Sunday, May 01, 2011
Tea Party Contradictions
One of the most fascinating examples of the absurdity of US politics has been the Tea Party movement. Populated largely by angry and frightened working class and middle class (white) Americans, the movement proves that contradictions are rarely a barrier to political action.
At the core of the problem is a series of demands by the Tea Party that have little to do with the interests of its members: less government regulation, lower taxes (especially for the upper class and corporations), and cutbacks to social programs like Medicare. These interests do coincide with the upper class and corporate sector, but not with Americans living from cheque to cheque, and from housing payment to housing payment.
It gets worse when you consider that deregulation and upper-class tax cuts are at the core of the economic meltdown in the United States. But the Tea Party is undaunted: the solution to our problems is to reintroduce the policies that caused the problems in the first place. This sounds like Santayana's definition of fanaticism.
Why isn't the Tea Party an angry mob of left-wing populists? Why aren't they demanding an end to monied interests and corporate lobbyists? Part of the answer is that the corporate and upper-class funding for the Tea Party has been partially hidden. Yet repeated, high-quality exposés of Tea party financiers like the Koch Brothers have started to shed light on the self-interest that compromises the rationale of the Tea Party. Nevertheless, the Tea Party continues on, revelling in its political power within the Republican Party and apparently oblivious to its corporate benefactors. I suppose part of the answer to the TP's self-cancelling populism can be found in an economic and political maelstrom that obliges its victims to seek an easy scapegoat; you go with what you know. And, in the United States, what they know are the centuries-old platitudes about the dangers of government and taxes, platitudes eagerly reinforced by Fox News.
Humour may be the best retort, as
exemplified by Barack
Obama's evisceration of Donald Trump. In response to the
contradictions of the Tea Party, two excellent American cartoonists, Cole
Bennett and Steve
Greenberg, have provided many biting political cartoons:
Saturday, February 05, 2011
Dogs, Children, Culling...
Don't get me wrong: I like dogs. But our society's love for dogs sometimes goes over the top. Is it because they are a substitute for the children we haven't had for decades? Or the children we will never have, period? Whatever it is, it seems wholly disproportionate to the other challenges we face, especially those faced by actual children.
Shelley Fralic's recent
op-ed on the Whistler sled dog controversy captures my thoughts
... there is something almost obscene about the reaction to this story, especially coming on the heels of some of the most disturbing news to have been released in this province in recent years: the report by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s representative for children and youth, who is the diligent canary in the coal mine for the many abused and neglected kids among us.
Turpel-Lafond has been sounding the alarm for years, but no one seems to be listening, because it never seems to get better for children at risk. Her latest report? Turpel-Lafond found that 21 children, between 2007 and 2009, died before the age of two in homes where the government's child-welfare system was aware of the "tremendous challenges" facing those families, including domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health issues.
Twenty-one babies. Dead. For no good reason, except our lack of care and caring. Where is the public outpouring? The public memorials? The letters and tweets and Facebook posts and on-air callers and letters to the editor demanding justice, demanding heads roll, demanding changes to the system?
Dead dogs? That gruesome news was enough to make Premier Gordon Campbell launch an investigation, as he did Wednesday, a taxpayer-funded panel that will examine how and why 100 sled dogs came to meet such a grisly fate.
But babies? We just let them die, with nary a whimper.
Sunday, January 30, 2011
A Discussion of George Grant
As I've mentioned before, I think TVO is one of the best broadcasters in Canada [I started watching it when I lived in Toronto during grad school] and I wish we had more of this sort of broadcasting on our local Knowledge Network station. A case in point is a recent panel discussion [see below] of George Grant on Steve Paikin's The Agenda. Grant was a Canadian philosopher best known for his Lament for a Nation. The occasion was the 45th anniversary of Lament.
Other than a few who were occasionally shilling for their candidates, the panelists seemed like a thoughtful and representative group from both the left and right, and from both academia and the media. The initial point about Grant's old Toryism being unrecognized today certainly resonates with my own experience. Even my sharper students are always surprised to hear about a Conservatism - Red Toryism - that appears to have no bearing on today's politics. Like most philosophies, one has to be careful of conservatism's historical character. It's sort of like talking about pre- and post-1991 Russia: one has to be mindful of Canadian conservatism before and after its seismic shift of the 60's and 70's. It also reminds me of the belief that Charles Dickens' Hard Times is a socialist critique of capitalist industrialization; it is, however, a very Tory lament for the sclerotisation of society during the Industrial Revolution.
