Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Political Irony and Emotional Intelligence. . . .

It is interesting that it is only in the wake of Harper's downfall that the full weight of the irony involved in the decade of Conservative rule begins to become clear to many.

The last time a conservative party lost their federal majority they lost not only to the Liberal Party but they lost to another upstart conservative party, the ironically named Reform Party. It seems almost unbelievable now to recall that the Reform Party came to Ottawa on claims that they would have lots of free votes, their MPs wouldn't accept the rich pension plans,  their leader would never live in Stornaway if they became the Offical Opposition, and they would stand for a genuinely open government (in contrast to both the PC Party and the Liberals). WOW! That program of reform was so short lived that many people have forgotten it altogether. It also seems easy to forget now that Peter MacKay sold out the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada even after verbal and written agreements that he would not do so. But like the proverbial toad in the slowly heating water, many people seemed blithely unaware that a political party that had begun its life devoted to openness and honesty became the very symbol of secretiveness and corruption. Conservative all over Canada readily accepted (and still accept) this wild perversion of our system. If nothing else, this past decade has confirmed to me (along with some other personal experiences) how little people really are committed to democracy, openness, honesty, fair play, and responsible representation. I fully realize now that people just don't care about that stuff, they are fine with corruption and secretiveness etc. as long as it is their side doing this stuff.

In an effort, perhaps, to double down on the irony, next week Brian Mulroney is giving a speech at Toronto's Albany club in which he is widely expected to make some kind of case for the return of civility, openness, and even centrism to the Canadian conservative movement. Fact, as they say, is stranger than fiction. Many of my peers are watching with a certain amount of glee as the knives begin to come out in the days after the Conservative fall from power. Will we see the so-called 'Red' Tories attempt to reassert themselves in the wake of a leader who more or less gutted the party of any position short of his own maniacal hunger for power? Is there anything left to recapture at this point? Let's face it, over the past ten years there was hardly a single voice of dissent in the conservative movement against the over the top centralization and nasty one-man rule of the party. There were a few of course, but the fact that they were such an exception, demonstrated the rule of discipline and centralization in the Party.

The past decade has made me think that what we need in politics is something like a Turing Test. The Turing Test is a test designed by Alan Turing intended to determine whether a machine or robot can display true intelligence and can appear to a person as conscious. We need a kind of Turing Test of politics, not to show us whether a politician is conscious or intelligent, but whether they possess enough human empathy to qualify to be political representatives.  Few of us have any doubt at this point that Stephen Harper would fail such a test miserably. The real question is- will those who seek to replace Harper try to apply some standard of meaningful social behavior to their new leader, or will they accept the status quo?

Of course, the real dilemma of the Turing Test is that it might always be unclear whether the robot you are testing is truly an "artificial intelligence" or just a very well programmed simulation of intelligence.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Did we Reject Harper or his Agenda?

On the back side of an election loss the Conservative Party is desperately trying to spin a narrative that Canadians rejected Harper but not his rightwing agenda. We should be quick to disabuse the Conservative Criminals of that myth. The fact is that Canadians always rejected the Conservative Party agenda. Harper's Conmen were able to gain political power not because Canadians liked their agenda but because of a perverse combination of our FPTP electoral system, a deeply sympathetic media, an ineffective opposition, and radically divisive strategy on Harper's part.

Of course, we have to ask, after ten years of a disastrous government, what exactly is this "conservative" agenda to which Harper's trained seals continue to refer?? When any of them (and one has to figure that most of the ones speaking up now are seriously considering running for Harper's job) speak about this "conservative" agenda all they offer is "lower taxes and smaller government," as though those two points could possibly constitute a real political program. And even those two pillars of the so-called conservative brand are largely myths. First of all, though corporations and the well-off certainly got some tax breaks from the Harper government, for most people these tax breaks were nothing but smoke and mirrors. Any average Canadian who looks at their tax bill last year and compares it to what they paid in 2005 knows this. But the problem with so-called tax breaks is deeper than this. Because even when you save a few bucks on your taxes, in many cases you end up spending more on services which are suddenly unavailable or suddenly user-pay. The rightwing strategy is to lower taxes by a very small amount and then down-load services to provincial and municipal governments who either have to significantly cut these services or offer them at a much higher cost because of the simple principle of economies of scale (you would think that capitalist, of all people, would understand this basic law). Furthermore, not only is the whole "lower-taxes" narrative a myth (and where it is real it only benefits the wealthy), but so it the "smaller government" narrative. The Canadian government is not measurably smaller today than it was ten years ago. It is smaller in some areas and larger in others. This is just one of those things that rightwingers say that has no basis in fact. (Incidentally, this is also true of the two great "Heroes" of the rightwing, Thatcher and Reagan. They both left the government measurably bigger than they found it)

In other words, the only thing that the CPC seem to be able to point to when they talk about their agenda is simply irrelevant because it is just made up to begin with. Furthermore, I think an increasing number of Canadians are waking up to this and, as I have said before, the new political generation of millennials are wholesale rejecting the idea of a less involved government.

But lets look at the areas of the Conservative agenda (areas that are significantly more 'real' than their mythical narratives) that Canadians are rejecting en masse. Racism, scapegoating, climate-change denial, fear-mongering, war-mongering, loosening up or eliminating environmental regulations, undermining freedom of information, muzzling scientists, disrespecting the public service, the FPTP electoral system, making the military and the RCMP a branch of the governing party, eliminating census data, eliminating gun controls, creating the rule of one man over the entire government, omnibus bills, crippling independent oversight, making a mockery out of question period, proroguing parliament to save your political skin, having the executive branch of government answerable to no one, mocking the courts, ignoring court orders, bribing senators, supporting Israel no matter what, ignoring your own election laws when convenient, the myth of growing crime rates and the need for a 'tough on crime' agenda, holding kittens in election posters, letting the PM be a fan of Nickleback, lego-man hair; these things make up the rightwing agenda and Canadians have rejected them! (Ok, so maybe I added a couple of my own rejections there at the end but you get the picture)

The rightwingers who licked Harper's ass at every opportunity, and stumped for his outrageous polices and even his criminal acts, are desperately trying to tell themselves that Canadians didn't reject their policies but were only tired of their leader. The longer they hold on to this myth, the longer it will take them to understand the changing mood of this country and the even more significant change which is coming. And if we can manage to eliminate the FPTP electoral system it will mean no more Conservative governments in the foreseeable. Now that is music to my ears.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Going Forward after Harper's Destruction of the Public Sphere. . . .

