Tag Archives: Good and Hard

Democracy à la Disney

IT IS FASHIONABLE among the political left to affect dislike for Walt Disney movies, mostly on the grounds of Disney’s crude commercial tactics and their representations of peoples of colour. And yet, let’s be honest; haven’t we all thoroughly enjoyed at least one Disney movie? There is perhaps only one Disney story, variously told, and that is the story of the underdog who, against all odds, triumphs. This is the gist of every Disney movie I have seen, from Cinderella to Matilda. Only the characters and the settings change. The subject may concern a soccer team, or a princess; the setting may be early America or ‘The Orient.’ Nevertheless, we get a certain unmistakable sort of story, a recognizably ‘Disney’ story. Careful marketing dictates that it shall be thus, but marketing only discloses what seems to work, not why it works. Why do we enjoy a Disney movie? And why is the left reluctant to admit they do enjoy it?

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Canadian History if Necessary, But Not Necessarily Canadian History


THE CHIEF THING that I remember of high school Canadian history is that it was boring. I suspect the same is true in your case. Here is my summary of high school Canadian history, roughly as I recall it: Canada was a pristine land inhabited by some Indians, and discovered by John Cabot in 1497. Jacques Cartier later explored the interior. It’s thought Vikings were in Canada before Europeans, but in any case Samuel de Champlain first colonized the land adjacent to the St. Lawrence (Upper Canada). The French settlers took to fighting the English over control of the resources. A number of alliances with the Indians were made by each side, and trade networks were established. This was the era of the courier de bois, or ‘woods-runner,’ usually a “half-breed” who moved goods from indigenous supplier to white trader. The English gained the upper hand over the French at the Plains of Abraham, in the 1750s or so. The Treaty of Paris ceded North America to Britain. The Yankees then took to fighting the British. In the War of 1812 the Yankees were finally driven back for good. Isaac Brock fought heroically and died beside Chief Tecumseh at Queenston. Troops from Halifax invaded Washington and burnt down buildings, most famously a building which was afterward painted white and called the White House.

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‘My Canada includes …’

The bumper sticker I often saw at the time of the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty is still in circulation. It reads, ‘My Canada includes Quebec.’ A generous sentiment, I think, and likely destined to fail. The French and English alike are weary of the status quo, by which I mean protracted rounds of federal-provincial wrangling, followed by solutions that don’t solve anything. They may one day conclude that separation is perhaps after all for the best. Nothing personal: it’s just that the time has come to try something a bit different.

The problem with the bumper sticker is that, decent though its outlook is, it doesn’t really describe the Canada in which most Canadians live. In what manners precisely does Your Canada include Quebec? The bumper sticker does not represent the social experiences of millions of Canadians who cannot name a Quebecois singer (Sorry, Celine Dion does not count), a Francophone author, or a Quebec provincial holiday. Anglophone Canadians complain of having French ‘crammed down their throat’ in school. Then there’s the political Canada, a motley parliament fadged together by means of the federal election. I wrote an article for ASH magazine at the time of the 1997 election in which I wrote the following:

…after reviewing the research data, Lucien Bouchard’s claim that ‘Canada is not a real country’ was beginning to make some sense to me. I’d thought it a ridiculous statement at first, but my discoveries got me wondering. The first surprise was a 1994 Maclean’s/CTV poll suggesting that only about 1/3 of Newfoundlanders think of themselves as ‘Canadian.’ Even the Quebec referendum yielded a higher number: just over 50%. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the West considers itself a nation apart, and if one doesn’t trust anecdotal evidence, there’s the 1997 election to consider. This election carved the political landscape into competing regional chunks, leaving Ottawa to pursue one of the few policies for which there seems to be a national consensus: decentralization. As the next referendum approaches, I try to imagine appropriate regional slogans for the inevitable bumper stickers. Here’s one: My Canada includes Bay Street, Parliament Hill, and parts of Montreal, notwithstanding. Here a brief newspaper quotation, there a statistic: together considered, the data suggest less a nation recreating itself for the next century than a conflict over who should get what, and more important, who shouldn’t. The national mood, perhaps not fully explained by the term ‘regionalism,’ seems to be rooted in an understanding that, in a world of diminishing expectations, looking out for Number One is only a good idea.

I wrote that paragraph less than two years ago, and so it would be premature to conclude it’s withstood the test of time. I’ll say instead it has withstood my suspicion that I was perhaps too pessimistic. Years ago, in preparation for some articles on contemporary Canadian politics that I was writing, I read several dozen books, dozens of articles, and scores of government documents. I read the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), and those glossy publications of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). I read the Prime Minister’s after-dinner speeches, and the reports issued following the blue-ribbon trade missions of which we heard so much. I read Fraser Institute and C.D. Howe books. I read United Nations reports, from UNICEF to a publication called Transnational Corporations. I went through Statistics Canada data. I even consulted Royal Commission documents, Commons debates, Hansard, and on and on and on and on. Now, I’m not boring you with this list to establish my expertise and thus to place what I’m about to say beyond question. I want only to assert that all of these folks, working for the IMF and the World Bank and so on, have a pretty clear idea about what Canada includes. It would perhaps fit on a bumper sticker, too: “My Canada includes underexploited health and education markets.” I was trying to answer a very precise question in my research, What is this thing called Globalization into which we are rushing? After two years of effort I got a well-documented answer, too. Your political and economic leaders regard Canada as an ‘economy’ which needs to be made more ‘efficient.’ Globalization is a new name for laissez-faire capitalism. Theirs is one view of Canada, and the bumper stickers pose another. The problem for the Unity folks is that the bumper-sticker crowd isn’t running the country, the people Up There are. Don’t bother reading books about that; consider your experience and judge for yourself whether or not it’s so.

Here is a description of My Canada from Ontario’s 905 region, infamous as the Heartland of the 1995 Common Sense Revolution. This is where Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative party won a decisive victory on a platform which pretty much ignored Quebec altogether. It was probably a wise strategy, but in any case I’m not interested here in politics. Remember, I am describing Canada as it really is, not as the My Canada folks wish it to be, or think it to be.

I live on the outskirts of Fort Erie, Ontario where I work as a writer. I’m writing a collection of stories set in a town that doesn’t look too “Canadian,” because we’ve all learned there’s a small market for that sort of thing. Some would regard me as part of the Culture Industry. Let’s talk, then, about culture. In Kingston I used to watch Canadian television and listen to Canadian radio because, unless one paid for cable, Canadian is about all you got. (As a consequence, most of those who can pay for cable do.) In Fort Erie there is only American television, and American radio dominates. Cable is not available in the rural area in which I live. Furthermore, Fort Erie – a city of 27,000 – has no movie theatre and no bookstores. The nearest stores offering these goods are in Buffalo. On the Canadian side I can easily find Canadian papers, full of American content and American spelling, and American books, magazines, rental videos, and music. I once found Canadian movies in the ‘foreign’ section of Jumbo Video, but the foreign section was long ago sacrificed to make room for a sprawling Disney section. I doubt you’re surprised; this is how Canadians are routinely treated by their fellow citizens. In other fields, science and technology for instances, it’s much the same. Canadian taxpayers subsidize education, but the notion of keeping Canadians here with good jobs is quite beyond. America offers the work and reaps the ample rewards of an investment paid for here. Then Canadians buy back the products of that investment at a handsome price. Don’t be surprised; it’s a very old matter which goes by the term Empire. Did you know that two of the original three Hollywood studios were established by expatriate Canadians? Not only does Canada let the Americans manage ‘their’ culture for profit; they supply the managers, at Canada’s expense. Sociologists call this a Brain Drain, which if you pay attention to metaphors makes you think back to NAFTA and all the glorious talk about the free flow of information and goods. Glorious talk aside, most people in the Culture Industry are unable to make a living in Canada, so many look in the States. Or, like me, they find work of another sort. Fort Erie’s prime real estate is American-owned, and the maintenance of these summer ‘cottages’ – far bigger than the houses local Canadians own – involves the labour of several workers. I am one of those workers.