I found it interesting that many of the panelists emphasized Grant's religious convictions. I remember distinctly, as an 18 year old just out of 1st year college, that when I first read Lament it felt a lot like Roberston Davies, whose novels I had started reading around the same time. I felt the old high Anglican, Loyalist spirit in both. But I was surprised by the notion, as some of the panelists contended, that Grant's religious convictions (as on abortion) would trump all else, and that Grant supported Brian Mulroney even with the latter's continentalism. In a recent discussion with Ron Dart, a noted George Grant specialist from UFV, Dart disputes this contention. According to Dart, Grant's concern with continentalism could not allow Grant to side with the newer "Blue Tories", and that Grant, in fact, supported John Turner's (belated) economic nationalism.
One thing I never found convincing about Grant's thesis was his equation of technology with liberal American capitalism, and I agreed with the point in the panel discussion that technology shows its alienating effects in a number of different socio-economic melieus. I guess it has something to do with coming of political age in the early 1980's, when the scary post-war, liberal bureaucratic machine had become a punch line for the neo-conservative counter-revolution. As with Daniel Bell's "end of ideology" thesis, the threat of liberal bureaucracy, and the technological empire it apparently constructed, seemed - dare I say - obsolete. I'm more appreciative of the issue now, to be sure, but it wasn't my lament back in the 80's.
In any case, the Red Tory doctrine is a fascinating part of Canada's philosophical tradition, and has tremendous impact on other traditions, like Canadian socialism. It's also affected Canadian politicians, including R.B. Bennett, John Diefenbaker and Joe Clark. It is an important aspect of our Canadian political heritage, and deserves our attention.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Contrary to Sir Ken
Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA presentation on “Changing Education Paradigms” (see below) is a well-meaning critique of the "factory model" of education. Nevertheless, I think his alternative is much more flawed than the system he attacks.
At the core of Robinson’s argument is a familiar counter-Enlightenment, romantic critique of modern education. In a bid to standardize and routinize the process of learning, schools apparently suppress the authentic feelings and curiosity of children. Routinized learning (as well as its modern ally, Ritalin) anaesthetizes young people, blocking them from feeling “fully alive”. Furthermore, modern schools are a simulacrum of the factory model: a bell system, specialization and age cohorts. In the end, there’s not much difference between Robinson’s speech and Rousseau’s Émile, or On Education (1762): society corrupts the natural self, a self that – given a natural state - would wander, wonder and feel without reference to common industrial standards.
So if Robinson’s argument is not particularly novel, and refers to an enduring point of view, why then has it never been put into effect in a long-term, large-scale manner? Why have we never seen a romantic view of education implemented by a majority of school boards in the Western world? [Otherwise, the romantic critique would not persist!]
I would contend that romanticism is a noble but ultimately futile basis for mass education. I share its yearning for individual authenticity and respect for sentiment. However, I’m suspicious of a worldview that has never established itself as a viable alternative to the perspective it attacks. Of course, there are some movements like the Montessori schools and small, elite academies that emphasize experiential or “relevant” education. But these are usually focused on narrow age groups and small education communities characterized by high costs and/or disproportionately motivated participants. Like anarchism, romanticism does not appear practical for large and complex industrial societies. In other words, after so many education reform movements inspired by the romantic call to action, it hasn’t withstood the practical test of time. Across so many countries, so many communities and so much time, isn’t it likely that the one constant – the romantic critique itself – has serious flaws?
Friday, December 24, 2010
Gabor Maté: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
One of my favourite books of 2010 is Dr. Gabor Maté's In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
The following is a series of interviews with Maté, a Vancouver doctor who treats drug addicts in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver. The interviews are conducted by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now:
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Notes from Michael Oakeshott's "Political Education"
One of the most thoughtful and engaging conservative philosophers of the 20th century is Michael Oakeshott. I'm re-reading some of the essays from his famous work Rationalism in Politics. Here are my quote notes on the first essay I've read:
Oakeshott, Michael. “Political Education," Rationalism in Politics and other essays, Expanded Edition (Liberty Press, Indianapolis), 1991.
