Wednesday, January 30, 2008
My recent semi-satirical look at Stephen Harper's oddly disturbing narcissism, and an earlier reflection upon leadership and media constructs, have prompted some interesting and sometimes strong reactions. It occurs to me that the issue of character in our politicians (and other public figures whose status is dependent upon a stable following) needs some further discussion.
There are really two questions here: 1) Do leaders require a certain character, in its broadest sense, to lead, and 2) why does the public perception of character diverge, in some cases radically, from the actual characters of those who gain and hold their trust as leaders?
The five representations of leadership seen above (I thought Stalin would be a suitably agreed-upon figure so that our debate doesn't dissolve into partisanship at the outset) are far from the only leadership-signs that are current. They are so common, however, that almost any person we determine to be a "leader" will have them in his or her repertoire. Half an hour on a Sunday morning watching televangelists should suffice to establish that.
In the first case, Stalin is gesturing to you, to make a point directly. In the second, by pointing upwards, he is evoking something "higher"--a principle, a cause, situated where "God" once was. Note than in the third picture we have a further idealization of the already idealized pose struck in the second, this time with a map of the USSR behind him, and close by, but beneath his heroic presence, the admiring "people." He is literally on a higher plane, pointing to still higher stages for the benefit of the masses. The fourth picture is Stalin the contemplator, all-wise, all-knowing, bathed in golden light.
The fifth is Stalin as welcoming, almost your equal, but separated from you by a desk upon which lie a book and some papers. Taking a break from the cares of office, his heroic labours as the Redeemer of the Masses, he almost seems to be asking you in for a drink. There is an ironic tension in all such representations, because the audience knows that these are not just plain folks: such gestures, in fact, have a dangerous feeling to them. Should we have that drink? How could we refuse? (At least Stephen Harper, in his too-tight leather vest, had the grace to look uncomfortable. It wasn't the vest, either: it was his unease at pretending to be what he doesn't really believe he is--an ordinary person.)
Now, these gestures and representations are not universal, but they are fairly commonplace in a number of different countries, performed by dictators and liberal democrats alike. They are gestures that we associate with a leader. Leaders lead. They point the way, they make a point, they want you to get the point.
When leaders fail to make the grand gestures, appear puzzled instead of contemplative, are hesitant in making their declarations, tentative in their pronouncements, cooperative instead of commanding, we are encouraged to think of them as weak. In Canada, the media chew them up. There is only one way to be a leader, and, whether we like to admit it or not, that way is merely exaggerated in the case of a dictator, but not fundamentally distinct from the prevalent view right here in Canada of what a leader should be.
We are hypnotized, in fact, by the aura and gestures of the leader. It's little wonder that the Dear Leader (and I refer here to Kim Jong-il) has adopted the same repertoire: the styles and images of the First World pervade the nation-states of the Third World, as they once did in the Second.
Countless leaders of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have "anxiously conjure[d] up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language," and leaders like Kim have, additionally, taken all of that from a history other than their own, for reasons beyond the scope of this post.
In any case we know that this kind of leadership is performance, because some (e.g., Kim again, Benito Mussolini, the current Fijian strongman Frank Bainimarama) are or have been so comically bad at it. And we know that leaders as distinct as Adolf Hitler and Pierre Elliott Trudeau choreographed their words and gestures down to the minutest detail before venturing out to be spontaneous. But there is more to it.
Just as leadership is reduced to gestures, and leaders lurk within the machines their bodies have become, like the man behind the curtain, so too they are imprinted with certain values and standards imposed as an obligation of their office. They must not appear merely human--when called upon to be so as a form of accountability, there must be, as already noted, a certain tension: their performance at such junctures is revealed for precisely what it is. They must stumble when called upon to play the role of the ordinary person, they must not quite fit, precisely because they are expected to transcend all imperfections.
This is where character becomes central, although more so in liberal democratic states where it is permitted to matter. We divorce the actual requirements of leadership--sound judgment, the ability to work with others, administrative skills, vision, consistency, and above all the ability to communicate--from the image of leadership.
The question of character probably reached its nadir with the Clinton-Lewinsky farce, in which a President came close to being impeached because an employee had prevailed upon him over a period of months to allow her to perform fellatio on him--and he then lied about it. (His opponents so overplayed their hand that his approval ratings actually soared to 70% during his impeachment trial before the US Senate, but the whole extraordinary spectacle, capturing the time, energy and attention of almost the entire population, was nothing less than farcical. It was, after all, just a blowjob.)
Why, then, do we insist upon applying such an inflexible double standard to leaders? Do we want them to be better than we are? Do we want them to incarnate values to which we only imperfectly adhere? Might the modern notion of leadership derive in some small part from the loss of the authority of God--this being a replica of that authority, quietly carrying with it a notion of perfection?
Michel Foucault, in some lectures delivered in the late 1970s, indeed located the roots of the modern concept of government in the preceding centuries of the Christian pastorate. The notion of the beneficent shepherd was, in a complex trajectory, transposed onto the notion of governance. Small wonder, if this is the case, that the virtue of the leader is perceived as something more encompassing that his or her office actually requires.
This is not to say that we see our leaders as necessarily perfect, of course (although there is an unsettling convergence of the divine and the earthly in the public image of Kim Jong-il), only that the reaction is so utterly disproportionate when imperfections are discovered.
But only some imperfections. I'm not referring to those that might actually affect the ability of a leader to carry out the daily, routine tasks of leadership, nor to flaws that are so egregious that we would deny high status to a person with them regardless of their talents. A leader whose bullying approach produces only a team of fearful yes-persons, for example, will make a poor political administrator, and the people will suffer the consequences (although such an approach may well be spun as "decisiveness," or "toughness," or "directness"). A convicted child molester, however capable, cannot fulfill a leadership role. But there is a lot in between that really shouldn't be a serious consideration, but which can produce cataclysmic political consequences as we have seen.
As I noted in my earlier piece on Dion, we need to deconstruct the entire notion of leader, and to look at other models. We are not assisted in this respect by the media, and we are hindered by ancient and powerful cultural preconceptions. Reflection is no easy task in such circumstances. But in the meantime--does character matter?
