Sunday, July 26, 2015

Harper and the Big Fat Senate Lie. . .

I remember once reading an amusing theory about the evolution of an idea. I think it came from Hazel Barnes introduction Jean-Paul Sartre's Search for a Method. However, not having that book at hand I cannot be sure. The theory, if my memory serves, goes like this - A significant idea goes through three distinct processes in its evolution. First, its detractors condemn it as absurd or nonsensical, even dangerous. Second, those who once condemned it admit its veracity but suggest that it is obvious and not particularly interesting or important. Third, those who once denied the idea say that it is not only true, but they thought of it first.

I recount this idea because Stephen Harper's attitude toward the Senate has reminded of this funny evolutionary anecdote.

Harper's bizarrely shifting position on the Upper Chamber can be used, I think, as a kind of symbolic stand in for his entire attitude toward the job of Prime Minister. Harper began his political career insisting that if he were Prime Minister he wouldn't appoint any senators and that he would quickly reform the institution in general. This was Harper's first misrepresentation concerning the Upper Chamber. Thomas Mulcair came out of the gate saying that the NDP's ultimate position on the Senate is to work toward abolition, but despite what the other parties would have us believe, he also admitted from the beginning that this is a long term political goal which won't be easy and would require unanimity. Harper, on the other hand, talked in his early years as though he would simply 'reform' the senate, like this could be just an act of his own political will. Of course, when Harper became Prime Minister it became clear that he knew all along (or had been quickly informed by his legal advisors) that any reform of the senate required cooperation from the Premiers. The problem is that Harper's entire political M.O. is predicated on the principle that he is a law unto himself, and as such he would never meet with the Premiers because such a meeting would be a tacit admission that he cannot act as a dictator but that, on certain issues, he must work with other elected officials on a more or less equal basis. Harper has never admitted to himself or the nation that we are a federation and federations don't operate well through centralized political power.

Had Harper really been interested in senate reform he would have convened a first ministers meeting in his first months in office and begun a dialogue toward reform. Agreement would never have been easy, of course, and would have required a skill that Harper does not possess - consensus building.

In the face of his limited powers, Harper broke his promise and began appointing senators at a rate more frenetic than any of this predecessors. Of course, he asked Canadians to believe the rather incredible story that he was appointing these senators ultimately toward the cause of reform because he was choosing people who agreed with his reform agenda. The problem was that this claim was predicated on the assumption that the senate could reform itself. However, no legal mind in the country seemed to believe this claim. We can thus assume that Harper's huge numbers of appointments to the senate were driven by that other part of his political identity; the unquenchable thirst for power. There was absolutely no way that Harper could leave fallow the soil of his extendible power. Thus Harper set himself on the path to being the Prime Minster that made more patronage appointments than any other in our history, a somewhat ironic turn of events seeing that he began his political career with a focus on ending patronage.

The mainstream media, as it always seems to do, let Harper slide on this incredible and unprecedented flip-flop, one of so many dramatic turn arounds in which Harper has engaged during his decade as PM.

After some years however, it became clear even to the monumental ego of Stephen Harper that his lust for patronage and his inaction on senate reform could become a serious electoral liability. So Harper's next step was to request direction from the Supreme Court. Harper hates the very idea of a judiciary. For Harper we shouldn't have three arms of government, but only one - him. The very notion that an independent judiciary could curb his powers and make decisions that trumped his power is deeply disturbing to Harper. But as a typical opportunist, Harper is not adverse to taking advantage of the courts if he can. Thus, even though we all knew (Harper included) what the Supreme Court would say, Harper went forward out of self-interest. As we all predicted, the Court said that Senate reform could not be enacted solely by the Federal Government (let alone by the Prime Minster by himself), but required the agreement of the provinces. Harper was as pleased as a politician could be. He could now attempt to absolve himself his senate reform failures and blame the courts. This was a further extension of Harper's always unbelievable narrative that he is a committed democrat whose plans are continually thwarted by the courts and so-called interest groups.

