Goodbye Oxymoron

To write “an interesting time in Canadian politics” would probably lead most to wonder if they had missed the beginning of a joke. That said, the oxymoron was turned on its head quite unexpectedly over the last few days.

Context: we had our federal election in October, shortly before the one in the U.S.; at the time, our minority government – lead by Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada (right-of-centre) – was challenged by the Liberal Party (centrist) and the three other federal parties: the NDP (left-of-centre), the Bloc Quebecois (Quebec separatist), and the Green Party (this party is too young within Canada to accurately say where they stand on the scale). In short, Harper won (or resumed) another minority government. At a cost of $300 million to the taxpayer at the dawn of an economic recession.

So, last Thursday (just after my moody, dark piece of a few posts ago) the Conservative finance minister announced, in a financial update to the country, three things:

  • they would not offer an stimulus package for sake of the sagging economy until the next budget (in Spring 2009)
  • they would temporarily withhold the right-to-strike for federal public servants
  • they would eliminate the public funding of political parties (ie. their opponents)

In other words, it was perhaps the stupidest, most cynical thing I’ve seen since the days of Mike Harris (Ontario’s former premier, and one of the most divisive, contemptuous politicians to grace the country). Sure, there is no immediate proof to show that the stimulus packages being made in nearly all the G8 countries will have a desired affect. However, in the midst of the nation-wide financial crisis, to basically offer nothing…combined with a thinly-veilled attempt to bankrupt the federal opposition parties. You could hear a mass “wtf” across the country. Hell, even the National Post dedicated a front-page column criticizing the move.

So what happened? Well, the Liberal Party decided to talk to the NDP. The NDP and the Liberals decided to talk to the Bloc. They have decided to form a coalition party which, if ratified by the Governor General (long story), would – without an election – give them a majority of seats in Parliament, and thus change the face of government in a (nearly) historically unprecedented move.

Canadians, politically apathetic as of late – with good reason, I must add – have been glued to their television sets and news sites since this weekend as if they were watching the Stanley Cup finals. It’s potentially an historic moment for the country.

It’s now a question of whether Harper will prorogue parliament – in other words dismiss it in order to avoid a confidence vote in Parliament – or ask the Governor General instead for a new election (and another $300 million). In other words, we could either have a new government in less than two weeks or a new election. Either way, it’s a hammer blow to a self-described “new” government filled with Machiavellian technocrats – and it was their own arrogance which has brought this on.

Amazing…and from a karmic perspective, delicious.


He Dreams of a Post-Partisan World

In the TV miniseries adaptation of the play Angels in America, the city law-clerk protagonist at one point pronounces that politics have transplanted religion in America, and in fact have replaced it. He says this with zeal, as if it were emancipation.

It pains me to think about that, but pains me more to consider just how correct (if depressing) an observation it is.

Lines have not been drawn, but cut into the tree bark of North American society as if with a pocket knife. You are either one thing or another – you cannot be a third; this is a very American pronouncement. The United States has traditionally always been about distilling conflict into two polarized Hatfield/McCoy entities. You are either Democrat or Republican. You are either a capitalist or a socialist. But this language, particularly over the last few years, has seeped into Canadian political (and trickled down to social) culture. Partisan hackery, demagoguery, journalists berated by right-wing think-tanks into believing that they suffer from left-wing bias, and the left ineffective as ever at conveying any sort of unified idea of what the hell it’s trying to say.

During the last federal election, our Prime Minister commented that “ordinary Canadians” couldn’t sympathize with pleas for restored funding from arts communities when said artists were, as he put it, always seen celebrating at taxpayer-funded galas. There was a brilliance in this (bald lie of an) accusation, as it was obviously never intended to promote discussion. There was no debate intended to be had; the intent was to rile the artists, causing them to get angry and speak-out publicly, with the consequence being that “ordinary Canadians” (ie. supporters of Harper or those already on the political fence) who saw this behaviour had their suspicions confirmed: artists are ungrateful. Art is a drain on national resources. How dare they ask for more of our hard-earned money (which “ordinary Canadians” spend liberally on movies, music, televisions…). The nerve.