I have been suggesting that it does, but only insofar as it affects the ability of a leader to do the job. Here, however, we encounter a difficulty, because an essential part of that job is, of course, to be an effective public figure. If one can lose popular support over a peccadillo, then one's effectiveness is clearly hobbled. But I would nevertheless try to make a distinction here.
On the one hand, we have matters of personal character that should, and I emphasize "should," have nothing to do with the job. But they do, for all of the reasons I have outlined. Let us put these matters in parentheses for the moment: they have force and effect when they should have none, but that's a different argument.
There are other flaws and inadequacies, however, that clearly threaten the effectiveness of a person to perform leadership functions. I would argue that the latter are appropriate grist for the political mill. We should not entrust high public office in Canada, for example, to a person diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia, or to a thief, or to someone who speaks only Greek, or to an illiterate, or to an assassin.
In a grayer area, I would argue that petulance, narcissism, arbitrary misuses of power and the like, can make for grave ineffectiveness in a leader, quite apart from any moral concerns one might have. All of these flaws can be observed in dictators (where effectiveness other than in maintaining rule doesn't matter so much), and indeed may serve to perpetuate them in office. And, if allowed to become operational, they weaken democratic, cooperative processes in liberal democratic regimes; think, for example, of the Nixon presidency.
While we need to develop radically different ideas of leadership that depart from the dominant image with which I have been dealing, all can agree, I think, that the core democratic skills required by either a current leader or a new kind of leader are pretty much the same--other than maintaining the public persona to which the former is expected to conform. (I am setting aside the possibility of abolishing the notion of "leader" altogether; that's yet another discussion.) The flaws just enumerated are not simply a matter of public image: even if they don't lead to dictatorship, they impede the functioning of democracy.
It is precisely that sort of thing that legitimately makes the electorate uneasy. What people do in private, from consensual sex to talking with ghosts, is their own business, and even if revealed should ideally play no role in the political sphere unless the latter has been materially affected by it.
Personality defects that override sound democratic decision-making, however, that lead to government by whim and by mood, that flout the rule of law, are fair game in the public arena. Sometimes we should pay attention to that man behind the curtain. But on the other hand, as we make our political judgments and choices, we must have more than the current stylized, false images of leadership to guide us.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Big h/t to CC for this one, but I felt a need to comment. Dear Leader, eh? This is, all kidding aside, bordering on the abnormal:
Photographs of Mr. Harper in various poses, at various sites, are hung throughout the private and cosy government lobby of the House of Commons.
"When you walk in the door, all you see are pictures of Stephen Harper," said [Green Party leader Elizabeth] May.
"I'd say between every window, in every available space of the wall, at eye level, every available space has a photo of Stephen Harper."
"You've got photos of Stephen Harper, but not of previous prime ministers," she added. "Photos of Stephen Harper in different costumes, in different settings, dressed as a fireman, in Hudson Bay looking for polar bears, meeting the Dalai Lama, even the portrait of the Queen had to have Stephen Harper, but in a candid, behind her."---
A press aide to Mr. Harper said he would get back with an explanation, but didn't.
The exposition might not be too surprising, though.The prime minister's official Christmas card last December portrayed Mr. Harper looking out a living room window adorned with 24 photographs, small to large, of Mr. Harper in various poses.
One Conservative said the Harper photos have been up for at least three months.
Another, Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai, was a bit reluctant after question period to talk about the exhibit, possibly because another Tory, Secretary of State Jason Kenney, happened to be walking by just at that moment.
And then the money quote:
"Well, this is the Harper government," said Mr. Obhrai.
Indeed it is.
Oh, and they have "a tendency to 'go ad hominem'."
Monday, January 28, 2008
The seemingly endless abortion debate has been framed for far too long as one between those who are "pro-choice" (formerly "pro-abortion") and those who are "pro-life" (formerly "anti-abortion"). Some quick unpacking before I proceed.
"Pro-life" is a disingenuous purr-word that upholds life against those who are...what? "Pro-death?" You mean like supporters of the death penalty? Whoops, most of them are "pro-life." See the problem here?
"Pro-abortion" is what we supporters of reproductive freedom used to be called by the media and, of course, by the "pro-life" folks, who were called "anti-abortion" much of the time by those same media. You've got a "pro," you've got an "anti." Simple.
And wrong. No woman I have ever met supports abortion per se, as a good in itself. Those who have decided to have one don't propose that everyone should do so. State policy that mandates abortion (as in China, with its one-child policy) might arguably be called "pro-abortion," but not the feminist/pro-feminist position. Years ago I played an active role as a member of the board of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League in persuading the media to call our position "pro-choice" instead. It was by far the most accurate one-word definition of where we stood, if one word can ever sum up such a thing. And "choice," of course, like "life," is a purr-word as well.
But I'm not so sure, any longer, that the term really works. It was always shorthand, for "supportive of a woman's right to choose between abortion or continuing her pregnancy." In the political arena, of course, where complex issues are necessarily reduced to phrases that are conducive to forming up sides and fighting the battles, the term still has considerable force, and I'd be loath to abandon the rhetorical beachhead that we established three decades ago. Yet abortion isn't really about the liberal notion of free individual choice. It's about something much more fundamental: the notion of gender.
I purposely posted the photograph that accompanies this article because it is likely to provoke a number of deep reactions. What a thing to put up on a progressive blog! What was I thinking?
All right, what does this image convey? It's an icon of woman-as-mother. That's the ideal role assigned to her by the Church and allegedly by God, a role historically enforced and reinforced by a confusing cluster of gender prejudices, institutions and an over-all structure of unequal power-relations that we call the patriarchy. The picture evokes feelings of love and tenderness. But it can also evoke outrage, not over the content per se, but because of the way it is deliberately deployed. It is made to stand for an immutable, pre-ordained essence. It reifies Woman, and objectifies her every bit as much as visual pornography does. It is propaganda, in other words, and like all effective propaganda it anchors itself in the emotions.
Now, consider for a moment the various continuing initiatives and projects grouped together under the term "feminism." Feminism at its best represents a radical break from ascribed roles based upon gender, and the creation of new frames in which women, like men, become the makers of their own daily histories, social beings who define their own roles as active participants in a democratic and egalitarian society. If one dares to dream (and I do), the eventual outcome should be nothing less than the destruction of the very frame of gender. We already recognize the slippery character of "race," after all, at least those of us in progressive ranks; so what about gender, then?