These are the basic facts of Canada as I encounter them daily. It is a US-dominated country in which the Americans own the resources but hire the locals to keep things looking spiffy. When you get home from work you can eat American food, wear American clothes, and watch American entertainment. As for Quebec food, clothes, and entertainment, most people here would ask What the hell are those? 905 Canada doesn’t really include Quebec at all; indeed, it hardly even includes Canada. In 1998 there’s less political and economic substance to Confederation than even a decade ago, and the trend seems to me to be gaining momentum. Conrad Black owns most Canadian newspapers and lives in New York city, the centre of his universe; yesterday I read in his National Post a discussion of Thomas Courchene’s proposal that we establish a North American currency, the US dollar. Well, why not? Courchene, a Queen’s University economist, has on his side the facts that 80% of Canada’s exports go to the US and that Canadian society has undergone a decade-long project of social and economic ‘harmonization‘ with the States. The Canadian nationalists have bumper stickers backed up by Good Vibrations. I am not mocking them. I am merely pointing out that the North American Free Trade Agreement formalized Canada’s status as a milch-cow. The principal function of the federal government today is not ‘unity’; it is to make sure nothing gets between the bucket and the teat. Free Trade is about noble-sounding matters like National Treatment, Most Favoured Nation, and the elimination of non-tariff trade barriers. The goal, largely accomplished, is to get rid of socialist, interventionist government, and replace it with something that makes for a more efficient milking. The IMF now scrutinizes budgets – ’surveillance,’ the IMF people call it – and makes its displeasure felt if the fed gets out of line. So far Finance Minister Paul Martin has been a willing subject, and punishment has therefore been unnecessary. In public, federal leaders belong to the ‘My Canada includes Quebec’ club, and they’ve certainly handed out the goodies, but in private they are more of the school which believes ‘My Canada includes privatization, downsizing, and competition.’ You have to admit, it has a nice practical sound to it. Furthermore, it has practical results.

Confederation, I can’t help but notice, has the word federation in it. A federation gives one a federal government. And what does federal mean? Here is the definition offered by Chamber’s 20th Century Dictionary: “pertaining to or consisting of a treaty or covenant.” It’s an interesting definition, I think. A covenant has a distinct feeling about it; one imagines God and Moses breaking bread, while the lion and lamb frolic together in the distance. Covenants are mutual agreements that place the participants’ needs and interests foremost. Treaties are something altogether else. The word makes me think either of the many broken promises of Canada in their relations with indigenous people, or else it brings to mind those horrendous documents produced by the victors at the conclusion of a war. Germany was humiliated not by its defeat in WWI, but rather by the peace established in the Treaty of Versailles. Indeed, to my mind the word treaty conjures the words ‘lies,’ and ‘deceit’. Someone invariably has, or achieves, a position of dominance where treaties are involved. Someone is usually screwed over. (Just ask Simon Reisman, the embittered Canadian negotiator of NAFTA who admitted Canada got screwed by the American government.) Where there are treaties and covenants, there must be people or agencies to keep them. This is one function of Canada’s federal government, to enforce agreements. I don’t know about you, but I myself have an opinion on whether Canada’s leaders are of the covenant-making or cynical treaty-making variety. The so-called New Economy arrived attended by the unmistakable feeling that Canada had lost a contest, and now must pay. The Federal government has downsized itself out of business and no longer does anything noticeable except hoard taxes and EI surpluses while telling citizens to pay more and learn to live with less. Public health care funding? Education? Social Welfare? Sorry, not anymore. It’s up to the provinces now, who in turn are dumping responsibilities and costs onto the municipalities, without giving them the resources. Perhaps by the time you read this, the municipalities will have entrusted health care ‘market’ to the efficient workings of American Health Maintenance Organizations, or HMOs. Government isn’t so inefficient after all. It’s Getting the Job Done.

My view, if you care to know and haven’t figured it out already, is that Canada is governed not by politicians, but by the lying makers of treaties. They screwed over the Indians, and now they’re busy screwing over Canadians. Behind it all are the financial markets, which in turn are governed by gamblers and robber barons. This form of governance goes on in the open and is sanctioned by the laws. There’s no need to introduce gnosticism, masonry, or a secret world conspiracy into the discussion. Anyone familiar with mercantilism will understand what the global economy is really all about. It’s about rigging the systems of trade and production and reaping the profits. There’s no place for east-west nation-building in a north-south trade regime. No one’s business interests are served by the break-up of Canada, but on the other hand the statist measures required by fiscal federalism (a term which covers federal-provincial cost- and tax-sharing arrangements) are out of fashion. Even if they weren’t, what more has the federal government left to offer Quebec? The answer, of course, is sovereignty. All of these – free trade, decentralization, downsizing, separatism – are centrifugal. They make a flight from the federal centre perhaps inevitable and certainly reasonable. As cynical as this sounds, confederation was a matter of expedience and self-interest. The provinces were in it for the goodies as much as for anything else. Well, Ottawa isn’t in the goodies business anymore. They have the international investor to please, and we know how the international investor loves austerity – not his own of course, but others’. The investors are doing nicely with the help of government, but the rest of us will have to take care of ourselves. The technical term for taking care of oneself, by the way, is independence.

Professor Courchene welcomes the new, decentralized, globally-competitive Canada. You could even say it was his idea. He’s a booster of the unimpeded free market and believes that the nation-state is, alas, obsolete. One man’s opinion, you may say, but Courchene is one of the most influential policy experts in Canada. He has literally written the book, at Ontario’s request, on intergovernmental relations. His approach to separatism is to render it redundant by turning Canada into a loosely-affiliated group of independent economies. The argument is, Make every province actually independent, both economically and politically, and you undercut the separatist cause of independence in law. That is the argument. It overlooks the fact that nationalism is at least as much about the symbols of nationhood as it is about the substance. Jacques Parizeau, I presume, wanted to be the Prime Minister of Quebec. Pomp and circumstance, Oui; Distinct Society, Non. The title ‘Premier of For-All-Intents-and-Purposes-Independent Quebec’ apparently did not interest him. Nonetheless, appeasement has a certain logic, and by a happy coincidence its decentralizing tendencies satisfied the conditions of the North American Free Trade Agreement as well. Under Courchene’s plan, which was adopted by Ottawa, the independent states of Canada would be governed by an agreement on internal trade (AIT). The unimpeded flow of goods, information, and capital would be the primary social and economic goals of Courchene’s, and Ottawa’s, Canada. This plan was published under the title Renewing the Federation.

