Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Harper's Fear of the "other" . . .

The various racializing tropes to which Harper and his minions have begun to appeal in a desperate attempt to win the election ("UnCanadian," "Old-Stock," "Our Values,") are intended as 'power-markers.' They mark off the power relations between an 'us' and a 'them,' generating a passionate defence of certain perceived identities and notions of cultural and racial 'purity.' Such tropes are initially intended to 'distinguish,' then to 'divide,' and ultimately to 'conquer' (or alternatively, to generate a fear of being conquered). Racism is not, generally speaking, an end in itself, but rather is a means to the end of division and, by association, control. It is not so much control, or even the exclusion of the 'other' that is really at stake, but the wider goal of general political control with all of its sociopolitical implications.  These self-conscious and divisive word games seldom appeal, except in the case of the most ignorant listeners, to any real threat of invasion by the 'other,' but rely on more sinister (and often more dangerous) implications such as 'infiltration,' 'cultural watering-down,' and 'attack on (our) values.' The need for this indirect racialization is rooted not only in a blatant lack of actual 'real-life' threats and a growing (if irregular)  mainstream intolerance for directly racist statements, but in the emotive power of the sinister and the conspiratorial. In other words, implying that our cultural is 'threatened' by an 'outside' force which is acting in nefarious or indirect ways to somehow subvert our perceived values can be considerably more powerful, particularly in a milieu of ignorance, than any direct claims that must rely on some reasoned argument about a threat that has no basis in fact. Thus, it is not surprising that even a liberally minded citizen can get caught up in fears of 'hidden identities.' Perhaps more importantly, more direct discourse (one that will ultimately be reduced to legal rights and categories) now favours those who would eschew exclusion.

Fears of the 'other' have always been rooted deep in the nationalist psyche, but only recently have the perpetrators of such fears been able to appeal to (in a remarkably ironic twist) fears of a loss of freedom in order to restrict freedom. In this regard, the fear of 'infiltration' is of fundamental importance. The restriction of a religious freedom (for example the wearing of a niqab at a citizenship ceremony) has to be fashioned not in terms of facts but in terms of an underlying fear of cultural inflitration, as though the religious freedom granted to the 'other' today will turn into domination by the 'other' tomorrow. Never mind that no such material threat obtains, never mind that the particular racialized group constitutes only a small minority, what matters is the narrative of threat and the exclusion from the body politic. Similarly, a law which grants the government the right to revoke citizenship is, by its very nature a power marker that is not particularly directed at the individual criminal, but is intended to inform the citizenry of the government's power to exclude. This power is initially restricted to particular acts of conspiracy or violence (either here or abroad), but once granted can quite easily be extended to jaywalkers or political protestors. This 'thin edge of the wedge' problem doesn't even address the establishment of a de facto 'separate but equal' citizenship status.

The overriding generation of fear is a shockingly easy political target. Fear of the 'other' preys upon latent racist feelings by which the most bigoted are suddenly given a free range of legitimation for their racist feelings which are usually suppressed or kept quiet in the contemporary context. This age old political strategy cannot be outmoded by modern decorum, only refined by a new sensibility.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

More on the Question of Freedom and the Niqab. . .

It is interesting and bizarre to me how the foot-soldiers of the rightwing have continually railed against the so-called "nanny-state" and yet they are the first to call for state intervention when they find something that they don't like. They don't want the state to tell them that they can't, say, text and drive, or smoke in restaurants but they are more than eager for the state to come up with a dress-code. For me, this little act of cognitive dissonance is quite a feat and one that leaves me doubting the progress of social democracy.

The foundations of the modern freedoms associated with constitutional democracy are found in events like the French and American revolutions and the writings of people like Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Godwin. Though there are complicated theoretical and academic traditions associated with the questions of the limits of freedom, personal autonomy, and self-ownership, in public discourse we have used some pretty basic conceptual standards.  We commonly legitimize individual freedom of action as long as it is doesn't "harm others." Though this is by no means a legal category, it is a kind of conceptual litmus test that people think about in relation to freedoms. For example, freedom of conscious, freedom to marry who we chose, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of worship, these are the sorts of things that come to mind when we discuss a "free society" in private and public discourse, and they are the kinds of freedoms that are enshrined in various constitutional documents all over the world.

As long as your actions or thoughts aren't perceived as harmful or threatening to others, social democracy is generally thought to be tolerant of them. But how societies choose to limit freedoms is a complex issue. Perhaps the most famous example that is used in public discourse is the idea that your freedom of speech doesn't include yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre. This would be a so-called act of public mischief, because the impending stampede could cause harm to others, and limiting your freedom in this regard does nothing to substantially change your rights. Other limits to freedom of speech are more complex. For example many countries have decided to limit political advertising because even courts recognize the need for a more level electoral playing field. Your freedom of movement is limited to public spaces and doesn't include the private property of others or restricted government property, with the occasional exceptions of recognized easements.

There are other complex limits to your freedoms that are connected to perceived social goods. For example, the state compels you to wear a seatbelt  or a motorcycle helmet because there are significant social costs associated with not doing so.  Such freedom limitations are usually perceived as justified because they are relatively small and don't have huge impacts on people's lives and so are not perceived as too intrusive. But even here we grant exceptions in order to protect religious freedoms. In many places those who practice the Sikh religion are exempted from helmet laws so that they don't have to remove their turbans. The social "good" that this exception is meant to protect (the freedom of religion) is usually thought (at least by the courts) to outweigh the social risks associated with not wearing helmets.*

This brings us to the question of the niqab. Our question regarding freedoms should never, generally speaking, be 'how do I, as an individual, feel about someone's thought, conscience, actions or dress?" Rather, the question is "do those freedoms pose a significant impact or threat toward others or society?" If you want to limit people's freedom to marry who they want, for example, you can't simply appeal to a personal religious belief that gay marriage is some sort of unholy alliance. Since two gay people marrying each other has no direct impact on you as an individual, if you wanted to mount a meaningful argument against it you would have to contend that gay marriage is some sort of social threat, that is to say a threat to the stability or our society etc. However, the values of gay couples span the spectrum of our social values in general; some are conservative, some are liberal, some are atheist, some are religious, etc. In other words, gay couples are, in their beliefs, no different from straight couples. Thus, arguments that claim that we shouldn't legitimize gay couples because doing so poses some sort of threat to our social cohesion, seem to be extremely weak at best.

Arguments about the niqab are similar in nature. If someone choses to wear a niqab, other than potentially offending your personal sensibility, they don't have an individual impact on you. Thus, talk of banning a niqab (whether in citizenship ceremonies or in public in general) has to rely on some more abstract argument concerning what would have to constitute a public threat. This supposed public threat could be of two sorts; a perceived 'feminist' threat, or some kind of pseudo religious one. It is not uncommon to hear people say that the niqab is part of a system of gender oppression and therefore harmful to women. This may be true. However, going from this position to justifying a public ban on such clothing is a substantial and problematic conceptual leap. The danger involved here is, of course, one of extreme paternalism. By attempting to ban consenting adults from actions that they claim to be taking freely by their own volition, we are arguing at some level that these adults are unwittingly caught up in their own oppression. Such behavioural bans do, however, exist. Even consenting adults are not allowed to sell their organs or sell themselves into slavery. The reason that we as a society don't grant these rights is that we know that the most vulnerable among us would potentially fall victim to a system of exploitation. Tacit in the assumption of a niqab ban is a similar claim about exploitation. However, there are two important differences. One is that unlike a ban on selling yourself into slavery, say, a niqab ban involves a perceived religious practice. The other is that a ban on the niqab involves only one gender while other such bans refer themselves to the population at large. It isn't difficult to understand how potentially tricky it is to use a feminist argument to ban women from taking actions that they claim are not only religious but carefully considered and volitional.

