Category Archives: Current Events

Essays on topical issues in the news, from around the world, by Wayne K. Spear

Populism and the Elites

Under Doug Ford, Ontario politics will likely be organized around an enemies list of cultural foes and special interests. We’ve been there before.

✎  Wayne K. Spear | March 13, 2018 • Current Events


T’S NOW CERTAIN that a battle, between the people and the elite, is coming to Ontario. As it did in the days of Mike Harris, the province is about to flirt with populism and might even go beyond flirting, to courtship and consummation.

Mike Harris

We heard quite a lot about the elites—always plural—when Rob Ford was mayor and Doug was the hype man and principal enabler of his brother. The word comes to us from an Old French noun derived from the Latin verb ēligĕre, to elect. The elite, in other words, are the elected, or chosen. Like Doug Ford.

Only, to hear Doug tell it, he’s no member, or even friend, of the elites—too-clever snobs who bore the common folk with lessons in etymology. They’re not defined by income or by power, but by culture and attitude. They live downtown and drink Chardonnay, and they use big words, and they mock the lives and values of the town and suburbs. Elites think they know better than you, and they think that they are better than you. And they have been chosen to lead and have made a balls of things.

There’s no necessary connection of this elitism with political power, beyond annoyances like support for bike lanes and streetcars. The list of elitist traits which drive Fordies around the bend has few explicitly ideological entries. Mostly it’s stuff like fixed-gear bikes and smugness and drinking champagne with a pinkie extended. Doug Ford complains about the elites the way that anglos are sometimes known to kvetch about the smell of east Indian cooking.

Elites are irritating, and you know them when you see them. The circularity of this term applies to its cognate, liberal, which is also defined as someone who is irritating. Critics may thus be condemned as elites and liberals, without further ado, because the terms boil down to something which is entirely in the eyes of the beholder.

Populism has some of the same characteristics. Nothing is objectively populist—the thing is set of attitudes and postures, a performance that is front to end a matter of individual interpretation. It helps to use rough and “plain” language, and to express ideas that would be scolded in polite company. Populism requires the claim that what matters most in this world is the little guy, and as a rule a populist will go out of his way to affect an unvarnished outlook and demeanour, the little guy being typically conceived as rough around the edges. None of this is incompatible with ulterior political motives like self-advancement and self-enrichment. History is filled with populist candidates who ascend to power on a pile of corpses.

The principal evil of elitism, which populism ostensibly sets out to vanquish, is the idea that some people or ideas or pursuits are objectively better than others, for instance that a Harvard graduate is a better choice of governor than an unlettered man who says y’all and ain’t. Moreover, it’s impossible to talk usefully about the Ford Nation idea of elitism without mentioning the aesthetics of social class.

It’s no coincidence that Doug Ford, like his brother, is large, whereas his political opponents have tended to be relatively slim. (The same is true of Donald Trump.) Class snobbery is such that large bodies will be subjected to often unspoken but condescending judgements, especially when they are bodies that sweat and that are clothed in ill-fitting clothing. Stephen Harper and Preston Manning, well aware of eastern prejudice, invested in makeovers before attempting to run for national office.  This earned them a great deal of suspicion and ridicule, but all politicians make their concessions to the masses. Ford is no different. His populism, however, is less accommodating than its predecessors, and as such it is more nakedly a display of something that is common to all populism, the compilation of resentments built up over time.

There is an entirely different way to conceive of populism, as an expression of the inherent decency and dignity of ordinary people, ordinary being defined as neither wealthy nor politically powerful. Many decades ago, generations of the political left cultivated the revolutionary conception of the self-educated worker, possessing a mind and consciousness of her own and equal in physical and intellectual prowess to her presumed social betters. This form of populism established workers’ libraries and orchestras and universities, and it advocated not only bread but roses, which is to say the attainment among the common people not only of bare necessities but of beauty. Rather than tearing things down, out of resentment for those at the top, radical populism sought to lift up the people and to make privilege a universal condition. Nothing was thought too good for the working classes—whether champagne, Bach, or caviar.