Having endured a good lot of acronyms and barbarous phrases, are you ready for plain English? All the sound and fury about ‘renewing the federation’ arrives at this: empty the store, and maybe folks will stop trying to rob it. In other words, the only politically safe government in the 1990s – indeed the only good government – is thought to be no government at all. Ottawa will continue to collect incomes and to hand them over to bankers, bondholders, and Bombardier, but not much else will transpire directly between the feds and citizens. Most activists on the left have yet to grasp what this means for their infamous defence of an interventionist federal government. The fed is no longer in the business of social programs, but it is nonetheless busy. Ottawa’s Canada includes acronyms like the Non-Accelerating-Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). Or, in plain English, the private economic interests of investors. It makes me wonder are there any good reasons today not to separate?

Needless to say, each Canadian sees the country differently. For some – those who derive the bulk of their income from investments, for instance – a decentralized, American-styled, free-market, individualistic Canada is an exciting, opportunity-filled prospect. I have expressed my suspicions, but I acknowledge also the attractiveness for many of the competing views. I could be wrong about the political system and about the leaders. I could be wrong about globalization. Most of all, I could be wrong about the future of Canada and Quebec. Regarding my assertion that Canada is ‘US-dominated,’ one could hardly think this a novel claim. Much of what I have stated is old and obvious. Some of it, such as the relevance of the IMF to Canadian politics, wants clarification and substance. Do I believe that Canada is under attack from malignant outside forces? No, I believe rather that Canada is open for business. I do not think that Canada is unique in the world, that it is somehow special, set apart from the other nations. The Canadian way of life is not invulnerable, and yet the threats are domestic. If anything brings Canada down, it will be the notions that democracy is a spectator sport, that citizenship is a piece of paper, that ordinary people are powerless, and that in any case ‘Canadianess’ magically shields one from the disasters which descend upon lesser nations. It is possible, even probable, that Quebec will one day leave Canada. It is possible that Canada as you know it will cease to exist. Perhaps it already has. My Canada, you see, includes these possibilities. [-November 1998.]

Kingston, Ontario, in the 1990s

One’s lasting impression is of the old-world feel of the place, ivy growing on limestone and so on. The city, especially its gentrified regions, has a distinct charm. Kingston is Loyalist and wants you to know it: even the garbage cans bear a slogan, pro rege, lege, et grege [for king, for law, and for the people]. Throw a rock and the plaque you’ll hit reads, In this house Sir John A. Macdonald (or perhaps his sister-in-law, or brother) once lived. Walking in Sydenham Ward, among the portes cochère and the gothic churches, the North American feels somehow to have been transported to the Old World, which partly discloses the appeal of the place. For whatever else the Old World may be, it at least is not the same old same old. It is an anachronism which offers both to the conservative and progressive imaginations an escape from the Here and Now. Living in Kingston one learns that architecture is full of metaphor and allusion. The Old World is a mental construct which points us somewhere. That somewhere is by definition an anachronism, and anachronism is itself the dominant Kingston motif. Go to a pub, the Wellington for instance, and you’ll discover Mississaugans drinking Guinness and singing nostalgic Irish songs (Irish songs always mourn that which is lost, for obvious historical reasons). A handful will boast an Irish grandparent, but in any case what you have is a gathering of misplaced souls, and a textbook instance of Freudian cathexis.

Kingston represents nearly everything which is anathema to the contemporary technocrat. This is its chief merit among the artistic. It is not efficient (until about 1 month ago, tall buildings were prohibited), but rather is set out roughly on a human scale and to a good degree with human needs, and not the needs of the automobile, foremost in mind. Business is not its chief legacy, but instead it is dominated by the public sector. Its historical figures are all first and foremost politicians. There are, I think, more parks than shopping malls. Prior to the triumph of the Open For Business agendas of Messrs Harris and Chrètien, the hospitals, schools, and military college were principal employers. Since the triumph, our many prisons have become a growth industry – a warden told me once that the bank granted without further questions his mortgage when told his occupation – but like other public functions the prisons are likely to be privatised, large profits being virtually guaranteed. Only tourism rivals the public sector as a source of economic activity, but it’s questionable whether tourism isn’t in many ways simply an extension of the public sector. I’ve noted, for instance, that the Japanese adore having themselves photographed before our city hall, and not before the Chamber of Commerce. They are fascinated by our squirrels. It is noteworthy that these simple human facts elude our economic experts, who talk as if technology and the modern corporation were the only things that matter. As for private enterprise, it exists, but mostly on the small scale we’re told simply won’t do in the global economy. Kingston business, that is, locally-owned Kingston business, is Mom-and-Pop in scale, which means politicians will praise it as the hope of our future while undermining it at every opportunity.

Everyone who lives in Kingston is a part of a clique. Hugh MacLennan might well have written a book about the place called Many Solitudes. To the north, in what is known as the Heights, you will find many of Kingston’s GWA recipients. The Fruit Belt, still to the north but much closer to downtown, is mostly proletarian ‘townies,’ but elements of the middle class have been moving in. Sydenham Ward is upper-middle, or perhaps lower-upper class, but here also you will find student apartments and some middle class professionals. Going north-west of the downtown you’ll encounter everything from shoebox bungalows, built between the wars, to middle class Tudor houses, neo-colonial mansions, and neighbourhoods where residents sit shirtless on their porches, dining straight from the pot. But these people of course are not mixed up together, and I assume prefer not to be. Class affiliations are too deeply ingrained. The divisions are, appropriately enough, determined by Division Street, which runs roughly north-south, and Princess Street, which runs east-west. The Ghetto, in the south-east, is nastiest of all for sheer aesthetic ugliness – but it’s only student housing, Put-On ugliness, like a Hallowe’en costume. The Ghetto houses are shabby and sordid Victorian monstrosities, at least eight persons to each, and their studied dilapidation is a matter of great pride. I’m unable to say how the name, The Ghetto, has come about, but it is in any case an instance of camp. The idea is to pay homage to the working man, as he’s conceived by the middle classes, until graduation into the Real World. This imitation underscores the essential fact of Kingston life, that the classes barely encounter one another except in the imagination. If you are a student, it means by definition you never socialize with the Fruit Belt proletariat, and vice versa. Perhaps your paths cross. You may both find yourselves at 3 in the morning eating poutine at Bubba’s, but that’s about it. The middle class student will at most learn from Judith Thompson’s play, The Crackwalker, that the lower classes of Kingston enjoy Hockey Night in Canada and hanging-out at Lino’s. The upper classes of Kingston are invisible, as they are everywhere. I have only one personal anecdote concerning them, from my days as a hospital employee, and it involves the annual Hotel Dieu Hospital food drive, a butler, and a can of sardines. As for the so-called lower classes, they will probably never see up-close either Queen’s student life or Old Money society, which they mistakenly conflate. Many BMWs pass within feet of the ‘Hub’ subculture, where Division and Princess intersect, with neither party coming within a million miles of the other.