The problem with this strategy was two-fold. On the one hand, no one who had paid attention ever saw Harper make a singe meaningful effort toward senate reform, and since we all knew from the beginning that reform required provincial cooperation, the entrance of the Supreme Court into the equation was meaningless anyway. The other problem was that Harper has proven himself such a poor judge of character that the Senate, more than any time in its history, became a symbol of corruption. And to make matters worse, not only did Harper appoint incompetent criminals to the Senate, he also showed that he was personally interfering in Senate business, and we now see the tip of the iceberg of this interference and it has becomes clear that his henchmen were involved in attempted cover-ups and other malfeasance. These problems made Harper's strategy of blaming the courts and doing nothing deeply problematic, particularly as an election neared and an increasingly popular NDP was talking abolition, now a fairly popular position.

Thus, in a final, bizarre turn around, Harper added a new moment of hypocrisy to his performance as the Crime Minister, would-be dictator. Comically, Harper reverted to his original position and said that he wouldn't appoint any senators. Only this time he added a twist to his strategy, doing what he does best he blamed someone else. Now Harper tells us that he won't appoint any more senators until the Premiers get their act together and talk senate reform. This is a bit like the director of a film saying his actors are screwing up the movie before he has even started filming. It is not the job of the Premiers to pursue senate reform. Rather it is the job of the Prime Minister to bring the Premiers together and start building a consensus. Leaving aside the question of whether a Prime Minister can actually refuse to appoint senators, and the even more thorny problem that if no senators are appointed the senate will eventually lose quorum and the government will no longer be able to pass laws, why does Harper believe that he can return to a strategy he left behind years ago and still have any credibility on the senate question? The answer is, of course, easy. Because Harper is a supreme egoist who believes that not only that laws don't apply to him but that he is even above political convention itself.

The story of the Senate under Harper is the story of Harper himself; misrepresented facts, half-truths or outright lies, a total unwillingness to work with any other part of government, a reluctance to admit that he can't simply do anything he wants, a tendency to blame others (particularly the courts) for his failures, the habit of appointing criminals and incompetents to positions of power, a continual verbal attack on patronage while continually using patronage to reward allies and extend his power, and a complete disregard for the law and the constitution. As in the evolution of an idea with which I began, Harper now suggests that Senate reform has always relied on the Premiers and he thought of that first. Now if only those pesky Premiers would get their act together and stop defending the status quo.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Shad and Kanye West . . . .

Yesterday Shad (CBC radio personality) regaled us with a defense of rapper Kanye West. (I find it amazing that anyone has to come to the defense of a person worth a couple of hundred million dollars but culture and the cult of personality is a funny thing) Shad is, apparently, upset that people have been actively resisting West’s performances at events such as Glastonbury and now the Pan Am closing ceremonies. Shad has two bones to pick with resistance to Kanye West’s naysayers. On the one hand Shad objects to people personally judging West and letting that personal judgment colonize their aesthetic opinion of the rapper. On the other hand he wants us to know what a great musician West is and how important it is for his various detractors to understand this.

Shad begins his argument with the logically bizarre contention that it is “arrogant” for people to judge people who they don’t know personally. This is such a strange claim on Shad’s part that I almost don’t think it deserves response. But I feel compelled to say something given the fact that Shad is a replacement personality to the now infamous Jian Ghomeshi, whom we all feel compelled to judge. I suggest to Shad, that there is absolutely nothing arrogant about judging people with whom we are not personally acquainted, particularly people who have chosen to make myriad aspects of their personal life a public affair. I am sure Shad actively make judgments of people he doesn’t know – Paul Benardo and Charles Mason come immediately to mind. Our judgments of people who we don’t personally know need to be treated with caution but let’s not pretend that there is something “arrogant” about it. I suspect Shad is letting his personal feelings about Kanye West interfere with his power as a logician here. However, there is a wider issue that needs to be addressed which is how we let our personal feelings about an artist influence how we react to their work or performance. Shad tells us that he “doesn’t have time to talk about his [West’s] citizenship or his wife or why those conversations are hugely problematic” for him. From how this statement is worded we can, I suppose, presume that Shad doesn’t even want us to talk about West and his personal life. But we need to disabuse Shad of the notion that we can be restricted in our discourse about performers and their personal lives. Now generally, I agree, that there is something strange about letting our personal feelings about an artist play a large part in our judgment of their work. There is a sense in which an artist’s work stands as a kind of cultural document separate from the individual artists and their various contextual issues. The exception is when that part of their personality that we find objectionable enters into their artwork in a significant way, as it does, for example, with a racist writer like Rudyard Kipling. There are many artists to whom I object personally but whose work I adore.

