Posts in "activism"

Re: Shame

(also posted at PoliticsRespun.org)

I have an old stand-by joke for partisan political events that I happen upon or at which I end up.  How can you tell an NDP event?

The cries of “Shame! Shame!”

There are a few tropes we can pile together about political rallies.  Conservative ones seem to have hired goons at the door and only admitted the evangelical supporters, forceably ejecting (sometimes by means of the RCMP) anyone who doesn’t agree.  Liberal ones have people in suits, well-dressed, career type people, out for a day of cheering for whoever will get them a job in the Natural Governing Party.  And yet the NDP is the one that sometimes feels like a ‘born-again’ church ceremony, with the mutually expected choruses of “Shame!”

(I went to the NDP’s platform launch in Toronto: Jack Layton, energetic and Lenin-Lookalike as always, even taught us to yell it en Français: “Honteuse!” Also, I suppose: “Honteux!”)

Alex has recently written about the superhero narrative in popular fiction.  In her piece, she talks about the feelings of worthlessness that this narrative can instil, at how disempowering that it can be — unless you happen to be the superhero.  She instead suggests we need a different narrative, one of collective hope, collective action… perhaps a more democratic narrative.

So why is it that the NDP sticks to this “Shame!” trope?

There’s a specific narrative at use.  The other guys did something SHAMEFUL. (“Shame! Shame! Honteux!“) And the NDP won’t be as SHAMEFUL. (“Yay!”)

It’s an oddly patriarchal narrative, and the discourse dynamics of what does on is, in my mind, nerve-grinding.  The party sets up the scenario.  The party identifies the shameful situation. The party expects the faithful to yell “Shame! Shame!” and maybe “Honteux!

It’s basically a 3 step process: 1. Shameful situation is exposed. 2. “Shame! Honteux!” 3. The NDP will do the opposite.

One, the use of the word “shame!” really strikes me as outdated. It’s not what we’d say today.  Admittedly, they can’t yell out what I’d be thinking (“That’s fucked!” maybe “C’est fucké!“), but “shame!” strikes my as what my lovely grandmother would yell at the TV.  Actually, no, she’d be slightly more forceful.  The groupthink feeling is slightly creepy – when you’re at the event, you’re expected to cheer along.

And the discourse is disempowering.  The role of the public is to chant “shame!” when the politicians present the proper incentive.  Not much else.  Actually, I think it’s similar to Alex’s superhero narrative – here, the NDP is the superhero, the evil-doing has been presented, and the NDP will be off to fix the problem!

Other rallies – by all parties – have the same problem.  A political issue is presented that must be changed.  Who’s going to change it? The party and the politicians!  I was at an NDP rally about the HST in Vancouver, and the speakers said something along the lines of “You tell us what you think needs to be done, and we’re gonna do it for you!” Of course, there was ample amounts of “Shame!” built in.  The same thing just happened at the BC NDP convention when Adrian Dix won the leadership of the BC NDP – the BC Liberals are full of “Shame!” and the NDP are not.

There isn’t much discussion of why the NDP aren’t as shameful – just that the BC Liberals/Conservatives/Evil Reptilian Kitten Eaters from Another Planet are full of shame!

But what can be done?

We need to think of a different way of organizing ourselves politically.  Parties  – and the stupid political system (FPTP) that we’re currently stuck with, because of parties – are constructs that are designed to win mass and vague support from large amounts of people.  They’re supposed to channel political action through the parties, limiting the role of people – like you and me – to simply assigning our support to the party that is the least offensive, in the hopes of avoiding the most offensive from taking total control.

We need to work on this. A better world is needed. And I don’t think simply yelling “Shame! Honteux!” at the people whom we hope won’t be as bad is the best way we can do it.  We need a more democratic narrative, where we’re not reduced to yelling “shame!” at things we don’t like but actively working towards the things that we do like.  Like Alex says, we need a political reality and discourse where “[w]e can define our own lives and tell our own stories, because we don’t need no superheros.”

Or to simply shout “Shame!”

That we must, for now, is…

…a shame.

Contempt, democracy, and change

(also posted at PoliticsRespun.org)

So far, 2011 has been an interesting year, one full of history, democracy, and change – and hope.  We’ve seen uprisings throughout northern Africa and the Middle East, with people demanding democracy instead of oppressive governments and dictatorships.

Today, something historic happened in Canada as well – though nothing on the level of what’s happening throughout the rest of the world.  Indeed, today was quite likely a low point of Canadian ‘democratic’ history: the government of the day was found, by the House of Commons, to be in contempt of Parliament — that is, willfully ignoring and acting against the privileges, rights, and duties of the Parliament of Canada.