[C]onsider Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and in France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript. And its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. (p. 53)
Freedom, like a recipe for game pie, is not a bright idea; it is not a ‘human right’ to be deduced from some speculative concept of human nature. The freedom which we enjoy is nothing more than arrangements, procedures of a certain kind: the freedom of an Englishman is not something exemplified in the procedure of habeas corpus, it is, at that point, the availability of that procedure. And the freedom which we wish to enjoy is not an ‘ideal’ which we premeditate independently of our political experience, it is what is already intimated in that experience. (p. 54)
[A]n ideology is an abbreviation of some manner of concrete activity. (p. 54)
On ideological politics: The complexities of the tradition which have been squeezed out in the process of abridgment are taken to be unimportant: the ‘rights of man’ are understood to exist insulated from a manner of attending to arrangements. And because, in practice, the abridgment is never by itself a sufficient guide, we are encouraged to fill it out, not with our suspect political experience, but with experience drawn from other (often irrelevant) concretely understood activities, such as war, the conduct of industry, or Trade Union negotiation. (p. 56)
The only cogent reason to be advanced for the technical ‘enfranchisement’ of women was that in all or most other important respects they had already been enfranchised. Arguments drawn from abstract natural right, from ‘justice,’ or from some general concept of feminine personality, must be regarded as either irrelevant, or as unfortunately disguised forms of the one valid argument; namely, that there was an incoherence in the arrangements of the society which pressed convincingly for remedy. (p 57)
[T]he abridgment itself never, in fact, provides the whole of the knowledge used in political activity. [p. 58]
Everything is temporary. Nevertheless, though a tradition of behaviour is flimsy and elusive, it is not without identity, and what makes it a possible object of knowledge is the fact that all its parts do not change at the same time and that the changes it undergoes are potential within it. Its principle is a principle of continuity: authority is diffused between past, present, and future; between the old, the new, and what is to come. It is steady because, though it moves, it is never wholly in motion; and though it is tranquil, it is never wholly at rest. (p. 61)
In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion. (p. 61)
Everything is temporary, but nothing is arbitrary. (p. 62)
Though the [political] knowledge we seek is municipal, not universal, there is no shortcut to it. Moreover, political education is not merely a matter of coming to understand a tradition, it is learning how to participate in a conversation: it is at once initiation into an inheritance in which we have a life interest, and the exploration of its intimations. (p. 62)
Political philosophy cannot be expected to increase our ability to be successful in political activity. It will not help us to distinguish between good and bad political projects; it has no power to guide or to direct us in the enterprise of pursuing the intimations of our tradition… we may hope only to be less often cheated by ambiguous statement and irrelevant argument…. The more thoroughly we understand our own political tradition, the more readily its whole resources are available to us, the less likely we shall be to embrace the illusions which wait for the ignorant and the unwary: the illusion that in politics we can get on without a tradition of behaviour, the illusion that the abridgment of a tradition is itself a sufficient guide, and the illusion that in politics there is anywhere a safe harbour, a destination to be reached or even a detectable strand of progress. (pp. 65-66)
Friday, July 23, 2010
A.J. Polan: Lenin and the End of Politics
One of the more stimulating and thoughtful examples of progressive “left wing” pluralism is A.J. Polan’s Lenin & the End of Politics*. Polan’s book is not merely an attack on the political and historical outcomes of Bolshevism; it’s an attack on the very logic that underlies Lenin’s most democratic and emancipatory analysis of the state, The State and Revolution. The central assumptions that ground this text, Polan argues, form a fundamentally “causal” element (p. 129) in the creation of the totalitarian Soviet state. In other words, Polan takes issue with Lenin’s “best possible case” (p. 58), one where Lenin temporarily veers away from his vanguardist theories and discusses the possibility of a society run by local workers’ councils, or soviets.
At the core of Polan’s critique is an epistemological belief in the limitation of human understanding, which in turn leads to a view of politics as, at least in terms of values, irreducibly pluralistic:
“The political realm has to deal with questions to which no answers have so far been found that have the status of absolute truth and can command the assent of an entire populace. Politics, therefore, is fundamentally the contest of conflicting value orientations. The answers to these fundamental issues can never be derived and formulated in the language of rationality and calculability that is the proud possession of the [bureaucratic] administrators” (p. 105).
Buttressing Polan’s analysis is his belief in the historically specific Western consciousness, a consciousness that – following Sartre – is self-aware yet chaotic. In the language of post-modern thought, subjectivity is both the product of and scourge to regularized power. The modern individual is a matter of possibility “produced by ‘conscience’, the possibility of choice. This is the ambiguous burden which the world of modernity inscribes in the heart of the human soul” (p. 213).
