Monday, December 28, 2009

Petulant Children

In a recent column, Andrew Sullivan distinguished between two types of conservatives: "There are conservatives who are always girded for war or suspect all peace as some kind of hidden war; and those who are happy at peace, greatful for its blessings and hopeful that it will last. There are those who always see Hobbes and those who see Hobbes but are greatful for Locke."

Modern conservatives are fascinated with Hobbes. The past year has made their fascination with the man -- who held that life was, unfortunately, "nasty, brutish and short" -- abundantly clear. In the United States, the Republican Party has become a party of no policy; indeed, it is now just a party of "no." New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently referred to a study, by political scientist Barbara Sinclair, which plotted the use of the senatorial filibuster -- a technique which for nearly 200 years was used effectively but sparingly: "In the 1960's, she finds, 'extended-debate-related problems' -- threatened or actual filibusters -- affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980's that had risen to 27 percent. But, after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006, and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent."

In this country, the Harper conservatives have followed the same trajectory. As James Travers wrote in the Toronto Star:
Little now stands in the Prime Minister's way. Parliament's independent watchdogs are mostly mute, their collars drawn tight and leashes shortened. Parliament's committees, including the one investigating torture allegations, are rendered impotent by a confidential manual instructing partisan sabotage. Elected representatives sent here to safeguard the national treasury and restrain ruling party excesses are no longer able to fulfill those defining duties.

For years these folks whined about injustice, claiming that modern republican and parliamentary democracy had rigged the game against them. Now that they have been elected, even tenuously -- as were George W. Bush and Stephen Harper -- they have sought to dismantle those democracies, afraid that their time will never come again. They have operated on the Hobbesian principle that power can only be won and maintained by vanquishing one's enemies; that the world has always been a nasty place; and that the fundamental principle in any democracy -- that the best solutions are the products of debate, cooperation and compromise -- is idealistic hogwash.

They are, in truth, petulant children -- intent on getting their way. And, like the little boys in Golding's Lord of the Flies, they are quite content to burn down the island in their manic quest to rid themselves and their countries of contrary thinking.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Father Remembered

My father died last week. He lived a long life -- long enough to see his children grow up and have children of their own. In fact, he lived to see and enjoy two great grandchildren.

A year and a half ago, I marvelled in this space about how a man who grew up without a father managed to become such a good one himself. And I was immodestly pleased when he responded to that post publicly.

We no longer live in Montreal, where my wife and I grew up. But I try to call my parents every weekend; and my father always gave me his take on each Monday morning's post. You should understand that my father's political opinions -- on most subjects -- were far different than my own. Even though I bear his name, he was never out to convert me to his worldview.

In fact, one of the many lessons he taught me was that we could disagree -- profoundly -- but we did not have to fight. Perhaps he came to that conclusion as a World War II veteran. He certainly had no patience for war stories. He valued his friendships with other veterans; but he took no pride in someone else's total surrender. He refused to keep a gun in the house; and when -- as a kid -- I asked him why, he simply said, "I had enough of that during the war."

To say I will miss him doesn't capture the way I feel. But I am confident that he has earned his reward.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Study in Hypocrisy

On Friday, Security Minister Stockwell Day articulated the reasons why the Harper government had refused to release uncensored documents to the Parliamentary Committee investigating Afghan prisoner abuse. "We are not going to make information available just readily," he said, "about friend and foe alike, about specific items, about a security operation that could imperil our own troops and imperil the citizens."

It's interesting to compare Day's statement to one that Stephen Harper made as he assumed office three years ago: "Restoring accountability will be one of the major priorities of our new government. Accountability is what ordinary Canadians, working Canadians, those people who pay their bills, pay their taxes, expect from their political leaders."

And then there was this trope on how a minority parliament should operate, from the then Leader of the Opposition: "And I think that the real problem we're facing already is that the government doesn't accept that it got a minority."

What the prisoner abuse scandal illustrates is what these statements illustrate: what the government says and what the government does are oxymoronic. Peter McKay says that there is "no absolute proof" of prisoner abuse. General Natynczyk says there is. Richard Colvin says the government knew of the problem in 2006; but it only attempted to fix it a year later, despite the fact that our allies, the British and the Dutch, had acted on the problem much earlier.

More importantly, there is the principle of the supremacy of Parliament. It is the fundamental check against a government's abuse of power. The simple truth is that we are dealing with two kinds of abuse here: abuse of prisoners and abuse of Parliament.

As Jeffrey Simpson pointed out in Saturday's Globe and Mail, there was a fairly straight forward way out of this mess. Harper inherited the war and the problem of what to do with prisoners from Paul Martin. The government could have made the following statement:
We heard Mr. Colvin's warnings and those from other sources. He was a fine public servant, but he had only one angle on the challenges he faced. We listened to his information and sought to cooberrate it because, after all, we were working in another country for which we had to show certain respect. When we gathered more information, we acted to upgrade our agreement with Afghan authorities.

Instead, the Harperites turned their guns on Mr. Colvin, as they had on Linda Keen before him. Then they brought out the generals to discredit Colvin -- until Natynczyk discredited the generals. Mr. Harper's government, like Richard Nixon's government, has taken on the personality of the man at the top. It displays a deep and bitter sense of paranoia.

Hamlet was wrong. Conscience doesn't make cowards of us all. But paranoia does. And, if Mr. Harper succeeds in withholding those uncensored documents from Parliament, he will make cowards of us all.

Monday, December 07, 2009

When the Economists Are in Charge

In October, the British historian Tony Judt delivered a lecture with the sobering title, What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy. Speaking at New York University, where he is currently a professor of European history, Judt said, "We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?"

Judt's question is particularly pertinent today, as the Copenhagen Summit on the Environment begins. The reason for our lack of vision, Judt claimed, is because, for quite awhile now, we have been "resort[ing] to 'economism', the invocation of economics in all discussions of public affairs."

For the last three decades he maintained, "we have not asked is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: "Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss -- economic questions in the narrowest sense -- is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste."

We now see everything through the prism of economics -- particularly Neo Classical Economics. And viewed through that prism, there is no such thing as the collective. Or, as Margaret Thatcher put it, "there is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and families."

But Copenhagen is all about the collective -- the global collective. It's about state and international solutions. However, in the wake of World War II, and beginning with the Neo Classical economists -- like Friedrich Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter -- there arose, among those who set policy, a deep suspicion of the state. It is significant that a number of the economists who eventually became associated with the "Chicago School" were refugees from Austria. Their mistrust of government grew out of their experience between the wars. And, as the British and American welfare states struggled under the forces of globalization, their ideas gained currency. It is these ideas which the prime minister and his party have adopted as unalterable truths.

That baggage -- at least in part -- explains why Mr. Harper lacks any real vision. His mission is to propagate Hayek's and Schumpeter's mistrust of the state. That mistrust has led to greater economic inequality and greater social instability. It has also led to a planet at its tipping point.

Mr. Harper did not intend to put in an appearance at Copenhagen. He changed his mind when he discovered that Barack Obama was going to attend. Moreover, he has no policy on the environment. Worse still, he called the Kyoto Accord, -- the last attempt at a coordinated plan to save the planet -- "essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth producing nations."

The last two years have given us some insight into the consequences of the Chicago School's doctrines. Applying those ideas on a global basis would be an unmitigated disaster. That realization does not appear to have dawned on Mr. Harper. Perhaps that's because he fancies himself an economist.