April 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
The current issue of Foreign Affairs is about nationalism, and its resurgence around the world. The base assumption of all the authors in this edition is that nationalism is a conservative movement, tied to white supremacy, racism, and strongmen like Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin. The basic argument is that the resurgence of nationalism, and all it entails, is a response to globalism and the rise of a class of cosmopolitans who, the argument alleges, feel at home anywhere. Thus, everyone else, the ‘somewheres’, who have a sense of connection to place are mad.
First, this is a ridiculous dichotomy. The actual real cosmopolitans, the ones who are at home in Istabul, Mumbai, and Tokyo, are the 1% of the world. The bulk of people who are alleged cosmopolitans actually tend to have deep connections to place as well. They are connected to where they live, their neighbourhoods, their towns and so on.
But this discussion of cosmopolitans vs. the non-cosmopolitans actually obscures more than it clarifies. Like all theories that attempt to put human behaviour into neat little boxes, it fails.
And this is because the basic assumption of this argument is that the non-cosmopolitan nationalist is not connected to a wider community, one beyond the borders of her nation. And it also assumes that the leaders of these movements are not in constant contact with each other. That Donald Trump and Nigel Farage don’t have a connection, that Steven Bannon isn’t globe-trotting, trying to convince Italian conservatives that the biggest evil in the world is Pope Francis.
Of course men like Trump, Farage and Bannon have international communities. One is the president of the most powerful nation in the world, one is the former leader of a major British political party, and the last is the man who stands behind their ilk, helping them get elected.
But the argument presumes that Trump’s supporters, Farage’s voters, and Viktor Orbán’s fans are not also connected in a globalist sense. The internet and social media have seen to this. There are linkages across international boundaries between nationalist and conservative movements in Europe and North America.
In other words, these reactionary movements are just as internationalist as the liberal world order they’re attempting to take down. They can’t not be, this is a co-ordinated attack on what these nationalists and conservatives (because they are often the same thing) distrust, dislike, and fear in the liberal internationalist order.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a globalized era, and even if we wrap ourselves up in the Union Jack and talk about bringing jobs back to Bristol, or we prefer our government to open our border for more refugees, we live in this world. The ideological struggle for the soul of the world reflects this as much as it did during the Cold War.
During that era, from 1945-91, two opposing, internationalist, camps fought for global supremacy. We all know that American-backed liberalism won. And despite Francis Fukuyama’s embarrassing claim that this saw the end of history, the conservative backlash was in motion by the mid-90s, though its articulation took longer to develop, into the 2010s, our current decade.
And so now, the two opposing, internationalist camps fight for a world that is either liberal, cosmopolitan, and internationalist in nature, or one that is illiberal, nationalist, and just as internationalist in nature.
March 7, 2019 § Leave a comment
Canada’s media is beside itself right now over a case of politics within the cabinet of the Trudeau government. The problem begins with SNC Lavalin, ostensibly an engineering firm headquartered in Montréal. About a decade ago, it did some skeezy things in Libya. SNC Lavalin, however, is no stranger to skeeziness. The issue arises from something called a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), which, under Canadian law, allows the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PSSC) to essentially allow corporations to plea bargain their way out of a spot of bother. It would appear the the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wished this current mess for SNC Lavalin to go away via a DPA, though the then-Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould refused to do. She has complained that she felt pressured to alter her decision, which she refused to do. This has been denied by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former Principal Secretary, Gerald Butts. And through it all, Trudeau has managed to keep his trademark calm, upsetting Canadians who want him to at least acknowledge some wrong-doing.
But, despite both the Canadian and the foreign media’s best attempts to make this look like something, the fact of the matter is, we have two versions of a process, and at worst, Trudeau looks like a jerk. Nothing illegal happened here. This is not corruption. What Wilson-Raybould described reads to me as little more than business-as-usual Canadian cabinet-level politicking.
But all of this obscures two, if not three, larger issues at hand here. The first is the dual portfolio of Minister of Justice and Attorney General in Canada. The two roles appear to be contradictory, as this person is both responsible for the Department of Justice as well as being the Chief Federal Legal Advisor. As well, this portfolio is ultimately responsible for legal enforcement at the federal level in Canada. In other Parliamentary democracies, such as the UK and Australia, these two roles are separate, and in the UK, the Attorney General is not technically part of the cabinet. While politicking of the sort Wilson-Raybould has, as far as I can tell from my own research, is part and parcel of Canadian government, the time has come to split the two roles.
Second, and perhaps the greatest problem is the influence of corporatism in our politics in Canada. The idea of a DPA, or an equivalent, has been part of American law enforcement since the 1980s. In the UK, DFAs have legally been in place since 2015; in France, since 2016, and Australia in 2017. In Canada, Bill C-74 became law in 2018. But, what this did was formalize an already extant option used by the PSSC. Legal scholars tend to prefer the idea of a DPA, especially in the case of multinational corporations and the difficulties of carrying out corruption inquiries on this level, to say nothing of the massive amount of money and resources such an investigation requires.
Taken on that level, of course, a DPA makes perfect sense. But, what this kerfuffle over SNC Lavalin currently shows us is how much influence our major corporations have in our politics and legal enforcement. It would appear that our Prime Minister, who is also the Member of Parliament for Papineau, a Montréal riding. And where is SNC Lavalin based? Montréal. So, the optics aren’t good. The PMO was lobbying for a DFA to protect SNC Lavalin from the cost of a conviction, which is a 10-year ban on federal contracts. And while it is not surprising that a powerful MP from Montréal would wish to intervene and save SNC Lavalin from prosecution. But, once again, the optics are not good when that MP is also the Prime Minister.
