Friday, October 29, 2010

Mad As Hell

James Travers is one of the most astute political analysts in Canada. Writing in The Toronto Star on Thursday, he observed that voter anger in both Canada and the United States is fueled "more by disillusionment than by ideology." Sifting through the entrails of Ontario's municipal elections -- particularly Rob Ford's storming of Toronto's mayoral barricades -- he wrote:

Seeping north from our stricken southern neighbour is the slow realization that the great political divide is no longer between right-leaning conservatives and left-leaning liberals. What now separates elites from the madding crowd is optimism and pessimism, secure pensions and vanishing jobs and, most of all, privileged access to a system that can be so profitably gamed.

The Tea Party crowd -- and we have them north of the border, too -- is appallingly ignorant of their countries' constitutions. In the United States, Christine O'Donnell questions the separation of church and state. In Canada, a right wing rump believes we elect a Prime Minister, not a local member of the national legislature. They do not understand that, when the government loses the confidence of the house, another party or parties can assume power without an election.

Travers rightly traces a line between Pierre Elliott Trudeau's concentration of power in the office of the Prime Minister -- largely a response to the October Crisis of 1970 -- to Jean Chretien's benevolent dictatorship through to Stephen Harper's pursuit of a majority at any cost.

Lost along the way was trust in a system that, despite its many faults, could once be counted on to act in the best interest of most citizens, most of the time. Growing in the vacuum created by lies, fraud and countless broken promises is the acidic judgment that parties are guided by self interest and the powerful few who whisper in their ear.

Voters are mad as hell. They understand that the game is fixed. But, if that anger is married to ignorance, we will all be worse off than we are. Next week's election in the United States -- and the coming election in Canada -- will be more than referendums on the politics of the present. They will, indeed, be tests of the wisdom of the people. For, when all is said and done, the old saw is still true: we get the politicians we deserve.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Learning Nothing from History

Back in the last century, when I taught high school in the Province of Quebec, the Ministry of Education insisted that every student take Canadian History. But there was no requirement that every student pass the course.

That memory came to mind on Friday, when I read Paul Krugman's column in The New York Times. On the subject of the British government's new austerity measures, Krugman wrote:

Both the new British budget announced on Wednesday and the rhetoric that accompanied the announcement might have come straight from the desk of Andrew Mellon, the Treasury Secretary who told Herbert Hoover to fight the Depression by liquidating the farmers, liquidating the workers, and driving down wages. Or if you prefer more British precedents, it echoes the Snowden budget of 1931 which tried to restore confidence but ended up deepening the economic crisis.

So too were there significant historical cautions about invading Afghanistan -- from Alexander the Great, to Great Britain, to the Soviet Union. If there is one thing that marks Western political elites, it is their appalling ignorance of history. And it is that ignorance which led Krugman to declare that:

Maybe Britain will get lucky and something will come along to rescue the economy. But the best guess is that Britain in 2011 will look like Britain in 1931, or the United States in 1937, or Japan in 1997. That is, premature fiscal austerity will lead to a renewed economic slump. As always, those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

Harry Truman said, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." That's why the Quebec Ministry of Education's insistence that every student take history but not pass it was so woodenheaded. I'm beginning to wonder if the same rule applied in several international jurisdictions.

And, lest Canadians begin to feel smug about their own situation, they should remember that the Harper government plans to turn off the stimulus taps in March, 2011. In fact, at last summer's G20 Conference in Toronto, the Prime Minister worked hard to get members to accept the very policy which he and Mr. Cameron plan to follow.

The lemmings are on the march.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

In Search of Sanity

Perhaps Frank Rich is right. Sanity will not return to American politics until there is "a decisive rescue from our prolonged economic crisis." Until then, he wrote in Sunday's New York Times:

Don't expect the extremism and violence in our politics to subside magically after Election Day -- no matter what the results. If Tea Party candidates triumph, they'll be emboldened. If they lose, the anger and bitterness will grow. . . Not for the first time in history -- and not just American history -- fear itself is at the root of a rabid outbreak of populist rage against government, minorities and conspiratorial "elites."