This is a perfect example of how the dark science of politics have usurped the dark magic of religion. You are either a follower of the ministry or you are a shameless sinner. A “neo-con” or a “fiberal”. The role of partisan perversion in the distortion of ideas and communication is to conquer the citizenry through division. Demagoguery is an alien-sounding word which, used as an accusation, elicits shrugged shoulders from the general public nowadays. And yet, it perfectly describes what politics have devolved into.

I do not hate religion in itself, nor do I hate politics. Rather it is those treacherous, self-interested few who have the most to gain from either of these pursuits that I do not like and whom I will fight against (if only philosophically) so that they will not achieve power.


The Drawing of Blood

Speaking with my wife last night, we came to the conclusion that U.S. Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama suffers from the same problem as that of the head of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party, Stéphane Dion.

They are both intelligent, seemingly well-rounded people, who aim to represent, at least when compared with the rest of the politicians around them at the federal level, a different perspective.

Unfortunately, they both need to draw blood. And soon.

In Obama’s case, fascinating though it may be for pundits, the current Democratic primary is turning into a farce. He’s been in the lead, with both widespread party and public support. And yet, Hillary Clinton has been gaining on him. The problem is that, in being a nice, measured, principled man who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty, he’s allowing the other nominee to eat away at his chances to win the ticket. Clinton can get her hands dirty; she has, she can, and she will. This, combined with a persuasive argument that Obama isn’t seasoned enough to work on a world stage, means that he must roll up his sleeves and “finish” his opponent. Strike the killing blow. Draw blood, lest he be the one whose blood is drained by her well-managed campaign.

With Monsieur Dion, it’s a similar scenario. Elected leader of the opposition after the Liberal Party lost the last federal election to the Conservatives, he was – at the time – if not the most enigmatic choice, certainly the more seasoned, non-conflicted nominee. He’s intelligent, savvy, experienced. Unfortunately, he’s also wary of cameras, his English pronunciation is weak, and most importantly – thanks to a well-managed campaign by the reigning minority Conservative government – is made to look weaker by a series of “confidence motions” the Conservatives have strategically engineered in such a way as to create a poison pill for the Liberals. If they vote against the government on a confidence motion, there’s a good chance there will be another federal election as a result (and all the money, time, and mud-slinging that comes with it). If Dion instructs the Liberals not to vote, they appear to have no backbone. Like Obama, Stéphane Dion must draw blood; an election in 2008, at this rate, is inevitable and he must show that he can punch back (as well as absorbing punches thrown at him).

Is there room for “nice” people in federal politics? Absolutely. There should be more: more disinterested, more historically aware, more cross-partisan politicians. That said, I would be remiss if I also didn’t make it clear that no one wants a wimp leading their country, regardless of whether their wimpishness is a question of intelligence or willpower. Like checking out boxers’ stats before a fight, we look for one thing and one thing only: can they finish their opponent?

This question looms large over the next year.


Intolerant Alternatives

For those who don’t live in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), there are two papers which demonstrate the zero-sum game of “providing an alternative voice” in mass-market traditional media.

The first, which I submit as The Intolerant Right, is The Toronto Sun, a daily newspaper distributed through most of Southern Ontario. In short, pro-conservative, pro-law-and-order, pro-military, anti-liberal, anti-big-government, anti-humanist. They regularly publish op-ed pieces which make numerous references to City Council as being infested with socialists. They once published an editorial “cartoon” which allowed you to paint-by-numbers a portrait of Toronto’s mayor, David Miller, which ended up portraying him as Adolph Hitler.

The second, which I submit as The Intolerant Left, is NOW Magazine, a weekly news/community paper with wide distribution including outside the GTA. As opposed to the Sun, NOW is pro-socialist, pro-community, pro-union, anti-police, anti-military, anti-corporate. NOW operates under the impression that the world’s problems can be solved with townhall meetings. The recent clash between the Chilean U-20 soccer team and the police was, without bothering to investigate, blamed squarely on the police who were identified as racists.

Don’t get me wrong, NOW has a good arts section. The Toronto Sun, for that matter, excels in sports coverage. However, as regards editorial thrust, both papers are heinously biased and often responsible for stoking the coals of hatred.