These of course are largely abstract socio-economic groupings, but there are other sorts of cliques, or perhaps sub-cliques, as well. There are the teenagers who occupy downtown Princess Street doorways, smoking cigarettes and panhandling. There’s nothing distinctively Kingstonian about them, but they are almost a part of the local architecture, like body-pierced gargoyles, one feels. There’s a women’s community which, if you’re part of it, you know intimately. Literally everyone knows everyone else, or has at least heard something specific of her. The culture is organised around Take Back the Night marches, women’s dances, and women-centred agencies like the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre of Kingston and Kingston Interval House. There’s a gay and lesbian community centred on Club 477. If you wish to be seen as a member of long-standing, as they do in the commercials for American Express credit cards, you’ll refer to the club as Robert’s, its former name. There are more narrowly political groups, each with its own history and culture and favoured enemy. (A favoured enemy is essential to group cohesion.) And no list would be complete without Kingston’s itinerant, the many homeless who are well-known by sight. But don’t they form a socio-economic group? No, I suspect they live outside such categories. They aren’t even a clique, being necessarily of a mostly solitary nature. I have heard some of their life stories, which no doubt are embellished if not made-up entire, but the only thing that makes them a distinct group (besides their poverty) is that they all have fallen outside the system. A few of them are clearly mad and you’ll hear it said for that reason ‘they shouldn’t be on the street’ (as if others should), but most are entirely sane. My first year in Kingston, 1990-1991, I read all of Beckett’s novels; his characters’ predilection for bicycles struck me as uncanny, for such people were, and are, a common Kingston sight. Why, I wondered, the bicycle? Why not a yo-yo or a pet? Years later I bought a bicycle myself, and it occurred to me that a bicycle gives one a compelling sense of momentum, which must be a great comfort if you sense your existence is pointless. It’s easier to feel you’re going somewhere on a bicycle. Beckett nowhere makes this explicit, but I doubt the fact escaped him. I’m thinking of one Kingston indigent who I often saw travelling about in a grand arc, like Haley’s comet, taking in not only the city but much of its environs. He collected bits of refuse which he then affixed to his bike, using other bits of refuse. It would have seemed mad if not for the fact that his acquisitiveness simply reminded me of my own. We are all busily engaged in the accumulation of stuff, and whether or not it’s junk is a matter of opinion. This is not however to trivialize deprivation by putting all consumption on a par. The principle characteristic-in-common among the homeless, as I’ve said, is their poverty, for which they are treated as criminals and swept from public view. Their consumption is judged non-economic and hence is subject to treatments alien to the better-off. I dwell on these people (they are always ‘those people’) because they are a highly visible feature of Kingston. No tourist is encouraged to consider them – quite the opposite, in fact – but they exist and speak volumes of the sort of place Kingston is. As a group with an almost exclusively public existence, they constitute a unique category of person. The poor are in a sense always with us, and yet we understand them least of all. On the topic of social groupings I could go on and on (religious affiliations, men’s clubs, Chamber of Commerce, artists’ groups, etc.), but the point is always the same. The members of these cliques rarely if ever interrelate, even in cases where a clear overlapping of interests would lead us to expect them to. This is perhaps typical of any city, but it’s remarkable given Kingston’s geographically-determined physical intimacy. Nowhere are so many solitudes packed into so little real estate.

The solitudes make generalisation about the character of Kingstonians difficult. Nonetheless, at first glance Kingston does at present appear to be a ‘progressive’ community. Progressive here designates a promotion of cultural and political diversity. The positive feature of multiple solitudes, at least in principle, is its advancement of tolerance. You can be anything you wish, and folks will leave you alone. This impression derives from the sheer variety of culture and lifestyle on display, most of it but not all organised for tourist consumption. It’s true that Kingston is more progressive than most Ontario cities, if we’re careful about what this means: many kinds of ‘ethnic’ restaurants, and a diverse set of goods in the stores. This is of course banal, but it does make an impression. A disproportionately large number of writers settle here because it appears to them that Kingston is cosmopolitan and hence ‘civilized’ – that is, it supports Bohemianism. Since many Canadian writers come from small towns and are in flight from orthodoxy and parochialism, this logical error is understandable. In a more narrowly-political sense of diversity, there is plenty of theatre and art which characterises itself as a ‘celebration of alternative lifestyles,’ meaning gay and lesbian. So support for diversity does appear to be part of the local character.

Behind the scenes however one should note Kingston’s managerial monoculture, its solidly Open-for-Business political ideology. To some there’s a contradiction here, but since diversity sells well, the contradiction can be easily resolved. Everything is judged according to the market, including heresy. Window dressing aside, Kingston’s character may be inferred from its current municipal government, elected in 1997. 16 of its 17 members are white males, almost unanimously conservative and middle class, and the lone female was acclaimed. Debate the significance of this if you will, but at least it’s clear that the city is run by the same sort of persons who advise the provincial Harris Tories, and this as the result of a democratic election. [-June 1998]

Ontario Under the Harris Government

WHENEVER THE TOPIC turns to politics I am thoughtful of this aphorism, written by H.L. Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” So far as I know, Premier Mike Harris has never offered his definition of democracy. Yet I imagine if he did offer it, it would come out something like that – dressed up perhaps, but not substantially different.

Democracy is one of those words, and there are many, whose meaning is inseparable from its speaker. I am led to understand, by the local MP, that democracy consists in sending a representative to Ottawa for 5 years because you fancy him brilliant and competent, hence able to act as a matter of course on your behalf. Labour leaders appear to define democracy in relation to their wages and benefits, which doubtless offers a scientific means of measuring precisely what quantity of democracy we’ve got at any given moment. My mock-favourite definition however comes from Samuel P. Huntington’s The Crisis of Democracy, and could fairly be called an ‘elite’ view. Here, democracy designates a general uppityness to be contained by government, that is, bankers, heads of state, and the CIA. In other words: Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and we must keep them from getting it.

The first thing to notice about these definitions is that they are all rather self-serving, and the last thing to notice is that they don’t get us very far on the road to a useful understanding of democracy. I begin with these considerations of democracy because what you think of Mike Harris is related to what you conceive democratic government to be. One’s definition of democracy involves a value judgement, and this value judgement extends not only to government in the abstract, but to particular governments as well. If you believe democratic government means higher wages for unionized workers, you’re not likely to be a Harris supporter. I do not claim this is impossible, only that it is not very likely. Democracy is not an object, and we do not regard it objectively. Even the commonplace definition, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, only introduces more controversy. What do you mean by government? – representation, or direct rule? And so on and so on.

As the title of this essay suggests, I am not interested in democracy or government in themselves, but instead in Ontario under the Harris government. This is a specific topic, and calls for specific language. Already the debate has stagnated, one team asserting the Death of Democracy and the other, quite incongruously, retorting, If you think so, save it till the next election! (There are other teams as well, yelling from the sidelines.) They are speaking past one another, because they have incompatible assumptions. Is there anything to be said of Ontario under Harris which goes beyond this sorry state of affairs?