But let's get back to the here-and-now. The pronatalist image of woman-as-mother is enormously powerful. We refer to "motherhood issues," those that require no debate because the positive side is obvious. And what images does the metaphor "motherland" conjure up? Motherhood in the abstract is presented as an unqualified good. It is, dare I say it, a fetish. And every young woman, even today, is seen as a mother or as a potential mother.
Let me note that there is obviously nothing wrong with parental nurturance--that's an unqualified good, if you like--and both men and women have enormous capacity to participate in creating a loving and positive environment for children. But everyone knows that at present the responsibility for this is still heavily weighted towards women. It's their role. Mary gave birth to the son of God, after all. (Women might have done better emulating her previous incarnation as the huntress Diana, but I digress.)
How, then, is abortion situated within the conflict over gender roles that has been foregrounded for most of the past half-century? I suggest that the fierce opposition to reproductive freedom (first expressed as opposition to contraception, which only became legal in Canada in 1968, and then to abortion as the latter emerged from its underground nightmare of coat-hangers, seedy exploiters, sepsis and death) really comes down to a defence of the traditional role of motherhood. The opposition is not grounded in fetus-fetishism, but in anti-feminism. Abortion resonates as the binary opposite of fetishized "motherhood" as expressed in the image above. Hence this is where a fierce battle continues to rage: abortion is an on-going site of struggle between feminists and their opponents.
I am not arguing, of course, that all of the so-called "right-to-lifers" see things this way and are deliberately prevaricating. They have indeed made the fetus itself their battleground. But it has long been observed that their undoubtedly genuine Angst is very precisely situated, in time and space. Concern for the "unborn child" tends to evaporate after live birth, despite the attempts of some to appear consistent. Child poverty, and the increased mortality rates that follow from it, are simply not an issue for the right-to-life crowd. And there are odd consistencies as well: anti-abortion activists, as even a cursory glance at their websites reveals, are also affronted by same-sex marriage. If you step back for a moment and try to work out the connection between fetuses and homosexuality, the underlying pronatalist bent of the "right-to-life" crowd becomes immediately obvious. Ditto the opposition to contraception, which is less regularly explicit now, but is always lurking in the background.
As Susan Faludi documented a few years ago in her book, Backlash, legal interference with pregnant women is not always confined to abortion. They have been apprehended for being seen in a bar, for allegedly not eating nutritious food, and for attempting to leave their place of residence (allegedly to seek an abortion). Each of these incidents, however uncommon, is a wake-up call about the current state of gender relations, just as Marc Lepine's murderous rampage was.
In the end, it's not about choice, or at least not just about choice. Indeed, the notion of choice in this context is somewhat of a mystification. It is usually presented as a legal construct, an instance of the principle of individual rights. But whether a woman seeks abortion against her own wishes because she cannot afford a child, or whether a woman is forced to deliver a child because the doctors in her region refuse to perform abortions, her choices are limited, even where no law exists as is the case now. There is a far wider context of unequal gender and class relations that law and many of the debates over "the right to choose" simply fail to address.
While we obviously cannot tolerate any move to make abortion illegal once again--and there is no reason whatsoever these days to let our guard down in that respect--we can't afford merely to join battle with the anti-abortionists on their own ground, implicitly assenting to the artificial isolation of the "abortion issue" from its context and finding ourselves discussing legality, viability, whether or not a woman has a "right to choose," the metaphysics of personhood, and so on ad nauseam. This is all frankly diversionary. We need to go well beyond and above all that, working together to create a society in which our collective potential can be fully realized, and in which narrow, legalistic, bourgeois notions of "choice" have given way to nothing less than the abolition of unequal social relations, or, in a word--liberation.
R. v. Morgentaler was not just a gain that we must defend. It was a turning point--law was used against itself, resulting in the removal of abortion from the realm of law altogether. It was, after all, assumed by the Supreme Court that a new law would swiftly move in to take the place of the old one. Broad hints to that effect were dropped in the judgement. Indeed, the attempt was made to pass a new law, and it was only defeated by a fluke, in a tied Senate vote. Twenty years later, there is no law in place. The state has effectively been removed from jurisdiction.
So the matter is, in a sense, in our own hands now, where it should be (the word "our" referring to civil society). But the practical problem of access continues. More generally, unresolved ethical questions around reproductive issues have become even more salient as technology develops, and there are some real debates to be had in this area in any case* (but don't go wasting your time on Margaret Somerville and her ludicrous misreading of Stephen Pinker). Gender oppression flourishes at the family level and beyond--for not all coercion, by any means, is exercised by the state.
The struggle over abortion, as indicated, stands as a metonym for unequal gender relations. Our victory was a major step in coming to grips with that structure of inequality, even if on-the-ground organizing played far less of a role than successful lawyering. The state, however, and the unequal relations that it mediates and reinforces, remain. We had one big, arguably lucky, win, and it's one well worth celebrating. But an incalculably huge, uncompleted project lies ahead of us; and new movements and ideologies will arise along the way to confront us. There's still a long way to go, baby, and there will be well after the "pro-life" cult and its spasmodic reaction against feminism are, like witchburning, a distant, unpleasant memory.
UPDATE: (January 29) Our victory was a major step in coming to grips with that structure of inequality, even if on-the-ground organizing played far less of a role than successful lawyering.
There is some excellent rebuttal on that point here and here, and the context is here. I had not intended to suggest that the struggle over access to abortion was anything less than enormously productive. I was referring to a narrower question: having S.251 tossed out by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms rather than, say, getting it repealed, or turning it into a dead letter. (In Quebec, with the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976, the latter is precisely what happened: the new government declared that it would not enforce the law. Years of militancy and consciousness-raising had paid off.)
*Bona fide socioethical issues that progressives cannot avoid include fetal sex-selection, for example, and practices such as heavy drinking or drug use that lead directly to the birth of damaged children whose subsequent lives are diminished through what might be termed pro-active violence. And what of deliberately creating children with disabilities? Since legal control over pregnant women must be uncompromisingly resisted, what positions should progressives take in such cases? What social solutions should we advance?