An argued ban on the niqab that invokes a perceived cultural or religious threat is even more complicated. Whether we want to admit it or not, behind such arguments are centuries of prejudice, feelings that have resulted in countless acts of aggression and war by the West against muslim targets beginning with the Crusades. The concern here, though people often avoid its strict articulation for fear of sounding racists, are that Western nations are too tolerant, and that if we extend our religious rights too liberally we are opening the floodgates to some sort of Islamic take over of our society. I heard this argument regularly when I lived in the UK and I hear it here on AM talk radio. And politicians regularly stoke these fears with expressions like "jihadists" or the ever-popular "they hate our freedoms."  The argument is problematic in a number of ways. Most importantly people commonly forget that many of the muslims that have arrived in Western nations over the past fifty or sixty years have been compelled to leave the Middle East because of wars, and in many cases these are wars that the West has helped to start and promote. Far from being a sign of some conspiracy to take over the West (as many unhinged rightwingers would have you believe) Islamic immigration to the West has often been a result of our own adventurism and militarism. Perhaps more glaringly obvious is the fact that muslims have chosen to live in countries like Canada when they could have in many cases chosen to live in non-Western states. Though their are crazy and aggressive individuals in all nations and religion, the bizarre notion of an Islamic conspiracy has no basis in fact and is simply a myth conveniently propagated by Western, mostly rightwing politicians eager to exploit fear as a way of winning votes. In fact, the opposite of this myth is actually more true, it is the Western nations that have continually been involved in cultural and military colonial efforts in Muslim nations not the other way around.

There is no question that politicians and rightwing pundits will continue to exploit fears and prejudices concerning such things as sexual preferences and religious beliefs in order to create social division and win support. There is also no question that many people will continue to misunderstand or misrepresent the principles of religious freedom and constitutional rights. The struggle for justice and democracy is, in part, the struggle against fear and bigotry; and a long struggle it is.

(*There are, of course, massive exceptions to all of these liberties which conflict with the principle of 'not harming others.' Perhaps the best example that I can think of is the use of carbon burning personal vehicles. The use of combustion engine automobiles does regular and widespread harm to others. But we accept this harm because the activity became a central part of our culture before we realized the dangers and thus we assume that, though a change must be made, it has to be made slowly.)

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Dark Hour Upon Us. . . .

I am 51 years old. It feels strange to have lived half a century and have seen things change in various ways both socially and technologically. People tend to over estimate the changes in their own lifetime, a proclivity that is, I suppose, a predictable outcome of their egos. My intellect reminds me of how little has really changed, but my emotions are amazed by the changes that have actually taken place. I grew up in the US when the last vestiges of Jim Crow were finally being dismantled. Racism against African Americans was still public, rife, and systemic, but people were fighting against it and winning. Terrible sacrifices were made, good people like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers were taken from us, young people like the three Mississippi civil rights workers were murdered in cold blood. But these sacrifices were only the tip of the iceberg of pain, suffering, and humiliation that average African Americans had been suffering for a couple of centuries in North America.

But things were changing when I was young and they have continued to change. Each new generation in North America carries a little less racist baggage. With the exception of the racism against Indigenous people (which is still shockingly open and public), blatant racism has been withering and dying in North America. When I see my youngest daughter and her friends, I realize that racism just doesn’t register with them the way it did with my generation. That much is encouraging.

But the emotional baggage, the underlying impulse of racism, is still alive and well, as the current events of the election demonstrate, and that fact is depressing beyond measure. The fact that moral degenerates like Stephen Harper and Jason Kenny can so easily stoke fear and latent hatred, can so easily throw aside the principles of religious freedom diversity, and so easily generate cooperation in their immoral task by average people makes me feel almost as though we haven’t come very far at all in my lifetime.

Apparently, despite all the progress I thought (or at least hoped) we had made, all a politician has to do to regenerate heated racism in Canada is brandish thoughts of a conspiracy by “radical Islamics” who are led by crazed “Jihadists” and represented in our country by one average woman who doesn’t want the state to tell her how to dress. Bang! Instant irrationality and historical regression. No matter that there are not “Jihadists” behind every corner. No matter that more Canadians died from car accidents this week than from “terrorism” in the last ten years. No matter that despite her personal dress preferences Zunera Ishaq has no interest in turning Canada into an Islamic state. No matter that a country like Germany (a country with considerably greater security concerns than our own) can receive tens of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees without a single act of “Jihadist Terror.” Never mind that white supremacists are a much greater threat to our safety and security than Muslims. Where bigotry is concerned, the facts don’t matter. Racism relies on fear, on our basest emotions, and on underlying feelings of hatred.

We are experiencing a terrible moment in our history. It is a moment that will later be looked upon much like our treatment of Japanese Canadians in WWII. We are embarrassing ourselves to our children and grandchildren. They are going to look back and wonder how we let ourselves be so foolish despite all our historical experience with racism. But it is always the same story. We are weak and all too often we let ourselves be led by our weakest impulses.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Harper and the Niqab. . .

I didn't really want to write a blogpost about the question of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. I really didn't! But I am so shocked by the fact that not only are Harper's supporters lining up behind him on this but many centrists and even people who claim to be leftists have begun to quietly play Harper's tune.

What I find amazing is this - I still haven't heard a single coherent argument against the wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. I don't mean the arguments have been weak or poorly articulated. I mean I haven't heard a real argument. All I have heard are personal feelings and platitudes. That's it.

First of all, let's make it clear - your personal feelings about the niqab are irrelevant. That is the very point about protecting minority rights. The legal efforts to protect minority rights exist by their very nature because the majority don't like them in some way. If people didn't oppose them, there would, a priori, be no need to take steps to legally protect them! Whether you like it or not, here are the facts: the wearing of the niqab is a recognized religious principle (some try to argue that it is only cultural but since a significant group of people practice it as a religious symbol, with a long history, courts have already ruled on that) and we have an adult, articulate woman who has a serious religious commitment to it. Thus, we are dealing with a pretty simple case of minority rights. You don't have to like the niqab, you are free to argue that it is bad, a symbol of oppression, and problematic from a feminist point of view. But that is an entirely different issue from the legal protection of the RIGHT to wear it. I really don't like the man-bun or the wearing of socks with sandals but that is not a legal argument. In a country like Canada it is the muslim women themselves that have to decide, and the courts have to protect that right to decide. This puts paid to the most common platitude that is invoked to ban the niqab; that the niqab is "bad" or "sexist." Those things it may be but from a legal point of view entirely irrelevant.

Perhaps the most comic argument people appeal to here is when they suggest that because they can't wear a Batman mask to a citizenship ceremony, that means no one else should be permitted to wear any kind of face covering. I am amazed that anyone, other than your average conservative ignoramus has the gall to attempt to use this argument. Again, minority rights are about…wait for it…yes, minorities! Human rights are about universality. Minority rights (at least in cases like this) are about accommodation. (If you want to attempt to get the wearing of halloween masked recognized as a religious symbol worthy of protection, do so by all means.) The courts aren't protecting a universal right, they are protecting a minority right. In other words, if your personal feelings about face coverings mattered, leagally speaking,  a Supreme  Court would be unnecessary, we could just take a poll about every issue and let that decide about minority rights. But, of course, we all know what that would mean - slavery would still be legal in many places.

Even many Conservatives, as lame-brained as they are, now admit that there is no security issue. So we don't have to even go there.

