some green sprouts of hope here and there. Despite his foolish (perhaps even fatal) support of Bill C-51, Trudeau is offering up a number of progressive possibilities. Although I find it difficult to have much faith in these given the Liberal Party's rather dismal record of keeping certain progressive promises, I think that Trudeau's reforms are serious and could be far reaching. At the very least, if either the Liberals or the NDP win the next election (even with a minority) this will probably be the last Federal election in Canada with a First Past the Post structure. This is not only good news for democracy in general because any significant reforms will widen political discourse, but it de facto means that another Conservative majority is difficult to conceive of in this country. I think any serious electoral reform from full on PR to just weighted voting will mean more progressive government because in the three major nations that doggedly hold on to First Past the Post, the population in general is considerably more progressive than the government on many issues.

Thus I feel at once full of hope and uneasy about our immediate future. I put absolutely NOTHING past Harper and his minions in their desperate desire to stay in power. But if people are weary enough, and angry enough with the ten years of destruction that Harper has wrought, genuine malfeasance or a coup might be something that Canadians are now not willing tolerate. Even if I am rather pessimistic about people, history is so full of surprises that a coup or widespread fraud on the part of Harper might even be met with a genuine popular uprising.

I wait with bated breath.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Del Mastro and the Milgram Experiment. . .

Former Liberal MP Glen Pearson had an article on the Huffington Post yesterday entitled "Del Mastro isn't the Problem, Politics Is," in which he argues that Del Mastro is essentially a good man who has been led astray by a toxic political system. Pearson doesn't actually know Mr. Del Masto and his only real evidence for his contention is that the now disgraced politician is really a nice, compassionate guy is that Del Mastro once 'teared up' when he heard that Pearson's adoption of Sudanese orphans had just been completed. How could a guy who was 'fighting back tears' in such a 'touchingly human' way be a shrill, nasty, partisan hack? The answer for Pearson is that those good parts of Del Mastro's spirit were "transcended by an overriding desire to serve the Prime Minster and his Party."

I call this the "Milgram Experiement" approach to politics. The Milgram Experiment was undertaken at Yale University as a reaction to the Eichmann Trial. Psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to understand how apparently normal people cold be compelled to do bad things and he later expanded the results of his experiment into the book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. In the experiment people were instructed to give a series of increasingly painful electric shocks to another subject (who was shielded from view) for giving incorrect answers to essentially impossible problems. A shocking (no pun intended) number of people were willing to give what they thought were dangerously painful shocks to someone simply because they were instructed (and if reluctant, prodded) to do so. The prevailing assumption of those that buy into the Milgram experiment is that most people, regardless of their ethical foundation, can be easily compelled to do bad things by a figure of authority.

Over the years many people have raised serious objections to Milgram's methodology and results. Obviously I can't go here into these clinical debates, but let me suffice to say that I don't really buy the prevailing wisdom of the Milgram experiment. For one thing, the reason the experiment worked was because it was done in an educational context. The situation of school or university is, arguably, the most compelling context of obedience that our society has outside of raw physical force. This basic issue irretrievably skews the experiment. The importance of this problem was highlighted by recreations of the experiment that were performed in less binding contexts. But my most important objection to the Milgram Experiment is that is utilizes people who are a priori likely to tend toward obedience. My instinct about the Milgram Experiment was confirmed for me when a more recent version, the results of which were published in the Journal of Personality suggested that the more left-wing someone is, the less likely they are to be obedient in the context of the experiment. And the group least likely to be willing to inflict harm were "women who had previously participated in rebellious political activity such as strikes or occupying a factory." I didn't really need an experiment to know this would be true because, and I will just say this straight up, leftwing ideology is, at heart, about compassion, while rightwing ideology is about fear, obedience, and greed. There is increasing clinical evidence that rightwing people don't process fear adequately (they have a heightened sense of fear and distrust of others). Couple this with an inordinate number of people who are self-serving, greedy, a-type personalities and you get some pretty dangerous political ideology.

However, I am digressing. The problem with assigning any sort of Milgram assumptions to a guy like Del Mastro should be obvious. For one thing, he is not some lowly undergraduate student engaged in an experiment conducted by his primary authority figures - he is a sovereign adult being paid a very large salary who was himself in a position of authority. I have no doubt that Harper can be Nazi-like in his threatening drive for obedience, and the weak-willed will be more likely to follow his dictates than others. I also have no doubt that the party political system recreates some problematic structures of power. However, that doesn't in anyway suggest to me that any truly good person would willingly do the bidding of a power-crazed, anti-democratic, monster like Harper. These MPs are not disadvantaged, uneducated, vulnerable folks whose difficult lives makes them prone to poor ethical choices. Harper's minions have, for the most part, been prosperous, white, (mostly male), individuals with all the advantages our society has to offer. If they are propping up an evil oligarch who is hell bent on victimizing everyone he can get his hands on and destroying our democracy while he's at it, let's not feel bad for them.