Saturday, January 26, 2008
I tried to source this thing, and--guess what--it's an utter fabrication, but it's going to have a hell of a run by the looks of it. The word, really two words, originated with Warren Kinsella, and here is the context. (We pedants do love us some context.*)
(They wanted me to apologize to Steyn, too, for disapproving of the fact that Steyn called Chinese people "chinks" and Japanese people "japs." Shortly after I told the Citizen's editor-in-chief I wouldn't apologize for telling the truth, my column was canned. Free speechers, unite! Defend Warren, now!)
Mike Brock glommed onto this, pushed two words together, and wrote what I consider to be a frankly dishonest post on the matter. The word "freespeecher," he claims, is the latest left-wing insult, revealing for all to see that we stand opposed to freedom of speech. But it doesn't take more than a quick reading of Kinsella's post to see that he is merely suggesting a certain inconsistency on the part of conservatives who have been mounting (in both senses, I fear) the free speech podium of late to defend Ezra Levant. A commenter at Mike's place nailed it. (And I do note, by the way, that Kinsella's challenge, even if issued rather late, has not yet been taken up.)
Well, if it appears at Brock's place it must be so, so it took a very short time indeed for the claim to be posted uncritically by the usual suspects, some of whom were likely too dim to check it out, while others, seizing on an opportunity for ritual vilification, probably didn't much care whether the story was true or not.
It wasn't. But just watch it go.
*And I promise never to use that repulsive locution again.
Friday, January 25, 2008
He's being a little rough on Antonia, who said nothing about him other than that she likes his writing, but no good deed ever goes unpunished. I'll take my lumps, though, and I'll repeat my position for the regulars here: anyone associated with the white supremacist site VDARE and one of its most prolific racial propagandists, Steve Sailer, is simply not worth taking seriously in a debate about immigration. Add to that Grace's hand-wringing over the expulsion of neo-Nazis from the Conservative Party in 2000 (does the name Marc Lemire jump out at you? Paul Fromm? Doug Christie?) and--I guess we have a pattern here, ladies and gentlemen.
After I sent him a note helping him to correct a bad link that would have seriously confused his readers, Grace was kind enough to email me to ask what my own views on immigration are. I happen to think that there is a debate, a bona fide socioeconomic one, and this is part of what I said to him:
Canada’s population growth rate is moving into a steady decline; even unprecedented levels of immigration aren't likely to turn things around. There are serious skill shortages already in manufacturing, construction, information technology, healthcare, financial services and government.
By 2015, there won't be enough qualified people to replace retiring workers. By 2020, 40% of Canada’s population will be 55 or over, up from about one-third of the population in 2001. A labour shortfall of 950,000 workers is predicted by that time.
By 2025, more than 20% of Canada’s population will be over 65; by 2031, there could be twice as many seniors as children.
Immigration is part of a mixed strategy to avoid the effects of an ageing population on national productivity.I suspect you know this, and wouldn't have a problem if the immigrants were of the, ah, Nordic persuasion. But feel free to correct me if I'm mistaken on this point.At this point, two friends weighed in--Meaghan Walker-Williams, who feels a personal loyalty to Grace, and Jay Currie, with whom I agree on next to nothing, but who tried, in that earlier thread, to put the debate on a reasonable footing (and for that, kudos).
I shall reproduce some of Jay's comments here, because they are, I think, worthy of discussion:
[T]here are means other than immigration (of whatever hue, nationality or religion) to address a declining birth rate - pro-natalist policies being a good start; the shortages you quite correctly identify are, to a degree, driven by the sort of economy Canada has grown accustomed to - one in which labour is relatively cheap; there are alternatives to a constant growth, cheap labour, economy which might turn out to be quite pleasant; the projection of seniors vs kids in 2025 is worrying if those seniors are infirm, medically expensive and dependent upon the state - there are alternatives to that as well.
Finally, and this is my own rather than Kevin's position, it has never been clear to me why we should have the right to strip less developed nations of their educated middle classes so as to provide tax serfs and taxidrivers to Canadians.
Immigration is a conversation I think needs to happen minus the nastiness. I'll leave you with this thought, France is worried that its 300,000 legal and 100,000 illegal immigrants per year may be a bad thing; Canada with less than half France's population has 250,000 immigrants a year. It might be time to consider our own capacity to absorb this stream.
I have already questioned some of this on that other thread, but I think there are enough talking points here to have a reasonable debate--and I stress that word "reasonable," folks--about Canadian immigration policy. I invite that debate, but with one caveat: comments about society, assimilation, multiculturalism, etc., are more than welcome, but I will not permit racist or hateful ethnocentric comments here. So, hérouxvillistes, neo-Nazis, Islamophobes, go back where you came from--as it were.
Monday, January 21, 2008
Shorter Mark Fournier (Free Dominion), and Kathy Shaidle, at Kate McMillan's place and her own:
Richard Warman is a fraudster. Must be true. A neo-nazi said so. Oh, yeah, and Ernst Zundel's expert witness.
Shorter Canadian Jewish Congress: Not so fast.
Shorter Richard Warman: to be announced. Don't touch that dial, kiddies.
UPDATE: (January 22)
And the games begin...
UPPERDATE: (January 22)
Free Dominion is sticking to its guns. I love a plot with lots of twists and turns.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Political discussions inevitably become polarized, and the current Ezra Levant imbroglio is no exception. One side maintains that he is a citizen being punished by the state apparat for publishing some cartoons. The other insists that he is a a citizen who should be punished for publishing some cartoons.
Hold on a minute. Not so fast.
I don't see many people, in fact, other than the hot-tempered complainant in this case, arguing that Levant is on the wrong side of the law here. Most of those on the Left side of the political spectrum do not hold that opinion. An old antagonist did point out that, two years back, I suggested that Levant be investigated for hate speech. Even ol' dawgs get carried away on occasion. At the time, I was more interested in the selective approach to free speech adopted by many (but by no means all) conservatives. I was also offended by what I still consider to have been a mean-spirited and provocative act. Levant knows very well that Muslims, common-or-garden, nine-to-five, law-abiding Muslims, consider any visual representation of the Prophet to be blasphemous, let alone disrespectful ones. But that doesn't mean the law has a role here.