And thus we come to that auspicious moniker: the “outsider” or “alternative” media voice. People who devour the Sun feel that everyone else is too liberally biased and that their paper “tells it like it is”. Those who fawn over NOW feel as if every page uncovers the organic truth, conspiratorially cloaked by the interests of Big Business. Yet, despite the obvious differences between the two, faithful readers of both feel as if they are getting the inside track on enlightenment.

This is one of the pernicious problems with being the “outsider” or the “alternative” in the traditional media market – it’s bullshit. You know it. I know it. Yet – and kudos for consistency to both the Toronto Sun and NOW – one can predictably ascertain the editorial reaction of both papers without as much as a few seconds of applied imagination.

Me? Generally, I’m left-of-centre, I do think there is a clear history of corporate greed which has threatened to extinguish individual rights (let alone entrepreneurship), and I don’t want our laws to be dictated by the tenets of any organized religion. However, pure socialism is a Romantic Dream – it assumes everyone is the same, which is the summit of naivety if we must include the criminally violent or the unfortunately stupid. Yet, I believe that culture needs federal funding and should not be treated like an elitist nice-to-have. Also, I would rather have another 4 years of David Miller’s ineffectiveness than yet another malicious, vindictive clown like Mel (The Black Cauldron) Lastman or a ruinous corporate-minded manipulator like Mike Harris at the provincial helm.

The problem with any form of media claiming to the be an “alternative” is that “being alternative” (as opposed to say, trying to approach the complexity of the average person’s viewpoint) becomes a ball-and-chain by which they have to editorially tow the line, whether or not it devolves into predictability (or self-parody).


Book Review: The Unconscious Civilization, by John Ralston Saul

As mentioned previously, House of Anansi recently re-released their acclaimed CBC Massey Lectures series. This news is a significant boon to the reader who values provocative, intelligent discussion which often straddles the fine line between social anthropology and philosophy. Having been pleasantly surprised with Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (reviewed previously here), I picked-up John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization with hesitant interestI say hesitant because I’m already well-acquainted with his work.

I was first introduced to Ralston Saul many years ago with his book Voltaire’s Bastards (ISBN 9780140153736). I was impressed with his bold and thoroughly-referenced perspective on what he contends is the growing paralysis of Western civilisation throughout history. However, in retrospect, this was probably the wrong book to start with; for one thing, it’s about 656 (trade paperback) pages which, considering his dense style and cogent analysis, makes for a bit of a brain slog. Nonetheless, I followed this with the successive releases of Confessions of a Siamese Twin (ISBN 9780140259889), his treatise on Canadian social/political identity, and On Equilibrium (ISBN 9780140288032), his elaboration on six foundational aspects of civilization.

I wish now that I had first read The Unconscious Civilization.

Clocking-in at a comparably svelte 205 pages, Unconscious Civilization finds Ralston Saul boiling down the magnum opus that was Voltaire’s Bastards into something much more approachable for the average reader without filing down its fangs. The thesis is partially revealed in the Preface, written for the 10th anniversary re-release:



When I wrote these Massey Lectures, I was convinced they would cause a shock. After all, I was describing the state of the West in a manner quite off the radar screen. I was saying there had been a persistent growth of corporatism in spite of the outcome of the last world war. And that this growth continued. Why would this be shocking? Because corporatism was part of the anti-democratic underpinnings of Fascist Italy in particular, but also of Nazi Germany. Beneath the uniforms and the military ambitions and the dictatorial leadership and the racism lay corporatism. It was the intellectual foundation of fascism. And it was supposed to have been destroyed along with both regimes in 1945.



So, it’s not exactly light reading. Throughout history though, concepts and arguments that heed us to re-evaluate our surroundings (whether or not we end up holding fast to them) are often dissonant to our day-to-day perspective on life – in other words, controversy often ensues difference. Ralston Saul is unafraid to call a spade a spade.

The Unconscious Civilization lays out in dense, history-shifting references, the problems and origins of corporatism and how it has become an increasingly acceptable means to run modern societies, in spite of its history of stifling democracy and rewarding conformism.