In the 1960s the German philosopher Jugen Habermas wrote a book entitled The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. When this book was finally translated around 1990 it helped to spark significant debate in the Anglophone world about what we usually refer to as Civil Society. It is a vague, difficult concept the meaning of which has changed through various historical times but Civil Society essentially refers to the area of society where public debates about norms, standards, ethics, and social goals are discussed and formed through various forms of public discourse. Because of Karl Marx's own use of the term as well as an inherent skepticism about capitalist social realms, many progressives have been understandably dubious about the role that public discourse can play in change and reform, and instead often see civil society as a realm of hegemony, an area of society in which the capitalist order finds legitimacy through falsely portraying its openness and flexibility.

Though I share much of this skepticism, I also think that the Harper decade has taught us something important about the public sphere. Stephen Harper had a number of policy agendas, but in a sense they all revolved around a fundamental effort to shut down discourse in the public sphere. Witness, shutting down debate in the House, muzzling scientists, attacking environmental organizations, ending the court challenges process, effectively shutting down freedom of information, refusing to reveal government financial information, creating and atmosphere of fear not just among government employees but among NGOs in general, etc. etc. Harper knew that it would be very difficult to institute his extreme rightwing agenda unless he could effectively truncate and cripple public debate on as many important issues as possible. The more people could talk about his policies, the more experts, public servants, NGOs, MPs etc could engage in open public discourse, the more people would be aware of just how dangerous and devastating his policies would be to our freedom and our future. I think it is fair to say that Harper's effort to cripple civil society was the most important part of his entire political agenda because without that effort the rest of his agenda would have been simply impossible. Furthermore, Harper and his ilk were hoping to create long term effects of limiting debate and discourse in the public sphere so that corporations and rightwing politicians at other levels of government would be able to continue his agenda long after he was gone.

Thinking in these terms, the election of a Liberal is important not because of any particular economic or social policy, but to the degree to which they allow the opening of space in the public sphere. Though I don't share the basic socioeconomic outlook of the Liberals or the Conservatives, I understand that various kinds of social and economic progress has occurred under both parties in the past. These efforts have happened in part because, through efforts in the public sphere, progressive people have been able to exert pressure on governments in acts of active citizenship through rousing public sympathy to certain positions. This, more than anything else is what Harper wanted to stop, he wanted to put an end to the very notion of active citizenship itself, to end public discourse, and to undermine the most basic elements of democracy.

Perhaps the most obvious, and devastating, result of Harper's efforts to shut down the public sphere can be seen in his treatment of the Indigenous population. The Indigenous people have been the most startling example of our failure as a nation to treat people fairly, and the most obvious failure of our civil society to properly expand our discourse and understanding into real positive change. But Paul Martin, for all his faults, was trying to rectify those failures. Harper, on the other hand was desperate to put the issues and struggles of Indigenous people out of our collective minds and visions. His continual refusal to meet with Indigenous leaders, and his failure to respond to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were part of a direct effort to undermine the possible positive effects of public discourse. Recognition of the legitimacy of Indigenous struggles (a legitimacy that has been slowly rising over time in many people's minds) would have undermined not only Harper's image of himself as the only expression of government in the nation, but would ultimately have undermined his efforts to strip all the environmental regulations in the country.

What we really need to remember and keep clear in people's minds is that the most dangerous element of the Harper years was not his policies per se (though God knows that those were indeed dangerous), it was his effort to replace Civil Society and public discourse with his voice alone. Let's try to remind not only the new government about their responsibility in this regard, but let's remind each other that civil society is our collective responsibility and that active citizens are the only way that we can move forward with any kind of progressive agenda.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Mediaeval Agenda of Conservatives. . .

I know people are probably too involved in election day to bother reading too many blogposts but as I read through the Blogging Tories posts to see how the Rightwing faithful were reacting to the failure of their savour, I ran across an interesting blogpost that really expresses just how wacky and hopeless the rightwing in this country really are.

This post at the rather dubiously titled Blog "Barrel Strength" demonstrates just how far many Tories have gone in their rejection of constitutional democracy. In the post the author tells us that Harper's real failure was essentially "not going far enough" in attacking the so-called 'activist' courts which he laughingly refers to as the "court party." He tells us that the Charter is a "dangerous innovation." In typical (off-kilter) Tory fashion this blogger actually wanted Stephen Harper to do more to undermine the courts, to further erode the principles of constitutionalism, and to thereby 'stand-up' for the 'King and country element in Canada.'

This frightening individual, twists the principles of constitutionalism so dramatically that it is fairly clear he doesn't even understand them at all. But then I think that this is true of most of Harper's die-hard faithful. His rather pathetic argument rests on the notion that if a court defends someone's right then it "burdens" the rest of society with an obligation because the rest of the people are compelled to observe that right. What a sadly small vision of society and what a terrible misunderstand of the function of the Charter and the Supreme Court!