Left with no real argument, even Harper has been reduced to pure symbolism to try to stir up anti-muslim sentiment (and, sadly, it seems to be working). He has been reduced to suggesting that there is just something symbolically wrong with someone covering their face when in a citizenship ceremony. Now, first of all, this simply isn't an argument. Since when did optics trump the principles of the constitution?? It is nonsensical and, like patriotism, symbolism has become the last refuge of a scoundrel.

But here's the kicker. Even at the symbolic level Harper is wrong on this one. Remember the racist storm that revolved around the RCMP/Turban debate? There too, people were reduced to symbolism, arguing that if an RCMP officer wore a turban he would be disruption to the symbolism inherent in the RCMP dress uniform. We all remember how the courts decided on that one. But the importance of that court decision was that the symbolism of diversity and the right to accommodation was the most important symbolism of all. The symbolism of a century-plus old uniform was nowhere near as important as the symbolism of accepting and celebrating the principle of diversity.

The same issue prevails here. The symbolism of the citizenship ceremony is tenuous at best. But the symbolism of diversity, accommodation and acceptance are the real symbols to which we should be looking.

There conclusion here is that I see, nor have I heard, a single real argument for banning niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. I have heard plenty of arguments that the niqab is a problem in general, that it symbolizes centuries of oppression against women, misogyny and sexism. Fair enough, I agree that it does. But surely we cannot overcome centuries of sexism against women by using the coercive power of the state to tell them what not to wear.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Dangerous Grudge-Match. . . .

There is no doubt that many people on the left of centre are in serious quandary concerning October 19th. Now I'm not talking about the diehard partisans here - those who are more motivated by some abstract partisan belief than by actual policies or events. Some people, even leftists, would NEVER vote NDP because of the actions of Jack Layton a decade ago, or because of the NDP has succumbed to Balanced Budget Fetishism, or because of the suspiciously Harperesque style of Anne McGrath and Tom Mulcair. Others would never vote Liberal because Paul Martin was the founder of Canadian-style austerity, or because the Liberals helped to keep Harper in Power for years, or because they gutted EI and legitimized the raiding of the fund for their short-term political gain. Some traditional NDPers have a naive faith in the Party, imagining that their childcare program or pharmacare allows them to maintain their socialist roots. Others think the Liberals really have changed their stripes and are now actually more progressive than the NDP which, whether we like it not, has shifted right.

I actually think that, as a progressive, you can make a coherent argument to reluctantly support either of the two major opposition parties at the moment. Leaving past indiscretions and failures aside, both parties are too far right and both are trying to capture the (sort-of) progressive vote. And if you are not caught up in grudges and hyperbole, both the parties could be supported at least from a pragmatically progressive point of view. Maybe they would both let us down in horrible ways, I suspect that they would regardless of which one we opted for. If they managed a majority (a possibility that seems very unlikely) the NDP might be able to institute a National Childcare program and maybe even a pharmacare program. And that would be good. They might actually bring in PR. That would be better. If the Liberals got elected they might spend billions on infrastructure. That would be a big help to many people as well as to the future of the country. On the other hand, at this point neither party seems very interested in actually doing much about climate change or actually addressing the terrible economic inequality of the country.

In other words, regardless of which way you jump, if you are a progressive there will be disappointment. On the other hand, if either party manages electoral reform, we will have reason to celebrate.

The problem, of course, is that while we are considering such imponderables, Harper could just come out and win a majority again, in which case none of this matters. If Harper wins then democracy in the country is totally finished. Another four years of Harper will mean the total elimination of those parts of our state that we once took for granted like the right to collective bargaining, an independent judiciary and national police force, any vestige of environmental controls, an economy autonomous from foreign corporations, nationally motivated independent research, and an independent electoral body. All these will be effectively gone.

And you can take that to the Bank. (Or to the voting booth, whichever you prefer.)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Liberal or NDP? (Lesser of Two Evils?)

Today in the Toronto Sun (of all places) there is an article by Tom Parkin suggesting that those who want to defeat Stephen Harper (and let's face it, that is the vast majority of Canadians) should opt for the NDP rather than the Liberals. The fact that this article appears in the Sun is, perhaps, an indication of a generalized impression that the NDP is now actually to the right of the Liberal Party. More likely, I think, is that Sun editors and their ilk are eager to see the NDP as a possible government because they think that it will panic voters in the closing weeks of the election and push people to vote Conservative. However, putting aside speculation about the ulterior motives of the Sun Editors, Parkin's article is at the very least interesting.

Let me say right away that I put very little stock in either the Liberal Party or the NDP. While the Liberals embraced Neo-Liberalism in the 1990s, the NDP has only more recently made this painful conversion. But since the Green Party is the only real alternative here, and it is very unlikely to form government, progressives are compelled to look at the other two major parties as a path to defeating Harper. I lived in England when Blair took over the Labour Party and I watched while many foolishly and blindly partizan Labour supporters stayed in the Party and acted as though it was still an genuinely progressive party. Meanwhile, I watched other, more careful and acute observers leave the Labour Party, fully realizing Blair's Neo-Liberal, Neo-Thatcherite agenda. Now while it is an exaggeration to say that Thomas Mulcair is as far right as Tony Blair, it would be simply foolish to pretend that he is anything like a traditional NDPer.

The fact is, if you are willing to be non-partisan (and surprisingly few people are), both the Liberals and NDP are offering a few attractive alternative policies to the HarperCons.  I think that the Liberal infrastructure plan is overly modest, but an important idea whose time has come. Furthermore, while NDP stalwarts lambast and ridicule it, it is just simple hypocrisy not to realize that if the same plan came from Mulcair, NDP supporters would screaming from the rooftops about what a great idea it is. The Liberals have also been more active on the Environmental issue in recent months than the NDP who, for reasons I can't fathom, have included almost nothing about the environment in their financial plan. The Liberals are also at least talking about higher taxes for the wealthy, an idea that should be NDP territory. But the supposed tax-cut for the 'middle-class' is just an attempt to vote-buy on Trudeau's part. A simple understanding of economics should tell you that you don't need tax-cuts, you need better services because the collective purchasing of goods and services is infinitely more efficient and cost effective than anything you can do with a few bucks of tax savings. On the other hand, the NDP's talk of a national pharmacare program is very important and anyone, regardless of your economic status should be in favour of it. Though Mulcair has waffled a little, he is at least talking about an increase in corporate taxation. However, if you are at all leftwing you know that Trudeau is right about small business taxes actually favouring people who are relatively wealthy. This is because not only do wealthy tax payers use small businesses as a method of avoiding taxes, but the fact is that most small businesses (and the definition of 'small-business' usually includes businesses with up to a hundred employees) generate a relatively high degree of wealth for their owners. The NDP is at least talking about a national childcare plan, but its creation depends on many factors that might not come to fruition, and meanwhile Mulcair is failing to target childcare money to those who really need it. On foreign policy issues there is little to distinguish the NDP and the Liberal Party, and unfortunately both have terrible positions on the Palestinian issue (which to me is always a litmus test for a progressive party).