This is huge.  But it speaks to a huge problem afflicting that which is ‘democracy’ in Canada.  So today, while it was an historic moment in Canada, a day in which, for the first time in history a government was found in contempt of Parliament, it wasn’t an historic day in the same way that 2011 has been historic for large parts of the world.

Today was not a day of hope, democracy, and change – today was a day of contempt for democracy that speaks to a desperate need for change.  Here’s why.

Democracy is not a nuisance, it is not ‘unnecessary,’ and it is not ‘reckless.’

Today’s speeches and grandstanding have shown very well how the Conservative Party sees democracy in Canada.  Quite clearly, they see it as “unnecessary” and “reckless.”  They’ve gone so far in this respect that Stephen Harper has pointed to the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan as reasons why elections are reckless.  Conservative party loudmouths John Baird and others have yelled this at us continuously – according to them, we don’t need elections.

Aside from the apocryphal outcome of this statement – Emperor Harper – it’s absurd and insulting.  If we accept that wars have been fought for democracy, then why are elections unnecessary? If the concept of a Parliament is that the government must hold the confidence of the members of the House of Commons – the only representatives that we have in national politics – then why is an election unnecessary when a majority of those representatives have no confidence in the government?

Democracy is not unnecessary. It is not reckless. It is not a nuisance.

While I strongly feel that representative democracy in Canada – that sees us as voters choose the least offensive candidate in our ridings in the hopes of avoiding the most offensive of governments – is flawed and must be revised, the truth of the matter is that it is the system that we currently have to govern ourselves and our country.  We elect, occasionally, representatives who then govern the country, on our behalf.  The person elected who can command the support of a majority of those representatives – generally articulated through a political party and party support – becomes the prime minister.

If, through corruption, contempt of parliament, and ethical scandal upon ethical scandal, that prime minister loses the confidence and support of the House – as what happened today – then, by definition, an election is necessary.  To suggest otherwise is to insult Canadians. Democracy is something that people have fought wars over.  It is most decidedly not a nuisance.

Contempt of Parliament – and democracy

But insulting us is something that Harper’s Conservative Party is extremely good at doing.

In a Parliamentary system, it is constitutional law and constitutional fact that Parliament is supreme. This means that it passes laws and can edit them. And to do this, it must have the proper information and answers – and respect – that it needs in order to function.  Today’s vote of no confidence was built on the fact that the Harper regime has outright refused to provide information to the Parliament, when it has formally demanded it, on any number of things.  Costs of superprisons and putting pretty much everyone in jail.  Costs of jet fighters that are sole-sourced that we don’t really need.  They refused to disclose the documents on possible war crimes and Afghan detainees.  Ministers apparently misled the Parliament – and Canadians.

All of this adds up to a government that quite obviously holds Parliament – and Canadian democracy – in contempt.  I wrote on this earlier, but here’s the brief: Harper and his party find Canadian democracy a nuisance.  They’d much rather prefer it if Canadians just didn’t care about politics so they could go about their merry little neoliberal plans without protest.  So they act in a way so as to disgust Canadians with politics, alienate us from our processes of governance, and build up dislike of the entire concept of the political.

The vote today is only one example of this, as is Harper’s insulting characterization of democracy as reckless, unnecessary, and a nuisance.

We need change – and not just a change of colour

So, we’re having an election.  That might bring some change.  Plus, it’s democracy in action.  Isn’t that enough?

No.

The next thirty-five or so days, up to the big day where we march into the gym of a local school, or a church, and mark an ‘X’ next to the name of the least offensive candidate in our ridings, is a length of time where we will be bombarded with ads from political parties.  The red signs will tell us to vote red to avoid the blue.  The blue signs will tell us that if we don’t vote for them, separatists and socialists will eat our kittens. And the orange signs will tell us to vote for them so that you don’t have to pay $1.25 at the ATM.  (Et, d’accord, si vous êtes au Québec, les placards violets vont dire “votez pour nous, et nous devenions maîtres chez nous.”)

If the system is flawed, then this part of the system is flawed too.  Political parties have developed as little organizations that exist solely to grab power and exercise it.  Some of them – like the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, once upon a time – may have been grassroots, dedicated to real social change, but they aren’t any longer.  People no longer feel represented by political parties, they feel alienated from them, and it’s these parties that are about to contest this election.

The way that parties operates gives rise to party operatives and apparatchiks who don’t really care about democracy. To them – and to many of the government MPs who were just found in contempt of democracy – parties are vehicles to get power.  Not to represent Canadians, work for common causes, but to seize and wield power.

A perfect example of this is my former MP, James Moore.  Until the Parliament is dissolved, he is the Minister of Canadian Heritage.  One might think that if serving Canadians, working for Canada’s best interests, and doing thing that Canadians care about was why he was in politics, then he might take that seriously.

