Monday, November 23, 2015

The Real Weakness of the Rightwing. . .

It seems that an increasing number of people are beginning to see the irony (and correlate hypocrisy) in the rightwing messaging around the issue of ‘terrorism.’ The right continually tells us that we have to be ‘strong’ and that we can’t be afraid of terrorism. They tell us that we have to go about our business (sometimes even literally – recall Bush telling us to go shopping after 911) and lead our normal lives because this is the way to beat the terrorists. Yet the entire rightwing narrative is about the very opposite; they are entirely driven by fear and are willing to change the very principles of our government and society in the face of a handful of terror related deaths.

But we are slowly seeing the emergence of different narrative and it is coming around the refugee issue. While our rightwing politicians are telling us to be afraid, to change everything about ourselves (thus essentially by their own standards letting the terrorists achieve exactly what they are aiming at), progressives are the ones really telling us not to change for terrorists, not to be driven by fear. A central element of this narrative is that we continue to take lots of refugees. Though this effort is motivated by a desire to do the right thing, it has the knock-off effect of doing exactly what the terrorists don’t want us to do. Because by not being driven by fear, by welcoming thousands of refugees countries like Canada can show that we are a welcoming society and not the anti-Muslim monsters that groups like ISIS tell their potential constituency we are.

This is exactly the kind of strategy that progressive need in their current struggle against the right. For far too long we have let the rightwing get away with portraying us as weak when exactly the opposite is true. The rightwing are the weak ones. They are weak because they are driven by fear, because they don’t have the courage to be straight-up and honest about their agenda, because they are willing to let a couple of relatively small terrorists attack undermine the principles of openness and freedom that we have worked so hard for, because they are too weak to compromise on anything, to ever admit they’re wrong, or to engage in actual discourse. That is real weakness!

Remember the old Lincoln quote that “no one stands as tall as when they stoop to help a child.” The real strength, the strength that the rightwing doesn’t have, is the ability to lend a helping hand when someone is trying to stop you, to stick to your principles in the face of hardship, to look for new solutions and take thousands of refugees when ISIS wants us to hunker down, abandon our principles, be driven by fear, and adopt our worst instincts of hate. The rightwing is quick to lower themselves to the very attitude of their supposed enemy. But progressives know better and it is about time that we demonstrate that we are the ones with real strengths – the strengths of acceptance, of love in the face of hate, of principle and hope in the face of fear, of discourse in the face of violence, and of helping the weak and vulnerable. Violence doesn’t take courage, hate doesn’t require bravery or determination, and anger doesn’t require will power. Anger fear and hate have always been the watchwords of the rightwing, not ours. The rightwing and the racists in this country are small, petty people who want to appear strong but are only guilty of peddling fear and weakness. When Harper and his cabal tried to generate fear of religious freedom to win an election, they were demonstrating their true weakness. They were so weak that they attempted to abandon hundreds of years of progress because they were trembling with fear in the face of one woman in a niqab. The rightwing are similar to the terrorists in this sense – it is not bombs and war that they fear; what they really fear is the effort it takes to accept, to cooperate, to embrace, to love, and to build.

As progressives we won’t embrace their fear and we won’t be turned aside. Brad Wall and Rona Ambrose and the rest of the cowardly lot may be shaking in fear in the face of 25 thousand refugees but I’m not.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Aesthetic Politics and the new (neo) Liberal Era. . . . .

In the modern era particularly since the Victorian times onward, politics has been a surprisingly aesthetic matter. This is because the rich and powerful people who overwhelmingly control government and politics in Western democracies are dependent on a largely lazy and ill-informed public to continually ratify and legitimize the continued dominance of an economic elite over the political establishment. Thus the political process has been one of creating the prevailing impression that the wealthy elites are somehow concerned with such trivialities as generalized prosperity, the well-being of the nation, jobs, education etc. If they don't effectively sell this package of benefits, they (as individual parties) risk being tossed from power. But more importantly, if the entire political class can't sell this illusion, they run a much bigger risk of actual social justice discourse intruding into mainstream political discourse, and that threatens the wealth and power of the small percentage of people who continually rule our democracies; democracies that are, I am sad to say, almost entirely illusory.

The Harper Government was a particularly graphic illustration of a failed aesthetic strategy. Over estimating public ignorance, racism, hostility, and nastiness is easy to do if your own attitudes tend in that direction. In the past decade we have seen this attitude become more and more public and explicit in the so-called 'Tea Party' phenomenon, a tendency that spilled over into Canada and found a home in Harper's Conservatives and Hudak's PCs in Ontario. But ignorance, racism, and religious fanaticism are much more widespread in the US, so as our Canadian politicians watched their southern cousins gain in popularity they over estimated what they could get away with here. Thus Harper and his ilk imagined that they could effectively sell an aesthetic of outright nastiness and contempt of democracy and still get reelected. In the weeks since losing power the Conservatives have dramatically illustrated the degree to which politics are about aesthetics and the degree to which they need to hide behind those aesthetics. So Jason Kenney tells us that the Cons got all the big issues right, but their tone was wrong. And in so doing he has failed to understand the central message of aesthetic politics, to wit: the illusion has to be complete, you can't admit that you are only pretending. By saying that they only got the tone wrong, Jason Kenney (entirely unwittingly) is like a magician who is revealing his secrets to the audience as he goes along. This is because the 'tone' that the Conservatives have now admitted to getting wrong was, at the core, a blatant contempt for democracy itself, so in this case their tone was their substance. This is why the Cons will be unable, in the short term, to renew their party. They have to come to grips with this sad fact; in a context in which most parties are still attached to the same socioeconomic model, politics is tone and little more! In admitting that they got the tone wrong, Kenney is admitting that they got the substance wrong too.

