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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Strictly Partisan Piece

Toronto, June 2010.
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot
stamping on a human face ― forever.” 
George Orwell, 1984
After watching the televised leaders’ debate two nights ago, I learned three things about Prime Minister Stephen Harper that I hadn’t realized before. First, he has the interesting (though unsettling) habit of smiling when he lies. I’m serious, watch for it; it’s a piece of knowledge that may prove useful for our self-defense in the coming years.

Second, Mr. Harper doesn’t think of himself as representing Canadians. In a telling sentence during the debate, he spoke of Canadians having chosen him to “rule them”. Strange usage in a democracy, methought. None of his opponents seemed to have picked up on it. I would have been all over it. Unfortunately, his opponents are pitifully weak, and it showed.

Third, Mr. Harper speaks in code to his base. There were at least two examples of this during the debate. One example was when he referred to Canadians as having a “right to health insurance”. In the context of a discussion of improving Canada’s publicly-funded health care system, this locution seemed a bit jarring to me, although none of his opponents seemed to pick up on it, or if they did, they chose to let it pass. In normal parlance, one expects to hear of a “right to health care”. “Right to health insurance” sounds, well, American. Semantically, Harper’s usage here is perfectly consistent with various schemes for private health programs that have been floated, such as President Obama’s very flawed plan. The language was very ambivalent, and again, unfortunately, his opponents failed to pick up on it.

Another example of Mr. Harper’s use of code was more chilling, especially if you live in one of Canada’s major cities. This time there was one opponent clever enough to call him on it, Gilles Duceppe (sad times indeed, when the most able defender of the interests of Canadians ends up being a separatist ― but then again, maybe he’s on to something). In the context of a discussion of gun control and his government’s efforts to scrap the long gun registry, Mr. Harper said that he didn’t see why farmers should have to “pay for the problems of Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto”. I’m necessarily paraphrasing his precise words (I may have reversed the order of the cities). Mostly for the benefit of non-Canadian readers, here is what is so chilling about Mr. Harper’s words. According to the 2006 census, Toronto’s population was 5,555,912. Vancouver’s was 2,116,581. Montreal’s was 3,635,571. Thus, in 2006, 9,194,180 people were living in the greater metropolitan areas of these three cities alone. The total population of Canada at the same time was 31,241,030.

This means that Mr. Harper does not consider the problems of over 29% of the Canadian population to be his concern or the concern of his base. This is evident in the way he has governed for the past five years. Now obviously, this 29% can go much higher, because many of the problems of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal are also the problems of, say, Winnipeg, Hamilton, and Halifax.

Mr. Harper’s strategy makes sense. You cannot stay in power while at the same time openly insulting and effectively writing off almost a third of the electorate, unless you are willing to maintain a solid base (Alberta) while adopting a divide-and-conquer strategy with everyone else, categorizing the population by groups and then pitting them against one another: region versus region, rich versus poor, rural versus urban, native-born Canadians versus immigrants, old immigrants versus new immigrants, straights versus gays, Christians versus Muslims… This strategy, combined with a “first-past-the-post” electoral system that makes a mockery of the notion that Canada is a democracy, have worked pretty well for Mr. Harper. Although he has yet to leverage a majority government out of it, holding on to a minority government for five years with such tenuous popular support is quite an accomplishment.

His base was who Mr. Harper was really talking to during that debate, as his reptilian visage stared vapidly into the television camera rather than into the faces of the opponents in the same room whose questions he was supposed to be answering.

Unfortunately for his opponents, the base doesn’t care for the civilities of informed discourse between opponents. The base simply worships brute power. The base admires the naked combat that is politics in Mr. Harper’s new-modeled Canada. The base admires only winners and cares little about the rules that determine them. The symbols of political discourse in the new Canada are the brass knuckles and the switchblade knife.

The base does not like being instructed; it likes watching those who would try to instruct them getting mashed in the face by the fist of someone who is strong. This is why Michael Ignatieff, despite being the most intellectually accomplished Prime Ministerial candidate this nation has ever had (whatever you think of his particular views), cannot make any headway in this campaign: he tries to instruct Canadians, when what Canadians really seem to want him to do is pound his fist into his opponent’s face. Canadians must know that the thousands of revolting anti-Ignatieff attack ads the Conservatives ran in the months leading up an election they supposedly didn’t want are lies. But the truth doesn’t matter. Triumph and gloating over a destroyed enemy is what counts in the new Canada. If Mr. Ignatieff were to run his own attack ads… well, that might turn things around for him. But knowledge, policies, an understanding of how the world works will get him nowhere. After all, as Mr. Harper’s attack ads make clear, to have been outside the country, and to have accomplished something outside the country, are badges of shame, not honour, in the new Canada.

Mr. Harper’s base in Canada has grown into that 30 to 40% of Canadians who would vote for him under any and all conceivable circumstances. He has lied to, obstructed, and shut down Parliament. He has overseen the largest mass detention of innocent people in Canadian history. He is complicit in torture abroad. He has misappropriated public funds. His ministers have doctored memoranda of understanding after they have been signed off on by other parties (which is fraud, plain and simple), and then lied about it. Most alarmingly, he has begun to use the RCMP (who have apparently become the Stasi of the new Canada) to spy on the Facebook pages of citizens so that he can screen them for undesirable (i.e. non-Conservative) political leanings. There is almost no crime he and his party apparatchiks have not committed, and I’m confident there is no crime they would stick at committing if they could profit from it. However, given the rigidity of the poll numbers, Mr. Harper would have to molest a child or rape a baby harp seal to make his base so much as blush.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The leaders’ debate made clear to me that nothing will likely stop Mr. Harper from forming the next government, furthering Canada’s drift into authoritarian rule. Whether he receives a minority or a majority mandate is an open question, one that will probably make little substantive difference anyway. If it’s a minority, the other parties will likely be too absorbed in their own resulting leadership battles to offer any kind of effective opposition. So, those who are of my mind about the profound dangers of Conservative governance must begin to think about where we go from here, on the assumption that there will be, for all intents and purposes, a majority Conservative government.