But let me say that Shad (if he has any pretensions of being a cultural critic) should understand that a guy like Kanye West is a special case. West has not only let his personal life become a matter of public record but he has embraced the corporate-driven cult of mega-star personality in a way that few have. We live in an age of art as commerce, and this commerce is increasingly driven by large, corporate institutions. Kanye has not only embraced this, but he has become a ‘mover and a shaker’ in this process. Thus, judgment of West’s personality plays into our judgment of him as a performer in part because he wants it to; he has helped to generate this cult of personality so he can hardly complain when it affects him. But there is something even bigger at stake than this here. And this is the issue of the culture of the empty celebrity. We not only live in an age of art as commerce but we also live in an age of the empty celebrity; people who are famous for no reason than their status as reality television stars. Of course, there have always been people who have garnered fame for reasons that have nothing to do with their merit in terms of achievement. But with the age of ‘reality television’ this has become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. And I would argue that this phenomenon is one of the more toxic aspects of modern culture. The Paris Hiltons, Honey Boo-boos, and yes Kim Kardashians of the world are anathema to the very notion of art and artistic integrity because they make celebrity and wealth the very guiding principle of achievement. One no longer has to have a talent, pursue meaningful endeavours, or make a genuine effort to become competent, one simply has to have a pretty face, and nice round ass and have a penchant for showing off at a monumental scale (as well as have an unquenchable thirst to be rich). Keep in mind too that most of these people who are famous for being famous are women who trade on their sexuality. Some might say that this has always been, to one degree or another, a central aspect of success in capitalism. But it has reached new heights in contemporary, technologically driven society. And here is the important part – Kanye West has willfully become a central part in that cultural poison. I find Kanye West’s arrogance and conceit highly distasteful. But lots of artists (and people in general) are arrogant. I can look past that to a degree. What I can’t look past is the way that the cult of personality, the drive for fame at all costs regardless of skill or talent, the hyper-sexualization of women just to get ahead, and the corporatism of culture have infected our society and the important role that Kayne West has invested in that in his art and personal life. That’s not arrogance Shad, that’s cultural critique.

Now let me just deal briefly with Shad’s other point, and that is Kanye West’s merit as a performer. I don’t want to get too deeply into this in as much as Shad is certainly entitled to his aesthetic opinion, and I will even concede that when it comes to music he is certainly more qualified than I to express that opinion. But, having said that, I must take issue with a couple of things that Shad has said. Shad concedes that commercial success is not a “great measure of artistic merit.” Let me say that Shad is hedging his bets here. Let me say that commercial success is NO measure of artistic merit. If it were Rod Mckuen would be a greater poet than Keats, and Thomas Kinkade would be a greater painter than Turner. However, what Shad does put a lot of stock in is Kanye West’s “critical” success. But here history has an almost equally dismal record as it does in commercial success, at least in an artist’s lifetime. History is littered with artists who gained plenty of critical success in their lives only to be thrown on the dustbin of history later on. And conversely, a huge number of artists who are now considered “great” garnered nothing but contempt from critics while they were alive. Though the list of such ‘critical’ failures is far too long to recite, let me use one interesting example. In 1798 two entirely unknown poets published a book entitled Lyrical Ballads which was roundly condemned almost everywhere it was given critical attention. That book is now considered by many as one of the most important, if not the most important, single books in English poetry. Those two poets were none other than William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. These two artists were, for most of their lives treated with utter contempt by the critical community. And the reason for the condemnation was fairly straightforward – the critical community represented the establishment. Even where the critics were not politically conservative, they were aesthetically so. On the other hand many very successful artists garnered great critical as well as commercial success only to be forgotten. The French novelist Eugene Sue is a great example. He was the toast of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, critics loved him and the people bought his books. Similarly, the Dutchman Lourens Alma Tadema was the most successful painter of the entire Victorian era. His fame now pales in comparison to the Pre-Raphaelites who were working at the same time and who were slain by almost every critic and struggled to make any kind of living.