There is no doubt that spin-offs of the Milgram Experiment will continue to be conducted and, hopefully, offer more subtle and compelling results. There is also little doubt in my mind that the evidence will continue to grow that rightwing people are driven by an inordinate degree of distrust and fear. And I am all for giving the people the benefit of the doubt concerning their poor ethical choices when they are made in a context of genuine disadvantage or when they are vulnerable and at the whim of genuinely threatening power. In other words, I am not going to blame and condemn every line soldier for "obeying orders." But int the same context I am not going to be so willing to overlook or forgive the educated, officers who were part of the very hierarchy that was giving those orders.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Del Mastro - Poster Boy of Harper Corruption. . .

Before today I think that my very favourite moment in the ten years of the Harper disaster was the moment that Dean Del Mastro commented on his conviction for electoral fraud. As we all remember, Del Mastro didn't just reassert his innocence as so many convicted criminals do. Rather, Del Mastro did something I have never actually seen before, he claimed that his guilt was simply a matter of the judge's "opinion." You have to give the HarperCons high marks for pure gall! This remark by Del Mastro is deeply symbolic because it sums up the Harper regime's attitude toward judges, the courts, and the law in general. Many convicted criminals proclaim their innocence, but they usually do so by speaking about incorrect or unreported evidence, police malfeasance or incompetence, or a poor defence. However, by choosing to refer to his conviction as simply a matter of the judge's opinion, Del Mastro did something different; he was symbolically suggesting that he, in a very important sense, above the law, that the law (even in a case such as his where attorneys commonly suggested that his was a blatant and clear violation) is really just whim of individual judges.

Here's the thing - I am as skeptical and cautious as anyone out there concerning the justice system. I understand that it is designed in such a way that prejudice and bias are systemically unavoidable. The working-class, racialized people, women, the poor; all of these groups are at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to the courts. Not only do laws themselves favour the rich and powerful, but the process (which is infused with money) makes it difficult for the vulnerable to get a fair hearing. However, Del Mastro had won the lottery of life before he ever stepped inside a courtroom. He's a prosperous, white, male with significant political ties to the most powerful people in the nation. He came to the justice system with every possible advantage. Thus, when the hammer of the justice system comes down on a man like Del Mastro, I am as sure as I can be as a skeptic that he is guilty.

But Del Mastro says it is a matter of "opinion" for the simple reason that for Harper and his barking seals, the law isn't something to be respected and judges are not there to adjudicate it. Rather, the entire legal system is just another pawn of their political goals, that is to say convenient when it can be used to thwart and pervert democracy or victimize the vulnerable, but a simple impediment when it gets in the way of their political agenda. The Harper regime is the most perverse and sinister kind of political body - one that cares nothing for law, for due process, for separation of powers, for respect of difference, or even basic human rights. They are pure criminality, a group of megalomaniacs who, in a different historical context would joyfully send their opponents to death-camps, and routinely "disappear" activists, all the while proclaiming righteousness and honesty, just like a tin-pot dictator of the Cold-War era.

My new favourite moment of the Harper era is the one we saw today - Dean Del Mastro, once a mindless harping bulldog of Harper himself, being lead off to jail in hand-cuffs and leg-irons. A man who rudely and ruthlessly attempted to dishonour and discredit anyone who disagreed with the Harperites and stood up in Parliament day after day proclaiming the lily-white purity of the Harper regime, being lead to jail like the petty criminal that he is for consciously attempting to undermine democracy itself. What more appropriate symbol could we have of the entire Harper Era of government?? Only, I suppose, one of Harper himself being taken to prison in much the same way.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Running on Fumes and the Problems of Leadership. . .

As the Harper government sputters toward the fall election, a political machine that seems to be running on fumes alone, the issue of leadership is continually arising amongst the MSM as well bloggers at large.

All political and activist organizations must struggle with the the fundamental problem of balancing centralized leadership on the one hand and grassroots input on the other. A political party can often withstand greater centralization than an activist organization because an activist body relies so significantly on the time and input of its members to define it and push its agenda forward. Martin Luther King for example, as far as I know, only ever held a technical leadership role in the SCLC. His leadership for the Civil Rights Movement was largely derived from his popularity and perceived moral authority. Gandhi was, for a time, the leader of the Indian National Conference but most of his real leadership existed outside of any official organization or institution.