Even if Republicans regain control of both houses, Barack Obama will still be president on November 3rd. What will he do? What should he have done before Americans reached this crossroads? In the most recent edition of The New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky wrote an extremely perceptive analysis of what has gone wrong for the Democrats:

In American politics, Republicans routinely speak in broad themes and tend to blur the details, while Democrats typically ignore broad themes and focus on details. Republicans, for example, routinely speak of "liberty" and "freedom" and couch practically all their initiatives -- tax cuts, deregulation, and so forth -- within these large categories. Democrats, on the other hand, talk more about specific programs and policies and steer clear of big themes.
What Democrats have typically not done well since Reagan's time is to connect their policies to their larger beliefs. In fact they have usually tried to hide those beliefs, or change the conversation when the subject arose. The result has been for many years that the Republicans have been able to present their philosophy as somehow truly "American," while attacking the Democratic belief system as contrary to American values.

Many commentators have noted that, while Ronald Reagan sought to repeal much of what Roosevelt put in place, his leadership template came straight from Roosevelt. President Obama will have to face whatever the storm leaves behind on November 3rd. In preparing for the aftermath, he could do worse than to return to Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech -- delivered a month after Pearl Harbor. In that address, Roosevelt enumerated what he saw as the four essentials -- not just for Americans, but for all human beings:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want -- which translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which translated into world terms, means a world reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit a physical act of aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world. This is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our time and our generation.That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

Roosevelt's speech married vision and and poetry -- something Obama did during the 2008 campaign -- but something he has not done in office and something he is not doing now. The President has often expressed his admiration for Mr. Lincoln. One hopes he has the same admiration for Mr. Roosevelt. And one hopes that Roosevelt will act as a muse as Mr. Obama addresses his nation in the future.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

He Didn't See It Coming

"If any Canadian woke up this morning," Robert Silver wrote in yesterday's Globe and Mail, "still under the mistaken impression that Stephen Harper is some kind of political strategic genius, surely to God the result of the UN Security Council vote has put that once trendy canard to rest once and for all."

Canada was rewarded yesterday with the same kind of shrug Mr. Harper has shown the United Nations during his entire time in office. His two speeches in the last couple of weeks marked the first time he had addressed the UN since he first came to office in 2006. During the last UN Climate Conference he was conspicuously absent. And he has pointedly let it be known that his time is better spent chatting up the locals at a northern Tim Horton's.

The Harperites reacted to their defeat by claiming the members of the General Assembly are less "principled" than the Government of Canada. But, once again, Silver had their number:

I say other than unwavering support for Israel and indifference towards Africa, can you articulate those unpopular but principled positions? Moreover, did those principled positions suddenly become popular in the last 24 hours in a quickly shifting public opinion environment? Surely Harper had some clue before the vote that Canada's foreign policy couldn't carry two thirds of the countries?

And that is the point. The Prime Minister didn't see it coming -- just as he didn't see the Great Recession coming. When he was re-elected, he forecast a "small surplus." On the day Canada's bid for a Security Council seat failed, Jim Flaherty announced the biggest annual deficit in Canadian history -- $55 billion. And historians pointed out it was 63 years ago to the day that Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to defuse the Suez Crisis.

The day after the Security Council defeat, Allen Gottlieb -- who served both Conservative and Liberal prime ministers in Washington -- noted how the Foreign Affairs Department, located in the building which bears Pearson's name, has slipped into obscurity during the Harper years:

In Ottawa, power and influence have shifted away from the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council. Afghanistan and climate change are handled by agencies outside of Foreign Affairs. Three deputy ministers report directly to the Prime Minister on foreign and national security affairs.