Furthermore, when it comes to critical acclaim, Shad would do well to remember that it is seldom objective. The very notion of independent theatre criticism didn’t even exist, for example, until the advent of the work of the great Leigh Hunt in England. Before that, theatre critics were so closely tied to actors, producers, and theatre owners that good periodical critiques of plays relied on little more than connections (or in some cases money because some theatre owners simply paid for good reviews). But even where critical acclaim has not been so obviously corrupted, it is a phenomenon that should always be treated with suspicion. Blackwell’s Magazine spent decades attacking the Romantic poets because of a host of personal prejudices on the part of their various editors, actual personal issues with some of the poets themselves, political and class bigotry, and simple aesthetic conservatism. Meanwhile they lauded poets like George Crabbe, for example, who aren’t even read today in the rarified atmosphere of university classes. I am not necessarily saying that all critiques are as tainted as theatre criticism was in, say, London in 1800, but it should always be treated with caution. Another thing Shad would do well to remember is the statement by the great George Orwell –

The more I see the more I doubt whether people ever really make aesthetic judgments at all. Everything is judged on political grounds which are then given an aesthetic disguise. When, for instance, Eliot can’t see anything good in Shelley or anything bad in Kipling, the real underlying reason must be that the one is a radical and the other a conservative.


Regardless of where you stand on such a philosophical contention, it should be clear that the success of an artist in her own lifetime is little indication of long term influence or an historical reputation. I understand that Shad wants us to take West’s critical success seriously and it should be a factor in whether we boycott his work or appearances. However, my reply to Shad is that anyone with any kind of historical knowledge of art, its successes or failures, would put little stock in sales or critiques when it comes to judging an artist’s work. Shad obviously thinks that Kanye West is a great musician, that’s fine, maybe he is, I don’t know. But I will let history make that judgment. But if Shad really wants us to embrace the work and performance of West he scores few points with me by failing to realistically deal with West’s place in a poison culture of personality cult, his sales as a performer, nor his success with the critics who often represent  a corporate culture of extreme wealth. On the other hand, if Shad wants to tell me why he actually thinks West is worth listening to, I am all ears.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Conservative Party of Canada . . . . (Really??)

Let me admit with complete honesty that the Conservative Party certainly didn't turn out quite like I thought it would. I am as far from Conservative as one can be I think but years of Conservative rule didn't play out like I imagined.

Some stuff that we all predicted obviously came true. We knew that they would be war-mongers, and they have been. We knew that they would destroy those areas of social spending that were meaningful to the vulnerable like, for example, the way they have completely eliminated all federal spending on things like adult literacy programs, and most programs for women who find themselves in a difficult legal or domestic situation. We figured that they would be terrible on the environmental front, though the scope of their destruction of environmental protections has even come as a surprise to many.