But there is this corporate influence. And it’s not like the main opposition party is any better. During the long nine-year reign of error of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, there were countless instances of corporatism, from selling out Canadian Crown Corporations to foreign corporations, to striking down oversight of corporate behaviour. And whilst our third party, the New Democrats (NDP) have never come close to forming a federal government, the party has been the government in several provinces, multiple times (in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario). Despite the NDP’s leftist claims, its behaviour in power shows it’s no different than the Liberals or Conservatives.
In other words, corporate influence in Canadian politics is real, powerful, and dangerous for our democracy.
And this leads me to our third problem: our media. Canada’s media is highly centralized, consolidated, and corporate. The daily broadsheet newspapers in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Montréal (in English, anyway), and Ottawa are owned by Postmedia. Postmedia also owns the tabloid newspapers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Ottawa. In other words, the newspaper market in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa is monopolized by Postmedia. Postmedia also owns nearly every small-town newspaper in the country. And finally, the company also owns The National Post, Canada’s second and largely ignored national newspaper.
Toronto’s major daily broadsheet, the Toronto Star is owned by Torstar, a major media company. Toronto is also home to the Globe & Mail, which bills itself as Canada’s national newspaper. The Globe is owned by the Woodbridge Company, which until 2015 owned the Canadian Television network, or CTV. Woodbridge is the primary investment firm of the Thomson family, one of Canada’s wealthiest families. The Globe is also the Canadian newspaper most closely aligned with Bay Street, Canada’s financial district in Toronto. The National Post,
The only major Canadian city that is served by a largely independent press is Montréal, where the two major French-language dailies, La Presse and Le Devoir fall outside of these larger Canadian firms. Presse is owned by a social trust. La Presse also no longer publishes a physical paper, it has been entirely online since 2017. Le Devoir is owned and published by Le Devoir Inc. But Montréal’s other French language paper, the tabloid Journal de Montréal, is owned by Québecor, one of the largest media corporations in Canada.
Québecor also owns most of Québec’s media, including the TV broadcast network, TVA. It owns Vidéotron, the primary cable, internet, and cellular service firm in Québec. TVA Publishing is the largest magazine publishing firm in Québec. It also publishes books under Québecor Media Book Group. And finally, it owns Canada.com/Canada.ca, a major on-line news site that covers the entire country of Canada.
Meanwhile, BCE Inc. owns CTV, as well as Bell, which is one of the largest cable/satellite TV providers in the country, to say nothing of cell services. It also, interestingly, owns parts of both the Canadiens de Montréal and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the two biggest hockey teams in the world. Rogers, the other major cable provider in Canada, also owns a cell service, one of the largest magazine publishing firms in Canada, a large chunk of Canadian radio stations.
In short, our media is corporate, deeply and widely, except for the newspapers in Montréal. We also have the state-owned broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so it is technically independent, as it is arms’ length from the government. But the CBC’s problem is it tries to be too many things to too many different people. The Société Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French language service, suffers from many of the same problems.
And our independent news sites, outside of La Presse and Le Devoir, are essentially partisan outlets, preaching to the converted.
So, with our government beholden to corporate interests, many of which are the same interests which own our media, we have a very deep and serious problem. And, of course, this is not what our political parties are talking about. The Liberals, obviously this isn’t something they’ll touch right now. The Conservatives will, of course, score as many political points as they can off SNC Lavalin, but they’ve down the same thin in power and will do again. And, then there’s the NDP. This should be the chance for embattled leader, Jagmeet Singh, to take a stand and talk about the influence of corporations in our media and politics. But, nope. He and his party are too interested in scoring cheap political points from SNC Lavalin, which, of course, suggests the NDP would be no different in office.
Meanwhile, Canadian democracy suffers.
February 8, 2019 § 4 Comments
Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about Jordan Peterson, who I dismissed as a professional bore. A friend of mine shared it on his wall on Facebook and holy hell ensued. One commentator took great exception to my point that ‘frankly, you cannot claim there is no such thing as white privilege and not be racist’ and, oh-so-wittily demanded a citation.
I come at this question after spending most of my adult life working from a place of anti-racism, of insisting that we recognize our diversity and that we work to a world where none of this even matters anymore because it’s the de facto response to all things.
The very term ‘white privilege is heavily loaded. It does two things. First, it points a finger at white people. Second, it suggests to white people who have a difficult time due to class or gender or sexuality that they have something they generally consider themselves to lack: privilege.
White people get defensive when the finger is pointed at them. I know, I am a white person. The general defensive response from a white person is to claim that they have nothing to do with slavery, genocide of the indigenous, etc. And, moreover, this all happened in the past. But racism isn’t an historical exhibit in a museum, it’s still very real and prevalent.
And then there’s the question of class. Poor white people do not generally have privilege, that’s part of the problem of being poor. I grew up poor, and it marked me in certain ways, including a distrust of power and authority. And then there’s people like me who worked to escape that poverty. To say we have had privilege our whole lives sounds like a denial of our own hard work to get to where we are.