Because of the way Party politics work, I think we expect (or at least tolerate) a higher level of centralization, and leadership is often less a matter of moral authority and more a matter of perceived strength and strategic victory. However, even here where we accept a high degree of centralization, when a political organization goes out of balance there are grave consequences. Even within the highly charged atmosphere of capitalist democracy, and in the inherently centralized Westminster System of Government, a party out of balance is a deeply problematic thing. The reason for this is obvious, a political party relies on generational turnover to thrive. Anyone familiar with basic institutional process, let alone the specifics of party politics, understands that unless a party can continually train new crops of leaders, it will face serious problems. Thus a good political leader balances her own power with a good group of supporters to whom she can delegate responsibilities, people who can not only keep the leader fresh by asking the right questions and challenging the leadership, but can learn on the job to get better at what they do. Over centralized leadership, therefore suffers from two basic problems in political parties. The first problem is the tendency for an iron-fisted leader to lose touch not only with the party's supporters but to lose touch with reality in general. It would be like writing a complex book and having no one on whom you can rely to read it and speak up for any potential problems or mistakes. The result would be a text riddled with errors and conceptual pitfalls. The second, and perhaps more fundamental problem with extreme leadership is the tendency for such a leader to close out intelligent leaders in waiting. If a political leader choses to surround himself with yes-men and dull-witted peons, a basic power vacuum forms around the leader and the party's options for the future begin to close up.

It is should be obvious to even the most partizan conservative in Canada that the party of right has suffered from both of these basic problems. If Harper is unable to cheat his way to a victory in October and he actually willingly gives up power in the event of a loss, the Party is going to find itself in real trouble. Not only will it be unable to field credible and intelligent candidates for new leadership, but it will have a seriously difficult time distancing itself from the internal rot that has plagued it since its inception. In addition to this it will have handicapped itself in a serious way by setting all sorts of precedents allowing any ruling party from undermining the strength and potential of opposition parties. If a leader like Mulcair were to become the next PM, a leader whose centralizing style is frighteningly close to that of Harper himself, we could easily see the continuation of opportunistic prorogations, omnibus bills, the extreme stacking of government agencies with party friendly hacks, and even worse, the possible use of powers like we see in Bill C-51 to actually arrest and detain activists who oppose the government's agenda. Conservatives salivate at the thought of environmental activists being harassed by Revenue Canada or arrested for "Anti-Canadian" positions, but how will those same Conservatives feel if the Fraser Institute is harassed, of if climate-change deniers are arrested and held without charge, etc? Obviously I am not saying such a thing will happen, but the Conservative government has established the conditions by which it could.

Lenin worked for much of his career to establish a centralized power within the Bolshevik movement. As he became increasingly incapacitated by a series of strokes, he became the victim of the very thing he had worked for as Stalin took control of the Party and used the very mechanisms that Lenin had created to sideline him and silence his opposition to Stalin. The result of this very simple political mistake was seventy years of genuine dictatorship which then degenerated into a country run by organized crime.

Almost all of the scandals plaguing the current government in Canada are rooted in an extreme top-heavy structure which has allowed a leader to do literally almost anything (including in many cases ignoring the will of the Commons and increasingly ignoring the will of the SCofC) unchecked. Harper has appointed hopelessly incompetent people because he has no one around him who is willing to say "wait a minute." And even if he did, he wouldn't listen to them anyway. When the drive for power overtakes the drive for everything else, disaster can't be far behind. Most of Harper's scandals could have been avoided or easily overcome by appointing better people, delegating more skillfully, being more conciliatory, and admitting mistakes. Thus despite policies that I think have been absolutely disastrous for the country now and well into the future, I think Harper could have sailed to another four years in power by simply taking a better approach.

In the end, this fact makes me wonder - has Harper's intention all along really just been to cripple and destroy as much as possible the smooth functioning of Canada's democracy, to rob the capacity of the government of being a proper government? Not because of some perverse hatred of Canada (although, somewhere deep inside him this surely plays a part) but because the basic goal of the right over the last forty years has been to create a de facto dictatorship of the rich and powerful and reduce government to a body that cannot properly deliver services (one of the very things that a government is meant to do) but to can only operate as a kind of shell for corporations to run roughshod over society's larger interest.