Instead, he put the following up on Twitter just before the confidence vote, as a Liberal MP came to talk to him about funding for the arts and immigration cases:

In this Twitter post, Moore “laughs” at a Liberal MP who happened to ask about arts files – his Ministerial responsibility.  Yes, the Liberal MP was about to vote no confidence, which is what happens when a government is in contempt of parliament and democracy, but it’s still Moore’s job.  And is, in fact, until the next Minister is named.

This is how the Conservative party sees things.  The point of democracy, to them, is not collective governance, or making sure the government works properly.  It’s to make sure that the Conservative party is in power, at the expense of everyone else.  You can be sure that had a Conservative MP came to ask him for help on arts files, Moore wouldn’t have been laughing and then gloating about it.

I told Moore that I wasn’t impressed about this, and that I didn’t find the fact that he was laughing at another MP doing his job – actually representing constituents – was all that funny.  He sent me a private message, saying:

Not only is James Moore incapable of seeing his own contempt for the concept of representative democracy, he takes the opportunity to speak down to me – a Canadian.  Who has contempt in this situation?

Political parties, at least how they work now, are not ways to actually represent Canadians and ensure democratic functioning of government.  Their entire goal is to seize power and wield it. To do so, they’ll engage in anything – in the case of the Conservative party, offensive and disgusting attack ads, and election alleged election law violations – to win power.  Add to that, ‘attacking Canadians who might actually care.’

It’s for reasons like this, like James Moore’s contempt, and his government’s contempt, that I think we need more than just cosmetic change, swapping the blue government for the red, or the slightly orange-tinged one.  We need to change the system.

Democracy is about all of us, who live together, work together, and exist together, deciding how we will do all of that.  It’s about collective self-governance.  It’s about our common projects, our common rights, our common responsibilities.

It’s not about one group taking power over all of us, and gloating as they do so.

So yes, an election is coming up.  And in about thirty five or so days we’ll mark an ‘X’ next to the name of the least offensive candidate in the hopes of avoiding the most offensive government.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

So let’s start a discussion on what we can do different.  How we can empower Canadians – all of us – to take part in democracy and governance.  How we can rescue that which so many people around the world are still, today, fighting for – democracy.

There are times I can’t believe I study politics.

– Also posted at PoliticsRespun.org

I’m a graduate student in political science at York University.

And there are times – increasingly more times – that I can’t believe that I study politics.

And I’d like to suggest that this is precisely what Stephen Harper wants.

Personally, I think that it’s kind of telling that someone like me – a student who has, thus far, dedicated six years and more than thirty thousand dollars to actuallystudying politics – might be getting tired of what I used to find so interesting, and what I might have, at one time, been passionate about.

After all, if someone like me, who was so dedicated to studying politics, might tire of it, then what of everyone else in the country? Everyone out there who hasn’t spent countless hours and dollars studying politics, understanding the vagaries of political systems, wondering what votes might mean?

But, again, I’d like to suggest that this is what Stephen Harper wants.  He wants everyone to tire of politics.  And he’s well on his way to doing this.

Using a description written by Javier Auyero, when he was studying oligarchic and undemocratic practices in South America, Stephen Harper probably wants us to think of “politics [as] an activity alien to” the people.  Harper probably wants us to exist in a scenario where politics “is defined as an action that is foreign to everyday life.”

And in such a situation, Harper wants the Conservative Party to appear beyond politics. He wants you to think of the Conservative Party as an apolitical, beneficient organization, that does good in the world.  And that politics is alien, apart, separate from this.

Why would Harper, a politician of all things, want this?

Because politics has become something alien to all of us.  And engaging in politics is then something foreign to us.  So we won’t engage in politics.  But thankfully, the Conservative Party will be there for us, if we need anything… because that’s not political.

In short, Harper is trying to construe politics – the very processes by which we, as a democratic society, ought to have broad discussions on our priorities and how we might live together – as something that we shouldn’t ever want to get involved in, so that he and his Conservative Party have all the control, all the power, and can do whatever they want.

And when I see this happening, I can’t believe that I actually study politics.

Over the past week and a bit, a number of ridiculous political events have taken place that serve to undermine the concept of the political in Canadian discourses.

(continued after the break!)

First, there was a bit of a kerfuffle over the Minister for International Cooperation,Bev Oda, and whether or not she after-the-fact modified a document, inserting the word “not” into a document that ostensibly approved funding to KAIROS, a faith-based NGO that works in the developing world.