Thus, I would say if you want to guarantee that Stephen Harper won't return as PM, and you are a progressive, there is painfully little choice out there. Both the Liberals and the NDP offer a few tidbits, but they also offers shockingly little. (I am secure in my leftwing credentials and have little concern for blindly partizan NDPers who will try to defend Mulcair as though he was never a Thatcherite. Their partizan comments are tiresome in their vacuity) Which brings me back to Parkin's article in the Sun. Parkin's only real argument other than some dubious electoral math, is that the Liberals and Trudeau have a very bad history of propping up Stephen Harper. This is true and should not, I suppose, be disregarded out of hand. If you supported William Bligh when he was a brutal Captain, it is understandable that you would have little credibility after the mutiny. In other words, while Trudeau may not have been the Liberal leader during the period in which the LPC propped up Harper with countless votes in his favour, but he was in the caucus and he should certainly wear that terrible crime and should be called on to explain it (which he has never done). And if someone were to refuse to vote Liberal based only on this principle alone, I would understand. But Mulcair (let's please be honest) has similar baggage. Mulcair had a rather dismal record as Environment Minster in Quebec. I could see how some progressives would say that his position in the Charest Government and his effort to privatize Mont Orford Park (something he claims to have opposed, but the facts of the matter are fairly suspicious) should be enough to preclude him from being the leader of the NPD let alone an NDP PM.

I can only conclude that anyone who is really a political progressive should have no faith in either the NDP or the LPC. People have to decide which they think is the lesser of two evils. For me (fortunately or unfortunately) it doesn't even matter since I live in a seat that will go Conservative even if the entire caucus was arrested tomorrow for molesting collies. But for others out there, I think they should weigh the facts carefully.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Debate and Vision. . .

I wonder what people will make of the G&M's David Parkinson's article on Justin Trudeau this morning. Is this a sign of things to come? The thrust of the article is that Trudeau is the only of the three main leaders who is offering something new, something that challenges some of the economic assumptions that have constituted the mainstream for the past decade. (Of course, Parkinson's failure to mention Elizabeth May and the clearly new challenge that the Green Party represents is both predictable and unfortunate.) However, if we stick to the established parties, there is certainly something in what Parkinson has to say.

Parkinson's best insight, though very limited in scope, is when he challenges the real meaning behind Harper's economic efforts. When thinking about Harper's effort to lower taxes and balance the budget, Parkinson asks "So what was the point?" Good question I'd say. "If we imagined that these were means to an end, that once achieved there would be a grand plan cashing in the dividend from all that hard work, we were wrong." Wrong indeed! This is because the simple fact is that the ends to which Harper's Neo-Liberal policies are directed are not a better and more prosperous society, but rather, greater wealth for the rich and corporations, deeper economic inequality, and a more precarious workforce with less leverage to make demands. If Parkinson understood this, he would never expected any pot of gold at the end of Harper's supposed economic rainbow. So, ten out of ten to Mr. Parkinson for seeing the dearth of reward from Harper's effort, but minus a few million for failing to understand the real economic goal here.

Parkinson is right in part when he concludes his article with the observation that among the big three, "only Mr. Trudeau offered a vision of something new." Now, before people go crazy telling me that Trudeau represents the same old Neo-Liberal agenda that was begun my the Chretien/Martin Liberals, let me clarify this. One of the primary thrusts of new economic ideas (publicly spear-headed in part by writers like Thomas Pikkety) is the need for huge infrastructure investments in order to ensure the future of Western nations whose primary post-war investments in this area have now broken down. Part of this argument is that the huge infrastructure investments of the post-war period were one of the primary factors in the long-boom that ended in the 1970s. Since then the Neo-Liberal agenda has allowed this infrastructure to slowly wither and die, keeping it alive only by a patchwork of bandaid solutions. In this sense there is something very important in what Trudeau is saying. And the Liberals are in part also right when they say that you can't have a Tommy Douglas expansion on a Stephen Harper budget. The great infrastructure investments were made at a time of much higher taxation and much higher government revenue vis-a-vis GNP.

Thus, I would say that there are two important ways that the NDP has ceded progressive ground to the Liberals. One is that they have talked even less than the Liberals about the environment in an election where the environment has been conspicuously absent. And two, they have failed to take on board even the mainstream economic thinking which is making infrastructure investments central. New clean-energy technologies, a revitalization of our education system, huge reinvestments in our healthcare, any visionary politician must make these the absolute core of the way forward. If Thomas Mulcair believes in any of these things he certainly hasn't articulated them adequately. Meanwhile, by not getting bogged down in anti-deficit fetishism, Trudeau is scoring real points in the 'vision' department.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Walter Benjamin and the Refugee Crisis. . . .

In the early 1930s, refugees began to leave Germany. The lucky and smart intellectuals, communists, Romany, and others saw the writing on the wall and knew that they were in danger if they stayed on. The luckiest and smartest had begun to flee before Hitler became chancellor in Jan. 1933. The decline toward fascism was initially creeping and unclear to many. (As is true today, funny enough.) One of the most historically interesting of these early refugees was a little known, though academically well connected intellectual named Walter Benjamin. Today Benjamin is one of the most widely read and influential theoretical writers in 20th century humanities, but in his own lifetime he lived in relative obscurity, in part because, so the story goes, the philosopher Max Horkeimer had intentionally prevented him from receiving a PhD.  I have read much of Benjamin's work and find him fascinating and challenging.
Walter Benjamin

Benjamin left Germany in 1932. After moving around a bit he eventually ended up in Paris in self-induced exile because as a jew, an intellectual, and a leftist, he knew that he couldn't co back to Germany. During his time in Paris he laboured on his most remarkable work entitled The Arcades Project, a huge tome of theoretical and literary snippets on every subject from Baudelaire to Surrealism.

Benjamin was finally forced to flee Paris in June of 1940 as the Panzers descended on the Capital. He had left his unfinished manuscript of The Arcades Project with another remarkable intellectual, Georges Bataille. Benjamin managed to leave only a day before the Nazi's arrived with orders for his arrest. Benjamin was planning to get to American via Spain and then Portugal. He made it across the French-Spanish border but the Franco government had suddenly cut off the Portuguese frontier to refugees. There were rumours that the Spanish police were going to arrest Benjamin, along with numerous other refugees that he was with, and deport them back to France, where he would certainly have fallen into the hands of the Nazis. To avoid that terrible fate, Benjamin took a fatal overdose of morphine on the 25th of September 1940, he was forty-eight years old. Considering the remarkable power and acuity of his work during his 30s and 40s, we can assume that had he lived, he would have been one of the greatest literary and aesthetic theorists of all time.

During the pre-war and interwar years Western nations took in many refugees. Some of these were or turned out to be important intellectuals, artists, and scientists. Others were just average people who wanted to live their lives, in as happy and peaceful surroundings that they could. Unfortunately, some refugees were turned away or prevented from leaving and payed with their lives. Perhaps the most famous of those that were turned away were the 900 on board the Ocean Liner MS St. Louis who were turned away from Cuba, The United States, and Canada, despite the authorities knowing full well what was going on in Germany and what their fate might be. Many of the passengers on the MS St. Louis eventually died in concentrations camps, a sad and inconvenient truth we would do well to remember today. Whenever I hear about the refugee crisis in the Middle-East and Europe I think about Walter Benjamin. This is not because I put more value in intellectuals than other people. Rather, I think about Benjamin because it reminds me of the lives that potentially go unfulfilled, the promise of life that all those people fleeing war are hoping to enjoy, but might not be able to. I think about all those people who could, in a million different ways, make a contribution to our lives, to my life, if only our elected officials would make an effort to act as swiftly as possible.

Little Alyn Kurdi, the boy who we all saw dead on a Turkish beach a little more than a week ago, might have gone on to cure cancer, or he might have gone on to be a school teacher, or perhaps a humble tradesman. But whatever he might have gone on to do with his life, he would have laughed and cried, sang and danced, loved and lost, and enriched the lives of those around him. When we think of the refugees fleeing war today, I hope we don't think in the abstract. I hope we think of real, concrete human beings who don't just deserve to live decent lives but who we deserve to have among us because they can make us better, more fulfilled people.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Facebook Problem. . . .