I've been reflecting on the evolution in my own thinking that has brought me to this point. First, let me explain what that point is. I am in favour of Human Rights Commissions, barring anything better, but in the long term I see them as a weak substitute for genuine social transformation--a kind of institutional safety valve, the intent being to contain popular dissatisfaction, rather than to resolve the underlying problems of unequal status and power that define our society at the core. I am not opposed to laws against hate speech, either in the Criminal Code or in human rights legislation. The bar is set sufficiently high, in my opinion, to winnow out unfounded complaints by the merely offended.
This is why the complaint against Levant will not proceed to a hearing. The system is working. The much-reviled Shirlene McGovern, an Alberta Human Rights Commission investigator, is in fact a filter. She's been doing her job, and getting the usual mindless slagging from conservatives, who have called her just about every nasty name in the book, not realizing that she will likely prove to be an ally.
The issue is just as much one of practicality as of principle. Exposing people to hatred, as the legal language runs, is one thing. But simply being offensive is quite another. No legal system can possibly deal with mere offence: if it were to try, the collateral damage would be incalculable.
Yours truly once supported university speech codes. The infamous "water buffalo" case concerned me, but any positive initiative will have craziness at the margins, and the latter should not necessarily be used to condemn the initiative itself. Then the moderators at Progressive Bloggers (I'm one) decided to develop a Code of Conduct for the blogroll. I thought it would be a simple matter. (Even at my age, I am still capable of startling naivete sometimes.)
During the ensuing discussions and drafts, it became obvious to most if not all of us that this project was taking on enormous proportions. The language seemed to feed on itself. The rules became more and more complex, trying to cover every conceivable aspect of behaviour unbecoming a progressive. Then we tried re-simplification. That didn't work either. We couldn't even agree on what a "progressive" was. A lot of discussion has vanished into the ether by now, but I can recall the animated discussions becoming downright rancorous. And the blogroll members were not remotely impressed by this project. In the end, it was abandoned.
The next step on my journey was the human rights complaint against Maclean's magazine by a group of Muslim law students offended by the publication of an extract from Mark Steyn's "they're breeding like rabbits" book, "America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It" (which, despite the title, was not a parody, at least not an intentional one). In his uncontradicted account, the Editor-in-Chief, Kenneth Whyte was open to a solution:
The student lawyers in question came to us five months after the story ran. They asked for an opportunity to respond. We said that we had already run many responses to the article in our letters section, but that we would consider a reasonable request. They wanted a five-page article, written by an author of their choice, to run without any editing by us, except for spelling and grammar. They also wanted to place their response on the cover and to art direct it themselves.
The demands were, in a word, unreasonable. Whyte said no way, and off the students trooped to the nearest Human Rights Commission, where the matter presently rests.
I found myself irritated.
Then came the Levant affair. The antics of this posturing bully falsified the debate. They became, and quite rightly so, a topic of discussion on their own. But what got lost was what was really happening--or not happening. A citizen lodged a complaint against another citizen. The state provides a number of mediating bodies when citizens have problems with each other, including civil courts, various labour arbitration/adjudication tribunals, and so on. In this case it was a Human Rights Commission.
All such bodies have various screens and filters to weed out the founded wheat from the unfounded chaff. What we've been seeing in Alberta is a screening process at work. It wasn't a trial, a star chamber proceeding or an inquisition. It wasn't even a hearing.
On reflection, however (hindsight being 20-20), I think it would have been wise for the AHRC to dismiss the complaint upon receipt, something that they are empowered to do. The publication of the cartoons, as much of an affront as it was, did not put the Muslim community at risk. It didn't expose Muslims to hatred or contempt. It might well have been an expression of hatred or contempt on Levant's part, but that's not the same thing. Certainly, dismissing the complaint after duly investigating it has its strategic appeal, but it has led to the wide circulation of a simply staggering amount of politically-inspired misinformation that has brought the entire process into disrepute.
The complaint will be dismissed, in any case, and so it should be. If it isn't, woe betide us the next time we take a shot at the Intelligent Design yokels, or the Catholic Church's pedophile industry, or the ceaseless whining of privileged white men (provocative phrasing intentional).
The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. There simply has to be room for judgment, debate, testing and opinion without the law getting involved and rules being invoked. That cacophonous mix will often include a large helping of ill-judgment and offensive opinion. That's how it works.
On the other hand, nothing is absolute, not even freedom of speech and expression. We can all think of counter-examples on which there is virtual consensus: defamation, libel and slander; inciting a riot; child pornography. But these are simply categories: and categories have thick, gray margins. What is libellous? What is incitement? Is Romeo and Juliet child porn?
That's why we have tests, and procedures, and jurisprudence, and argument. That's where societal judgment comes to the fore. Individual cases need to be assessed on their merits. Mere principle will not guide us through the shoals. But the problem with the Levant case, or one of them, anyway, is that it is being discussed mostly in terms of pure principle. The facts of the case have become irrelevant.
In this connection, what I find troubling is the inconsistency of the more ideologically hidebound Levant supporters. The state crushing dissent is how the matter is being portrayed. An innocent citizen having to shell out for a lawyer and give up his time to defend himself. An outrage! Yet, when it comes to the formal court system, all of those repressive mechanisms are firmly in place. If you are sued, you will need to shell out even more for a lawyer, pay a small fortune in legal fees, and be prepared to lose a lot of time in court proceedings. If the plaintiff happens to be wealthy, and/or a lawyer, and you are not, you're basically screwed. Most ordinary folks at the wrong end of a lawsuit swallow their pride and look for a quick way out of the mess.
In North America, activists have been shut down again and again by so-called SLAPP suits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Individuals who say things that the powerful and rich disapprove of can find themselves literally sued into silence. Conrad Black was infamous for using the courts in this fashion. Warren Kinsella, whose lawyerly expertise and well-known aggressiveness makes him a pretty scary antagonist to just plain folks, has thrown a lot of legal paper around as well, or threatened to. And then we have--goodness me--none other than Ezra Levant himself.