But calling out white privilege is none of this. For one, privilege (whether in terms of race, gender, or sexuality) is not a one-size-fits-all hat. It is relative. I always think of the Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, and his concept of ‘hegemony.’ Cultural hegemony, as Gramsci conceived of it, explained how and why the ruling class maintained power and why the working classes did not revolt. This means that the ruling class imposed its own world view, its own cultural mores, and so on on culture and society and normalized them. Thus, ruling class ideals were the normal, anything else was deviant. And thus, the union movement of the late 19th/early 20th centuries in North America was about accessing some of that hegemonic power for the skilled working classes. The union movement of that era was not about the overthrow of capitalism, but the amelioration of it, allowing these skilled working class men and their families to access some of the benefits of hegemony. But it was still a relative slice of the hegemony pie.
Privilege, as the term is used today, is pretty much the same as Gramscian hegemony. As I argued in this piece, we live in a culture created and dominated by white people. White people, in other words, are hegemonic. And, as David Roediger argues in his excellent The Wages of Whiteness, the process of racial solidarity was forged in the United States in the 19th century, the colour line was created through a process of essentially convincing the white working classes that while their lives may be difficult, at least they weren’t black. That is obviously a simplification of Roediger’s argument, but it is also the basics.
And so now, in the early 21st century in the United States (and Canada) we live in an increasingly multicultural, diverse world. Two of Canada’s three largest cities (Toronto and Vancouver) have minority white populations. Around 35% of Canada’s population is comprised of people of colour. South of the border, 44% of the American population is comprised of visible minorities. More than that, 50% of the children in the US under the age of 5 are people of colour. So the times are changing, but not quick enough, really. The fact we still use terms like ‘people of colour’ or ‘visible minorities’ reflects that.
So we still live in a white world. To me, this is blatantly obvious looking at the world around me. In Canada, indigenous men and women are continually assaulted by the police and private citizens. In the United States, it is African Americans who find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun with police and private citizens on the other end. More subtle forms of racism exist, like crossing the road to avoid black men. Or calling the police because an African American person is walking down the street. But racism also exists in other forms, against other groups. And all non-white ethnic groups are forced to live in a white world in the US and Canada.
To use another loaded term, this is white supremacy. For me, white supremacy isn’t the Ku Klux Klan or Richard Spencer (that’s just outright racist idiocy), it is simply the fact we live in a white world.
To return to my original point that to deny white privilege is itself a racist conclusion. Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes white privilege very well in a 2012 Atlantic article, where he writes
But I generally find it [white privilege] most powerful and most illuminating when linked to an actual specific privilege–not fearing sexual violence, not weighing one’s death against the labor of birthing, living in a neighborhood bracketed off by housing covenants, not having to compete for certain jobs etc.
In the other words, because I don’t fear being shot by the police due to my skin colour (amongst other things), I have privilege based on race. That neither I nor Coates fear being sexually assaulted on our walk home from work is privilege based on gender. And so on.
Thus, to wilfully deny that white people enjoy a certain hegemony in our culture is racist, because it denies an entire cultural framework. That cultural framework means I am far less likely to get harassed by the police if I wear my hood up walking down the street. It also means that white people are sentenced far more leniently for crimes than black people. It means that poor white people don’t get red-lined like poor black people by financial institutions when seeking a mortgage. And to deny that is not only wilfully ignorant, it is a product of that privilege, and therefore, racist.
But at the end of all of this, the very terms ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’ are, as noted, loaded. Spring-loaded, really. Thus, perhaps we should re-frame the discussion to centre around hegemony. That is far less likely to put people’s hackles up, to make people defensive from the start. And if we don’t start from a position of defensiveness, we’d be far more likely to get somewhere.
February 5, 2019 § Leave a comment
Jordan Peterson is a bore. He appeals to the basest instincts of masculinity, believing that men are under attack in this world. He also believes, fundamentally, that order is a masculine trait and chaos is a feminine one. This reflects the age-old misogyny of Christian thought in the West that said that reason was masculine and nature feminine. One is ordered and disciplined, one is chaotic.
Peterson stepped off the deep end a long time ago. Peterson rose to fame in Canada a few years back in opposition to Bill C-16, which gives legal protection to transgender people. As the CBC notes, it added the term ‘gender identity or expression’ to three parts of Canadian law: 1) The Charter of Rights and Freedoms; 2) The Criminal Code, in those parts that deal with hate crimes; 3) that part of the Criminal Code that deals with sentencing for hate crimes. Peterson was appalled, arguing wrongly that this would criminalize the failure to use an individual’s preferred pronouns. He himselfrejects the idea of non-binary gender identity (indeed, this became the rallying cry of the right in both Canada and the US, where Peterson warned Americans that this was coming for them in an article in The Hill). But he went further, as he is wont do, claiming that Bill C-16 was an attack on freedom of speech in Canada, the greatest such attack, as a matter of fact. And so he joined the conservative hysteria that we were all going to be jailed for not using the proper pronouns. He also received a letter of warning from the University of Toronto, where he teaches, informing him that he must accord to people’s wishes wth their preferred pronouns.
Coupled with this misogyny is a subtle form of racism. Peterson thinks that white privilege simply doesn’t exist. He has, to be fair, clearly and loudly rejected white supremacy and prefers his followers to do so as well. But, frankly, you cannot claim there is no such thing as white privilege and not be racist. The idea of white privilege is meant to point out that we live in a culture dominated by white people and those who are not white have a more difficult time in getting ahead (I wrote about this here).