Imagine, if you will, young men like Stephen Harper or Jason Kenny (gasp!) growing up today in our present atmosphere of technology. Try to picture what such mens' internet profile might look like. Take Jason Kenny - an angry, sexually ambiguous, Catholic, college drop-out. Just imagine what sorts of angry highschool and college tweets and Facebook posts would come from this social misfit's hands. It is relatively easy to hold back one's angriest and offensive opinions once you are in power. Loose mouths, as they say, sink political ships. And the pleasures and comforts of power are often instinctively protected once they are enjoyed. Not so youthful anger and angst. Some people are naturally discrete and reticent to say too much. Not men like Jason Kenny or Stephen Harper. Given an open forum to vent their youthful acrimony and annoyances, many such men (and women) would be hard-pressed to curb their enthusiasm, so to speak.

This brings us to the oddly 21st century political dilemma. Let's call it 'The Facebook Problem.' If the election in Canada that we are now going through is an historical indication, The Facebook Problem is the most pressing new dilemmas facing political parties. Most people who have grown up in the last fifteen years have a significant internet profile, and angry young people doubly so.

Few young people are they types who are thinking carefully ahead concerning their career. Only the most cautious and reticent young person is going to hold back their political and social passions because they think that they may have a public career in the future. And do we really want these kinds of people to be our leaders? We want passionate and inspired people in public life. Some of the things from peoples' past clearly makes it difficult to see them becoming elected officials. Pissing in cups or making racist rants are difficult things to get past or forgive, even when the person apologizes and says that they are 'reformed.' Other issues are much more subtle. When someone has simply expressed a legitimate political position but done so carelessly or even offensively, that is not something that shouldn't preclude them from public office. More importantly, The Facebook Problem (as well as the wider issue of media and technology) is making political parties extremely sensitive to any kind of dissenting opinions. The extreme lengths to which Harper has gone to muzzle nearly everyone in his party demonstrates the danger of this phenomenon. Meanwhile, in the US the Trump phenomenon demonstrates the potential backlash against overly rehearsed and controlled politics.

I see no ready solution to the Facebook Problem. Obviously encouraging people to express the worst kinds of offensive opinions is not the kind of solution one would want to promote. Where we go from here is anyone's guess.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Tragedy that Will Return Harper to Office. . . .

We are eager to write off Harper and his government as dead in the water. We were especially eager to write them off after their reaction to the tragedy of the refugee crisis in Europe. Harper's effort to change the channel on the terrible hardships of the refugees fleeing the Middle-East and North Africa and to focus on his war and his "security" concerns is both monumentally frustrating and deeply sad.

Harper's position is frustrating for the following reasons -

1.Canada has almost nothing to contribute to the military effort against ISIS. The current military effort against ISIS is nearly completely pointless anyway. The very best you can argue (and this is pretty thin) is that the bombing campaign can slow ISIS down, but it will by no means stop it. The proof of this is in the pudding, so to speak. The allies have dropped thousands and thousands of bombs and ISIS is as strong as ever and in some areas has made gains. And even if the bombing was working Canada has VERY little capacity to contribute to this bombing campaign in the first place. I think you might make a cogent argument that a military element is necessary in the fight against ISIS but it would involve soldiers on the ground, and Canada has even less ability to contribute to that campaign than they do to the bombing campaign.

2. ISIS largely exists because of Western adventurism in the region in the first place. (This is a long argument that deserves a book in its own right) However, even if that wasn't true in the past, ISIS is only able to maintain itself today because of support from a) the Saudi state and b) their oil sales. In both these cases the Western countries are culpable. The Saudi's (who largely responsible for 911) have been the primary backers of ISIS all along. The Wahhabi Movement that bolsters the Saudi Government is the same one that bolsters the fighters of ISIS. And even if we agree that the Saudi State is not actively involved with ISIS, it is actively turning a blind eye to its citizens who are. Meanwhile Canada and the US support the Saudi's in myriad ways. But the West is also turning a blind eye to ISIS's use of oil to fuel their fight. ISIS is smuggling oil through Iraq to Kuwaiti and Saudi refineries as well as into Turkey. The Western nations have made shockingly little effort to stop this smuggling because their allies are profiting from it.

Instead of worrying about more military involvement in the Middle-East, our country should be taking a much more active role in humanitarian efforts as well as diplomatic efforts at curbing conflict. Unlike the military adventurism, this would be an effort to which Canada could make a real and lasting contribution.

However, here is the saddest part. Far from seeing the refugee crisis as a negative for its effort a reelection, Harper and his conservatives are seeing it as the perfect opportunity to win. It is depressingly easy to exploit the deep-seated fear and bigotry at the heart of the Canadian public. And no one is more eager to exploit that fear and bigotry than Harper and his nasties. I believe that the terrible images of dead refugee children on Turkish shores was greeted with great relief by Conservative insiders because they knew that this was their perfect wedge issue that will carry them to another election victory. Over the next few weeks you will see discourse shift from concerns for the refugees to ever greater concerns for our "security" as the Cons exploit people's fear and racism. Far from reducing their support this will be a boon for the Conservatives. And Trudeau and Mulcair will whither before this onslaught as so many average Canadians will buy the spin of fear and let their basest instincts guide their voting hands.

I now predict the Cons will win another Majority government with somewhere around 38% of the vote.

God I hope I'm wrong.

Quick update - in the past week and a half (since the refugee crisis broke) Harper has gone up in the polls by several points. And is now in the lead for the first time. My prediction is already coming true.

Friday, September 11, 2015

They Think they Know What is Right. . .

As I drive through my neighbourhood, and a very conservative neighbourhood it is, I am struck by the shocking number of Conservative lawn signs that litter the roadway. It shocks me because, well, frankly I am always amazed that people are willing to support a political party after it has proven itself to be not only deeply corrupt but, in many ways, the very antithesis of what it claims to be. I don’t need to catalogue the litany of ways in which the Harper government has, over the past ten years, lied cheated and stolen its way through its time in power. If you are reading this you probably are already painfully aware of that dismal record. There are, of course, those out there who have no real idea of just how terrible and hypocritical the Harper government has been. Those people are, unfortunately, barely worth speaking to. If you have come this far and failed to see what has been going on, it is very unlikely that any amount of discourse will help you see the light. Some people are either too obtuse or too thickheaded to really bother with trying to understand what is going on in their society. So it goes.

These kind of know-nothings are depressing and frustrating but not as aggravating as those who know what is going on but still support the very things that they claim they oppose. Stupidity isn’t evil, even willful stupidity. It is either bred in the bone or grows out of fear. I don’t like it but I expect it, I understand it. What I have trouble understanding are those who know of corruption, of hypocrisy, of evil and dishonest deeds but still stand by their party. 

Anyone who has paid attention and understands the political, social, and economic system we live in, knows how corrupt and hypocritical the Harper government has been. So that leaves us with what should be a simple question – why do people do it? Why do they support a government that so willfully disobeys the laws?  The only answer that has ever come to mind for me is that partisans such as this operate on the simple assumption that it is ok to do the wrong things for the right reasons. Let me be clear, however, what the wrong things are. Most Conservatives don’t mind that Harper and his cabal sew the seeds of anger and hatred in their politics. A shocking number of Conservatives are motivated by a strange kind of anger and meanspiritedness in their politics. They believe that most people are out there being shiftless and lazy and trying to get something for nothing. They don’t mind, therefore, that Harper expends a tremendous amount of political capital hating on people, for want of a better expression. Thus, the “wrong-things” that Conservative partisans quietly rationalize to themselves (hoping no one will hear them) aren’t the nasty elements of their political machine. No, their rationalizations are about the basic political corruption that we have witnessed, the lying, the fraud, the secrecy, the bending of the rules in the House, the shutting down of debate and discourse, all of those things that the Conservatives told us that they didn’t stand for. Conservatives figure that they can engage in all these acts of dishonesty and malfeasance because the principles of democracy basically thwart their goals, because people are too weak and too unwilling to do the things that they must and democracy will allow them to too closely follow their heart and their compassion. Conservatives, therefore, believe that in the long run it is ok to sidestep democracy, to rationalize lying and corruption because in the end it will work out for the best. This is, in simple terms, why so many people are willing to overlook the worst deeds of their party leaders.