One of the key points made is how one can propose to adjudicate the underlying strength of any given society – that is, asking: where does its legitimacy lie? He proposes that this legitimacy lies in one of four areas: God, a king, groups, or civilian individuals working as a whole. While the history of Western society has largely been influenced by the former two, Ralston Saul feels that we are most certainly in the hands of groups: think-tanks, specialists, and managers.

The corporatist model, he argues, in the tradition of the Catholic Church, is obsessed with God and Destiny – albeit transposed onto contemporary concerns such as the trade markets and privatisation of public interests. Corporatist language is thus cloaked in a similar sense of inevitability and sycophantic awe that the Church used to instill fear and hold power over the populace.

Although the density of Ralston Saul’s arguments is impressive (in particular, his contention that Jung and Freud allowed the posterity of their work to fall victim to an inarticulated obsession with mythology) , I feel it’s this same quality that weighs down the over-arching themes of the book. At points, particularly with his repeated references to Athens in the days of Socrates, I longed for the simple first-person perspective that gave Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose To Live Inside its sprightliness and pactical immediacy. At times, Unconscious Civilization buckles under the considerable thickness of its content, which makes me wonder what the average reader will take away from it (without re-reading).

However, this doesn’t change the fact that this is powerful stuff. Not content to only point out what’s wrong with society, his last chapter is dedicated to thinking towards solutions. In particular, I found great interest in his contention that the public school system is out of step with the lifestyle changes over the last 20 years – as people are set to retire later and later, would it not make sense for children to enter into school later and then be required to receive a more complete education than the current system which is only concerned about cranking out specialists for the marketplace? Ralston Saul also delves into his equilibrium theory, to which he devoted a book in 2002, in which he postulates that individuals and society alike must work to remain balanced rather than hyper-focused on any one quality, in particular rationality, which has been used to justify abuses throughout history.

I would not hesitate to suggest this book to anyone interested in challenging views of society in general, and Ralston Saul’s ideas in particular. For the latter, The Unconscious Civilization is the ultimate primer. For the former, you will undoubtably find yourself spending a great deal of time wrestling with its well-researched and sometimes scathing message.

The Unconscious Civilization is available for sale at a fine independent bookstore near you and online at House of Anansi Press, as well as…Powell’s, Amazon, Chapters. Published by House of Anansi Press (ISBN: 0-88784-586X)


Darfur – A Range of Opinion

You know you’re looking at a real-life problem (as opposed to the more easily-digestible choices portrayed in television dramas…who am I kidding – television news as well) when its tangled complexity clogs the drain of your ability (or desire) to “solve” it.

Take Darfur.

The way in which this conflict is rendered has been a hotly debated topic. A recent analysis showed that, in 2005, the Darfur story was covered for all of 10 minutes on the three major American networks; this would imply that the television-drama ER (in an upcoming episode) will have covered 6 times as much as them…again, in a single episode.

The newsmedia is sometimes the only means a tragedy has of reaching the eyes and senses of those who are too distant to know about them. Speculatively speaking, I have to wonder if some in the newsmedia – the above mentioned networks who all but avoided this situation for years prior – are now reluctant to spotlight it because doing so inherently implicates past apathy. An extreme interpretation, perhaps, but considering the media’s tepid hold on our trust – post 9/11 – this seemingly bizarre behaviour is not without recent precedents.

On the topic of how the situation in Darfur has been rendered in the media,Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele, describes in this bloggish-commentary what he calls the Darfur Disconnect:

Commentators thunder away at the need for sanctions against the regime in Khartoum and denounce western leaders for not authorising Nato to intervene.

Last weekend the outrage took a new turn, with big demonstrations in several American cities, strongly promoted by the Christian right, which sees the Darfur conflict as another case of Islamic fundamentalism on the rampage. They urged Bush to stop shilly-shallying and be tougher with the government of Sudan.

The TV reports are not wrong. They just give a one-sided picture and miss the big story: the talks that the rebels are conducting with the government. The same is true of the commentaries. Why demand military involvement, when western leaders have intervened more productively by pressing both sides to reach a settlement? Over the past few days the US, with British help, has taken over the AU’s mediation role, and done it well. Robert Zoellick, the state department’s number two, and Hilary Benn, Britain’s development secretary, have been in Abuja urging the rebels not to waste the opportunity for peace. Sudan’s government accepted the US-brokered draft agreement last weekend, and it is the rebels who have been risking a collapse.


