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Friday, August 13, 2010

Harpokon hatred and the lessons of history

Further to Wednesday's post, Chet Scoville made an excellent point yesterday about the moral and political myopia infecting the Harpokons.

That they're motivated by spite and malice isn't really in dispute. It's the target and the historical focus of their bile that makes this consideration worthwhile;  as Chet argues, they seem convinced that all the bad things they've come to hate – progressive legislation, a social safety net, expansion of the body politic beyond the subset of white men who own property – started with Pierre Trudeau in the Sixties.

Any objective and reasonably comprehensive survey of Canadian history should reveal, however, that that just isn't the case. For a worldview like that to make sense, you'd have to believe, in essence, that the years before the Trudeau era were the Golden Age of feudalism. Men were men, serfs were serfs, women and peasants knew their place, and the advent of industrialization did nothing to alter the fundamental class order of society.

But to believe that you'd have to ignore the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Progressive movement, the New Deal, and probably even the Protestant Reformation for that matter. (Hey, I'm a big admirer of the Protestant work ethic. I also like those little finger sandwiches ... ) And as Paul Wells argues, much of what we've seen over the decades suggests that 
major social change happens incrementally and through stealth, rather than through the kind of romantic Thatcherite Big Fight for which some of my colleagues are so often nostalgic.
He goes on to suggest that that's what's really motivating Harper's assault on the census. It's not really about intrusiveness – after all, this is the same government that's installing full-body scanners in airports – so much as it is about removing the factual and statistical basis for much of the debate that precedes and surrounds policy initiatives.

A valid argument, so far as it goes, and it's not the first time it's been made. When you combine and consider the suggestions cited above, though, a number of observations arise.

Firstly, Paul is onto something when he contrasts policy advanced through electoral politics with policy advanced through things like the Court Challenges Program. Things like that have always been red meat to the Harpokon base; naturally, Birkenstock-wearing-tofu-eating-gay-Muslim urban elitists can't win at the polls, so they use our tax dollars to get what they want from activist judges, yargle bargle bleghh ...

The thrust of Paul's argument, however, is that the census kerfuffle reveals Harper's readiness to employ  exactly the same tactics that he was always ready to condemn the Liberals for using. If you can't advance your agenda through the political arena, you use "back channels" like the courts program, or simply emasculate and silence whatever sectors of the public service or NGO sector provide aid, comfort or factual backup to your opposition. Perhaps the ultimate goal may indeed be the dismantlement of the welfare state as we know it.

If that's the calculation behind the assault on the census, however, it's based not only on a misreading of history, but also of the Liberal Party's role in advancing the developments the Harpokons and their base have come to hate. As Chet argues, the Liberal Party didn't spearhead those developments; it reacted to popular sentiment, it co-opted initiatives from more progressive sectors, and it built its electoral success on aligning itself with fundamental Canadian values as they emerged and developed over the decades.  In his own words:
In none of these important cases did the Liberal Party make us who we are. On the contrary, they stayed in power for decades at a time by usually following our lead, and by reflecting (always imperfectly) the centre of the overall values of Canadians as we saw ourselves in the larger world. When they failed to follow our lead, they typically suffered at the ballot box, and then rebuilt by reconnecting with the electorate. In other words, the values that Harper's base mistake for Liberal ideology are no such thing.
Also, as Paul humourously suggests, the policy mechanisms associated with the hated "welfare state" can prove quite useful to governments of various ideological bent. Perhaps, once the census is rendered statistically and politically useless, future Harpokon governments can begin arranging 
the realignment of massive state action to serve the electoral interests of the Conservative Party. If one day we have no idea how many rock-ribbed family-values farmers and small tradesmen of Icelandic, Ukrainian, Scottish and Irish descent there are between Kenora and Kelowna, it will be easy enough for Tony Clement and Stockwell Day to claim there are 147 million of them and every one needs a tool-belt tax credit and a little something extra to help raise the kids.
So, what to take from this? It goes beyond Harper's hypocrisy, and certainly he's not the first politician guilty of talking out of both sides of his mouth, and occasionally out of his ass. Ultimately, though, if he's out to rewrite fundamental Canadian character, he's in for a disappointment. What we have to worry about, more than anything else, is how much damage he's going to do the social fabric in the attempt.

1 comment:

  1. "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich" - John F. Kennedy
    More and more I am becoming convinced that the goal of all of the North American Conservatives is to strip away from government anything that doesn't serve the corporate elite. They are using imbecilic demagogues like Glenn Beck & Rush Limbaugh to brainwash the sheeple into acceptance of corporate rule.
    The American rightwing is bad enough, but Harper seems to be following blindly along (at the Fraser Institute's prodding) with not a single thought for what will happen to Canada