It is not clear to me that we can overcome the damage that Harper has done to this nation. Fixing democracy in Canada will take several generations of committed political leaders, very active civil society, and a much more responsible media. The only way I see this happening is if the millennials begin to take up more active roles in society's problems and start committing themselves to collective solutions. I can only hope that the observant millennials have seen the dangers now of extreme, centralized, oligarchical leadership.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rachel Dolezal and the Strange Dilemma. . .

Like Dr. Dawg, I am troubled by the entire incident of Rachel Dolezal. Obviously, something about the whole thing rubs us all the wrong way. But it is difficult to articulate exactly why. Dawg referred to it as "the most profound expression of white privilege" he has ever seen. That strikes me as a significant over statement, but I understand the reaction. There is something troubling about it for sure.

The comparison between Dolezal and Burce Jenner only took a day to emerge. The roots of the comparison is obvious. In both cases a person of relative privilege is identifying themselves with a group that is in a position of relative non-privilege. One would think that, given the nature of power relations, this is something that people would only do as, if you will pardon the expression, a last resort. It seems to be something people are driven to do because of some inherent necessity or need.

As Dawg points out, both race and gender are, in important ways, social constructs. This seems clear to me. However, if both of them are social constructs, why are we upset by Dolezal's actions but not by Jenner's? I think it is an important question, but by no means an obvious one.

At first, we might think that it is the deception aspect of Dolezal's act that troubles us. After all, Dolezal hid the fact that she was born a 'white' person, while Jenner obviously did not hide the fact that he was a man. But this really does nothing for us to distinguish the two acts conceptually. There are plenty of reasons why, for example a man might hide his gender while transitioning into a woman. Fear, shame, ostracism etc. By and large we would sympathize with a person in this position. So why don't we sympathize with Dolezal? Its easy to see how this kind of deception itself elicits sympathy, one assumes that the person in that position is hiding something for a reason other than personal gain.

Another issue that seems troubling is the idea of colonization. Somehow it is easier to see Dolezal's act as a kind of colonization of black culture by whites, particularly because she was working for a huge NGO whose primary focus is to work for the rights and 'African Americans.' However, if Bruce Jenner began to lobby for the National Organization of Women, it may raise some eyebrows but people on the left would probably have little problem with it. As a high-profile person with unique experience he may have something important to contribute to such an organization. Let me go as far as saying that if a man had hidden the fact that he was born as a man and worked for N.O.W., we would probably sympathize with him a great deal. It is, therefore, difficult (conceptually speaking) to articulate why a person identifying as black can't work for a black rights organization while a man identifying as a woman could work for a woman's rights group.

Is the physical issue the one that really troubles us? After all, some might say, a person of one gender can de facto transition to the other gender. But, obviously given Dolezal's acceptance into the black community, the same is true of race.

Someone might claim that Dolezal did, in fact, personally benefit from identifying as black and becoming active in the community. After all, she gained a position of respect and obviously enjoyed a status and social acceptance. But I don't see why that is particularly a problem in itself. A man who felt he was always a woman might never be able to 'get on' in the male community, but might get along well as a woman.

Dr. Dawg makes a lot of hay out of the fact that Dolezal once sued Howard University for discriminating against her as a white person. This, according to Dawg, 'tips her hand.' I am not sure I can follow Dawg on this. If a man, as a man, sued a woman's university for discrimination, most of on the left would be bothered by that, suspecting it was another act of a whining male in a position of privilege undermining the feminist cause. But if a transgender person did the same thing we would probably have degree of sympathy.

We have to face a very basic conceptual problem - if Jenner's act is not an act of misogyny, then exactly why is Dolezal's act an act of 'white privilege?' I am not saying that what Dolezal has done is not an act of white privilege. However, I still have not heard an articulation of exactly why Dolezal's act is different from Jenner's. People have said all sorts of things, said that Dolezal is acting from privilege and is guilty of colonizing. But have still not read or heard a solid, rational argument in this regard.

I obviously don't know Rachel Dolezal. She may have all sorts of motives for what she has done, from deep-seated insecurity and fear to an active political program or a huge social commentary. One the one hand I was automatically troubled by what she did. But attempting to look past my knee-jerk reaction, I began to wonder why I wasn't sympathetic to her the way I would be to someone identifying with a different gender. And here's the thing, I still feel uncomfortable with Dolezal's actions, but I am unable, even in my own mind, to articulate the problem besides a vague sense that it sounds like a kind of colonization. Dr. Dawg is correct when he says that it "further muddies the already turbulent waters of social relations." But that isn't an argument. I am not sure those waters don't need to be muddied.

When faced with such issues, I often go over them in my mind looking for a clear argument that will affirm or contradict my feelings. I am yet to find clarity here.