In all countries where a Charter-like document exists, they exists to protect minorities from the will of the majority. And if you think of this as anti-democratic then you really don't understand democracy. Modern democracy from the time of the French and American Revolutions forward were founded not just on participation and representation, but on a healthy fear of the majority. What good a democracy if, for example, a small percentage of the population can elect a majority of the representatives and those representatives have ultimate and arbitrary power?! Far from being a democracy, that is better called tyranny. In the southern US, the majority, even in my lifetime, would have 'democratically' sanctioned a complete lack of rights for African Americans. No, democracy must mean a lot more than simply duly elected representatives doing whatever they want.

Modern democracies are split into triads for a very good reason. The executive should function as a unifier, a diplomat, a leader, and an organizer of the legislative branch. The legislative branch should act as lawmakers, representatives, and activists. But these two branches of government by themselves are always in danger of adding up to tyranny. Only with an independent judicial branch of government that interprets certain principles of equality can we avoid the arbitrary force of representative government. And you can bet that rightwingers like "Barrel Strength" would be the very first to invoke this principle if their rights were threatened!

I quoted this rightwing blogpost on our national election day to remind everyone that even if Harper loses today, the dangers that he and his followers represent are out there all the same. And they will take any opportunity they can to send us back to an age when only rich white men had rights and privileges. If ten years of Harper has taught us anything it is that democracy is a very fragile thing and the racists, the bigots, the Royalists, the corporatists, and the elitists will take every opportunity to undermine and destroy it, all the while touting righteousness and goodness.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Bizarre, not so Bizarre, Globe endorsement. . .

Surely the most bizarre culmination of the ten years of Harper's political tenure was seen yesterday with the Globe and Mail's surreal endorsement of the Conservative Party with the addendum that Harper should resign as soon as he has been handed an election victory. One can only imagine that this is the method by with the world's elusive .001 percent of extremely wealthy, de facto rulers, pass messages to their corporate lapdog Stephen Harper, through the voice of Postmedia outlets. These ultra-rich don't pick up the phone and tell Harper to vacate their office, they make a public announcement to that effect through their staff.

Of course, this endorsement cum not endorsement is incredibly interesting because it actually demonstrates a deep-seeded fear among the largely hidden rich and powerful  over what Harper is doing to the effort to corporatize the world. He is giving the rightwing, corporate agenda a bad name and in so doing adding fuel to the growing fire and to the realization that the international neo-liberal effort is one that seeks to dictate a world economy that exists solely to serve the wealth accumulation of the very few. The Globe and Mail's endorsement is a blatant attempt at endorsing the neo-liberal agenda while distancing that agenda from the anti-democratic, anti-judicial, hate-filled politics of Harper. Of course, the so-called 1% understand that neo-liberalism is, by its very nature, anti-democratic, but they are also afraid that the realization of this fact by the masses (a realization that is being enhanced by Harper's personal, blatant political style) will threaten their national (not to say global) hegemony. The hegemony and legitimacy of the neo-liberal agenda rests, at least in part, on the illusion of support that the 'democratic' system provides. The startling, and ever expanding, inequality of our system can only exist if there is a perception that people have the right (at least theoretically) to reject it through some vaguely representative form of democracy. If if becomes too clear that the political leaders are actively trying to undermine that system of democratic participation, then the process of legitimation breaks down, the illusion is exposed, and the ballon is burst.

The Western Democracies have largely outgrown blatant fascism. The mass of people are not willing to endorse a return to the kind of capitalism that the European fascists of the 1930s were selling - one where the army was more or less an extension of a single political party, where people had no real right of privacy from the intrusive state, where the government could arrest people without charge, and imprison them or exile them at will, where blatant racism was a mechanism of the state, and where the government talked about representing the people but slowly crushed every vestige of those people's voice out of the system. Neo-Liberals would love this fascism to still be acceptable because it would make their job of world domination so much easier. But even the world corporate elite know this kind of blatant fascist agenda won't sell in Western democracies nowadays and that if their agenda becomes too clear  people are going to wise up and catch on. This is threat that Harper represents to the small elite and so they instructed their lapdog editors of their biggest Canadian newspaper to endorse their basic economic agenda of corporate control and wealth, but to jettison the leader of that effort whose overly angry, abrasive, abusive, and anti-democratic style threatens the very existence of that agenda by threatening to expose the real face behind the mask of contemporary capitalism.

Admittedly, many people are startlingly slow to catch on to the corporate, anti-democratic agenda that Harper so blatantly represents. Many people know so little about their own state and nation that they have no real idea what Harper has done through a fairly stealthy ten-year effort. They don't understand his voter suppression tactics, they don't know the way he has attempted to manipulate (or ignore) the judicial system, they don't seem to understand the degree to which he has gutted the environmental rules, they don't understand the implications of his voter frauds, they don't get the ways he has manipulated the House rules to hide the money path and hide legislation in omnibus bills - a path that led Harper's government to be the first in the history of the Commonwealth to be found in contempt of parliament. Many people don't get any of that. But the problem for the corporate elite is that enough people get it to expose the real face of the corporate agenda. And when enough people start making the connections, the efforts of radical groups such as the occupy movement will no longer seem so crazy and then the elite will face a real threat.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Irony Impairment and the HarperCons. . . .

Well, so far this campaign has, at the very least, been interesting. As the 'dump Harper' forces cheer at what the polls seem to suggest is a late surge for the Liberals and stagnation of the Cons (depending on which polls you look at), the HarperCons are ratcheting up the fear and hate campaign on which they have so long relied. The latest disgusting example of Harper politics of hate and fear are an ad specifically aimed at racialized groups in Vancouver and Toronto which say that Trudeau wants to give children drugs, fully legalize prostitution and then dictate where 'brothels' will be, and put safe injection sites on every corner.

Who knows if these ads will have any effect. Given that the years of attacks on Trudeau seem to have had no effect at all, one has to doubt it, but you can never tell. Maybe there are people out there who will believe such nonsense.