There are some remarkable facts about Mike Harris that are worthy of recollection. For instance his CV: Born in Toronto in 1945, briefly studied math and science at Waterloo Lutheran University (1 year), ski instructor, attended teacher’s college, public school teacher, Chair of Nipissing Board of Education, President of the Northern Ontario School Trustees Association, professional golfer and golf-shop manager, owner of a tourist resort and ski centre. What is remarkable about this? Only that it is not remarkable. It does not point in any direction. The next entry could as easily be accountant or hotel manager or disc jockey as it could politician. Harris is a Premier ex nihilo (or ‘deus ex machina’ if you prefer). He came from nowhere, unlike the majority of Canadian politicians, whose CVs, one feels, destined them to become leaders. This is the case with politicians as far apart in temperament, class, and ideology as Sir John A. MacDonald, Tommy Douglas, Preston Manning, and John Chrètien. Consider the CV of the man who Harris replaced, Bob Rae: Born in Ottawa in 1948, son of an ambassador, summer work as a Parliament guide in 1966, studied at U of T, involved in student politics, attended Oxford (Balliol) and again U of T (Law School), briefly practiced labour law before running first as a Federal NDP candidate (in 1978) and afterward as a Provincial NDP candidate. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is enough to establish the point: Harris is a different species of politician, even an anti-politician. This is the key to understanding the nature of his government and Ontario’s support for his agenda.

There is nothing inherently wrong or right with the route Mike Harris has taken to Queen’s Park. I have not put Harris beside Rae in order to disparage one or elevate the other. They differ, and Bob Rae is the more typical politician of the two. Harris has been often ridiculed, unfairly I think, for being little more than a jock. The revelation that his reading consists exclusively of Mr Silly and He Shoots, He Scores was attended by snobbish ridicule, but one should understand this is part of his appeal. If Bob Rae is a certain recognizable type of man, the ‘millionaire Socialist,’ so too is Harris a certain type of man. He is the man who comes riding into town to shake things up. Essential to this role is his status as an outsider. Indeed, what we are discussing here is an archetype. Harris is Perseus, come to slay Medusa, or John Wayne, come to set things right (or, more recently, William Munny of Unforgiven). For reasons that are easy enough to guess, the archetype is fondly regarded especially among the corporate elite, of whom ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlop is the most infamous example. To some the archetype is repellent, and it is interesting to read Rae’s memoirs and find him arguing against Harris, armed with Edmund Burke’s writings on the French Revolution. Rae’s principal grievance against Harris is not that he is too ‘conservative’, whatever that means, but that he doesn’t see the useful and positive aspects of the things he has set out to reform. Why? ‘Ideology’ is Rae’s answer; Harris has come riding into town, determined to impose his vision of justice.

This helps us to analyse Harris the ‘revolutionary,’ whose arrival for many was long overdue. What Ontario needs, according both to his supporters and detractors, is Change. At the bottom of this vague call for change is a generalized hostility toward bureaucracy in general and government in particular. Mike Harris appeals to that part of each of us that has patiently endured the irrationalities, injustices, and arbitrariness of the System. This is not a left vs. right nor rich vs. poor issue, but rather transcends political and class affiliations. We all know what it’s like to deal with ‘Big Government.’ Canadians have a shared sense that their governments are not working. This shared sense is a Common Sense in every meaning of the phrase. Every day an Ontarian tells his houseguests about the absurd encounter he’s just had with the bureaucrats, and they all shake their heads and commiserate because, as they say, they’ve been there too. It’s so obvious to us what’s wrong, why don’t the politicians get it? The answer is usually that they don’t get it because they’re ‘part of the system.’ If only someone like us, an outsider, could be in charge. That is the fantasy, and it’s revolutionary in the sense that the bureaucratic elite by definition are never one of us.

Change is the universal language. The working poor would like some things to change and so would the Canadian Bankers Association. Ontario voters swim in every direction, but cast a wide enough net, such as the promise of change, and you’ll catch them. The Harris government’s strategy tells us much about Ontario. Harris is not a reformer, he is a terminator. He is a politician against politicians, a governor against government, a public servant against public service. In no other career may you reasonably expect to succeed on the basis of your professed dislike of the profession. Who would hire a Doctor who promises to stamp out the practice of medicine? What would you make of a writer motivated by a dislike of books? Such things suggest that an odd psychology is at work. Does the public like Ontario, and perhaps even Ontarians, so little that they wish the White Horseman of the Apocalypse to pass through and give it to them good and hard? Rhetorically this is of course extreme, but one should be conscious of the fact that the year 2000 approaches. Fin de siècle mass psychology is not lightly to be dismissed. It infects everything, including the computer-programming profession. Today it would seem the end is at hand; only the means are disputed. Will it be the deficit or the debt? Inflation? Perhaps global warming or El Niño? Or will special interest groups, or international terrorism, or global competition, or AIDS, or the flesh-eating disease, destroy us all? And let us not forget the Quebec Separatists. And on and on and on and on. Nor does mass psychology yield to the so-called educated, who are busy churning out books with titles asserting ‘The End of’ – as in The End of Work and The End of History. Do such psychological conditions perhaps call forth a certain type of politician?

While I suspect the millennium informs the current political mood, I don’t feel it’s a satisfactory explanation of that mood. But the mood itself is unmistakable. We are anxious, cranky, impatient, frustrated, and restless. We have good reasons to be. Furthermore, where reasons have been lacking, Harris has been obliged to come to our assistance. We are oppressed, he has told us, by big government in the service of special interests, the latter meaning organized labour, women’s groups, environmentalists, misguided advocates of the poor and disabled, and welfare recipients. On the principle that a man declares himself by the enemies that he keeps, we can learn much from this litany. The chief thing to note is that each of the groups in this list represents a net social cost; these people seem always to be demanding, in popular parlance, a ‘handout.’ Labour wants wage increases, women’s groups want pay equity and funding for shelters, environmentalists want to curb production and to spend money on conservation, the disabled want more ramps, etc., etc. In their relation to government and society, they are demanders and dependants, like children. They are seen to take more than they contribute. No doubt these last 2 sentences are offensive. Nonetheless, it stands that Mike Harris is repulsed by what we may term ‘maternal relations,’ which is precisely how he construes the coddling welfare state. (In August 1995, he complained that mothers on welfare ‘do not work.’ Paula Todd was present and asked him what his mother did all day, but there was no answer.) Nor does he care for poverty because it is to him ugly and offensive, as, let’s be honest, it is to most if not all of us. Our instinctive reaction to the poor is to wish they were otherwise. Their principal effect is to bring out feelings in us we prefer not to have: especially anxiety and disgust. The function of political discourse is to exorcise these feelings and thereby make us feel things can change.