According to Polan, Lenin rejects such a view and invokes the Marxist equivalent of Rousseau’s general will (p. 73). The antinomies of Kant’s modern Man are reduced to a single Identity (p. 136 ff.). From the vantage point of the working class (and the Party), Lenin is incapable of viewing dissent or difference as anything but error. And since the Bolsheviks know the irrefutable truth, Lenin (and not just Stalin) is incapable of tolerating politics. To Lenin,
“[p]olitics is private self-interest made public. Thus Lenin’s first move is to abolish any possible distance between the gross economic position of an individual and his motivations; to abolish any space for ‘values’, and consequently, disagreement over values” (p. 175).
Lenin does what politicians of any age have done to their opponents: label their views as merely self-interested, and without principle or merit. But going beyond Western practice (at least until Fox News), Lenin’s opponents are “delegitimized a priori” (p. 174). Enforced by the Cheka and the Red Army, Lenin moves quickly to quash any possible opposition from the outside (liberals and Socialist Revolutionaries) and from within (the “Leftists” and the “labour aristocracy”). Opposition, in other words, is liquidated rather than regularized in parliamentary institutions. In Lenin’s view, why regularize falsehoods?
In the end, the key lesson I take from Polan’s book is that your view of truth has a critically important impact on your political theory, and it must be a consideration during any point of research, analysis and reconstruction. Alongside a view of human nature, a theory of knowledge is a necessary foundation for how you interpret the nature of political life, and formulate essential concepts like politics, autonomy and power.
* Polan, A.J.. Lenin & the End of Politics. Oakland: U. of California Press, 1984.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
David Harvey: Getting to the Heart of the Matter
For all of the discussion about the causes of the latest economic meltdown, it's mystified me why inequality has been largely ignored.
The blame is almost always laid at the feet of proximate factors like negative savings rates, ponzi-like housing bubbles, exotic debt instruments, deregulation and a neo-liberal faith in the corrective nature of unbridled capitalism. But none of these explanations really get to the heart of why the crisis occurred. These explanations aren't irrelevant, to be sure, but they seem to be intermediate factors at best, factors which themselves are the consequences of deeper and longer-term problems. Just like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was merely the spark that ignited a host of issues that built up before 1914, this current economic downturn has longer and more serious causal antecedents.
To me, the key issue is inequality. I don't mean inequality in moral terms, which is often how it is cast. I mean inequality in terms of a functional problem for capitalism. In economies where consumer spending predominates (the USA, 67% of GDP; in Canada, 56%), the prime concern is getting money (back) into the hands of those who will immediately reintroduce it into our communities. Spending is the life-blood of our western economies. Without a doubt, saving and investment are important for long-term growth, but consumption is the key to economic circulation and moving savings to investment. Yet this has been a problem since the 1970's, when real income and wealth, adjusted for inflation, started to stagnate or decline for all but the richest quintile of North American citizens.
In this context, policies and programs designed to encourage people to spend have had to encourage debt, because the money isn't otherwise there. Debt, in other words, is the inevitable by-product of pro-consumption policies that ignore systemic inequality. This is where David Harvey comes in. His analysis is unabashedly Marxian, but, to the extent that his explanation strives to uncover the root issues, it's clear that such an analysis can't be ignored. Of course, I'm not really mystified why we are silent with regard to inequality. Once you admit that inequality is a central explanation, then a Marxian analysis is almost unavoidable. And capitalists and capitalist societies simply don't want to open that debate. (Well, not always.)
The following is a succinct and visually
arresting summary of David Harvey's argument:
Monday, July 12, 2010
America's Housing Crisis - A Moral Dilemma?
The following video from 60 Minutes is a sobering look at America's continuing housing crisis.
It's also an interesting discussion of a central contradiction in capitalism. On one hand, business people and corporate entities often make bloody-minded decisions that leave individuals jobless and homeless. As "rational actors" pursuing "the bottom line", these capitalists are rarely condemned by our elites. Indeed, their "tough minded" decisions are often lauded as good business. On the other hand, the very same economic decisions by individual citizens and unions are almost always assessed (and condemned) in moral terms, terms which North Americans have historically internalized against their own interests.