The populism of M. Trump and Ford is not, however, radical or revolutionary, and it doesn’t look very deeply into the nature of the system against which it has declared war. The anti-elitist populism we will get from the Ontario PCs, assuming Doug Ford becomes Premier, will very likely resemble the program of M. Harris. It will be a negative form of populism, conceived entirely in relation to an enemies list of cultural foes and special interests who must be brought low. And when one is consumed by the work of bringing things low, a generalized condition of lowness, with perhaps a few winners, is likely to take hold. After eight years of watching the Harris Conservatives tear things down, the voters tired of anti-elite populism and chose another path. We forget this at our peril.

The Free Speech Debate Isn’t Really a Debate

And it’s not just about free speech, either

✎  Wayne K. Spear | March 8, 2018 • Current Events


ORE AND MORE, I’ve been avoiding Twitter. It seems there’s always a dumpster fire in my feed, which may be an ill-suited metaphor, since I’d probably want to watch a dumpster fire.

What I have in mind are the routine and fierce online exchanges which begin with someone defending the free speech of a self-described ethno-nationalist, or some similar kind of provocateur, whose views are being condemned by others as hateful and racist, and so on. These exchanges often devolve into declarations concerning nomenclature and semantics, for example “you are defending x, and x is a Nazi,” followed by, “x is not a Nazi, a Nazi is y, and x is not y.” I realize that if you’re not on Twitter, this will make no sense at all. But stay with me.

The online debate about free speech isn’t really a debate, at least not on Twitter. It’s more like a sorting of people into teams, whether intentional or not, to conduct a game of language. This free speech game is furthermore a proxy battle, between various types of liberals and progressives, on one side, and conservatives, centrists, and traditionalists on the other. This much should be obvious to even a casual observer. In its present form, the free speech game is a cultural and ideological disagreement at the centre of which are gender identity and expression and the cultural authority of Western liberalism.

Young women—and especially black, Indigenous, people of colour, or BIPOC—are doing most of the heavy lifting on the progressive side of the ledger. On the other side, there are a good many men, but also quite a few white women who self-describe as anti-feminist (or perhaps first-wave), conservative, and/or traditionalist. The labels themselves are less important than the substance of the disagreement, which I will try to capture in a precise and economical way, for it tells us something about the time in which we are now living, as well as about what may lie ahead.

Even though something objectionable to progressives is often the origin of these free speech exchanges, there is almost never a discussion of what free speech actually is and why it might matter. Nor are the objectionable views themselves given much attention, expiration, defence, or rebuttal. Attention is drawn to a comment made, offence is expressed and then, in turn, dismissed, and invariably everyone, irrespective of their position, scrambles for a patch of moral high ground. Whatever the name for this, it is not debate, and nor is it discussion. Much is said, but much is also left unsaid. It is the unsaid, so far as I am able to tease it out, that is my present concern.

America is a country established on paper, at an early stage of the Enlightenment, and as such may be subjected to a critical reading. The Declaration of Independence begins, as everyone knows, with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The men who wrote these words owned slaves, and in fact had men and not women in mind—and not all men, either, but land-holding men, otherwise known as gentlemen. From this it follows that, at the time of the American Revolution, probably no more than 40 percent of the American population enjoyed the full meaning of the phrase “all men are created equal.” Following the revolution, the work of slavery and genocide would be taken up in earnest, at the expense of much life, liberty, and happiness.

I mention this only to suggest that the hypocrisy of liberalism has a long pedigree. The inspirational music of Benjamin Franklin’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident” would have been deeply touching for the land- and slave-owning founders, but not so much for black and Indigenous people. Something of the same is going on with what I am calling the free speech game, and there is no use dismissing it in a country where most of the top-earning columnists at the major newspapers are white, and where many are also men.