An interesting, if divisive, point of view. I say divisive because it drags into the debate an almost unnecessary contention that there is some cabal of the (increasingly journalistic cliche) Christian right to portray this as a spectre of Muslim imperialism against Christian Darfurians – the truth of that particular matter is certainly more complex. I can certainly say that the rally I attended in Toronto had no religious overtones or other types of self-investment.

The more salient argument in this excerpt is whether, in pushing for military intervention, NATO/UN forces could unknowingly apply the wrong type of pressure and drive the conflict deeper or perhaps fragment it along ethnic/political lines – in this regard, it’s not as if there is a single Darfurian rebel organisation sitting at the negotiation table. There are several – some small, some large, and inevitably one would assume each may have their own agenda.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to spin this into something that it’s not – ie obfuscate the conflict to the point where inaction is seen as an option – but rather, I’m trying to see different points of view because I really don’t feel we’re getting it from the media.

On this note, the CBC is having a Foreign Correspondents Forum on June 1st. They are taking questions from viewers regarding international events/affairs. I’ve taken the liberty of posing some of the questions raised above. If you would like to do the same (about Darfur or any other area of the world), visit this page for more information.


The Not-So-Great Debate

With every year, particularly since 9/11, it’s harder and harder to find reasoned debate. By ‘reasoned debate’, I mean a discussion where arguments are backed up with reason, a bit of logic, and some semblance of research/understanding of history. What doesn’t pass for ‘reasoned debate’ – what we currently have before us – is hyperbole, name-calling, grand-standing, and ridiculously partisan follies paraded in all forms of media.

Before I go any further, I encourage you to look at the dictionary definition of debate. The important word repeated throughout is discussion. I don’t think this word needs defining, though some days I think it should be printed on t-shirts and handed out to school children so that it’s not forgotten. But I digress.

Two reasons for the lack of true (as in useful) debate come to mind, although I’m sure there are more:

1) The replacement of individual thought with self-invested group-think.

2) The perversion of language and its subsequent use as a weapon.

– – –

The first point is as clear as it is demonstrable. Increasingly, individual citizen input (from either the public or private sector) is bypassed in favour of specialists from advocacy groups and so-called think-tanks. Some examples: in Canada, The Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, and the Canadian Taxpayer Federation. In the U.S., examples include the CATO Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.

Whether leaning towards a particular side of the political spectrum or specialising in a particular avenue of advocacy, all of these groups have one thing in common: self-interest. In corporatist style, think tanks and advocacy groups have been propped up as representatives for a discussion which should take place within the public arena but doesn’t. It doesn’t because the public arena is seen as messy; in an increasingly corporatist society, messy doesn’t compute. Messy needs to be streamlined. The rise of advocacy groups, think-tanks and (increasingly) NGO’s often has nothing to do with the public and everything to do with establishing each group’s predominance in their field. Indeed, the first and last thing both the Canadian Taxpayer Federation and the CATO Institute have in common is making sure their organisations keep running – certainly not fostering independent thought.

One thing you can count on is that advocacy groups and think-tanks are consistent: everyone tows the line, everyone knows the script. Their facts, usually half-sided, are provided-for internally and what research they do is with the sole intent of reaching a pre-conceived conclusion that suits a pre-defined format, whether it be economic, social, or political.

When these organisations are inserted in place of the citizen’s voice, democracy becomes Kafka-esque. Often, one ideological think-tank is pitted against another, and what is discussed has no relation to truth (as either the citizen sees it or would like questioned) but to the safe consistency of “staying on-message”. Thus, there is very little debating in lieu of ideological advertisement.

It’s tempting to admire projects like Media Matters for America, which can be very effective at spotting media bias, but my frustration is that its interests are inherently one-sided: attack Republican bias, but support/protect Democrat initiatives. Indeed, it would be daunting for an organization devoted to highlighting media bias if it was looking at all sides of the media paradigm – and this comes to my concluding point: vested interests are easy to finance. Complexity is not.