If Harper’s terrible cabal gets reelected it will be because of a combination of basic human stupidity, the angry motivation of much of rightwing politics, and basic (largely immoral) notion that the ends justify the means.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Harper and his Future Image. . . .

By the evidence offered in his latest article for McLean's Magazine, writer Paul Wells is engaging in significant hallucinogenic substance abuse. What else could possibly explain his bizarre attitude toward Stephen Harper's recent behaviour. His article is, for the most part, uninspired an uninteresting. Despite all appearances to the contrary he claims that Harper has been, on this campaign trail, a brighter and bubblier character than he has ever been before.  He claims he is having a rip-roaring time out there on the hustings. "He stands straighter, delivers his lines with more élan, and seems in a far better mood than four years ago, when he slouched and grumbled his way to a third consecutive election victory." I don't know about you guys, but having watched this Prime Minister carefully four years ago as well as in the past few weeks, and I can only think that Paul Wells has been dropping some acid or overdosed on his prescription of Xanax.

But I maybe Wells is only engaged in some wishful thinking enhanced by some excessive intake of caffeine on the campaign trail.

What is even more bizarre than his image of a happy-go-lucky, devil may care sort of Harper, is his notion that Harper has been a leader who has been carefully considering his legacy and his future image in this country. "But, unlike most leaders," Wells tells us, "Harper has grown used to thinking of his party's future after his own leadership ends."

Ok, upon reading this line this morning, I almost lost by breakfast through my nose! I can think of no political leader in the past forty years who has thought less about his party's future than Stephen Harper. First of all he has successively and intentionally filled his cabinet with people who are barely competent, comically obsequious toward him, and have been systematically starved of leadership chances by Harper's centralizing control. Harper has clearly operated on the assumption that if he keeps potential leadership challengers out of the way, he will last longer as leader. In other words, instead of thinking about his party's future, Harper has always made a very clear effort to make himself the party, to make the party so dependent upon him that at the point of his eventual departure, the Conservative Party will be like a lost child, with no idea what to do or where to go.

But perhaps what has been more dramatic than his hollowing out of the party's leadership in favour of his near total control, is the way Harper has systematically destroyed his party's eventual effort at moral leadership in opposition. Unless he really intends to make Canada into a one party state, we can reasonably assume that a party other than the Conservative Party will eventually be in government. Everything that Harper as done as PM seems to have been designed to undermine his Party's position when that time comes. Future Conservative leaders in opposition will have no legitimate position from which to criticize, for example, a future government from proroguing parliament on a whim, or for creating hugh omnibus bills, or shutting down debate, or for ignoring every and all efforts at cooperation, or for refusing to include opposition members in any international efforts, or for hiding government financial plans and projections, or for any other countless numbers of power abuses. Harper's Conservatives have centralized power so obsessively, and so thoroughly, that it will be a generation before they can criticize another party for similar abuses. Rather than thinking about his party's future after his departure, it seems almost as though he has (consciously or unconsciously) tried to set his party up for future failures. Once this government is gone, I believe that it will become for many many years into the future the very symbol of the kind of government Canadians don't want. It is the poster-child of secrecy and abuse, and will be perceived that way for a generation to come.

It seems to me that far from trying to orchestrate a soft landing for his party he has, like most oligarchs, robbed his party of the status of being a party that seeks to lead the nation, and has created a party that is perceived as narrow, mean-spirited and interested only in itself and its drive for power.

Contrary to what Paul Wells would have us believe, Harper has not led this campaign in order to soften his party's image or orchestrate a soft landing for his party. Rather, he has led it because he is obsessive about power and doesn't want to give it up. The best evidence for this is that he has, by Wells' own admission, receded into an ever smaller bubble of blind supporters ready to do anything he asks. A man concerned with his party's future would be busy broadening his own and his party's tent, surrounding himself with and grooming competent potential successors, and softening his party's most hardline positions. And anyone who thinks he is doing those things really is high on something!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Strategic Voting. . .

In recent years the issue of strategic voting has been a significant point of discussion and contention in Canada. The reason for this is obvious; Stephen Harper. Most governments are disliked or even despised by the supporters of other parties. But hatred and fear of Stephen Harper is like nothing this country has seen in recent memory. Accusations that a government or Prime Minister is 'dangerous,' a 'threat to democracy,' 'illegitimate,' or an enemy of the constitution itself, are always out there, but they are the kinds of accusations usually associated with political extremists. For, example, lots of people didn't like Chretien government, they accused them of corruption and opportunism, neo-liberalism and a corporatist agenda. But few, outside of extremists ever accused the Chretien/Martin governments of widespread election fraud, of trying to destroy the constitution, of meddling with the judiciary, of unjustly proroguing parliament, of systematically trying to stop political debate in the House or in society at large. However, the Government of Stephen Harper has engendered widespread fear among many politically mainstream people, fear that our very democracy is under threat. I have heard and talked to many average people, people who are not particularly political, who really think the future of the county is at stake in this election because they have simply never seen a government that is this secretive, this anti-democratic, this anti-judicial, this eager to quiet scientists and civil servants, and this willing to ignore the very principles of law. Thus, I would say, the talk of strategic voting is unprecedented in Canada because the perceived malfeasance of a government is also unprecedented.

Traditionally when those in the political centre, or on the centre-left have talked of strategic voting, it has been basic partisanship (rightly or wrongly) that has been cited as the reason for not taking this pragmatic step during an election. The more leftist NDP supporters would say that the Liberal Party is so close to the Conservative Party that strategic voting is senseless. Meanwhile the rightwing of the Liberal Party would commonly accuse the NDP of being a some kind of a nutty socialist party (oh, that it were!). However, I don't think these arguments are nearly as meaningful as they once were. This change is largely the result, I believe, of the NDP having abandoned much of its traditional agenda. But however you feel about the two main opposition parties, it should be fairly clear that the things that once made them seem easy to distinguish no longer obtain in a clear way. Mulcair is talking about lowering small business tax and raising corporate tax (though by how much is not clear). If that doesn't confuse you, then think about the fact that Trudeau is talking about raising taxes on the wealthy, but the NDP won't make that commitment. The NDP has promised a new PR voting system, while Trudeau has promised some sort of reform (perhaps weighted voting). The Liberals have at least vowed to put a "price on carbon," but exactly what this plan will look like is unclear. The NDP plan for the environment is at this point entirely unclear. Suffice it to say that it has shifted its political stance and at the same time many issues that the opposition leaders are talking about are no longer clearly left, centre, or even right nowadays. I believe that because of these shifting political waters it is easier to vote strategically than it once was.

The other objection to strategic voting is, of course, less based on the issue of pragmatism. Some people simply say that we should vote on principle. My reply to that is - of the three largest parties today what principle exactly are you holding onto?? It is not clear that any the three largest parties operate on any kind of principles. I won't even talk about the laughable opportunism of the Conservative Party. If they have any principle it seems to be either self-survival, or simply putting the government at the service of foreign corporations. The NDP has clearly abandoned much of its principles. They still pay lip service to workers rights, average Canadians, and tax fairness. But gone are their principles that no one should profit from healthcare, that the so-called market is not the best model for our energy industry, that unions need to play a fundamental role in how government and society should operate. Meanwhile, the Liberals were never a party of principle, unless you include the principle of universalism (something they abandoned long ago). The Liberal Party, like most self-identified 'Centrist" parties, has always strived, it seems to me, to appear pragmatist and pliable. (Some people just call that wishy-washy, but I will leave that up to you.)