Since I’ve lived in a city with a good number of poor people, I will do as an example of the psychology I am describing. As I’m out walking a homeless man comes into view. I suspect he will want money. My first impulse is to cross the street, or at least move to the further edge of the sidewalk. It is not the money itself that is the issue. I avoid eye contact because he is a different species of being. (The street homeless are mostly male, by the way; women tend to flee into marriage and/or prostitution). His difference makes me suspect he may be dangerous, or mad, or both. In any case, I am sure he is not of my class, and this makes him offensive. He is dirty and no doubt smells bad, and anyway, the encounter would be terribly awkward because I could not possibly strike up a conversation with him. This latter detail sounds trivializing, but for the middle classes it is a devastating indictment, no less serious than physical repulsiveness. And so I pass. I am not finished with him, however, for now something else happens. I begin to wonder about his life story. What brought him to this? Where did things go wrong? Could it happen also to me? This is an unpleasant thought, so I flatter myself that, given his fortunes, I would nonetheless overcome. I even imagine myself, in a momentary fantasy, doing so. I embrace the myth of the self-made man, and I tell myself that he could better himself also, if only he made an effort. Notice that up close I find him unpleasant and pitiful, but from a safe distance I overcome the unpleasantness and the pity by means of a mental exercise. The principal function of the psychological twists and turns I have briefly described is to minimize my discomfort. I begin by feeling fear and disgust, but by the end I have convinced myself that he perhaps deserves his fate, or at least that my charity won’t make a difference. And I find solace in the conviction that he, and others like him, would cease to be a blight on our streets if they just made an effort.

I do not believe any of this nonsense. I feel it, as I feel wishfully the world would be a better place if only people behaved differently. Such is the stuff of the Common Sense Revolution. Harris wishes sincerely that the special interests shall go away, for their own good, by behaving differently. And he will force them to behave differently if he must, because he is the tough-loving father who knows what is best. Please note I am not endorsing the current cliché that Mike Harris hates women. Rather, he is nostalgic for the mythical 1950s, when father’s common sense was unchallenged and brought to the home peace and prosperity. That the 1950s ‘worked’ is held to be self-evident. The ‘progressive agenda’ thereby is associated with dissolution of the family and the rot that naturally follows. Harris thus trivializes dissension not only because that is what leaders do, but because his familial model tells him the children should only be expected to make a fuss. The essential thing is to maintain your authority, because in this rests the cohesion of the family. The children will protest, and you may listen as a loving father when they do, but it would be irresponsible of you, and dangerous to the interests of the family, if you let them each run her own life as she saw fit. Your job, as father, is to guide them along and keep things together.

Extrapolate from this and you’ll have a coherent conception of democracy. It is a literally home-made and not elite view. Mike Harris mistrusts the scholar-expert and disparages political theory, while he respects the practical. His ideal person, as the Ontario cabinet indicates, dropped out of school before learning too much and made the first $1 million or inherited it by age 30. Regarding professional enemies, the career advocates for the poor for instance, he dislikes their ‘elitism,’ that is, their impractical university education. The idea of a business elite makes little sense to him because the corporate culture in which he lives has mythologized the drop-out. What matters is practical knowledge, preferably got in the School of Hard Knocks. The poor and their advocates are united in Harris’s mythology by a lack of practical (read ‘common’) sense, which alone keeps them from getting ahead in the world. People like them must be forced to swim, and then to swim in a certain direction, for their own good. Mike Harris’s conception of democracy is a paradox: manufactured populism. Consensus and cohesion are its touchstones, but not a consensus and cohesion brought about by active mediation between opposing views. Instead, consensus in his view is something into which the passive citizen ought to be delivered, like a child into its family. This is why Harris chose the metaphor of common sense. How could you possibly disagree with common sense? It is the definition of consensus and as natural for you as your family. Thus, the quintessential Harris challenge is not how to resolve competing interests, but what to do about the black sheep.

No one of these explanations – the family, millennium psychology, anti-government sentiment, masculinist archetypes – captures entirely the character of Ontario under Harris, but each captures something of it. Each tells us a bit about what we are. (By ‘we’ I mean ‘the Ontario public,’ which is of course an abstraction.) Harris is not the cause, but the expression, and when he is gone from public office Ontario will go on. Its character will change in some ways, but in many it will not. We will continue to argue about democracy, and most of us will talk past, rather than to, one another. We will insist that we know what we want, and we will elect folks to give it to us good and hard. [-June 1998]

A View from the Stadium: Politics and Sport

A common view among academic writers, and especially writers of the political left, is that professional sport constitutes a diversion from practical affairs. The consuming public, according to the Diversion Theory, is made stupid and docile by generous outlays of – one can feel the approach of the inevitable phrase from Juvenal – ‘bread and circuses.’ Here I must qualify the discussion with a distinction between sports as recreation and sports as business. The following essay does not consider sports from the view of the participant, but rather from the view of the spectator-consumer. Our topic, major-league spectator sports, is particular. My job in the following paragraphs will be to answer a question: what is the spectator getting these days from sports? Indirectly, however, I shall be attempting to investigate the relation of sports and politics as this relation is described in conventional theory.

Intellectuals, among whom are few sports fans, often give an unflattering answer to the question just posed: what is the spectator getting from sports? Here are some of Umberto Eco’s thoughts on the subject, from a 1980 essay called ‘Sports Chatter’ (published in an excellent book, Travels in Hyperreality):

And since chatter about sport gives the illusion of interest in sport, the notion of practicing sport becomes confused with that of talking sport; the chatterer thinks himself an athlete and is no longer aware that he doesn’t engage in sport. And similarly he isn’t aware that he could no longer engage in it, because the work he does, when he isn’t chattering, tires him and uses up both the physical energy and the time required for sports activities.

You’ve gathered that the sports fan gets from sports, among other things which Eco elsewhere identifies, the illusion that he or she is an athlete. I suspect that this aptly describes a portion of the sports audience. One weakness of Eco’s approach however is that it considers sports from the point of view of one who presumably has risen above the folly he describes. This strategy comes with limitations. I shall attempt to clarify the matter of limitations by transposing Eco’s paragraph into another subject: literature.

And since chatter about literature gives the illusion of interest in literature, the notion of practicing literature becomes confused with that of talking literature; the chatterer thinks himself a writer and is no longer aware that he doesn’t engage in literature. And similarly he isn’t aware that he could no longer engage in it, because the work he does, when he isn’t chattering, tires him and uses up both the physical energy and the time required for literary activities.

I doubt that Eco, or academics in general, would accept this transposed statement. For chatter about literature (or art, or politics, etc.) is precisely how critics show their interest; they furthermore do not suppose this interest an ‘illusion.’ Here we disclose the critical necessity of attempting to understand human behaviour by examining one’s own.

We should be suspicious of the view which reduces all interest in sports to a parody of civic participation. The view is widespread, especially among Marxists – who necessarily suppose that ‘politics’ is a universal human concern. The alternative is to suspect that perhaps The People don’t care much for political affairs, and from this to infer a possible lack of enthusiasm for Marxism itself, or whatever one is promoting. The fan of sport, therefore, must be revealed as expressing his or her political nature. The result is a denigration of the sport spectator, over whom the superior theorist casts a dark shadow. The duped sports fan gets excited, argues about the decisions of the leaders, debates the strengths and weaknesses of outcomes, and urges what ought to be done to improve things. All of this energy is political in nature, but unlike the efforts of the scholarly investigator, it is foolishly misdirected toward an inferior end. Worse, the fan’s behaviour is manipulated by commercial interests: hence, he is not accorded even the attributes of agency. You can see why this reasoning flatters the academic, whose own perspective apparently rises above that of the mob. Eco, who (I think) is not a Marxist, even uses the telling phrase “fake conscience.”