– – –

The second blockade to real debate is the perversion of language. Media pundit Bill O’Reilly is probably one of the most accomplished when it comes to the distortion of language. His polemic style, his bullying aggression towards dissenting opinion, and his partisan hatred are broadcast every weekday to an audience of millions. He begins and ends most of his addresses with the well-worn cloak of false common-sense: everyone wants to protect freedom, everyone is concerned about terrorism, everyone knows that there are far-left extremists among us. Everyone. His consistent target is a group known previously as liberals, but most recently goes by the moniker secular progressives. In O’Rielly’s words, they are elitists and only Bill O’Reilly can identify this imminent threat to our safety. Obviously this is all very partisan and prejudicial and not dissimilar to what has been said and demonstrated throughout the 20th century by both fascists and Communists – but everything about O’Reilly and FoxNews is paradoxically draped in the opposite: his show is called The No-Spin Zone and his channel’s mantra is Fair and Balanced. The paradox continues the more attention is spent on their language: leftists are compared to Nazis…actually, that’s wrong: everyone who takes a different side ends up being portrayed as a Nazi…or alternately a Communist. (I suggest FoxNews create a doll that, on cue, devotees could raise and shake towards the TV screen at opportune times, whilst shouting “Ooogey boogey ooogey!”.)

A less outraged sentiment is echoed by newspaper columnists such as the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, who habitually tut-tuts those who question authority (save for when she decides to). Her approach, albeit certainly less vitriolic than O’Reilly’s, is to portray dissenters as part of a privileged latté-sipping middle-class elite. Her motto seems to be: shut up and live with it – ostensibly the antithesis of debate itself.

Again, we come back to the word elitist. Elitism is, we are told, our enemy. It’s an easy way to cast aspersions on dissent – let’s face it, there are always going to be a smaller percentage of people who ask disinterested questions (that is, questions that are not self-serving but serve the ideals of the community). In her book, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside (reviewed here), Doris Lessing is philosophical about the word elitism and it’s accusatory usage. She goes so far as to determine it a necessary evil if it means the freedom to ask important, if unpopular, questions aloud. In other words, if painted an elitist – so be it.

– – –

From a local perspective, the debate disconnect was driven home – literally and figuratively – when in 2000, Toronto broadcaster CityTV refused to hold an election debate between the incumbent mayor, Mel Lastman and his opponents. This was the first time CityTV had decided to do this since they began hosting televised mayoral debates*. While it was arguable at the time as to the feasiblity of any of Lastman’s opponents winning (and it should be noted that Lastman won with 80% support), it was shocking to see a local broadcaster that wraps itself in a mantra of street-level community-building refuse to even go that simple distance. I remember watching an evening call-in show on CityTV, hosted by Lorne Honickman, whose guest was mayoral hopeful Tooker Gomberg – this took place after the announcement that there would be no debate. I clearly remember the disbelief, bordering on contempt, that Honickman displayed as caller after caller phoned-in to simply ask: why? Why no debate? His retisence to discuss the subject was as obvious as his clear disdain for his guest.

– – –

Debate is inclusive, not exclusive. Its aim is perspective – not the promotion of canned answers or unmovable positions. The object of debate is not disgracing dissent, but putting forth reasoned arguments. I think there’s a long road ahead as regards our ability to communicate, to argue respectfully, and to share ideas. These things happen at a smaller scale all the time in our communities, but I think we’ve forgotten how important they are, thus it’s going to take a while for citizens to feel attached to it again; to take command of their own voice, as it were.

The responsibility to restore true debate falls on civilians – when the citizenry abdicates responsibility for public discussion, we shouldn’t be surprised when the gap is filled by self-interested interest-groups. When societies forget about their social responsibilities those responsibilities are often annexed as anachronisms, and replaced by the empty comfort of technology (ie televised think tanks). The Internet is a good tool for the restoration of debate, but it’s only a tool and not in and of itself anything more. What’s needed is the will to reform, reason, and a sense of responsibility to society as a whole.

* (I can find no record to refute this, but I’m open to correction)