But back to the misogyny. Beyond Peterson’s claim that order is masculine and chaos feminine, Peterson has concluded the problem is feminism, as it seeks to level inequalities, which he argues are simply the way things have always been.
Peterson favours what he calls ‘enforced monogamy.’ In the wake of the terrorist attack in Toronto last spring, in which an ‘incel’ drove his truck into a crowd, killing at least 10, Peterson told the New York Times that male violence toward women happens because they are involuntarily celibate (hence the term ‘incel’). He said of the killer, “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him. The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.” He goes on:
“Half the men fail,” he says, meaning that they don’t procreate. “And no one cares about the men who fail.”
I laugh, because it is absurd.
“You’re laughing about them,” he says, giving me a disappointed look. “That’s because you’re female.”
That, my friends, is sexist. Plain and simple. Peterson’s idea of ‘enforced monogamy’ is meant to help men, and therefore it would be coercive to women.
He goes on. He read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and concluded that:
it’s so whiny, it’s just enough to drive a modern person mad to listen to these suburban housewives from the late ’50s ensconced in their comfortable secure lives complaining about the fact that they’re bored because they don’t have enough opportunity. It’s like, Jesus get a hobby. For Christ’s sake.
In his book, 12 Rules for Life, he argues that ‘healthy women’ want men who are better than them, men who are smarter than they are, who will dominate them, and control them through status. ‘Healthy women’ want to be dominated.
Peterson’s ultimate problem is he believes that there is such a thing as a natural hierarchy in the social world and he believes that these hierarchies are essentially god-given and therefore right and natural. He thinks gender equality overthrows this natural order, as Kate Manne makes clear in a discussion of 12 Rules. Manne defines misogyny as a desire to control women (which she differentiates from a hatred or fear of women in the heart of men). And, to return to Peterson’s argument about ‘healthy women’ wanting to be dominated, well, that is misogyny.
At any rate, Peterson was in Canada’s lesser-known and read national newspaper, The National Post, last week ranting about the American Psychological Association’s new guidelines for treating men and boys. This is the first time the APA has issued guidelines for treating men and, of course, you’re noting right now that psychology cut its teeth normalizing the behaviour of (white) men. But these guidelines are focused on the pratfalls of masculinity in the early 21st century and, to a degree, toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity is the form of masculinity that is vicious, violent, and generally dangerous for all, including its practitioners. I grew up in a milieu of toxic masculinity. It means alcoholism, drug addiction and violence directed towards those weaker. This is not what masculinity is supposed to be, it is not how men are supposed to act in society.
So back to Peterson’s fit in The National Post. Peterson argues that the APA’s guidelines are ‘an all-out assault on masculinity — or, to put it even more bluntly, on men.’ Indeed, men, gather your guns, we’re under attack!!!
He then goes on a rant denying scientific consensus about masculinity and gender roles. And then complains about what he sees as a war on traditional masculine roles and behaviours. Except, the thing is? No one really questions that part of masculinity. We question the assoholic behaviour of men and Peterson denies that being an asshole is damaging to men. The evidence, which he ignores, suggests otherwise, of course.
Next, he postulates about violence and notes that boys are indeed more likely to be violent than girls. He then does what he accuses the authors of the APA guidelines of doing: citing himself to prove his point. His point appears to be that violence is not a learned behaviour, but an innate one. But then he also notes that the boys who grow up to be violent come from fatherless families. He also claims that the experts have all agreed on this. I’m not a psychologist, but even a cursory glance at the literature suggests otherwise. But why would Peterson let facts get in the way of a good argument?
But all of this is just a precursor to another of his favourite flogging horses: the idea that there is a war on Western society, that Western civilization is apparently seen ‘as an oppressive patriarchy: unfairly male-dominated, violent, racist, sexist, homo-, Islamo- and trans-phobic — and as uniquely reprehensible in all those regards.’ Oh brother. Here we go again. (This, of course, is why he denies white privilege exists, which, of course, is easy for a white, heterosexual, tenured male university professor at one of Canada’s élite universities).
This is lazy scholarship and rhetoric. In fact, his rhetoric crosses the line into hysteria and paranoia. Bill C-16 was the ‘greatest attack’ on freedom of speech in Canadian history. The APA has declared war on men.
This allows Peterson to claim that anything that he doesn’t like about the modern world is because we’re cannibalistic in the West, we like to eat our own. It means that it is easy for him to blame the feminists and their fellow travellers. He’s the intellectual equivalent of those pseudo-Christians in the US who complain about the ‘war on Christmas’ each each year and attack Starbucks for its holiday cups.
Peterson long ago stopped being an academic or even and intellectual or a thinker. Instead, he is just an ideologue. And a rather boring and predictable one at that. But he’s made all the more dangerous because he is well-dressed and is a university professor and uses the instant credibility that brings to go on ideological rants, rather than engage in discussions about ideas. And ultimately, that’s because Peterson has no more ideas. And they are built on slippery and false logic.
This makes him boring and a bore.
July 30, 2018 § 2 Comments
In this month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a provocative essay from Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Entitled, ‘The Myth of the Liberal Order: From Historical Accident to Conventional Wisdom,’ Allison provides a much needed corrective to the history of American foreign policy since the Second World War.