Academic chatter about sports tells us a good deal about the assumptions of academics; it tells us less about the assumptions of fans. Seen from the perspective of the sports fan, professional sports are not a diversion from a more substantial occupation (that is, electoral politics); they are a diversion from tedium and banality. ‘False consciousness’ was a concept invented by Marxists to explain the masses’ complicity in their oppression. At the heart of the concept is the proposition that the people support the ruling classes because they (the people, that is) haven’t got a proper, Marxist understanding of class relations. In other words, to know Marxism is to love it. Needless to say there are other explanations for the rejection of Marxism, most of which concern the character of people who call themselves Marxist. ‘False consciousness’ nonetheless was adopted by critics of various political persuasions as an explanation of mass-behaviour. It allowed one to believe, ‘The People do not submit to me because they do not understand me: they are ignorant.’ Furthermore, false consciousness renders urgent the crusade to enlighten the masses. Academic writing on popular culture often discloses this logic, especially when it concerns political matters from the perspective of the political left. The unpleasant fact for the left is that they often find the behaviour of their beloved masses repulsive. Thus, the masses must be irrational or misinformed, and hence capable of being reformed through the application of rational analysis. Eco does not strike me as the crusading sort, but many critics are missionaries in disguise.

The challenge for the academic, then, is to offer a rational explanation for a behaviour that is considered irrational. The favoured explanation of the academic is that mass behaviour is a distorted version of his or her own; hence, the sports fan is engaged in an irrational parody of a rational human activity. Yet the sports fan’s relation to sport is the same as the academic’s relation to his subject of study. Both relations are rational and gloriously useless. Both reward an intimate knowledge of the discipline’s history, techniques, and rules. Both involve skill, the pursuit of excellence, and above all competition – for a trophy, for jobs, or for scholarly eminence. The literary critic who cleverly discerns a feature of, say, Shakespeare’s genius implicitly puts himself in Shakespeare’s company. The idea is that it takes a certain degree of skill to discern and appreciate skill in others. One reveals his or her genius in the praise of the genius of others. On this foundation rests the reputation of scholars and sports commentators alike. Academics, like sports fans, affiliate themselves with the honoured tradition and are thereby honoured.

If an intellectual feels it necessary to hitch his efforts to High Public Purposes, then we may reasonably suspect that he feels insecure. His insecurity is probably apt, given the unenviable social status of most intellectuals. Sports fans, for their part, are comfortable with the inutility of their pursuits. Indeed, inutility is one of the chief merits of sport for the fan. Sport, we need not be reminded, is play. Politics, we have all learned, is crass; it is about little more than advancing one’s own agenda. At least one is able to enjoy sports, despite the commercialization, and to see in them something more than money- and power-grubbing. It is precisely the academic thesis that ‘everything is political’ which blinds many intellectuals to the positive value of sports and mass culture in general. Many fans see as clearly as the intellectual that sports are political (theirs is not a ‘false’ consciousness), but they choose sports nonetheless and manage to look beyond the politics. The sports themselves are felt by the fan to be good; when however there is no ‘sport in itself,’ but only a manifestation of the political, the rot appears wherever one cares to look. So it is fulfilling even for a casual fan to sit in the stadium and watch the game, while it’s a scandal for the theorist who sees only or mostly political theatre. Both sports and politics offer intellectual stimulation, abundant statistical data, debate, controversy, allies and enemies, and collective endeavour. The principal difference is this: sports do not leave you feeling only that people are vile.

Perhaps the previous line is too harsh. Nonetheless, I think, it makes my point. The public aspect of life, which includes the pundit’s analysis of it, is rather cynical. Professional sport may be the only public good able to command broad respect. We recognize that sport is a business, and that as such it is a private commodity as much as it is a public good. My point is that mass-produced spectator sports often succeed while politics often does not. By ‘often’ I mean that sports command a broader following than politics. I cannot prove this with numbers; it is a conjecture based upon my experience. Furthermore, my definition of success is the following: the ability to produce and substantiate both constructive attitudes and actions toward collective ends. Politics fails because contact with it produces, in many cases, the feeling that the world is filled with shits. It is perhaps healthy to avoid environments that support this feeling, and on this proposal I rest my claim that the sports fan is usually engaged in healthy behaviour. The word ‘usually’ allows for the sports fan who engages in chauvinistic displays of team boosterism, especially where these displays involve violence. Violence tells us something about the psychological condition of the individual fan, and it reminds us that spectator sports invoke deep feeling. But it is clear that deep feelings do not lead by necessity to predetermined acts. In any case, some of the feelings are themselves good – for instance, the sensation of being involved in the pursuit of a shared, worthy good, such as winning the championship. When is the last time politics made you feel something good?

Of course, I’m intellectualizing a feature of contemporary life which is transparent to ordinary folks. I suppose a good many fans would say they like sports because sports are action-packed, interesting, and full of compelling strategy. In other words, they no more feel their pleasure needs analysis and justification than do the critics theirs. Pleasure is pleasure. Nor is there only one sort of pleasure involved in any single field of interest. Sports offer the pleasures of watching, reading, learning, committing facts to memory, and discussing those facts with others. Unlike other forms of knowledge – knowledge of literature, for instance – sports knowledge also constitutes a lingua franca. Sports talk is the language of Common Humanity, and unlike talk of politics, it is usually jovial and at most mock-belligerent in nature. In short, sports yield a useful and engaging discourse among many ordinary, civilized people. And as any intellectual ought to understand, language itself is (among other things) a basic form of human recreation. [-January 1999]

In Bill Gates’s World (1998)

I am not sure exactly how much money Bill Gates is ‘worth’ as I write this sentence. His net worth is, I think, around $50 billion. In any case the number will have dropped or gone up a few hundred million by the end of this essay. And that surely is the basic fact of Bill Gates’s world: astonishing, unimaginable wealth. Everything else about him is a footnote. Just as poverty changes wholly a person’s life, so surely does opulence. What then is the meaning of such extraordinary riches?

An article on my desk tells me that Bill Gates will have to spend $145 every second of every hour of every day to exhaust his riches in 15 years. Elsewhere I read this: “…a new Lamborghini Diablo, which we think of as costing $250,000, would be 63 cents in Bill Gates dollars.” I won’t reproduce the formula behind this calculation, nor will I quote other such trivia, of which there are many. I wish only to note that these are typical of the many current efforts to explain what the world must look like to Bill Gates. I don’t think they succeed. They are quantitative efforts which understandably focus on the scale of his wealth, but what matters is the qualitative view. Yes, Bill Gates can afford to give every man, woman, and child in the world a $20 bill (or whatever); yes, he can buy 3 Boeing 747s as easily as I buy a soft drink; yes, he could purchase an entire small country. What he can do is however less important than what he is likely to do, and this in turn is less important than his reasons for doing it. Here we’ve entered the qualitative world.