This is the strength of Trudeau, he understands that the illusion of modern politics has to be complete. You need to make people feel like they are stake-holders, like they are an essential part of the process and that the government is there to 'serve.' As long as you can sell this aesthetic, then you can continue to implement a neo-liberal agenda and make people feel that somehow it is just an inevitable, 'natural' outcome of democracy. But this brings up one of the real subtleties of modern politics, which is this - the great fear of the rightwing in this stage of capitalism is that an open, stake-holder political aesthetic will open up civil society just enough for people to realize the real practice behind the curtain. They fear that an open politics will gradually shift public discourse to things like climate change, economic inequality, the breakdown of the education system, the corruptions in the legal system, and the history of resource and land theft perpetrated against the indigenous population. In other words, what the rightwing fears is that by selling an open political aesthetic they must just end up creating the atmosphere of substantive change. The Liberals have taken another tack (a position taken by liberals for a long time in capitalism) - they realize that if they don't allow public discourse a degree of openness, an ability to slowly shift, the result will be a society so corrupt and unequal that revolution will eventually result.

In other words, the Liberals still know (like the Conservatives once knew but seem to have forgotten) that you don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. But the Liberals also know that if you don't give the people a little steak now and then they will eventually take it for themselves. The Conservatives seem to have forgotten that simple lesson altogether.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Affirmative Action, Merit, and Wealthy, Middle-Aged White Men. . .

Sometimes I think of Andrew Coyne as our national poster child for intellectual impairment. There are, as we are painfully aware, certainly more obtuse, dim-witted individuals on the national political and journalistic scene than Mr. Coyne. But more of these, such as Margaret Wente for example, are so thick that they are really beneath contempt. And such people only hold their positions of notoriety because they are shills for neo-liberalism and corporatism; if the prevailing social ideology were different, Wente would have trouble getting a writing position on a church newsletter, let alone a job as a nationally syndicated columnist. But Andrew Coyne is a great illustration of Woody Allan's dictum from Annie Hall, that you can be "brilliant and have no idea what it going on." This is Coyne in a nutshell. Like many people Coyne has attained his position in part because he comes from a rich and important Canadian family. But he is by no means incompetent. But his status as a white male from a well-to-do family makes today's Editorial piece extra ironic.

Today Coyne railed against the affirmative action approach toward women in the cabinet taken by Trudeau. The crux of Coyne's argument is summarized when he says that this affirmative action is like "asking the country's interest to take a back seat" to an abstract notion of equal representation.

This is a standard kind of argument against affirmative action, but it is particularly ironic here for a number of reasons. The first, and most obvious, reason is the one I have already mentioned. There are dozens of writers better and more astute than Andrew Coyne in this country, so to suggest that Coyne is a representative of a meritocracy is simply ridiculous. On the contrary, Coyne is an illustration of the fact that when it comes to being a national columnist in Canada's rightwing newspaper field, ideology, connections, and dare I say gender are all more important. And if you don't believe me do a small experiment. Go to your library (if you are fortunate enough to live in a large urban centre with a large central library) and look at as many Canadian newspapers as you can and count the number of bylines and classify them by race and gender. This experiment will demonstrate the shockingly lopsided representation in the national media, particularly when it comes to editorial work. (Incidentally, an interestingly similar experiment is one in which you simply count the number of images of men vs women in the national newspapers. You will see quite quickly just how gender biased our society really is) The fact is that it is ridiculously ironic for someone like Andrew Coyne to champion merit over everything else when you would have to be in a coma to imagine his own status and success is a result simply of merit.

The simple fact is that we don't live in anything like a meritocracy. That is the whole point of affirmative action. The obviousness of this fact is so startling to anyone who is even vaguely analytical is overwhelming. We live in a socioeconomic system that offers very lopsided degrees of education and opportunity at every level. We know this by this simple fact - if we believe that women are equal to men in ability (and I assume that everyone reading this does), then they would already hold more than half of all political jobs since they make up more than 50% of the population. The reason we need affirmative action of any kind is precisely because we don't live in a meritocracy! And if Andrew Coyne's ego wasn't so huge he would understand this very simple fact. But like most people who are successful, Coyne believes that his success is a direct result of his merit.

But I think that an even more important point is that even the notion of merit is much more nuanced than people like Coyne give it credit for, particularly in a field like politics where the criteria of 'merit' are vague and often unquantifiable. Being a 'good' minister does not necessarily mean being an expert or overly familiar with the nuances of a particular issue. God knows if that was the criteria for being an effective government minister then every government would have a hard time creating a cabinet since the real experts almost never run for office in the first place. Thus Coyne would do well to remember that where strict or regulated notions of merit are unclear, the very notion of merit is flexible and redefinable. One might, for instance, think that women or members of a racialized group are more likely to have a better take or grasp on certain portfolios, and they also may be better placed to communicate and deal with the major players in the field. This is a central point, the apparent complexity of which is missed on men like Coyne.

And this brings us to the most inflammatory thing in Coyne's statement above, the implication that ensuring gender parity in the federal cabinet is somehow putting the "country's interest" at risk. But here's the thing: it IS in the country's interest to have gender parity in politics for so many reasons. And it is Coyne's failure to understand this very simple point that makes me say that Andrew Coyne is, sadly, a poster-child for intellectual impairment. If you can't understand how the inequalities in our society are operating, how could you ever be expected to address them???