Allison argues, correctly, that American foreign policy was never about maintaining a liberal world order. Rather, she argues, the world as we know it globally arose out of the Cold War, a bipolar world where the United States and its allies confronted the Soviet Union and its allies in a battle of the hearts and minds of the global populace. In essence, the two core belligerent nations cancelled each other out in terms of nuclear arms, so they were left to forge and uneasy co-existence. And then, the USSR collapsed in 1991 and, the US was victorious in the Cold War. And, of course, Francis Fukuyama made his now infamous, laughable, and ridiculous claim:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
How Fukuyama has any credibility after this colossal statement of Western hubris is beyond me.
Anyway, Allison notes that aftermath of this particular moment in time was that the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists made common cause and managed to convince both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that the best way to spread the gospel of capitalism and liberal democracy was by dropping bombs. Only during the Bush II era did the idea of liberal democracy get tied up with American foreign policy, and here Allison quotes former National Security Advisor (and later Secretary of State), Condoleeza Rice, speaking of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: ‘Iraq and Afghanistan are vanguards of this effort to spread democracy and tolerance and freedom throughout the Greater Middle East.’
Thus, we had a unipolar world, and now, with the resurgence of a belligerent Russia and a growing China, we are in a multi-polar world. And then she goes onto note larger American problems centring around democracy at home.
But what struck me about her argument was where she lays out her argument about the bipolar Cold War world, she notes that ‘the United States and its allies had just fought against Nazi Germany.’ but that the burgeoning Cold War with the USSR required new tactics.
The United States and its allies. There are several ways that this is problematic. The first is that the main Allied powers of the Second World War were the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union. I don’t count France here in that it fell in 1940 and whilst Free French troops and the French Résistance were central to the Allied cause, they were not represented by a government in Paris. But those Big 3 of the US, UK, and the USSR were worth the equal billing. The UK held on and maintained a free Europe from the 1940 until the Americans got going on the Western front in 1942. And British troops (to say nothing of the Empire and Commonwealth) were central to the ultimate victory.
And then there’s the USSR. The Soviets were absolutely and essentially central to the Allied cause in World War II. It was the Soviets that took the brunt of Hitler’s fury on the Eastern front and absorbed the invading Nazi forces before expelling them, absorbing essential German attention as the US and UK dithered about opening a Western front, something that didn’t happen until 1944. And then the USSR, all by itself, defeated the Nazis on the Eastern front and ‘liberated’ the Eastern European nations before closing in on Germany and Berlin itself.
In the US, Americans like to pronounce themselves as ‘Back To Back World War Champs,’ as the t-shirt says. This is bunk. The USSR did more to win World War II in Europe than any other nation, including the United States.
Allison’s argument is made even more peculiar given that she is talking about the outbreak of the Cold War here. She makes no mention of the fact that the United States’ allies in the Second World War included the Soviet Union. Hell, Time magazine even called Josef Stalin its 1943 Man of the Year. That part of the story is essential to understanding the outbreak of the Cold War, the hostility that was festering between the USSR on one side and the US and UK on the other was an important and central story to the last years of World War II.
Thus, better argued, Allison could’ve, and should’ve, argued that in the immediate post-World War II era, c. 1947-48, that the United States was fatigued from World War II, where the Allies, of which it was one, along with the Soviet Union, defeated German Nazism. To write it differently is to elide an important part of history and the Second World War. And frankly, Allison should know better.
July 24, 2018 § 2 Comments
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This began the night of the election and shows no signs of abating. The current issue of Foreign Affairs, the august publication dedicated to the impact of the world on the US and vice versa, is dedicated to unraveling this question from the point-of-view of foreign affairs and policy.
In the issue is an article from Amy Chua, John M. Duff, Jr., Professor of Law at Yale, adapted from her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. In it, Chua argues that tribalism explains not just messy American involvements in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but Trump. In the case of those three messy wars, she notes that American policy makers failed to recognize questions of ethnic or national identity in those three countries, hence the quagmires. Her argument is compelling and well argued.
But when it comes to Trump, it seems to me she is on much shakier ground. She argues that tribalism is what led to white voters to elect him. She notes that the white majority in the United States is shrinking and Trump capitalized on that. So far, so good. She goes on to discuss classism and the plight of the (white) poor in the country. Again, so far, so good. But it’s when she gets into unpacking this argument, I begin to wonder about it.
She argues, as many others have, that due to the widening gulf between rich and poor, it is now harder for the poor to escape poverty and attain middle class standing. I have yet to see compelling data on this (though it is entirely possible it exists). But, allow me to be the historian here and point out that this so-called American Dream is more a dream than a reality. The United States, like any other culture or nation, is based on inequality. And it has been since the birth of the patriot movement in Boston in the early 1770s. In those days, the élites of the city used the working classes to engage with the British, from the Boston Massacre to the outbreak of violence. As with all other armies in history, the infantry of George Washington’s nascent Continental Army was from the lower reaches of society (for a very good analysis of the plight of the white poor in American history, you can do worse than Nancy Izenberg’s White Trash).
Inequality has always been the norm here, and it remains so today. Sociologists and political analysts have been wringing their hands over the white working classes and the white poor who voted for Trump in various parts of the nation (together with continuing with the canard that Hillary Clinton did not visit key parts of the country where such folk live). But the white working classes and the poor have been here for a long time. I lived in Appalachia in Tennessee when Trump was elected. My neighbours voted for him, as they voted for Republicans in 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, and 1996 (it is possible they voted for their fellow Southerner Bill Clinton in 1992) and before that too. The people where I lived were poor then, too, and they were poor when they helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, too. And so on.