There was a set of really stupid parliamentary debates about this memo and this seemingly crayon-scrawled “NOT” that changed the entire memo from supporting the funding, to well… NOT.  First, Oda claimed at a committee that CIDA – the International Development Agency – recommended not funding KAIROS.  Then, when the memo was released, she claimed that she had no idea who had inserted the “NOT.”  Then, she apologized to parliament for any confusion – turns out, she had directed that the “NOT” be inserted. Sorry for misunderstanding.

In my opinion, Oda misled the House of Commons twice – first, by implying that it was CIDA that didn’t want the funding. Then, by claiming that she had no idea who had inserted the not.  Actually, that last excuse might well have been the truth – I can see Harper ordering the funding not go ahead, and then Oda and her staff scrambling to cover up the fact that they were retroactively withdrawing the funding.

Next, Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney screwed up intensely when his office accidentally sent NDP MP Linda Duncan – instead of Conservative MP John Duncan – a package of information detailing the Conservative’s “ethnic paid media strategy.”

There are any number of problems with this:

  1. It’s highly unethical – and I believe illegal – to use House of Commons, Ministry, or Government resources for partisan purposes.  Yet here we have some poor staffer being “instructed” to send out information packages on “very ethnic ridings” soliciting $200,000 from riding associations for a Conservative Party ad campaign. Said poor staffer got thrown under the bus as Jason Kenney took full responsibility and fired the staff member.
  2. It’s offensive to see the Conservative Party — or any other party — explicitly targeting “very ethnic” ridings.
  3. Where did the Conservative Party get the data on the ridings? They have some detailed stuff – I’m willing to wager it came from the long-form census — which the Conservative Party also cut. How entertaining.  Did they pay the HUGE costs associated with getting the data from StatsCan?

Sigh.

Then, last week, various Conservative Party executives, including Senator Doug Finley, were charged with breaking the Elections Act regarding the “in and out” scheme that the Conservatives engaged in in the 2006 election.

For those of you whose eyes glaze over at the mention of this – here’s how it works: the Conservative Party hit their spending limit in the election, a limit which they are not allowed to exceed. To get around it, Elections Canada is alleging that the Conservative Party nationally bought advertising, and faked invoices to local riding associations, so that they could then send the extra money they had to these ridings and cover the costs, making the expense appear local when it was actually national.  To make things better, the local ridings got reimbursed for expenses that they didn’t actually incur.  This strikes me as theft.

To make things better, after admitting that mixing government and partisan work isn’t actually a good thing, it turns out that Jason Kenney has been handing out nifty little Ministerial Awards that feature the Conservative Party logo on them. This is flagrantly stupid, in my opinion.

So… what’s this all about?

Harper and the Conservative Party are trying to do two things at the same time: poison the idea of the political in the minds of Canadians so much that our stomaches turn at the very idea of being involved in anything to do with politics, and position the Conservative Party as the natural place you’d go to when you want something done – without having to get all political about it.

The Conservative Party is in power – they control the government, they can put huge amounts of money into their ridings, vis-a-vis the gazebos in Tony Clement’sriding, the fake lake in Toronto, the Economic Action! Plan money being spend heavily in Conservative ridings… and so on.

They’ve effectively become a cartel party.  Political parties are theoretically groups of people with similar ideas and passions that exist to try and get those ideas and passions put into place.  They are theoretically coordinating bodies, to bring activists together in a common cause.  They’re supposed to be the link between civil society and the state — and that “link” is supposed to be politics.

Instead, here we have the Conservative Party colonizing the state.  They are the state.  This is why the name change, from the Government of Canada to the Harper Government is so telling.  To Stephen Harper, the French King’s pronouncement is so very true: “l’etat, c’est moi.”

After they’ve colonized the state, the Conservative Party is working hard to destroy the distinction between them as a party and them as a government.  It’s something the Liberals succeeded in doing – it’s why we called them the Natural Governing Party.  It’s something the NDP would revel in doing.  But it’s not something I think any party ought to do.

And that “linking” role that was so important, once upon a time, that parties played – articulating their members and public demands into government practice and policy – is politics.  And that’s quickly becoming something foreign and alien – and dirty.

So at the end of the day, politics is something that no one in their right mind wants to do. It’s dirty work. It’s alien to everyday life.

So we’ll just leave the politicians to it.  And when we need something, we’ll look no further than the Conservative Party.

And when a student in political science, of all people, is getting tired of politics, it shows that it’s working.

So what do we do?

We need to take back politics and the political.  We need to rethink how we collectively work together.  The concept of a party as being a vehicle to seize state power so that we have… well, power… is something that has brought us here.

We need to find a different way of collectively determining social priorities and projects.

We can look around the world at other examples, that are exciting. That are interesting.  Hell, Tunisia – which two months ago didn’t have a democracy – is now “freer than the United States.” Perhaps we can look there.

And we can reclaim politics from the politicians. From the parties.

And make it ours again.