The patron saint of free speech is busy suing a tiny community paper and a former employee of his for $100,000 at present because he didn't like what they had to say about his reign at the Western Standard. The column can be read by following the link here,* and the letter may easily be found by Googling "Dust My Broom" and "Merle Terlesky." (I hate having to dick around like this, but I don't want to be sued myself.)
I have raised this matter with some of the more indignant defenders of Levant, busy hagiographing the man, and they have tended to respond, "That's different." (To his considerable credit, Darcey over at Dust My Broom, who first brought this to my attention, has been entirely consistent. Many of his commenters, though, are not of like mind.)
But I don't see how it's different. In each venue, speech is at issue. Some actions succeed, most do not even proceed, for a number of reasons. When it comes to civil suits, respondents tend to choose shutting up and shutting down rather than face the time and expense of defending themselves against the likes of Black and Levant. In the case of Human Rights Commissions, most complaints are screened out or resolved informally.
Few on the Right moan about "the state" when lawsuits are used as a weapon. They seem to be quite well aware in that case that "the state" is merely providing a mechanism that private citizens and corporations can use (or misuse) against others. But when it comes to the quasi-judicial Human Rights Commissions, the story changes: the private citizen submitting an unfounded complaint is no longer the issue, but "the state," allegedly stamping its jackboot on a human face. Court employees are virtually invisible during civil action, but HRC employees, trying to do their job, are placed squarely in the limelight and trashed on a personal level. As inveterate privatizers, it seems, some conservatives don't want "the state" suppressing free speech--that sort of thing, in their estimation, is best left to well-heeled private citizens and companies.
Their current agenda, in any case, is clear: it's not Levant. It's not even freedom of speech. It's nothing less than Human Rights Commissions and human rights legislation that are at stake. The aim for some is just to prevent them from dealing with hate speech; but most of those up in arms at present want to abolish them outright.
In conclusion, is there such a thing as hate speech, and if there is, should it be suppressed? That's really the crux of the current debate. I don't think it's all that difficult, first of all, to find examples of the genuine article. The Boissoin decision provides a good example. Speech that doesn't merely offend, but demonstrably puts vulnerable sections of the community at risk, should be as intolerable in a democratic society as libel, slander or inciting a riot. And if we can agree that such a category of speech exists, then we need assessment mechanisms to weed out bona fide instances of it from other speech that, however unpleasant or hateful in itself, does not pose such risk.
I think it's possible to restrict the category to a very small, well-defined type of utterance, just as the courts have been able to deal with child pornography more easily than with pornography as a whole, and with riot-incitement more easily than, say, with sedition. The bar should certainly be very high, as I believe it already is. We need to encourage citizen participation in public debate: it's a hallmark of a democratic society. Inevitably, stupid and offensive things will find their way into the verbal melee. But, except for rare extreme and dangerous utterances, the law should have no role.
Anyone can go to a Human Rights Commission and scribble a complaint; it's what happens afterwards that's important. I don't think freedom of speech has been put at the slightest risk by the complaint against Levant, regardless of all of the inflamed rhetoric to the contrary. But I shall be prepared to change my tune, and quickly, should this case ever be allowed to go to a hearing.
*In fact, as I discovered after I wrote this, it can be accessed here. Go figure!
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Friday, January 18, 2008
Seems the conservative intelligentsia over at Canada's Best Blog™ has a disagreement with a recent article by Toronto Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias. Take note, people: this is how they conduct a debate over there. There's a kind of, er, formality to it.
First, the name-calling and personal remarks, a favoured debating technique:
She is one of the dumbest bimbos in the world. Hands down....Liberal whack-job...mindless babling [sic]!!...demented lefty medusoid...airheaded jibbering...deluded frump...demented...leftist, statist, old-hippie idiot...dumb bint...asshat...entitled, feminist, out-of-touch-with-the-ground-
of-womanliness idiot...dishrag...bag of cellulite...paranoid idiot...inferior life-form...[s]ub-human...
Then the red-baiting. Who says the sixties are dead?
Toronto Red Star. All Red, All The Time...socialist wanker...
And we mustn't omit the obligatory racism. Gotta keep the "breed like rabbits meme" alive now that their guru Mark Steyn has resuscitated it:
go down to the Jane&Finch area and see all the babymamas...Being a baby mama is a status boost for them...It would be a good idea for people who don't pray five times a day to start having more kids.
A Quebecker attempts to debate the actual issues, silly rabbit:
people... life is just a chemical reaction that got out of control due to chaos theory + darwin's evolution..
And this is the response from a SDA regular:
separate frog, go take a flying f*ck you soul-less piece of smelly frog sh*t.
One of the few people actually trying to debate over there in a relatively reasonable tone of voice is SUZANNE. What does that tell you?
If I might rise to their level for one exalted moment, I 'd swear I was watching a movie.
Yesterday a federal judge struck down the Safe Third Country Agreement, which held that Canada and the US, allegedly "safe" countries for refugees, could bar passage of refugees from one country to the other. Justice Michael Phelan had already ruled this past November that the US doesn't respect refugee-protection requirements under international law, nor international conventions against torture. The Harper government is appealing the ruling.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International, exercised by Canada's turning over of Afghan POWs (or "detainees" if you prefer) to Hamid Karzai's torturers, has been doing a little digging. And they came up with a document from Foreign Affairs that identifies the US and Israel as countries that practise torture themselves. The Harper government is now "disavowing" the document, whatever that means.
Our Justice Department has routinely used "national security" to deny access to documents subpoenaed by Amnesty International. But somehow this one fish slipped through the net. A few hours later, hand-wringing Justice Department officials were pleading to have it returned.
Too late, guys. The document, intended to instruct our diplomats on how to recognize torture cases (remember the hapless Franco Pillarella?), also lists Guantanamo as a place where torture is likely--the prison into which Canadian citizen Omar Khadr was thrown when he was fifteen years old. He's still there. The Harper government has done nothing to get him out.
It's not a policy document, it's just a training manual, bleats Foreign Affairs. Somehow that doesn't clear things up, at least for me. If, as their official statement claims, "[it] does not reflect the views or policies of this government," why was the Justice Department so darned keen to get the thing back?