In what is perhaps the most deliciously ironic moment of the campaign, that college dropout, perpetual adolescent,  dimwitted, Conservative factotum, Jason Kenny, took to Twitter this week to complain that it is the Liberals who are waging a fear campaign. The evidence for these charges are found in the form of a Liberal flyer that overstated the present power of Bill-C24. The idea of any Conservative in this country accusing ANYONE of waging an unfair campaign of fear is so rich that it defies the imagination. But so goes politics in the poison atmosphere created by the HarperCons.

There is, of course, a deeper irony here. The Conservatives are not just lying or misrepresenting the facts of Liberal policies. First of all, the Liberal Party has never, to my knowledge advocated legalizing prostitution, let alone floated the idea of dictating the locations of brothels. Second of all, the idea that Trudeau wants to give or sell drugs to kids is so absurd that it is an accusation that is beneath contempt. But the irony is found in the fact that both these Conservative allegations are related to a situation in which a Liberal government would increase freedoms - ie. freedom to use marijuana and (following certain impulses handed down by the Supreme Court) decimalize prostitution. In this regard the Conservatives have certainly jettisoned any libertarian impulse (if, indeed, they ever had one) given that the concern raised by the Liberal pamphlet is one in which the power of the Government is radically enhanced over individuals. The very principle opened up by Bill C-24 should make everyone in this country worried. If the principle is entrenched in law that the federal government can take away someone's citizenship FOR ANY REASON, none of us will ever be safe again.

The HarperCons really are irony impaired.

The other candidate (no pun intended) for the richest irony yet to be seen in this campaign came today, when it was announced that Harper will appear at a Toronto rally hosted by the Ford Brothers. WOW, you really couldn't make this stuff up if you tried. The Prime Minister who has been continually deriding Trudeau's 'soft on drugs' approach, has decided to align himself with a known Crack Addict, Alcoholic and his brother who, according to a long investigative report with many eyewitnesses, was a long term drug dealer. But that is Harper for you, he doesn't really care about drugs or addicts or anything else except staying in power so he does a benefit analysis and decides that he stands to gain more in certain suburban Toronto ridings by appearing with drug-dealers and/or smokers than he stands to lose elsewhere in this close campaign.

In an added moment of irony, Doug Ford told Canadians that Trudeau is not fit to be Prime Minister because he smoked pot a couple of times years ago. This is good stuff people!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Harper and Godwin's Law. . .

All comparisons are, by their nature, imperfect. You can only compare things because they are, in one sense or another, dissimilar. If two things were the same, they would afford no comparison; pointing out an endless list of similarities does not a comparison make. Comparing disparate objects or actions is probably an unavoidable aspect of culture and language. We do it for all sorts of reasons, one of these reasons is political.

Godwin's law is the principle that the longer that one engages in a political discourse the more likely someone will invoke a comparison to Hitler or the NAZIs. This is hardly surprising because when people engage in comparisons they often look for an extreme example of good or bad to hold up against the object or act being promoted or denigrated. And people resort to Hitler or NAZIism because there are simply few other examples that are so universally loathed. Almost no one is going to come to the defence of the NAZIs so a comparison of something or someone to NAZIism tends to make a nearly unassailable point.

However, it is interesting to me that there are many people who object on principle to comparing anyone or anything to the NAZIs. These people are often rabidly pro-Israel. This phenomenon seems to be rooted in the simple fact that, for reasons that are utterly beyond me, Zionists seem to want to have a monopoly on the status of being victims of genocide. It is as though if we make any comparison of anything or anyone to Hitler or the NAZIs, then somehow we have lessened or denigrated the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust.

However, apart from being engaged in terrible acts of mass murder against a number of groups (including not only Jews but Romani, Homosexuals, communists, and socialists) the NAZI party was also a political party with a political strategy and a political agenda. It was a fascist agenda that they shared in various ways with the other Fascist parties of Europe including Mussilini's Fasci Rivoluzionari d'Azione Internazionalista, Franco's Falange Española, and a number of others. Given that simple fact, it would be intellectually dishonest to a priori ban any comparison with the NAZIs. It is, no doubt, a provocative comparison, and one that is sometimes used in a way that makes little sense. But it is an intellectually legitimate one nonetheless. The problem is, of course, that people are quick to assume that if I, for example, compare one part of a party's platform or strategy with the NAZIs' that I must necessarily be comparing all of their political platforms or strategies. This is simply wrong and nonsensical. I could, for example, quite easily compare certain strategies used by, say, the NAZIs in their fight for North Africa, with certain things that the Americans did in "Desert Storm," without trying to imply that this means that Hitler and Norman Schwarzkopf had identical political agendas.

Enter Nepean NDP Candidate Sean Devine. Mr. Devine recently tweeted this image for which he has received criticism from many quarters.

However, criticism of Mr. Devine's comparison doesn't take the form of rational critique or debate. Instead various political commentators simply call him names. Again, the implication here is that, for some reason, no one can ever do anything that makes a comparison with the NAZIs legitimate. However, in recents history it was the Conservatives (and John Baird in particular) who were so publicly guilty with comparing someone with the NAZIs when they repeatedly compared Russian leader Putin's action in Crimea with Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia. It is interesting to me that those who seem to be critical of Mr. Devine's comparison where loath to call out Mr. Baird for the same thing. 

But here is the thing. In 1933 the NAZI Government did, in fact, institute the "Malicious Practices Act." And this act was directed squarely at Homosexuals, Jews, Romani, and other racialized or "undesirable" groups of people. Linguistically and strategically this act bares a haunting similarity to Harper's "Barbaric Practices" tip line. Furthermore, the Conservative Party is engaging in a similar kind of political strategy to the NAZI strategy; to wit, create fear of 'the other,' generate racial suspicion and hate with the clear intention of appearing as the nation's protector and savour. This does not necessarily mean that the Conservative Party of Canada has adopted an entirely NAZI program or strategy, but in this case they are clearly pulling a book out of Goebbels, and this is not, therefore, a specious comparison. 