Chua argues, though, that tribalism is emerging amongst the white working classes and the poor. But, my historian’s training tells me this is nothing new, either. In fact, this was how the planter élite in the antebellum and Civil War South convinced the poor white farmers that ethnic/racial lines mattered more than class lines. The historian Noel Ignatiev argued in 1997 in his ridiculous How the Irish Became White that had the Irish, the most downtrodden of the downtrodden white people in the antebellum United States pitched their lot with African Americans, then slavery would’ve ended a generation or two earlier. There is no universe I can see where that would’ve happened. The Irish were never going to cast their lot with African Americans in the United States, in the North, the black population was their closest economic rival. In Canada, it was the French Canadians with whom the Irish shared the lowest rung of the ladder. And the Irish and French Canadians did fight, literally. But they also intermarried and socialized together. But, of course, in the antebellum North, so did the Irish and free black populations, from both vicious racial attacks in Manhattan’s Five Points by the Irish, to intermarriage and socialization.
But the larger point is that the way in which capitalism is organized is to exploit differences and tribalism at base levels. In other words, the second lowest group on a totem pole is never going to side with the group below it. That’s not how it works. And in the United States, as David Roediger argued, questions of whiteness were exploited by the capitalists and planter class to get the poor people to authenticate a form of shared whiteness. Roediger made the argument that what sociologists called ‘ethnic brokers’ encouraged the white working classes (a large segment of which was Irish) to side with their (white) social betters against African Americans.
In other words, what Chua is identifying is not new. Tribalism on the part of the white working classes was part and parcel of the American experience in the 19th century, and it was in the 20th, too. And not just in the example of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, of course, in all of its manifestations, may have been led by élites, but it was the poor and the working classes and farmers who engaged in the racist behaviour and violence (with some help, of course). But the white working-, middle-, and poor classes during the Civil Rights Era were the resistance to the work of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and others.
So, ultimately, Chua’s argument (at least in the Foreign Affairs August issue, I haven’t read her new book yet) falls on its face here. Identifying an old standing behaviour and calling it new and exceptional to explain something surprising does not hold water.
July 20, 2018 § 4 Comments
News has erupted in the United Kingdom that Scotland Yard has been using children as spies for criminal cases. Not surprisingly, most British are sickened and appalled by this, as are the usual array of human rights groups. There can be no defence of this. None. This is one of the most morally repugnant things I have ever come across in my life.
The children are pulled from a database about gang members, apparently. And certainly, some have already decided that they’re criminals and therefore forfeit their civil rights. It’s not that simple. First, they’re children. Second, being in this database is not necessarily an indication of criminality. Third, even if they are, that is not an excuse to curtail someone’s civil rights. To do so is inhumane. It says that someone is less of a human due to past behaviour.
The House of Lords committee that revealed the existence of this programme is sickened. Even David Davis, one of the most self-serving British politicians of our era (he resigned from PM Theresa May’s cabinet a couple of weeks ago) is appalled. I wonder what Boris Johnson thinks?
And yet, here is May’s spokesperson defending this practice:
Juvenile covert human intelligence sources are used very rarely and they’re only used when it is very necessary and proportionate, for example helping to prevent gang violence, drug dealing and the ‘county lines’ phenomenon. The use is governed by a very strict legal framework.
In other words, we don’t care about the rights of children, we think they are there to serve the needs of the police, and if you’ve got a problem with this, it is frankly because you are a bleeding heart. This is disgusting. And immoral.
And this is moral relativism at the root. Doing something immoral, disgusting, and wrong can be explained away as just another policy in the Met’s crime-fighting tool kit. We have reached the point where in one of the wealthiest, most powerful Western democracies in the world, exploiting children is seen as an acceptable practice by a circle of the government and the police.
June 11, 2018 § 2 Comments
Canada is beside itself with the election of Doug Ford as the Premier of Ontario. Ford, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, is not really all that qualified to be premier, I must say. The lynchpin of his campaign was a promise of $1 beer, and the rest was based on a basic message that the government of Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne was stupid. Well, he didn’t exactly say that, but it was pretty much his message. The centre and left in Ontario and around Canada has been wringing its hands as Donald Trump Lite™ has been elected to lead the largest province in Canada.
It is impossible to deny Ontario’s importance to Canada, it is the most populous province, home to the largest city in the country. And Ontario’s economy is the 8th largest in North America. And, of course, Toronto is also the most diverse city in the world.
Ford, for the most part, did not run on a racist campaign, like the American president, and he has generally not uttered racist comments. But, while he hasn’t, his supporters have. Like everywhere else in the Western world, racism is on the rise in Ontario, and Canada as a whole. The reasons for this are for another post.
The commentariat in Canada has been aghast, rightly so, at Doug Ford’s election. He is a classic populist, a multi-millionaire who pretends to be for the little guy, and mocks the élites for being, well, élites.
But, ultimately, Doug Ford’s election isn’t a rupture with Ontario’s political past. It is also not necessarily a sign of Trumpism coming to Canada. Ontario has a long history with populist premiers, dating back to the Depression-era leadership of Mitch Hepburn. But, also more recently, with the government of Mike Harris in the 1990s.