I see no reason not to vote strategically at this point, if it is a reasonable position for your particular riding. And I support strategic voting for two basic reasons. One is that I do believe that Stephen Harper is fundamentally dangerous to our country, to what is left of our democracy, to our environment, and to the existence of the Indigenous population. The other reason I support strategic voting at this point is because only electoral reform will allow us to meaningfully vote on principle later on. Some form of PR will change the political discourse of the country, and it will make sure that our votes actually count. The NDP and the Greens support PR, and the Liberals have committed to changing the voting system in some way and make it more fair and meaningful. So voting strategically to rid this country of Harper can not only save our country in the short term, but can have the potentially added benefit of finally bringing some sanity to our political system and make strategic voting a thing of the past.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Western Adventurism, Refugees, and the Rise of the New (old) Right. . .

It is not surprising that political discourse becomes extremely divisive in difficult times. In the modern era in the West, the most obvious example of this divisiveness was seen in the 1930s. Throughout Europe in particular the 1930s saw extreme political divisions between left and rightwing responses to growing economic and resultant social problems. In some countries, like England for example, there was little in the way of a significant extremes. Sir Oswald Mosely's Fascist efforts in England never really captured the popular imagination, and though there was a communist party, it was overshadowed by the relatively soft  leftist stance of the Labour Party. However, Germany emerged early in the economically troubled times as a country of political extremes, and unfortunately divisions between the centre left and the extreme left resulted in an electoral victory for the NAZIs. In Spain this divisiveness led to a horrific civil war which was, arguably, only won by Franco and his supporters because his opponents continued to fight among themselves.

I would argue that we have begun to see a re-emergence of the same kinds of political divisions that emerged in the 1930s. The roots of these troubles are different than they were in the 1930. Globalization of capital, global warming, and extreme instability in the Middle East are now major factors in the growing unrest, as well as dramatic increases in economic and social inequality in the Western nations.

Extreme political divisions have begun to emerge in the US in recent years. For years the nature of American political troubles has only been expressed by a growing extremism in the rightwing. During the Obama administration this extremism has been demonstrated by the Republican's absolute unwillingness to accept anything supported by the Obama administration, even when those policies have been rooted in formerly Republican policies. We have seen a similar division in Canada as the Harper administration has brought increasingly rightwing and militarist policies into the mainstream, and made the politics of hate, fear, and division central to Canadian politics. Like the extreme right in the 1930s, Republicans in the US and Conservatives in Canada have sought increasingly to govern by decree, reject all cooperation or compromise, and work by stealth wherever necessary. Unlike the fascists of the 30s, the new right is now operating much more clearly on a corporatist model and their efforts, though still centred on increases in state power over the individual citizen, is more about global corporatism than it once was. However, the effect for average people is very much the same; more instability, less power as workers and employees, more inequality, a breakdown of democracy, more racism, and radical increases in economic and social vulnerability.

As bad as things are in North America, I believe that in Europe they are reaching a crisis point. In Countries all over Europe we are seeing disturbing increases in old-fashioned fascist parties with blatantly racist, nationalist, and capitalist agendas. This problem has been part and parcel of the refugee crisis because for some years now there has been growing pressure not to extend a positive and helping hand to people in the Middle-East and North Africa. The extreme rightwing government in Hungry demonstrated this past week just how increasingly hardline many European ideas are becoming. However, the difference between Europe of the 1930s and Europe of today is the EU. Even extreme nationalists in many countries, like Hungry, know that they gain great advantages from the EU and the this keeps the extreme right on a natural leash of sorts. But I suspect that Britain may soon leave the EU and this could cause a cascade effect that could bring the entire Union down. Once the advantages of the Union disappear, look for huge increases in the power of extreme rightwing parties and a swift and dramatic return to more open forms of fascism.

Meanwhile, in Canada we are seeing the results of the new extreme right agenda of conservatism in the effects of the Refugee crisis. For years the Conservative government has been trying to close up the immigration system to all but the wealthiest and most potentially rightwing applicants. They have also attempted to make Canada a nearly impossible goal for many refugees.  Their efforts to restrict access to healthcare for as many refugee claimants and even landed immigrants as possible has been shocking to anyone with a conscience, and their near universal failure act upon the Supreme Court ruling on the matter of healthcare for refugees has demonstrated the typical rightwing proclivity for imagining that they are above the law. Anyone who has even vaguely followed the issue knows that the Conservatives have had no intention of letting Canada be a haven for Syrian refugees, and talk of eventually bringing in ten thousand such refugees has been … well, just talk. As a nation we could have easily taken in and absorbed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees by now, which would have been not only an act of humanitarianism but, in the long run a positive thing for our society and our economy.

 But Harper's response has not been to cede ground to those who advocate for greater humanitarianism but to double down on his militarist agenda. This agenda has been essentially to continue the Bush doctrine and adventurism in the Middle-East which lead to the problems in the first place. Since the days of T.E. Lawrence, the efforts of the Western nations has been to exacerbate divisions in the Middle-East, to continually destabilize the region just enough to make any idea of Pan-Arabism a hopeless dream and to make certain states dependent on US and Western support. There is not enough space here to articulate how Western adventurism and economic/military policies have led directly to the creation of ISIS and the refugee crisis, but I think the links are fairly clear to anyone how wants to look at the historical record without a partisan or Euro-centric outlook. The response of men like Harper has been predictable - to increase the power of the Western military/industrial complex, to extend Western presence in the Middle-East and North Africa, with the ultimate goal of strengthening not only capitalism but the carbon economy.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

After Election Speculations

Andrew Coyne Wrote an interesting article, on which a number of people have commented, about the uncertainly that might prevail even after the election. Coyne, though he has sometimes been a rather mindless supporter of the Conservative government, has become enlightened enough to understand the depth of Harper's duplicity. He has finally realized that this mentally disturbed, power obsessed Prime Minister might do almost anything to hold on to power including trying to form government even after an election loss, refusing to recall parliament, or pressuring the GG into calling another election.

Let me just say that I take Coyne's musings to the next level and suggest that Harper could even attempt to actually nullify the election results themselves, or (more drastically) avoid an election loss by doing something many imagine is inconceivable such as orchestrating a fake "terrorist" attack or finding a way to pull the writ at the last moment. (No one should forget that there is evidence, for example, that the Republicans paid the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the election battle between Carter and Reagan) None of this might be an issue anyway because the depth of Conservative voter fraud might be so extreme that they know that they have the election in the bag anyway, and they are just going through the motions.

Let's assume, however, that by some miracle the Cons do lose the election. Then what? Well let me answer Coyne's last question first. I don't think that either of the other parties would prop up a Conservative government. It seems to me that Trudeau has nearly blown the whole election by supporting the Harper government on one issue (Bill C-51), any wholesale support for Harper would, I believe, destroy the Liberal Party of Canada once and for all. They have surely watched the example of the LibDems in the UK, who four years ago looked like they had a bright future and now look like a defunct political organization. Regardless of Mulcair's dubious political style and questionable past, I don't think he would prop up a Con government either, for the simple reason that such an act would also destroy the future for the NDP and probably bring the Liberals eventually back to power.