Yet it now appears that this ideological
double-standard is being exposed by the mortgage problems faced by
millions of Americans. As a result, we can catch a glimpse of the
political underpinnings inherent in the supposedly amoral world of
Monday, May 24, 2010
Reading Wolin, Part 3: Not-So-Political Philosophy in the Age of Empire
Let us return to Sheldon Wolin. In this entry, I want to briefly discuss the third chapter of Wolin's Politics and Vision*. His key point is that political philosophy takes a sharp turn after the classic Greek city-states succumb to the Macedonian Empire. This philosophical shift continues and intensifies as the Roman Republic turns into the Roman Empire.
The nature of the change is directly related to the change of the dominant political unit. Gone is the time of a relatively compact and homogeneous polis; it is replaced by a sprawling, heterogeneous empire. Unlike the polis, an empire is marked by complexity, class and regional interests, and a massive enlargement of political space. Also unlike the polis, where citizens are engaged in direct and meaningful dialogue regarding the affairs of their city, in an empire the average citizen is subordinated to an autocratic ruler and his bureaucracy. In other words, where "loyalty had earlier come from a sense of common involvement, it [is] now to be centered in a common reverence for power personified" (p. 69).
This has two effects on the analysis of politics. First, political philosophy retreats from its political obligations, and ultimately becomes a form of "vapid moralism" (p. 85). Though some Greek thinkers of the Macedonian period, like Isocrates, are explicitly political (and urge a form of federalism to transcend Greek particularism), the philosophers after Plato and Aristotle are by and large those who reject an "intensive participation in a life of common concerns" (p. 69). This turn away from active citizenship is a natural effect of a distant, imperial hierarchy, and the Good is now defined - contrary to Pericles, Plato and Aristotle - as "political disengagement" (p. 71). Both the Cynics and the Epicureans are dominated by "strong elements of despair and withdrawal" that are "nourished by an anti-political impulse" (ibid) similar to modern libertarianism. The dominant philosophy of the Roman era, Stoicism, is well-known for its appeal to a universal rationality that binds nature and rational beings into a brotherhood of equality and freedom. So far, so good. But for Wolin, Stoicism shares the disillusionment of imperial politics with the Cynics and Epicureans: "its philosophic outlook [is] not derived from a positive view concerning the nature of a truly political order, but from a conclusion about its insufficiency" (p. 73). The Stoics are committed to moral development that lies outside politics since the "bureaucratized and highly impersonal public life of the Empire [has] only the slenderest ties with man's potentiality for moral development" (p. 75). Moreover, the naturalism of Stoicism displaces any notion of social conflict with a "quasi-religious" (p. 84) desire for harmony, and men are "exhorted to extend their allegiance to the cosmos as though it were a true society" (p. 74). The best that can be said for Stoicism is that it becomes, under the Roman Empire, a useful "code of conduct for public magistrates and administrators" (ibid).
The second major effect of Empire on political analysis is that it's soon dominated by historians and politicians (e.g. Polybius and Cicero). Their analyses are a study of technique, compromise and pragmatism. They also focus on the role of institutions, largely because institutions and their procedures help rulers wrestle with complexity. No longer do philosophers venerate a participatory politics that uplifts the soul; in the Roman era, students of politics seek - as we might say in Canada - peace, order and good governance. Interestingly, Wolin seems somewhat sympathetic to this trend. While Polybius and Cicero might be overly optimistic when they view politics as a balance of power, they are "basically correct in drawing attention to the fundamental importance of institutions in legitimizing conflict among diverse forces and interests" (p. 76).
Some interesting themes emerge from Wolin's analysis. His concern for the unsettled world of every-day politics persists. However, he is not content with the simple interest-based politics of Cicero. Wolin is fearful of those periods "when politics is reduced to nothing but the pursuits of interests, when no controlling standards of obligation are recognized" (p. 81). And indeed, in the Roman experience, mistrust of principle as merely the lexiconic mask of naked interest helps lead to the collapse of the Republic. From this Wolin concludes that society "cannot long endure uncontrolled political conflict, and the inevitable reaction is to demand peace at any price" (p. 82). Somewhere, amid the rancour of factional struggle, we must find values and principles that we can all agree to, and which we obey even when our "particular interests or ambitions are not always being served" (p. 80).
The struggle between unity and difference rears its head again.
* Wolin, Sheldon. Politics and Vision,
Expanded Edition (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 2004.