There is an ugly pattern here, one that has been emerging over the past year or so. Readers will recall the little junket that the Correctional Service of Canada took through the prisons of Afghanistan--the one where a senior CSC official asked for better boots as she waded through blood and fecal matter during her visit. The government tap-dances like mad every time one of these stories comes out. But the stories keep right on coming.
Torture is being mainstreamed, right before our eyes. A Bush advisor claimed as far back as 2005 that the President could legally crush the testicles of a child if he so chose. And as usual, the Harper government is scrambling to keep up.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Quote of the day:
"We used to chastise Jean Chrétien, the little bruiser from Shawinigan, for running a show that sometimes resembled peace, order and 'hood' government. Stephen Harper, who promised a new era of transparency and democratization, is beginning to make Mr. Chrétien look like a ballroom dancer....Angry man syndrome prevails."
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
So to Ms Keen I say good riddance to your presidency.
The Chalk River / CNSC dispute demonstrates what happens when a stagnant public servant is confronted by a situation where his [sic] superiors are hostile to his way of thinking. Because of the stagnation, the bureaucrat simply cannot understand nor accept why the government doesn’t think the way he does.
Granted, these commentators are not in the front ranks of conservative bloggers. But hey, wait a minute--where did those front ranks go?
For those who piously assert, anent the goings-on at the Alberta Human Rights Commission, that "it's not about Ezra Levant," I say in this case, "it's not about Linda Keen." It's about the concentration of power in the executive to an unprecedented degree, where arms-length, independent agencies are now subject to the whims of a Minister. Yup. Sounds like statism, all right. But the people now wringing their hands about the crucifixion of St.Ezra, I confidently predict, will remain utterly silent about the far more dangerous assault on the institutional checks and balances of Canadian governance that this action constitutes.
ADDENDA: The AECL lashes Keen--the coordinated timing is worthy of note. And the Star has the best take so far on this sorry affair.
*roll of drums*
Dave, from The Galloping Beaver. An assiduous researcher, good sense of humour, highly readable and informative;
skdadl, from POGGE. A progressive feminist, with whom I used to cross swords, if she will forgive the military metaphor. More recently, a friend. Thoughtful, factual, passionate;
Chet Scoville, from The Vanity Press. What can I say? He's an academic, as am I in a lesser sort of way. He loves words. He's a fine stylist. And his IQ is apparently 154. I'd be afraid not to invite this guy;
and, last but certainly not least, Cathie From Canada. I like her writing and her content, and the fact that I can read the type on her blog without glasses, which indicates kindness. She's always a solid read, and I appreciate her nod to my old fave Dylan Thomas.
What a great team! I can almost hear the synergy crackling. They have complete editorial freedom here, so if you have a problem, take it up with them. They'll be officially arriving mid-February, but are welcome to post in the meantime. In any case, be prepared for one heck of a ride in just a short while. And commenters, be nice to the guests.
Now: a round of applause, please.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Folks, I'm pleased to break it to you:
Ezra Levant was not dragged, summoned, compelled or otherwise forced to appear before a thug, a Kommissar, an Inquisitor or a "sleeze-drone," (whatever the hell the last one is--sounds oddly erotic) in a Star Chamber, an Inquisition or a kangaroo court.
Nor were filthy, blood-caked jackboots anywhere in evidence, at least not in Ezra Levant's interminable videos.
A citizen laid a complaint: the Alberta Human Rights Commission is doing a preliminary investigation to see if the complaint should go forward. (My bet is it won't. It certainly shouldn't.)
Levant didn't even have to appear--he could have sent a letter. But it's hard to post letters on YouTube. A letter just doesn't convey his
Nice to see he's attracted a suitable audience for his one-man sit-com. All we need now is canned laughter.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
But this wasn't Darkness at Noon. Nor was he Jesus Christ in front of the Grand Inquisitor. He was just Ezra Levant, the former editor of a screechy, extremist publication who thought it would be amusing to affront Canadian Muslims by publishing cartoons that he knew would be profoundly offensive to them.
To his likely considerable disappointment, there were no riots, no beheadings, no fatwas in the wake of his oh-so-courageous exercise of editorial privilege. This is Canada. At the very worst, you might end up before a Human Rights Commission to explain yourself when you pull a stunt like that. And so he did. Now this pretentious little man is out to make the most of it, cheered on by his rabid ideological comrades, and carrying on for all the world like King Charles the First:
I would know by what power I am called hither ... I would know by what authority, I mean lawful; there are many unlawful authorities in the world; thieves and robbers by the high-ways ...I do stand more for the liberty of my people, than any here that come to be my pretended judges ... I do not come here as submitting to the Court.
Karl Marx must have been in the audience. "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."
You may start your interrogation, forsooth. Who on earth does Levant think he is? He's no monarch facing the headsman's axe, no idealist facing torture and death. He's just a crummy far-right propagandist in a spot of bother that he himself created.
I sincerely hope that the Commission lets him off. That would be just the comeuppance he deserves.
UPDATE: (January 12)
BigCityLib has videos. Don't waste your popcorn.
UPDATE: (January 13)
Levant has attracted some Muslim support--or has he? Stageleft has done some digging, with surprising--or not-so-surprising--results.
Friday, January 11, 2008
A nonentity calling himself "roundhead" has been buzzing around recently, making silly comments about me over at Daimnation, and depositing a flyspeck or two at my place. The other day, however, he crossed the line, leaving an obscene message in my combox--all f-words and an accusation of anti-Semitism to boot. So I tracked him down, and, lo and behold, it turns out he works for the Conservative Party of Canada, and was posting from their server. Nice.
My protest to the good folks at CPC has gone unanswered. But "roundhead" had an amateurish and ill-read blog--until today. It's no longer up. Buh-bye.
Cyberspace. It's a jungle out there, I tell you. I am lion, hear me roar. :)
As reported in today's Ottawa Citizen and elsewhere, he is publicly defending the hapless Gary Lunn, shrugging off a damning report on AECL, and continuing his attacks on the head of our Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Linda Keen. Does the man have no shame? Or is he simply such a narrow, driven partisan that he feels duty-bound to argue that black is white for The Cause?