But here's the thing - even though I know that Conservative promises of "smaller" and less-intrusive government is almost always a lie (and has been since neo-liberalism began in the late seventies), I don't think many of us predicted the degree to which they would live that lie out in such momentous and obvious ways. If things play out like they seem to be going, this "Conservative" government will have never balanced a budget! I find it frankly just amazing that they can continually post deficits and add the largest amount of national debt of any government in Canadian history, and still call themselves conservative and have a significant amount of support from other Canadians who call themselves conservative. This government calling itself conservative is looking like the Chinese government calling itself 'communist.' Their strategy of gradually eliminating government revenue as a way of undermining government was entirely predictable (and a strategy that is difficult to recover from for subsequent governments) But I guess I was naive enough to think, with all their talk in the years before getting elected that the flip side of undermining government revenue would be a slash and burn strategy that would give them "balanced" budgets and at least the illusion of fiscal "responsibility." (Even though such strategy is, in the long run, deeply irresponsible for a modern society that needs active government not just to protect our social future but to protect our economic one as well) I was also naive enough to think that the Conservatives, after years of complaints concerning Liberal corruption, would create some new degree of transparency and responsibility in government. I knew that even these efforts would be somewhat illusory, but I thought they would at least make some sort of effort.

It is remarkable, but what we have now is a government that is bares little resemblance to Conservative. Yes, they have gutted every ounce of environmental protection that we had. Yes, they have shifted government from a body meant to protect and enrich society to one that protects and enriches corporations. But everything else is illusion. They are the most economically irresponsible government in our history. They not only posted eight straight deficits and put the country into a much deeper economic hole than it was before, but they did so while failing completely to invest in our social future. We are now a less diversified economy, no further ahead with alternative energies, our young people are under increasingly debilitating student debt while training for jobs that don't exist, our infrastructure is crumbling, and the future looks bleak. It is funny that the Conservatives always accuse the other parties of being "tax and spend" machines. But their strategy seems to be cut various taxes but still spend just as much, or more, than before!! Isn't that the very opposite of what most people associate with 'conservative?'  And to cap all this off they have made every effort at destroying the privacy of citizens and have created the most intrusive, police-state-like government in the Western world. All of this has been done against the backdrop of paranoiac secrecy, new levels of toxic partisanship, and consistent record of illegality in election fraud, (as well as a growing litany of other kinds of fraud).

I think that the Conservative Party realized something before they got elected. They realized that Canadians were actually becoming less conservative and that their real agenda wasn't going to sell for more than one election. They realized that the only way for Harper to govern and not get immediately turfed from office was to govern by stealth. They had to become a deeply secretive party because if people knew what they were doing they would never have gotten reelected let alone gotten a majority. They had to more or less shut down democracy because any real democracy would have exposed them as a a party that is anathema to Canadian values and dangerous to our future. This government is more than simply corrupt; they are trying to dismantle the very notion of a modern, democratic government that is responsible to our future as a nation. They have been trying to bankrupt the country and sell it to foreign corporate interests with trade deals that make the very idea of responsible government impossible. They are, in short, terrorists by their own definition.

All of this tells me that ANYONE who votes for this Conservative Party is either hopelessly misinformed or congenitally stupid, but certainly not even vaguely conservative.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Gradual Wake-Up

I believe that we are very slowly awakening from a terrible economic and political nightmare. That nightmare is neo-liberalism. For forty years now the global population has been fed a very simple lie by the rich and the powerful and this lie has allowed them to restructure the economy and society in disastrous ways. The lie, as I said, is frighteningly simple - lower taxes and decrease regulation and jobs and prosperity will flourish. This lie is remarkable in as much as it has never delivered on its promises - not even a little bit - and yet, like a cult, people continue to promote it and buy into it. Neo-liberalsim really is the emperor's new clothes of ideologies. Instead of leading to prosperity and good jobs, this strategy has led to radical increases in economic and political inequalities, a forty-year stagnation of real wages for most people in the West, and environmental disaster. Along with these problems there is the continuing irony that far from reducing the size of government, neo-liberal politicians consistently increase government size overall, as well as creating much greater powers for government agencies to invade our privacy and personal lives. The other, somewhat hidden, irony of neo-liberalism is that instead of promoting so-called 'free-markets,' neo-liberals have created a powerful underlying collusion between government and big capital, leading to a political and economic system that is much less accountable.