Anyone who is paying attention notices that certain kinds of views are more lucrative than others. A simple thought experiment will make my point. Imagine that you are setting out on a life as a political writer, and that you must choose one of two kinds of writing, with your goal being to earn the most money possible. Your first option is to write as a champion of anti-capitalist radicalism, anti-hetero-normativity, and BIPOC feminism, and your second option is to defend the status quo, to champion free enterprise, and to argue that the established institutions and authorities have our best interests in mind, that white supremacy is a lie and also a delusion, and that corporations should pay lower taxes in the interests of workers.

With few exceptions, the person who chooses the first option will drift into the employ of a fringe publication sustained by volunteerism and bake sales, while the second option has much more potential to lead to Fox News or the Wall Street Journal and other corporate media. One is free speech, and the other pays handsomely. This may be one reason (there are others) why freedom of speech is less compelling for some on the left.

For at least a year now, and probably more, Jordan Peterson has claimed that the censor is at his door and that he is in imminent danger of imprisonment for expressing his views. But far from being silenced and ruined, he is now a wealthy international celebrity whose speech saturates the airwaves. When I recently walked into my local bookstore, my first sight was a wall of 12 Rules for Life. Peterson is of course known foremost as a University of Toronto professor of Psychology and as a defender of free speech who refuses to use non-gendered pronouns, gender identity and expression being, as I stated earlier, one of the battlegrounds for which freedom of speech is a proxy issue.

No one knows what the future holds, but we are living in a time when both the progressive left and the traditionalist right suspect the enemy of a secret plan to destroy the world. Jordan Peterson frequently adverts to something he calls postmodernism and cultural Marxism, which he maintains leads to fascism, nihilism, and the collapse of Western values and civilization. And the progressive critics of Peterson suspect him of being sympathetic to the alt-right, if not to neo-Nazism. This disagreement, it seems to me, concerns many things but above all else the fixed versus fluid nature of human beings and human societies. Progressives seek to jettison the oppressive baggage of the past, while conservatives look to the past for meaning.

But are the rejection of free speech by progressives, and the threats of violence against those with objectionable speech, merely a matter of cynicism, as I have suggested above? The position of progressives at the moment is felt to be a defensive position. Since at least the 1960s, a form of liberalism, driven by feminism and the fight of black people for their civil rights, as well as by suspicion of established authority, has predominated in the Western nations. But there are signs of a resurgent anti-liberalism, up to and including open expressions of admiration for Hitlerism. The victory of President Trump has greatly emboldened those members of society who had long ago learned to keep their illiberal opinions to themselves. Now they feel the time has come to organize, to rally, to salute their flags in public, and to put up posters on university campuses.

As some have stated on Twitter, Nazism was a historical artifact inseparable from the National Socialist German Workers Party and the cult of Hitler, defeated and eradicated in 1945. The crimes of the Nazis, he points out, were war, genocide, and vast human misery: they are not remembered for the crime of putting up posters or giving lectures. The problem with this position however is that there was a point in time when Hitler was the leader of a rabble that few took seriously and who were known mostly for meetings and speechifying. Today, in Canada, there are efforts underway to constitute a National Socialist political party, along the German model. Simply defending the freedom of speech of this group, without submitting that speech to vigorous criticism and counter-offensives, seems to me a remarkably casual posture.

As I have said elsewhere, in one hundred years hence we will either be saying ze and zir or we will not. The Judeo-Christian values will continue to inform the laws and cultural norms of America, or they will not. The descendants of Western Europeans will constitute a majority population in places like Texas and Alabama and Saskatchewan, or they will not. As for gender identity, and identity in general, it is difficult to imagine human nature as fixed and immutable, when artificial intelligence and bio-engineering and nano-technology are just around the corner, and when medical science will make it relatively easy to transform from one sex to another (and back again) and when human beings might soon be composed, perhaps even mostly composed, of synthetic and robotic parts. Seen in this light, the argument over pronouns seems a small and risible sideshow. Soon we will be dead, and given the increasing pace of change, the world that is coming is likely unimaginable for us. To survive we will need new myths, new ideas, and perhaps even new values.

Or maybe not. We simply don’t know where we are going.