Mike Harris was elected premier in 1995. In a lot of ways, I think commentators have seen his election as a correction of sorts, after the province had shocked the rest of Canada in electing the NDP government of Bob Rae in 1990. Rae’s time as premier did not go smoothly, and so Harris’ election must be seen in that light. Harris, like Ford, was a populist, and ran on something he called the Common Sense Revolution. Harris sought to bring common sense to Ontario politics. This went about as well as you’d imagine.
Harris’ government cut the social safety net of Ontario something fierce. He also tried to introduce boot camps for juvenile offenders. Harris rode the crest of the 1990s economic boom, and once the economy crashed with the dotcom bubble, he resigned as premier (for personal reasons, I might add) in 2002 and the PC government of Ontario stumbled along with Ernie Eves as premier before getting trounced by the Liberals of Dalton McGuinty in 2003.
Harris’ policies led indirectly to people dying in Ontario. The most obvious example is during the horrible Walkerton e-coli crisis in 2000. There, due to the bumbling incompetence of the Koebel brothers, who operated the Walkerton water supply without any actual training, e-coli entered the supply system. Over 2,000 people fell ill, and 6 people died. Harris’ government was blamed for 1) Refusing to regulate water quality around the province via some form of supervision; 2) Related to 1), not enforcing the rules and guidelines pertaining to water quality; and, 3) the privatization of water supply testing in 1996.
And then there was Kimberly Rogers. Rogers was a single mother and was convicted of welfare fraud. Rogers had collected both student loans and welfare whilst going to school. This had been legal when she began her studies in 1996, but Harris’ government had put an end to that the same year. Rogers plead guilty to the fraud in 2001 and was sentenced to house arrest. And ordered to pay back the welfare payments she had received, over $13,000. She was also pregnant at the time. Her welfare benefits were also suspended; she was on welfare because she couldn’t find employment, even with her degree. The summer of 2001 was brutally hot in Sudbury, her home town, and she was trapped in her apartment with no air conditioning as the temperature outside crested 30C, plus humidity. She committed suicide in August 2001.
An inquest found fault with the government, noting that someone sentenced to house arrest should be provided with adequate shelter, food, medications. Rogers had the first, but not the other two. And while Rogers did break the law, the punishment handed out did not necessarily fit the crime, especially insofar as the house arrest went. And this was due to Harris’ reforms. Upon delivery of the inquest report, Eves’ government refused to implement any reforms, complaining to do so would be to tinker with an effective system.
Meanwhile, Toronto, the self-proclaimed Centre of the Universe, has embarrassed itself with its mayoral choices. The first time was when it elected Mel Lastman mayor in 1997. Lastman had been mayor of the suburb, North York, but Harris’ government had amalgamated Toronto with its suburbs, and so Lastman was now mayor of the new city. Lastman did a lot of good as mayor, that cannot be denied.
But. There was the time when his wife got caught shoplifting in 1999, and Lastman threatened to kill a City-TV reporter. Yes, the mayor of the largest city in Canada threatened to kill someone. He also cozied up to Hells Angels when they held a gathering in Toronto. During the 2003 SARS crisis, he groused on CNN about the World Health Organization, claiming the WHO didn’t know what it was doing and that Lastman had never even heard of them (as an aside, due to the WHO’s work, SARS didn’t become an epidemic). And then there was his trip to Mombassa, Kenya, in 2001 in support of Toronto’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Lastman told a reporter:
What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa?… I’m sort of scared about going out there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.
Lastman, though, was just the precursor to Rob Ford, Doug Ford’s younger brother. Rob Ford ran on a similar campaign of populism. He wasn’t qualified for the job. But it was the larger circus of his life that was concerning. The police were called to his house several times on suspicions of domestic abuse. He also had problems with drugs and alcohol that included an addiction to crack cocaine. He had a habit of getting drunk at Toronto Maple Leafs games and yelling and threatening and abusing people around him. And he, of course, appears to have smoked crack whilst mayor with some gang members. Ford’s larger run as mayor was on the basis of populism, and attacking transportation infrastructure projects, as well as privatizing garbage pickup.
So, as we can see from the past 3 decades of life in Ontario, Doug Ford isn’t exactly the horrible rupture many wish to see him as. He is, instead, a horrible continuity of populism and dangerous politics.
February 5, 2018 § Leave a comment
We live in an era in the United States where, in many states, politicians are picking their voters, not the other way around. This is because in most states, the boundaries of congressional districts are in the hands of politicians, and the majority of the party in the state house has more or less carte blanche to manipulated these boundaries as they see fit. In most democracies, this is handled by an independent commission to avoid just this kind of silliness. When left in the hands of politicians, I can see how the temptation to gerrymander is too great to resist. The logic is simple: If we gerrymander the boundaries of congressional districts, we can not only perpetuate our control of the state house, we can also manipulate and control the congressional party from our state, and if others in other states do it, preferably in our political party, then we can control government.
Of course, this is not how it’s supposed to work. And yet, we end up with congressional districts like these two, from California. We tend to hear in the news that Republicans are the ones who gerrymander. But they’re not alone. Democrats do, too. But, without question, Republicans do it more often. Anyway, look at these two congressional districts. One is the 11th District in California, the other is the 38th. One was Republican, one was Democratic. Both images are from c. 2004, and both districts have been re-drawn.