The obvious idea that has been discussed is a coalition government of the opposition parties. This is no longer a viable option, for at least three reasons. First, this door will be slammed shut if the Conservatives win a proper majority government, which is entirely possible at this point. Second, the leader of the Liberals, Mr. Ignatieff, has slammed that door shut by declaring in no uncertain terms that he would not try to form a coalition. He almost had to do this in order to counteract Mr. Harper’s relentless propaganda warning of a nefarious coalition. Third, it is unclear if such a coalition could even garner the required popular support. There are many who dislike Mr. Harper, but dislike the idea of such a coalition just as much. At the very least, the current leadership of the opposition parties would have to change before many Canadians would be willing to revisit the option, which puts us back where we were. And any coalition would have to have enough support to be able to exclude the separatist Bloc Quebecois from membership, which is currently impossible.

Thus, instead of longing for a coalition government to rescue us, we need to think about creative ways of resisting. In January 2001 Mr. Harper co-authored an open letter to Alberta Premier Ralph Klein suggesting that the province of Alberta build firewalls around itself to protect it from the rest of Canada. We who wish to resist Mr. Harper’s growing despotism must start to build firewalls around our urban areas, where effects of this despotism will be most keenly felt. This would necessitate putting pressure on municipal governments to grow some serious backbone, as it would mean doing battle with not only the federal government, but in many cases with provincial governments as well. I favour any method that has us building our own states within the state, rendering the federal government as unnecessary as possible (which is basically the path suggested by Mr. Harper in his “firewall” letter). That would be the basic strategic framework within which we should start debating specific measures. It is unfortunate that this might have the long-term effect of further weakening our tottering confederation, but we can thank Mr. Harper for making this necessary.

Another thing we might have to start thinking about ― and I know most will believe I’m being paranoid or irrational here ― is how we can defend ourselves, in more robust ways, from the more concrete forms of authoritarianism we can expect in the next four years or so. With all those new mega-prisons and police officers Mr. Harper has promised (despite falling crime rates), I can’t help wondering what else he has planned. What I learned from last summer’s G20 experience is that mass detentions and the use of “police” paramilitary force to trample on basic constitutional rights is a growing reality in the new Canada. Even worse, there is no formal political institution or body that can protect us from it. The system of checks and balances has almost completely broken down. So the organization of citizen defense groups of some sort may eventually become necessary (I hesitate using the word “militia” because I want to avoid the assumption that such groups must possess firearms, and because I do not wish to fall afoul of Canada’s sedition laws here). As drastic as this sounds, it is something that should be considered sooner rather than later. Since Mr. Harper already seems to be using the RCMP to check up on the political credentials of ordinary citizens, it may soon become more difficult to organize resistance.

I have frittered away much of my life as a scholar. I am not a born activist, so I don’t know how to go about doing any of this. I would like to hear what ideas you have, general or specific, that might help protect us.

Room for Hope?

Ironically, almost the sole prospect of hope I see in our situation comes from within the Conservative party itself. As much as Mr. Harper dislikes expressions of dissent from citizens, so too does he dislike it from within his party’s ranks. There must be intelligent and ambitious people within the Conservative party that are chafing under Mr. Harper’s authoritarian style of governing. Perhaps at some point the proverbial knives will come out and solve the problem for us? Even better, there is the outside chance that this will happen sooner than anyone expects, if Mr. Harper fails to produce the majority government his party hungers for.

There is also the possibility that Mr. Harper’s own character will become his worst enemy. Despite the illusion, he is far from infallible. He has a talent for making enemies, he is vindictive, and he never forgets a slight. Sooner or later he may find himself very isolated. This may already be happening. Think of all the former cronies that seem to have become personae non grata in the Harper inner circle: Tom Flanagan, Peter MacKay, Stockwell Day…  He also has a well-known habit of overplaying his hand, and his overweening pride is almost without measure. In his time in office he has caused himself many a needless problem that could easily have been avoided if he weren’t so arrogant and autocratic. Part of Mr. Harper’s problem is that he’s often too clever for his own good, much like the politician in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (III.ii.351-356 and 393-400):

‘Mong these there was a Politician,
With more heads than a Beast in Vision,
And more Intrigues in ev’ry one,
Than all the Whores of Babylon:
So politick, as if one eye
Upon the other were a Spy;
*        *        *
And when he chanc’d t’escape, mistook
For Art, and Subtlety, His Luck,
So right his Judgment was cut fit,
And made a Tally to his wit,
And both together most Profound
At Deeds of Darkness under ground:
As th’Earth is easiest undermin’d
By vermine Impotent and Blind.


  1. Thanks for the link. I actually found the discussion more interesting than the post itself. Maybe city slickers are finally learning about how things really work in this confederation of ours: if you want the feds to listen to you, you have to start a separatist movement.