The Conservative Party of Canada has adopted a number of strategies that were central to the NAZI efforts, particularly their communications approach. Make a small number of points repeat them over and over and over, nothing you say has to be true - it only has to appear to be true, repeat a lie often enough and people will assume that it is a fact, never accept responsibility for your own failures - blame others, trade on fear and anger, scapegoat religious and social minorities, etc., etc. Other parties have, of course, adopted some of these too, but Harper has made Joseph Goebbels' approach everywhere in his political identity, and refined some of these techniques in modern ways. 

To refuse to make these comparisons simply because a few people are irrationally offended by them is intellectually dishonest and would be wilful ignorance. I for one won't kowtow to a handful of mainstream commentators who wouldn't know a solid argument if it fell on them from the sky. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Real Threat of Harper . . .

As we inch toward Election day and the NDP looks to be out of the running and much the anti-Harper vote edges toward the Liberals, many people are, I believe, soul-searching. Despite its turn to the Right in recent years, it seems clear that the NDP is definitely left of the position from which the Liberals are campaigning (to say nothing of the position from which the Liberals would govern). Despite Trudeau being clearly left of Ignatieff, from an economic point of view the Liberal Party is still squarely a neo-Liberal party and we can expect very little from them to address the economic inequality that has creeped into our system after decades of post-war incremental adjustments to those inequalities.

As the election nears and the Liberals look to be the only party that can take Harper's place, many leftists and progressives are now wondering if this effort to oust Harper at all costs was worth the effort. Seeing a return to the Party of Paul Martin's austerity seems a pale and disappointing replacement. And I share that sentiment. However, it seems to me that as progressives we need to be careful to remember what is at stake. When it looks like a chance that he could be gone, is easy to forget just how poison Stephen Harper as been for this country. As much as the Liberals have stood for economic inequality in the past, they have also represented important progressive efforts as well (and I say that as someone who is quite a bit left of the NDP). Much of what Harper has destroyed, the disappearance of which we sorely lament,  have been things that the Liberal Party of Canada began and supported for a long time. Though Trudeau made a big mistake supporting Bill C-51, let's remember that they are the Party that brought us the Charter and they have defended it many times while Harper has done everything possible to undermine it. Let's not forget that though Mulroney created the Court Challenges program, he later tried to kill it and the Liberals under Chretien saved it, only to see Harper kill it again. The Liberals funded a number of important women's programs that Harper has killed, as well as adult literacy programs which are now almost gone in this country. Though the Liberals sometime played a little fast and loose with the traditions of the House of Commons, they basically respected the process. Harper on the other hand has nearly destroyed it altogether and what we have now is a pale shadow of the Westminster system of government which, for all its faults, was something that could have been expanded into a much more active process of democracy and citizenship.

Some on the left might argue that the Liberal Party is just a 'kinder gentler' group that is going to screw the weak and the vulnerable. And there is a sense in which that is true. But here's the thing - when you eliminate the rule of law (as Harper is doing), when you eliminate the ability for people to protect themselves against the arbitrary power of government (as Harper is doing), when you make the House of Commons entirely unaccountable (as Harper has done), when you gut Elections Canada and make Election Fraud de facto legal (which Harper is doing), when you destroy the freedom of information system (as Harper has done), when muzzle scientists and eliminate fact-based policy efforts, when you do all these things then it really doesn't matter what you believe because you really can't change anything. And this is the trap that Harper represents. Sure the Liberals are not that progressive, they represent Bay Street far too much, they represent little change on climate issues, they won't bring much justice for the poor or even Indigenous people. But at the very least they represented a system in which we could legitimately fight for positive change with some degree of hope. And that really means something. Revolutionary defeatism can be an attractive ideology for the cynical and the angry, but in the face of genuine fascism, the struggle for real justice disappears and the progressive are forced to just fight for survival.

The Liberals may not become the progressive government many of us were hoping for, but HarperCons are a threat to the very system itself, to a system in which we can meaningfully fight for justice and equality. Harper represents a dark, American-like (Pottersville) sort of future where the justice system is a pawn of the government, where the police and the Army are an extension of a political party, where racism is institutionalized, where guns are everywhere, where the Charter of Rights is distant memory, and eduction and healthcare is reserved for the rich. Justin Trudeau may not be a progressive wonder-boy, but I will take a man and a party that represents the possibility of change than one who represents a dark, goose-stepping future any day of the week.

I leave you with a timely quote from the English Sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock

"If we continue to make any sort of social progress, I suspect that the political battle line of the twenty-first century will not be between socialism and capitalism but democracy and paternalism. The answer to paternalistic socialism…is not laissez-faire capitalism, or centralized corporatism or monetarism, with all their attendant ills and intrinsic injustices, but real equality under the law - where all of us have equal voice, equal access to our democratic institutions and equal responsibility. Sadly, some of the democratic infrastructure in our society seems seriously under threat at present - is often attacked in the name of "freedom" (by which is usually meant freedom of choice of washing powder or telephone company or porn video) - and it is up to us, I think, to examine those institutions, remember why they were developed in the first place and perhaps protect them."

Friday, October 9, 2015

Harper's Poisoning of the Nation. . .