The gerrymander has been used in nearly every democracy, and is one of the many dirty tricks politicians have used to maintain power. That the gerrymander is, by definition, anti-democratic is another matter. The first time the word was used was in the Boston Herald, in March 1812.
That year, Massachusetts state senate districts had been redrawn at the behest of Governor Eldridge Gerry. Not surprisingly, Gerry’s gerrymander benefited his party, the Democratic-Republicans. The Herald’s editorial cartoonist was not impressed with the re-drawing of the South Essex district:
The Herald charged that the district looked like a mythical salamander, hence we get gerry-mander. It’s worth noting, though, that Gerry’s name wasn’t pronounced ‘Jerry’, but, rather, ‘Geary,’ so, in early 19th century Boston, it was supposed to be pronounced ‘Gearymander’. One theory I’ve read is that the Boston accent re-appropriated the word to ‘Jerrymander.’ More likely, though, something else happened: In the rest of the nascent United States, the name Gerry was likely to be pronounced ‘Jerry,’ not ‘Geary.’ And there we go.
For the remainder of 1812, Federalist newspapers and commentators around the country made use of the term to mock the Democratic-Republican party, which was then in the ascendancy. The Democratic-Republicans were Thomas Jefferson’s party, and it controlled the White House from his election in 1800 until the party split in 1824, largely due to Andrew Jackson. His branch eventually became the Democratic Party we have today. The other branch eventually became the Whigs. Together, the Democrats and Whigs were the core of the Second Party System of the United States, c. 1824-54.
The term also travelled out of the United States, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom, and north to Canada. To be fair, the coining of the term in March 1812, came on the brink of the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June of that year. So, for the British, this was just another way to mock the Americans. But, either way, the term became an accepted term in the English language by 1847, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
January 22, 2018 § 6 Comments
I was reading a scholarly article on polling and the issues it creates in terms of the democratic process last week. In the article, the authors note many of the problems with polling, and there are many. I worked for a major national polling firm in Canada for a couple of years whilst in undergrad. There, I learned just how dodgy supposedly ‘scientific’ polling can be.
My issues have less to do with methodology, where random computer-generated phone numbers are called. Rather, they have to do with both the wording of questions and the manner in which they are asked. I should also note that the rise of cell phones complicates the ability to do random sampling. Something like 48% of American adults only have cell phones (I have not had a landline since 2002, a decade before I emigrated to the US). It is illegal to use random computer-generated calling to cell phones in the US.
The authors of the study I read commented on the manner in which questions were worded, and the ways in which this could impact results. For example, last year during the great debate about the repeal of Obamacare, it became very obvious that a not insignificant proportion of Americans did not realize that the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, was the legislative act that created what we call Obamacare. So you have people demanding the repeal of Obamacare, thinking they would still have their ACA. Obamacare was originally a pejorative term created by (mostly Republican) opponents to the ACA. They figured that by tying the legislation to a president wildly unpopular amongst their constituency (if not the population as a whole), they could whip up public opposition to the ACA. It worked.
But now consider a polling question concerning the popularity or unpopularity of Obamacare/ACA. Does a pollster ask people about their thoughts on Obamacare or on the ACA? Or does that pollster construct a question that includes the slash: Obamacare/ACA? How, exactly does the pollster tackle this issue? Having worked on a team that attempted to create neutral-language questions for a variety of issues at the Canadian polling firm, I can attest this is a difficult thing to do, whether the poll we were trying to create was to ask consumers their thoughts on a brand of toothpaste or the policies and behaviours of the government.
But this was only one part of the problem. I started off with the polling firm working evenings, working the phones to conduct surveys. We were provided with scripts on our computer screens that we were to follow word-for-word. We were also monitored actively by someone, to make sure we were following the script as we were meant to, and to make sure that we were actually interviewing someone taking the poll seriously. More than once, I was instructed to abandon a survey by the monitor. But the monitor didn’t listen to all the calls. There was something like 125 work stations in the polling room. And 125 individuals were not robots. Each person had different inflections and even accents in their voices. Words did not all sound the same coming out of the mouths of all 125 people.
When I had an opportunity to work with the monitor to listen in on calls, I was struck by how differently the scripts sounded. One guy I worked with was from Serbia, and had a pretty thick Serbian accent, so he emphasized some words over others; in most cases, I don’t think his emphasis made a different. But sometimes it could. Another guy had a weird valley girl accent. The result was the same as the Serbian’s. And some people just liked to mess with the system. It was easy to do. They did this by the way they spoke certain words, spitting them out, using sarcasm, or making their voice brighter and happier than in other spots.
Ever since this work experience in the mid-90s, I have been deeply sceptical of polling data. There are already reasons, most notably the space for sampling error, which means that, with the margin of error, most polls are accurate within plus or minus 3%. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the difference between 47% and 53% is significant when it comes to matters of public policy. Or support for candidates. And more to the point, the media does not report the margin of error, or if it does, does so in a throwaway sentence, and the headline reads that 47% of people support/don’t support this or that.
But, ultimately, it is the working and means of asking that makes me deeply suspicious of polling data. And as polling data becomes even more and more obsessed over by politicians, the media, and other analysts, I can’t help but think that polling is doing more than most things to damage democracy, and not just in the United States, but in any democracy where polling is a national obsession.