And, of course, the Harperites blamed Michael Ignatieff for the loss. "Not being able to speak with one voice as a country had a negative impact on Canada's bid," said Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon. That statement completely ignored the letter which Harper sent to The Wall Street Journal after Jean Chretien politely refused to join George W. Bush's Coalition of the Willing: "For the first time in history," Harper wrote, "the Canadian government has not stood beside its key British and American allies in their time of need." He was certain that Canadians were on his side; they were, he said, "overwhelmingly with us." Such was not the case. Once again, he missed the boat.

The Tory propaganda machine has told us repeatedly that the Prime Minister is blindingly brilliant. It becomes more apparent with each passing day that Mr. Harper is simply blind. The General Assembly served notice yesterday that they get it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

This Angry Season

In the United States, the conventional wisdom holds that, when the nation is on the wrong track, "we the people" will set it right. It's a comforting thought. But, in this angry season, one must ask if that axiom is always true. There is a pathological quality to much of the anger one sees and hears these days. When Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Carl Paladino keep returning to the refrain that Americans are mad as hell, it is worth remembering the late Lee Atwater's explanation of how the so called "Southern Strategy" worked:

You start out in 1954 saying 'Nigger, Nigger, Nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a by product of them is that blacks get hurt worse than whites. . .' We want to cut this' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'nigger, nigger.'

Given the assertions that President Obama is a Muslim alien and Kenyan anti-colonialist, one wonders how much of the anger stems from an unemployment rate of 9.6%, and how much of it is a socially sanctioned way to yell, "nigger, nigger."

I do not wish to minimize the legitimate anger Americans feel towards those from both parties whose faith in unregulated capitalism has led to the loss of their homes and their jobs. Those whose 99 weeks of unemployment insurance have expired are in a particularly precarious position. Their fury is completely understandable. But, when Rand Paul muses that he might not have voted for the Civil Rights Act, and when those protesting the recently passed health care bill throw the "N" epithet at people like John Lewis, it is clear that there is more than unemployment behind their rage.

Moreover, when people like retired Utah Supreme Court Justice A.H. Ellett argue for the repeal of the 13th, 14 and 15th Amendments to the Constitution -- the so called "Reconstruction Amendments" -- you know there is a lot more in the mix that just joblessness. Justice Ellett wrote:

The validity, or should we say the invalidity, of the Civil War Amendments is very important to reinstating the inalienable rights of free white citizens of the United States of America. At every juncture where the government of the United States of America and/or the governments of the several States attempt to usurp inalienable rights, the Civil War amendments are ultimately claimed to be the authority for such deprivations of rights.

And precisely what right or rights have those amendments breached? Before 1865, white Americans were immune African American political influence. Ellet pulls no punches. In his view, the Constitution was desecrated by the extension of the franchise -- and the right to hold office -- to America's citizens of color. Before the Civil War:

. . . only White State citizens held the privileges and immunities known to Article IV, Section 2 among the several States, and no State could confer that Constitutional protection on any other race. In consequence thereof, the "also" could not authorize a "non white" to be an Officer of the United States government.

Two years ago, when Barack Obama was elected president, a significant majority of Americans were euphoric that their country had finally torn down its most significant barrier. At the same time, a significant minority ground their teeth in disgust. How much of the angry rhetoric comes from those who not only want to repeal the New Deal but who also want to repeal the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments?

This November, Americans will be asked to distinguish between legitimate anger -- which is an extension of their economic situation -- and an illness which is as old as the Republic itself. Their choice will ultimately prove the truth or falsehood of the conventional wisdom.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

When Ignorance Is King

Last week, Peter Mackay decided to rescind an invitation to Zijad Delic -- the Executive Director of the Canadian Islamic Congress -- from a defence department event marking Islamic History Month. His reason for taking back the invitation was that Delic's predecessor, Mohamed Elmasry, had proclaimed publicly that Israeli soldiers of 18 were fair targets for suicide bombers because they were "not innocent." When Zelic assumed the leadership of the CIC, he pointedly disavowed those comments.