When I was seven or eight years old and living in California, I went on a school trip to a public swimming pool. Such experiences should be the material of pleasant childhood memories, but this one was memorable for more than a playful day in the water. There was a girl in my class who refused to go in the water because there was a black girl in the pool. When questioned about her reluctance to swim the girl told my teacher something to the effect that the black girl was 'polluting' the water. If I recall correctly, the girl in my class was unable to articulate what exactly was going to happen if she got into the same pool with a black girl, she just knew (presumably from what parents had told her) that it was bad. Luckily California was one of the more liberal places in the United States and I did not see a lot of this sort of racism directly when I was growing up. But a few incidents like this made me empirically aware that racism was there and it was real. Later when I was going to high school in Denver I had a jewish friend who attended another high school and he told me about an incident in which his social studies class had had an open discussion about race and religion. During that conversation a girl had asked my friend why Jews sacrificed Christian babies in religious ceremonies. At the time I was old enough to be genuinely shocked by such ignorance, but not experienced enough or jaded enough to understand just how ignorant many people are about other people's lives and beliefs.

Today I continue to exist simultaneously in both in a state of shock and cynicism about people's ignorance, gullibility, and their bizarre sense of priorities.

If human beings can be said to have one generalized skill, it seems to be hypocrisy. This is a fact that was continually brought home to me during the gay marriage debate in the public sphere. People who oppose gay marriage uniformly make appeals to the Bible and their supposed Christian beliefs. But one doesn't need to be a religious scholar to understand how inconsistent practically all such people are. The Bible is a rather bizarre historical document that says a lot of things and practically all Christians I have met pick and choose which parts they want to emphasize or believe. The Bible seems to legitimize selling you daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7), it says that women shouldn't be allowed to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34), it outlaws trimming your beard (Leviticus 19:27), it outlaws divorce (1 Corinthians 7:10-11) Etc, etc. . . . Yet the vehemence with which many Christians oppose gay marriage while ignoring various other biblical edicts is amazing.

Racism and bigotry often rely on this kind of selective concern with other people's lives. Opposition to gay marriage really has nothing to do with religious beliefs. If it did, those who oppose it would be a lot more consistent in their observances of religious edicts. Instead people who don't like homosexuality for whatever reason are just looking for external justifications for opposing it. But what these people seldom do is look inside themselves to understand their real, pre-rational reasons for opposing homosexuality. They don't ask themselves the fairly straightforward question "why am so concerned with what consenting adults are doing with their own lives, things that have no effect on me or my life?" If people were honest with themselves in their pursuit of such questions the world would be a very different place.

But racists and bigots, most of whom seek to prey on peoples' fears and gullibility in the pursuit of their own power and prestige, are usually very careful to avoid the promotion of questions concerning causality and effect. I remember about a year ago (in the wake of the "don't commit sociology" remark from Harper) a Conservative spokesperson on a network news program actually said "I don't want to know what causes terrorism!" I can't imagine a more revealing statement about the contemporary conservative attitude toward life. Similarly, the current government doesn't want Canadians to think about why the most important question in our sociopolitical life should be what difference does it make what clothing a handful of consenting, mostly educated, women chose to wear. They don't want you to think about it because any vaguely rational person will realize that regardless of what I think about feminism or women's rights, what a few women chose to wear will have no baring on my life as long as they aren't telling me or others what to wear. And perhaps more importantly, even if I oppose this or that cultural/religious practice, as long as it is not curtailing the rights of others, I will gain nothing by seeking to outlaw it. In fact there is a very good chance that attempts to outlaw such practices will simply further entrench people's commitment to those practices. As the great Canadian jurist Louise Arbour has said, it is only by welcoming women who wear niqabs into the public sphere that "they will gain economic power and be exposed to other views."

But emotion holds sway over many people's ideas and thoughts. The fact that opposition to the niqab is so strong in Quebec is not really that surprising, for example. Many people in Quebec have felt that Francophone culture in north america has long been persecuted and threatened. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of them would express fear about people that they perceive to be "outsiders." The sad part about this belief that it fails to recognize that you can't stop any culture in time, and you can't 'save' it by insulating it against difference and otherness. Culture is like a shark, it has to keep moving forward or it dies. And one of the ways that culture moves forward is by embracing diversity and otherness, by enriching itself through the input of the perceived 'other.'

I was talking yesterday to the mother of one of my daughter's friends who, like me, has English as well as Canadian citizenship. Despite the fact that this woman, again like me, is what we used to refer to as a WASP, she expressed her genuine fear with the divisive and racist thrust of our government's politics. While claiming to be appealing to some abstract, non-existent group of "old-stock" Canadians, what the Conservatives are really doing is attempting to stoke fear of 'cultural contamination.' And this mother who was born in England and settled here has a genuine felling that she and her children (who were born in Canada) have suddenly become second-class citizens, people who could eventually be deported on the whim of the government of the day. This is what divisiveness and fear of otherness does, it poisons the nation, it stifles difference, it stagnates culture and leads inexorably to fascism.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Fight Against Racism and Bigotry Continues. . .

Racists, even the worst, most blatant sort, tend to look for justifications for their hate. The most ignorant forms of racism rely on very basic forms of hate speech, reducing its targets to a non-human-status or mere animal. Primitive racists alienate 'the other' by calling them 'savages' or 'lazy' or 'smelly' or 'stupid.' It doesn't much matter what adjective they use, they all have the same object - to mischaracterize and reduce.  

As society "progresses" racism and bigotry grow more 'sophisticated,' and people begin to construct elaborate excuses and justifications for their hateful beliefs. Because in modern society it has grown increasingly unacceptable to simply express blatantly racist beliefs, people find supposedly reasoned justifications for their hatred. These excuses largely come in the form of some kind of supposed threat posed by "the other." In the US racists have created an elaborate narrative about millions of so-called "illegal aliens" who threaten to somehow undermine the integrity of the political and social culture of the United States. Anti-Gay bigots have a similar narrative about the legalization of gay marriage. They kept telling us that it will disrupt and eventually destroy society. 