I say that we are waking up from this nightmare because there is, despite the continuing overall power of this ideology, a growing mistrust of the neo-liberal discourse. People are realizing that the emperor has no clothes and that the promises are going unfulfilled. Young people in particular are seeing the lie exposed. The millennials are realizing that the security and prosperity that their parents and grand-parents enjoyed is off the menu for them. Instead they are seeing lower wages, few longterm secure jobs, deteriorating social programs, little genuine safety-net, useless university degrees for which they are in debt for thousands, and a dwindling hope for home ownership. I believe that a significant reason that the millennials are seeing through the lie of neo-liberalism is that they decreasingly rely on the MSM for their news and information. I have seen in the last few years, the discourse of my kids and their friends become more and more distrustful of the blanket claims of government that low taxes are the panacea of economic problems. Perhaps this is because in the absence of good, secure jobs they are not attracted to the neo-liberal spin that lower taxes will improve their lives. If your wages are so low that even the elimination of all of you taxes is not going to make you prosperous, then selling you on lower taxes rather than better social programs will go no where.

The neo-liberal ideology is still very powerful - in large part because the MSM never stops selling it. Look at the situation in Greece. The MSM continue to operate on the assumption that the bailout money is meant to save the Greek economy at large, but what it is really intended for, pure and simple, is to bail out Greek banks who are over-leveraged with Euro (mostly German) collateral. Most of the Euro bailout will go straight back into the pockets of Northern European capitalist and bankers.

But, despite its strength, the neo-liberal ideology is weakening slowly and that weakening is gradually spreading a kind of low-level anxiety in the capitalist class. The smarter among them know that when the tipping point is reached, they will be in real trouble.

The supposed 'recession' in the Canadian economy is really just the tip of the iceberg. We are WAY past recessions. The kinds of economic measurements that economists use to measure such issue actually mean very little to the majority of people. We actually have structural unemployment and underemployment problems (most of this goes entirely unmeasured), radically growing instability, and an looming environmental disaster that promises to utterly destroy the economies and social fabrics of many countries. But cognitive dissonance of the millennial generation will gradually emerge as wholesale anxiety, and then into genuine rebellion against the ideological status quo. People like Harper will one day be seen as the criminal and evil force that he really is and the past forty years or so of economic mayhem will be seen as a dark period in our history.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Minimum Wage and the Laughable National Post. . .

The National Post Editorial of June 30th which argues that the performance of Rachel Notley in Alberta is a good reason not to vote for the NDP in October is a excellent performative demonstration of just how thin the arguments of the rightwing are when it comes to attacking the centre left. I only offer the link because it reminds me of how overwhelmingly weak the right's talking points have become and how dramatically the neo-liberal discourse has broken down. Let's put aside for the moment the fact that NDP governments actually have the best record of balancing budgets in Canada. Let's put aside too the fact the federal NDP has moved so far into the centre that they can't, by any significant standards, be called a "leftwing" party. The National Post editorial is so risible because, with nothing to grasp at but straws, the Post has staked its significant national resources on arguing that the effort to raise the minimum wage in Alberta is some kind of ominous move toward fiscal irresponsibility and (though they obviously don't use the word) socialism. Perhaps the most laughable part of the Post's argument is the hackneyed one that raising the minimum wage simultaneously raises unemployment (their beautiful, rightwing, journalistic phrase is "suppresses hiring.) The fact that this is simply straightforwardly false, does nothing to dissuade the Post from using an age old lie. Despite generations of effort on the part of rightwing ideologists to lie with statistics, there is not a single credible piece of evidence that a higher minimum wage drives overall unemployment. Nothing, nada, zilch, zippo…you get the picture. And, ironically, there is a growing body of evidence that raising the minimum wage has directly the opposite effect. However, as embarrassing as it is for a national newspaper to rest its argument against the NDP on this age old untruth, there is something more interesting for us here, and this is the claim that raising the minimum wage will do nothing to alleviate poverty. There is an important sense, though not at all the way the Post intends, that this is true. Raising minimum wage WILL, in fact, alleviate poverty, if we understand by that expression that it will make people's poverty a little less painful and difficult. A slightly higher wage might make it a little easier to make rent or allow a low-wage worker to eat a little bit healthier, but unfortunately it won't raise them out of poverty. The logic here is hardly complicated, and even the rationally-challenged National Post editors can understand it. If you raise the minimum wage from, say 12$ and hour to 15 or even 20, it is still a poverty wage. Thus, raising the minimum wage will do little to alleviate the numbers of people living in poverty. There can, however, be a knock-on effect, because if you have a family of two wage earners with one making a decent wage and the other at minimum wage, the small raise, may actually bring the family from just below the so-called poverty line to just above it.