"Frankly, it troubles me greatly if the regulator still believes jeopardizing the health of Canadians needlessly was a wise course of action," he said. I had to read that bit of barefaced prevarication two or three times. Jeopardizing the health of Canadians? By insisting that the aging Chalk River nuclear facility, which had not met the terms of its licencing agreement with respect to safety, should be up to par? A facility that experienced a serious nuclear accident in 1958 (yes, it's that old)? The place where four workers were sprayed with radioactive dust in 1999? A facility that is situated in an active earthquake zone? Where two earthquakes were recorded last month alone? (Hey, don't worry. Be happy.)
Is our Maximum Leader out of his mind? Does he imagine that the rest of us are?
Here is what happens when nuclear oversight is nonexistent or insufficient. And here. And here.
Jeopardizing the health of Canadians needlessly? Look in the mirror, sir.
As for Minister Lunn, he acted "beyond the call of duty," Harper tells us. Indeed he did, by
*Commenter Deaner has a point. The Minister's conduct, in my view, was clearly improper, but I did not establish a case for calling it "illegal." Mea culpa.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Dr. O'Connor's crime was to uncover, starting in 2003, some higher-than-normal clusters of illnesses such as cholangiocarcinoma (a rare cancer of the bile duct) in the remote northern Albertan hamlet of Fort Chipewyan. He proceeded to make the connection between on-going health problems in that community and pollution from tar sands development near Fort McMurray carried by the Athabasca River. Health Canada, infamous for its cosiness with big business and its heavy-handed treatment of whistleblowers, did precisely what we have come to expect of that department--together with Alberta Health and Wellness, it laid charges against him this year, in an attempt to have his medical licence removed.
After hearings before the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, only one charge against Dr. O'Connor now remains: "causing undue alarm in the community." It is not expected to stand. Indeed, the charge appears ludicrous: Alberta health inspectors, grudgingly testing the water in the community ten years after concerns were first raised by scientists, admitted that they had found high levels of arsenic, but weren't planning to monitor the situation. Another scientist, Kevin Timoney, who has studied the Athabasca River for 14 years, says: "The level of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are significantly high enough to raise the risk of cancer."
Protecting the health and safety of Canadians, as we have seen recently, is considered nothing less than a firing offence by the powers that be. In fairness to the Conservatives, these shenanigans on the part of Health Canada have had quite a lengthy history. But, as the current Keen Kaper demonstrates, the practice of putting Canadians at risk continues unabated. More Enemies of the People, please. It seems they're the only allies the people have got at the moment.
UPDATE: (January 10)
Bread and Roses has some good background material/commentary on this case. H/t commenter Holly Stick. And more from Creative Revolution. And Berlynn! Good grief, I must have been asleep.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Ms. Keen's faults, it seems, are two-fold. First, she was appointed by a previous Liberal government. Hence, her concerns about a possible nuclear meltdown at Chalk River are obviously partisan--according to our Maximum Leader and the assorted yokels and dutiful sycophants who make up his inner circle. Secondly, she insisted that public safety should come before expediency and crass political interference in the workings of her formerly independent agency.
Keen ordered that a Chalk River facility that produces two-thirds of the world's radioisotopes used in diagnostic medicine be shut down until necessary safety work was done.* If anyone is at fault here, it is Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd. (AECL), which had been running the operation for two years without safety upgrades required by the CNSC's operating licence. Unsurprisingly, the AECL head resigned a day after Parliament ordered the re-start of the reactor. There's lots of backstory here, and here, and here.
Keen has a strong background in science, with experience in the nuclear industry, including chairing the International Nuclear Regulators Association in 2003. Indeed, nearly all of the CNSC board, including a Conservative appointee, have impressive credentials. And here is Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn, a lawyer with some inconsequential experience in the mining and forestry industries, telling her off:
"Serious questions have arisen about whether the commission, under your leadership, could have dealt more appropriately, with the risk management of this situation," he writes, obviously not appreciating the irony. "These events cast doubt on whether you possess the fundamental good judgement required by the incumbent of the office of president of the commission."
"Listen to the fool's reproach!" the poet William Blake wrote more than three hundred years ago. "It is a kingly title!" Being dressed down by the likes of Gary Lunn is a bit like Vidal Sassoon being lectured by Stephen Harper on how to cut hair, and she shouldn't lose any sleep over it. Someone of her stature will inevitably fall on her feet. But the vulgar triumph of the will that led to the re-starting of the facility could have catastrophic consequences for others, which is why we have nuclear regulators in the first place. It's not that such consequences are inevitable. It's that they're possible.
Chalk River, in case some are unaware, is located in an earthquake zone. Back-up safety systems were not in place, the regulator did her job, and for that she is being punished. The tannery will continue to contaminate the baths in that little Norway town, and maybe no one will get sick. The great white shark will hang around the resort, but they'll keep the beaches open and maybe no one will get bitten. And, with luck, nothing will cause a Chalk River meltdown. But if anything happens, we can't say we weren't warned. By another enemy of the people.
*Commenter 2Sheds notes that it was the AECL that shut down voluntarily to begin with. It was when the AECL made clear on December 7 that it wanted an amendment to the original licencing conditions, which apparently came as a surprise to the CNSC, that the latter demanded on December 10 that a complete safety case be made in order to support that amendment. The next day the government panicked, sending a directive to the CNSC calling for it to take the health of Canadians into account, while tabling draft emergency legislation the same afternoon.
UPDATE: (January 8)
Keen fires back. Wow.
Full text here.
As the head of an independent quasi-judicial administrative tribunal, I was and remain deeply troubled by both the tone and content of your letter. The nature of the allegations which have been made, coupled with your threat to have me removed as President, seriously undermine the independence of the CNSC…
The Supreme Court of Canada has consistently held that the principles of fundamental justice require quasi-judicial administrative tribunals to be free from political influence or interference….
[Your actions] are examples of improper interference with both the institutional independence of the CNSC and with the administration of justice …
I would therefore ask you to carefully consider the significant chilling effect your recent actions could have on the practices and decisions of other tribunals who are responsible for important work on behalf of Canadians.
UPPERDATE: (January 8)
Still not a peep out of a single Blogging Tory on this sorry affair. Sometimes the Maximum Leader and his minions are a tad hard to defend, eh?
H/t Greg, in the comments.