One of the most troubling forms of racism and bigotry is that which evokes the notion of "security" to justify its hatred. Worse yet is the growing practice of promoting bigotry in the name of freedom. This strategy targets the practices of religious minorities and tells us that only by curtailing those freedoms will the rest of our freedoms be protected and guaranteed. So our government trades on ancient fears and hatred of Muslims and attempts to tell people what "not" to wear as though that will keep the rest of us 'free.' Such "leadership" on the part of the government has the knock-on effect of creating public space for the expression of underlying feelings of racism and bigotry. To trade on this increase in acceptable racism the government seeks to create a 'snitch' line whereby you report on the actions of your racialized neighbours, giving it the name of "barbaric practices" tip-line, thus creating in the public mind an association between certain groups and barbarism, further stoking the fire of racism. This is, of course, an entirely contrived attempt at promoting hatred and fear in the population given that all the supposed "barbaric" practices are those practiced by racialized people and are all already illegal. 

If anyone doubts that these policies are the thin edge of the wedge, look no further than the words of Conservative incumbent candidate Brad Butt who this week floated the idea of deporting Thomas Mulcair to France, a country from which he holds citizenship. 

The idea of using "feminism" to justify a ban on the volitional religious choices of certain women is a bit like invoking pacifism as a call to war. But then reason has never been the bigot's strong suit. 

Though bigot's and racists have held sway over people's thoughts and feelings in various ways throughout history, they are slowly but surely losing their battle. Love is, indeed, better than hate, and hope is better than fear. Those who would seek to foster racism and bigotry for political gain would have us forget what is perhaps the simplest lesson in life. Though some people are easily swayed by hatred and fear, some of us hold our ground and raise high the standard of real freedoms, the freedoms to wear what we want, to love who we choose, to worship how we see fit, to hold ideas and beliefs that are ours, and to defend those rights in others. I will fight for these things, and when I am gone by daughter will continue the struggle, and so on till the fight is done. 

I agree with Martin Luther King Jr. when he said that - "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality……I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word." 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Political Shifts and the (apparent) Falling fortunes of the NDP . . . .

The apparent gradual decline in NDP fortunes over the course of this gruellingly long campaign has carried a morbid fascination for me. As polls stand today, the NDP are thoroughly out of this race now (at least in terms of forming government), the Liberal Party seems to be on the gradual uptick and the Cons, though they received a racist bump in the polls, are basically holding steady. The polls at the moment seem to point toward a fairly large number of people switching from the NDP to the Liberals in the past few weeks, and the Liberals are now ahead in Ontario and threaten to actually overtake an NDP lead in Quebec that once seemed unassailable.

Predictably, there is a lot of blog-chatter concerning these recent movement in the polls. Is the NDP decline a result of a poorly run campaign? Is it a result of Tom Mulcair's apparent abandonment of traditional NDP leftist ground? It is it a demonstration that is ultimately, despite temporary shifts, an expression of the long-standing status quo of the Conservative/Liberal strangle-hold on Canadian politics.

Let me say right off that it doesn't appear to me that the NDP decline is a result of the party's abandonment of its leftist tradition. As far as I can see, people are simply partisan, they care surprisingly little about what 'their' party's actually policies are. The majority of people seem to be lead around by the nose by their party and fall continually for their talking points and various emotional appeals. Supporting a political party seems, for many people, like supporting a sports team - it is not a rational decision, that is just "my" team and I am sticking with it. The most obvious demonstration of this attitude is actually the Conservative Party. There is very little that is conservative about the contemporary Conservative Party, yet their base of support remains remarkably steady. You would think that a Conservative PM running six or seven straight deficits would turn off Conservative voters, but it doesn't.  Harper once said, and most conservative say they agree, that stimulus spending does nothing to help the economy and that running a deficit under any conditions is just an attempt to buy votes. But Harper's total performative hypocrisy on this matter has done nothing to the core of Conservative support. Furthermore, though Harper has made guns (particularly assault rifles) easier to get in Canada, he has dubious credentials on the libertarian front - he has significantly increased police and state powers, something Conservatives (particularly of the North American variety) usually say that they strongly oppose. Harper has done nothing to protect the environment. On the contrary, he has basically gutted most of our environmental protections. Hardly a traditional conservative value. Harper has done nothing to further the social conservative cause either. He never made any attempts to limit abortion and left gay marriage alone. Harper is not 'conservative,' he is 'corporatists' plain and simple. But people who vote Conservative have simply chosen their team and are sticking with it. Rightly or wrongly, many people (and many traditional NDP supporters included) contend that the NDP has abandoned their traditional left position in many ways, yet their core support appears to remain unchanged. It is very difficult to contend that the NDP of today is anywhere near as left as the NDP of Ed Broadbent, but the core remains unshaken.

I also don't believe, as some of my blogging peers contend, that the NDP has fallen in their fortunes because they have run a poor campaign. The NDP has certainly run an uninspiring and uninspired campaign, but then so have the other two major parties. The NDP has failed to be bold or particularly interesting but there has been nothing that I could say that could be defined as a "gaff" in their campaign. In fact the Liberals have been the only of the three major parties that could be said to have run a "good" campaign and that is only because Trudeau has exceeded expectations and has not particularly faltered.

