Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Populist barbarism

Alvaro Vargas Llosa has a good piece in the
Globe & Mail this morning on the French government's new ethnic cleansing initiative--the rounding up and deporting of Roma. Whether Nicolas Sarkozy is comfortable with the comparison or not, this hideous bit of racism unfolding before our eyes reminds one vividly of the Vichy government's assiduous Jew-hunting only a few decades back.

Without falling into the trap of moral equivalence, it must be said that the motives, if not the consequences, are exactly the same in each case--a racist notion of "purification" that isn't, perhaps, surprising to find in a country that has a Ministry of National Identity and not long ago sponsored a public debate on the subject of "Frenchness." In a certain sense, in fact, the consequences are almost incidental: the same ill-will can result in mass murder here, in mass deportations there, in a refusal to serve someone in a restaurant over there.
Grosso modo, means and opportunity are all that really differ.

Vargas Llosa rightly calls Sarkozy's round-up "populist barbarism," and the phrase got me thinking about populism and what it means. This definition works, up to a point: "an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous 'others' who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice."*

But I would argue that, as accurate as this is, it misses something fundamental. Populism, right, left or in-between, is lazy politics. It's the politics of "now." Populism runs on appetite, not reason; it advocates quick fixes, not strategic goal-setting. It favours reflexes, not reflection; instinct, not thought.

It's reptile brain politics, in other words. It's a destructive, divisive, sometimes murderous politics that tends to flare and die when it runs full-tilt boogie into the real world. No more taxes! Thousand-year Reich! Lock and load! There's no analysis to be found: it's all slogans, geared towards the promise of instant gratification. And it's always against "other" people. There is no such thing as inclusive populism, by definition.

The politicians who exploit this form of human weakness are of two kinds: the WYSIWYG guys like Rob Ford and Randy Hillier who really are as dumb as they sound, and the smart cookies who
, with consummate skill, exploit and shape the inchoate anger of the "I'm not going to take it anymore" crowd. Hence the bizarre spectacle of anti-politician politicians, and of governments allegedly dedicated to dismantling government.

It's all a ruse, of course, but it works. Governments will persist, and anti-politician politicians remain politicians. But the latter have utterly abandoned a key responsibility of leadership: to inform. Instead of leading, they follow, and they look for shortcuts in the brain of the body politic so they can arouse rather than explain.

"A hungry mob is an angry mob," said the wise Bob Marley. And an angry mob is the very essence of populism. The trick for populist politicians is to keep the people feeling hungry in all sorts of ways--and blame it on someone else. Give tax cuts to the rich (so they'll keep supporting your campaigns) but frame it as an attack on big government and its allegedly spendthrift ways, using your money. "We can't afford Obamacare," sneer the Teabaggers, even if half the bankruptcies in the US have been caused by medical bills.

Scapegoating is always key to this sort of thing. In France, it's the Roma. In Canada, it's currently the Tamil refugees. Muslims, of course, have been fair game for some time, as was the so-called "yellow peril" several decades ago. Homogenize the ethnic or religious group of the month, ascribe evil to it, and turn the baying yokels loose. No matter whether it's a necktie party or an election, you're almost certain to reap your reward.

The insidious thing about this cynical feeding of brute appetites is that it escalates if allowed to continue. The longer you're kept hungry, the more frantic you become. Ten years ago, who would have imagined that the French government would start rounding up racial "undesirables" as it once
did in its dark past? Or that a popular Canadian newspaper would urge that Tamil refugee ships be sunk at sea with its inhabitants on board? Further back, who could have dreamed that the civilized Germans would unleash an uncultured, deadly, racist monstrosity on themselves and on the world?

Can't happen here? Of course it can, under the right circumstances. Obviously we're nowhere close to that at the moment. But the steady cheapening of Canadian political culture, its reduction to
glib "us vs. them" talking-points, dulls and blunts our better natures. It makes increasing numbers afraid and distrustful, and even hateful. That's fertile ground--and eager conservatives are even now turning the sod.
*[Albertazzi, D. and Duncan McDonnell. Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy p.3. New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan.]

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