Ironically, however, this is not the reason that the Post attacks the minimum wage. The Post doesn't really want to remind us that people are living in poverty and that raising the minimum wage won't address this problem, because any proposals for a rise in the minimum wage wouldn't be enough on their own to take workers out of a poverty level wage. In this sense the National Post is right for entirely the wrong reasons. The reason that raising the minimum wage won't solve the problem of poverty is not because raising the wage is a bad idea that will lead to an economic slowdown, but because minimum wage earners will still be living in poverty even after you raise their wages! Because of this basic fact, there is a second irony here; it is the fact that voting for a left of centre party like the NDP does nothing to threaten the basic structure of corporate power or the intentional maintenance of a low-wage labour pool. The ironically-challenged National Post editors don't get a very basic fact about capitalism, social-democratic efforts like those of the NDP are not meant to be a serious challenge to the capitalist economic system, rather they are meant to make that system a little more tolerable. When you think about this seriously it is quite hilarious because social democrats are much better for the long-term survival of the capitalist order than the rightwing. In the long run the rightwing agenda will increase poverty and inequality and thereby make it more unstable and will grow a basic dissatisfaction with the underlying economic relations. The social-democratic strategy will make the system more livable in the long run and people will be much less likely to rebel or challenge the economic relations.

Here's the thing that neither the editors of the Post nor much of the mainstream NDP supporters want to think about - the cause of poverty is, more than anything, about the overall inequality in an economy, and raising the minimum wage will only address that inequality in the most superficial sense. Even many poorer countries have enough overall resources to end poverty, the problem is that the resources are amassed in few hands. It really is as simple as that, despite what the National Post or rightwing economists want us to believe. If 95% of the wealth of a nation continues to be held by 5% (or even less) of the population, there will be ABSOLUTELY NO WAY to seriously alleviate poverty in that nation. If you lived in a family of five, say, with an income of 250 thousand dollars you would expect everyone in the family to be living well. However, if that wage was only earned by one of the family members and he or she lived in a huge mansion, eating caviar everyday, and he or she made the rest of the family live in a small concrete room in the basement eating Kraft Dinner, then the 250 thousand would make little difference to the other four members of the family. Here is the simple proscription - you have to share the money to ensure that everyone is living well!

The minimum wage is a very small effort to alleviate poverty and by itself it will do almost nothing. Contrary to what the National Post (and the rest of the rightwing) would have us believe, raising the minimum wage will do nothing to hurt an economy, but they are unintentionally correct in saying that such a move will do little to alleviate poverty. Much to the Post's chagrin, to actually address poverty we have to do a hell of a lot more than raise the minimum wage! We actually have to take a significant amount of wealth out of the hands of a few ultra-rich families and spread it though society if we actually want to alleviate poverty,

Here's the kicker - no political party has any kind of serious plan to do this.

Monday, June 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wait with bated breath.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Del Mastro and the Milgram Experiment. . .

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

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

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

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

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