I think the NDP decline is fairly simple to explain actually. It is the result of two factors. The first is that the soft support in Quebec has evaporated, and the second is that its apparent support in the rest of the country was largely illusory. The NDP support in Quebec began to evaporate when they released their fiscal platform. I think that Mulcair's deficit fetishism is the primary factor in the NDP losing support in that province. It seems that Quebecers are tired of "austerity" attitudes and they were just turned off by Mulcair's apparent need to stick to a "balanced" budget. Proof of this is that since Trudeau came forward with his "infrastructure"  investment plan, the Liberals have been on the steady rise in Quebec and are now nearly tied with the NDP in a couple of polls. I think that the Niqab issue has been relatively small in actual voting intentions. Both Mulcair and Trudeau have been fairly clear in articulating their support for the court's decision and the need to support religious freedoms, but the Liberals have been on the uptick while the NDP has faltered, suggesting that this is not the primary factor in voter intention changes. The second reason that the NDP has fallen in the polls is, I think, that the high status that they enjoyed in the polls in the first part of the campaign was a kind of false reading. I think that during those heady days of the Duffy trial a lot of Conservative voters were pissed off and embarrassed to admit that they would support the Conservatives, and since many Con voters would never vote Liberal on principle (and would particularly never vote for someone named Trudeau), and since Mulcair's political style seems similar to Harper's, this skewed  a lot of polls and created the illusion that the NDP had a chance at forming government. A lot of Con voters were just saying that they were going to vote NDP out of anger with no actual intention of voting for that party. As the election has neared and the Cons have effectively diverted a lot of attention away from their terrible corruption and incompetence, some of the supposed support for the NDP has just dissipated. Meanwhile, the Liberals (again, rightly or wrongly) have managed to place themselves in the perception of many as somewhat revitalized party with a slightly left of centre slant. This has meant that some voters have returned to the party and some people who are soft NDP voters are thinking maybe the Liberals are a worthwhile alternative to Harper. Furthermore, as the election nears I suspect the Liberal numbers will rise as the "anyone but Harper" crowd sees the Liberals as the party most likely to beat the Conservatives.

However, the falling fortunes of the NDP doesn't trouble me that much. I think that there is little doubt that the political discourse in the world and Canada is changing. As I have said before this change is a result of the near total failure of Neo-Liberalism to deliver greater prosperity or equality, the growing precariousness of people's lives, and the entrance of a new generation into political life. The first significantly noticeable change in this regard was the so-called "Occupy" movement. We are now seeing changing attitudes in economic orthodoxy everywhere, increased talk of the need to address inequality, genuine movement in the IMF and World Bank, and a change in discourse among many political parties. These kinds of changes are very slow and they have barely arrived in Canada, and so far have left our politicians largely untouched. But the very fact that a national leader like Trudeau is talking publicly about running deficits with the intention of investing in infrastructure is a sign of this shift. The truth is that regardless of one's political beliefs, it is pretty clear that neither Trudeau nor Mulcair represent a deep change in political policies. And because of the depth of Harper's threat to even basic democracy and civility in Canada, this election is not really representative of the looming political shift that is just beginning. Anyone who is not stupid enough to support the Conservatives is largely in panic mode hoping to get rid of this political pariah and get to a government, any government, that actually respects the Constitution, the rule of law, the traditions of democracy and Westminster and won't continue to dismantle the very basics of our political system. Getting rid of Harper (if we can actually do it) if the first step in a long journey. I am not too worried about the apparent falling fortunes of the NDP because ultimately I believe that Mulcair is, like Harper, yesterday's man. And in the political change that is coming the NDP as well as the Liberals will have to rebuild themselves in response to what will be radically different views about government and the economy in the coming 20 years.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

We Have Met the Enemy. . .

An important part of my youth was spent in the United States in the 60s and 70s. I grew up against the backdrop of the fight to end legal segregation and the racism that was at its root. I was never, I don't think, naive enough to believe that I would see an end to racism in my lifetime (this disease runs too deep to end in one life or even one century). But I was aware that progress was being made.

When I came to Canada in the seventies I realized quickly that Canadians liked to think of themselves as superior to Americans on this front. And in some ways they were. Certain racialized groups were much more accepted by average Canadians. But it didn't take me long to realize that others were just as victimized by racism as anyone in the US. The open and painful bigotry displayed by people around me against East Indian immigrants was shocking. And the Racism against Indigenous people was socially accepted and made the racism I had witnessed in the US pale in comparison.

It is now about 80 years since the Germans elected the NAZI party to power. It seems like a long time, but it is only one lifespan really. To their credit, the Germans seem to have made an incredible effort to learn from the worst parts of their racist past. Today even a right of centre politician like Angela Merkel has led the way in pushing racism aside and welcoming tens of thousands of racialized refugees to Germany. For all of Germany's faults, this is an act of humanitarianism that should not go unnoticed. Canadians seem considerably less interested in learning or atoning from their own racist past. Perhaps this is because, unlike Germans, we have been able to kid ourselves about the depth and profundity of our racist culture. But even a casual observer should be able to see that we have been as guilty as the Germans of attempted genocide.

And if there is any doubt of the dept of Canadian racism, the horrible turn in the Election campaign should bring us to our senses in this regard. We knew it was coming. The Conservative Party was fully aware of when the recent Niqab decision would come down and what that decision would be. They hired a blatantly racist campaign manager, bided their time, and lit the fire at the right moment. This is our Reichstag folks. We are being tested and we have come up sorely wanting. Talking heads like Rex Murphy, or Jason Kenny try to tell us that this is not about bigotry. But anyone who thinks it is not racism and bigotry is either stupid, historically ill-informed, or engaged in wilful self-deception to try to cleanse their soul of the terrible stain of this historical moment. We all know what is going on, but the saddest part is that we kept telling ourselves that we had learned from the past. But Santayana's dictum sadly applies here - those that don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

I feel much like a progressive person must have felt in Germany in the 1930s when they saw the NAZIs consolidating their power. Sure, today we are not talking about 'death-camps' in our own nation but the spirit is the same. We are turning back refugees, bombing foreign nations for pure political gain, creating two-tier citizenship, race-baiting, and attempting to overcome our own constitution to legalize racism. It is all the same historical thrust - the more extreme forms of racism (those involving guns, ropes, and gas-chambers) have been expunged or watered down, but roots of the actions are the same as ever.

The great political cartoonist (and creator of Pogo), Walt Kelly, once comically misquoted the American naval officer Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, to create an aphorism that should daily echo in our minds - "We Have Met the Enemy and He is US!"