James Travers noted in Tuesday's Toronto Star that:

Elmasry's comments pushed a couple of closely connected political hot buttons. Stephen Harper's Middle East policy skews hard to Israel and a Christian fringe firmly in the Conservative camp believes there's a connection between the restoration of Israel's biblical borders and the rapturous return of Christ.

These are the same people who firmly believe that Bishop James Usher correctly determined that the Almighty began creation on "the night preceding Sunday 23 October, 4004 B.C." Modern science has turned Bishop Usher into a laughing stock. MacKay's decision should have turned him into a laughing stock. Instead, it sowed more seeds of division and stoked the anger of Canadian Muslims, not to mention Muslims around the world.

One would think that public reaction to the prorogation of Parliament -- and the universal condemnation the government faced when it decided to deep six the long census form -- would cause the Harper Party to think twice about such obviously volatile decisions. But they have had no such epiphany.

These folks must believe that God is on their side -- or perhaps they are simply stupid. But, as Lawrence Martin's recently released book Harperland makes clear, these decisions can be traced back directly to the Prime Minister himself. As Don Martin wrote in his review of the book, "There's no absence of malice in this prime minister's political conduct. At times, malice is all there is . . ."

Malice is the handmaid of Ignorance. Any nation which chooses to put Ignorance in the driver's seat is in deep trouble.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Whose Populism?

As tens of thousands of Americans gathered on the National Mall this past weekend, Frank Rich -- in the New York Times -- warned them and their supporters not to underestimate the "useful idiocy" of the Tea Party's most recent star, Christine O'Donnell. For comedians -- particularly Bill Mahar -- she is the gift which keeps on giving. But, Rich wrote:

O'Donnell is particularly needed now because most of the other Republican Tea Party standard bearers lack genuine anti-government or proletarian cred. Joe Miller and Ken Buck, the Senate candidates in Alaska and Colorado, actually are graduates of elite universities like those O'Donnell lied about attending. Rick Scott, the populist running for governor of Florida, was chief executive of a health care corporation that scooped up so many Medicare and Medicaid payments, it had to settle charges for defrauding taxpayers. Rand Paul, the scion of a congressman, is an ophthalmologist whose calls for spending restraint don't extend to his own Medicare income. Carl Paladino, the truculent man of the people of New York, grew his fortune as a developer with government handouts and favors. His California bookend, Carly Fiorina, received a golden parachute worth as much as $42 million from Hewlett-Packard, where she liquidated 20 thousand jobs.

O'Donnell, on the other hand, claims that her income for the last two years has been $5,800. That information -- like her assertion that she attended Oxford University -- may be a figment of her overactive imagination. But she is the only Tea Party candidate who appears to be lower middle class. Like the Gary Cooper character in Frank Capra's film, Meet John Doe, she is the perfect dupe for the sugar daddies -- as detailed by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker -- who are funding a pseudo populist rebellion.

The rally on the Mall was a late and desperate attempt to generate another kind of populism. Its target audience was the disenchanted progressives who are angry that health care did not include a public option and that American troops are still in Afghanistan. If they sit this election out, it's clear that -- while the change Obama has brought may not be the change they believed in -- the Republicans will ensure that there is no change at all.

Rich's colleague, Bob Herbert, wrote again on Saturday that what the country needs is real populism:

One in five American kids was living in poverty in 2009. Across the country, once solidly middle class families are lining up at food pantries and soup kitchens for groceries or a hot meal. In New York City, a startling indicator of the continuing economic crisis is the rise in the number of homes that don't have kitchens.

O'Donnell would seem to fit that profile. If, like John Doe in the Capra film, she would turn on her benefactors and explain what they stood to gain by the return of Republicans to power, she would -- despite all her other foolish statements -- gain some credibility. But don't count on it.

Despite the elaborate subterfuge, John Boehner let the cat out of the bag last Friday. "We are not," he said, "going to be any different than we've been." That statement should convince all sorts of disillusioned Democrats to go to the track and start placing their bets.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.