However, none of Coyne's other post-election notions seem far-fetched to me. I have certainly been laughably wrong in my political prognostications before. And maybe, just maybe, if Harper ended up with fewer seats than the Libs or the NDP, or both, he would gracefully bow out. It would be drastically out of character for him to do so. However, he may figure that he has done the necessary damage to the Canadian government and figures it will never recover anyway so it doesn't matter if he retires now. On the other hand, I don't actually think Harper is that clear and calculating at this point. I think, as is the case with so many such men, power has driven Harper crazy and he actually sees himself now as the lifetime Prime Minister. I thus suggest that he will do anything, and I really mean anything, to hold on to power.

However, at this point such speculation is little more than entertainment. No amount of anticipation really prepares you for the political chaos of a constitutional crisis. Though, I hope we can say, at the very least, that nothing will entirely surprise us.

Perhaps our Hearts Need breaking to remind us we are human. . .

The refugee crisis in the Middle-East and Europe is a complex issue. International turmoil, political economy, deep-seated historical conflicts. You can't blame people for feeling bewildered by the events they see unfolding. As they used to say about the issue of Northern Ireland: if you're not confused, you don't know what is going on.

But this isn't a complex issue -

This couldn't be simpler - it's a dead child, a child who should be laughing and running around in joyful wonder, happy to be alive and revelling in boyhood pleasures. This little boy's death isn't complicated, it breaks our hearts in as straightforward a way that any event can. 

It speaks to our Western privilege and general callousness, that this has been going on for years in the Middle-East, yet it is only when it begins to affect Europe that we are collectively shocked and begin to really take notice. But let's put that aside for a moment and let this sink in. 

You don't have to be a expert on politics to understand. You don't need to know the history of Middle-East or the role that Europe has played in these conflicts to know this is bad. You simply have to be a human being with all the empathy and compassion that goes along with it. 

These are people. They are traumatized, hungry, vulnerable, worried, frightened, and in need of help. 

You can judge a people by how they treat the most vulnerable among them. And we will surely be harshly judged. 

Now, after you have looked into these faces, and perhaps wept for the fate of that poor drowned boy, return your mind to the politics of this and look into the face of this criminal. 

This is the man who rejected the refugee application of the boy and his family. This is the man who has spent years tirelessly trying to deny healthcare to refugees, and continually misrepresented those refugees to whom he wanted to deny benefits as "fake claimants," even when they weren't. This is the man who has aided Harper and his Government in ignoring thousands and thousands of those in need and take in only a paltry number of refugees from conflicts which are in part a result of Western greed and carelessness. 

And perhaps the most sickening part of all is that these politicians call themselves Christians, as many callous, mean-spirited rightwingers do. But Jesus didn't assume that beggars were shiftless and lazy. Jesus didn't stand above the lepers and condemn their personal hygiene and assume that they were responsible for their fate. The ethics of Christ don't allow us to look to assign blame or second guess people's motives. Rather, Christian ethics require only this - help people, reach out your hand and lift people up, you are your brother's and your sister's keeper and you can never do enough. 

Fate can be heartless. We don't have to be.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Sociology of Neo-Liberalism in One Easy Lesson. . . .

Looking back now over many years, I think we can say that Stephen Harper’s goal during his time in politics has been fairly simple and clear. The overarching goal has been to make government less able to respond to the social needs for the people. This is, essentially, the very purpose of the Neo-Liberal agenda. Upon reflection this goal seems rather bizarre. Why would someone want to weaken a fundamental socioeconomic institution to the point where it can no longer properly respond to the population and can no longer provide social and economic skeleton of society?

By weakening government’s ability to respond to peoples’ needs, Neo-Liberals make people more vulnerable to the demands of the market. By weakening the education system and gradually taking away elements of the social-safety net you make people more vulnerable to the demands of employers, you make them less able to, for example, demand higher wages, organize their workplace, and be choosy about what kind of jobs they will take. But, again, this seems, prima facie, a rather strange objective. But to understand this goal you have to understand the social model within which Neo-Liberals are operating.

Neo-Liberalism is, in a way, a symptom of a wider disease; the disease of corporatism. Over the past century or so the (so-called) public corporation has gradually become the primary socioeconomic institution, the one that is taking over from the old institutions such as the church, the family, and even the individualist entrepreneurial spirit. Where ‘good’ Catholics were once the children of the Church, Neo-Liberals are children of the big corporation. They see the corporation as the primary institution for the creation of wealth and power, the model on which social behavior and socioeconomic ambition must be based. Thus, Neo-Liberals work toward the supremacy of this corporate model. The entire social pattern of Neo-Liberals, and the pattern that they are trying to foster in others is one of anticipatory-socialization toward pleasing, toward fitting in to the institution of the corporation.

Thus, to Neo-Liberals, their agenda of weakening government seems like common sense. If the corporation is the primary social institution, the institution by which society is to create wealth and by which individuals are to gain financial and social success, then it simply makes sense to strengthen corporate power over the whole of society. It makes sense to Neo-Liberals to weaken people’s ability organize, to demand higher wages and better working conditions, to be choosy about what jobs they take and what hours they work. By weakening people’s ability in this regard you strengthen the corporation’s power over society in general, thus further strengthening the primary socioeconomic institution on which Neo-Liberals see society to be now based.

The majority of conservatives in society really don’t understand that this is what is going on. To do so would be to commit the crime of sociology. The danger of understanding the underlying social changes that the Neo-Liberal agenda implies is what is at the root of contemporary conservative ‘know-nothingism.’ If people understand the root causes of social behaviors there is a danger that they will understand what is really happening and the implications of making the corporation the central social institution. In the middle-ages the average person certainly didn’t understand that the Inquisition was a very basic way for the Church to broaden and strengthen its overall social, political, and economic power. Rather the average person in the middle-ages believed what they were told, to wit., society was full of sinners and they needed to weed them out in order to strengthen society. Similarly today, average people just ape Neo-Liberal talking points, such as - “Taxes are too high, we need to lower taxes.” They don’t understand that by aping such talking points they are actually contributing to a fundamental shift in our model of socioeconomic power.

Perhaps more important than what your average gullible conservative thinks is the question of what you average left of centre citizen thinks. You see, by failing to understand the sociology of Neo-Liberal corporatism, many traditional left of center citizens are also falling into the grip of the changing social model. Thus, the NDP, for example, is becoming a Neo-Liberal political party not because of any one particular policy, but because it has begun to operate in the very mode of corporatism. By falling into the discourse of low-taxes, balanced budgets, fiscal restraint etc., NPD supporters are falling into a classic case of anticipatory-socialization and they are only strengthening the corporate model that is at the very heart of Neo-Liberalism. By changing the priorities of your discourse you change the discourse itself, and when you change discourse you change understanding. This corporate model has also become a central element in the very organization of the NDP and other ‘left of center’ political institutions. By aping the organizational structures of corporatism, such institutions are actually embracing the very model itself.

The reason that it has been so difficult to change political discourse and political priorities in recent years is the very same reason that the Inquisition lasted for so long. When you questioned the legitimacy of the Inquisition (besides putting yourself in personal danger) you were questioning what had become, for many people in Europe, common sense. For most people a challenge to the institution of the inquisition was a challenge to what people saw as common sense notions such as sin and evil. People saw evil and sin all around them, they were there, and the Inquisition was rooting them out and making society better as a result. Thus it was very difficult for the Renaissance Humanists to make people understand it was the very model of apostolic power that needed to change. Similarly, it is very difficult to make your average, say, NDP supporter understand that it is the very model of corporatism that has to be challenged, and it has to be challenged in the way we talk and the way we organize. Otherwise, the sociology of Neo-Liberalism goes merrily on.