Much is said about Bill Gates’s thirst for power, which is thought by some to be nothing short of absolute. The evidence given on behalf of this position is his alleged attempt to control the essential technologies of the information economy. Now, before we proceed, I ask you to imagine yourself a multi-billionaire. Do you seriously claim the thought of how this wealth enhances your power doesn’t occur? I’ve tried the experiment myself, and I’ve found within seconds it’s there: the thought of wealth as an enhancement of power. It’s true that the thoughts are small and far from the theme of world domination, but I’ve got to start somewhere. World domination is an advanced art. A few seconds into my new fortune I’m thinking about less grand things – travel, starting a business, personal freedom. These are all functions of power. My thoughts are of things I would like to do and be but which I cannot do and be under present circumstances. If this concern with power is demonic, and I do not myself believe it is, it’s nonetheless common.

True, most of us don’t set out to form global empires. Bill Gates is unusual, but only in relation to those of us in the non-global-empire-forming category. Put him next to another CEO and you’ll see he’s unexceptional. He’s employing the same logic, the same principles, and often the same tactics, toward the same ends. Only the quantity of his wealth and the industry he occupies distinguish him, and these are external features, accidents of history and timing. Had he chosen to run, say, a chain of barber shops, he would probably be less of a phenomenon. What if he were the 2nd most wealthy man, then what? He’d be Warren Buffet, of whom a relative speck is read by the general public. That Bill Gates chose to produce computer software made all the difference. If he hadn’t, someone else would be Bill Gates today, and we would be talking about him (it probably wouldn’t be a her, given the state of corporate culture). To understand the world of Bill Gates we have to consider not only the man, but the circumstances of the man. The essence of the capitalist, in other words, is capitalism.

Following the principle I’ve just articulated, one may be tempted to say that Bill Gates is the most successful practitioner of capitalism, and in this lies his essence. I’m not sure that this is so. I agree that he has been successful in business, and that for this success he deserves praise or blame, depending upon one’s point of view. He is not merely a creature of luck, though luck has played a part. So too has strategy; what else would we expect? Global empires don’t just happen, and they certainly don’t happen because of luck alone. They are built through a combination of hard work, planning, chicanery, deceit, ruthlessness, foresight, ambition, and cunning. The idea that capitalists succeed because they work hard to give the people what they want at a fair price is self-serving propaganda, like the view that the English Empire existed for the benefit of backward peoples. Indeed, most economic theories invented to flatter the rich are so much hogwash. This isn’t to say people engaged in business don’t believe them. Nonetheless they are hogwash. Even a cursory glance at history reveals the sine qua non of global-corporate profits, or in plain English, that which is necessary for ever-increasing corporate wealth. I’m speaking of course of economic imperialism, or the domination of the weak by the strong. Capitalism, as proponents like to point out, is for the strong.

Here is what I imagine the world looks like to Bill Gates. He is a multi-billionaire, thanks to the computer. He lives in a high-tech house built into the side of a mountain. He wakes each morning beside his wife amidst the splendour made possible by the success of his empire. Is he optimistic about the future? Does he believe technology will better human lives? The context makes all the difference to the analysis. Around him, he sees what a wonderful thing the information economy is. You may talk if you wish about ‘technological downsizing’ and the supposed workerless, automated future. Bill Gates’s only contact with work (for surely someone else buys his groceries, does his laundry, and cooks his dinners) is in the software industry. Here the prospect is splendid. It simply isn’t true that there are no jobs. As for the unsubstantiated claims that Microsoft is out to control the technology of the future, there is again Bill Gates’s house as proof to the contrary. He wants only to make life easier. In order to do this he needs access to certain resources. It is that simple.

Needless to say I haven’t the personal experience of a billionaire, but I’d be surprised if Bill Gates didn’t see matters in the benevolent manner in which I’ve just presented them. The last thing I’d expect of a billionaire is that he should see himself as a rich, greedy, acquisitive monster. Neither however would I expect him to see things as a ‘non-billionaire,’ otherwise known as Everyone Else. We marvel at the wealth of Bill Gates, and it’s a cliché now when discussing him to say, ‘Imagine if you had $50 billion dollars!’ But here’s the intellectual exercise which truly fascinates me: try to imagine Bill Gates imagining what it’s like to live on $39,000 a year. This, by the way, is no arbitrary figure; it’s the 1998 median average gross wage-earnings of an American family as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. And unlike Bill Gates’s wealth, it is not subject to wild vicissitudes, though it’s been declining (when adjusted for inflation) since 1979. Could Bill Gates really get inside the American life as it’s lived by millions upon millions? Only with an extraordinary effort which he isn’t likely to make. Welcome to Bill Gates’s world.

But again, I said at the outset that what Bill Gates is likely to do is more important than what he’s likely not to do. Furthermore his reasons for doing so are of the greatest importance. And as I’ve suggested his reasons for what he does have everything to do with capitalism, the system which informs his behaviour and which makes it sensible. Here then is the essence of Bill Gates: he is, from the point of view of the average American, the antithesis of Everyman. He is Noman. From the point of view of the capitalist system however he is thoroughly ordinary, thoroughly representative. He hardly merits comment. He will follow the logic of the system and make the best company he can, best meaning biggest, most competitive, most influential, and most profitable. The function of capitalism, as Karl Marx noted, is to reach into every corner of the globe and transform nature into its own image. This means that Bill Gates will genuinely want us all to live in a world created by Microsoft, which, when you think about it, is how Bill Gates himself already lives. How could it be bad if he’s chosen it for himself?

There is no single, sufficient answer to this question. It is again a matter of personal context. This much however is clear: Bill Gates’s choice is not precisely the same as the choice of others. Although the Constitution does not make this explicit, a billionaire’s freedoms differ from those of the average folk, especially when freedom is conceived in market terms. It is furthermore a qualitative difference. Consider: you’ve probably already forgotten the little exercise I introduced near the beginning, the exercise in which you imagine yourself a billionaire. For Bill Gates this is not a game, but rather an unceasing, even banal, reality. His wealth, in short, places him not in a bigger or even much much bigger version of your world, but in another world altogether. What for you is a wild, unsustainable fantasy is for him no more extraordinary than putting on underpants. You are Bill Gates’s wild fantasy. He will forget you soon, if he thinks of you at all, and will continue with his reality, the ongoing creation of a global corporate empire. And he will do so not as an average American, whatever that is, but as an average billionaire capitalist who lives in a house in the side of a mountain. What does this mean for America? That is a question only time will answer. [-July 1998]

Of Roads and Rage

One of the great frustrations of modern life is its sanctions against rage. For instance: how often have you felt compelled to beat back satire, contempt, or disgust for the sake of being polite? Now try to imagine the opposite case. Or have you experienced this: when I was younger I couldn’t complete a job interview without submitting myself to the necessary cliché that ‘I love working with the public.’

In fact there is nothing less loveable than the public. Even to encounter it briefly, as on the subway, is for me intolerable. And yet we are discouraged from admitting this. The public mood, when it involves formal relations, is necessarily fake-friendly. This is not a condemnation of civility, which in any case is to be distinguished from the tedious convention of making everyone out to be a friend. I’ve noticed that waiters, for example, have been instructed by cynical managers to introduce themselves by name to customers. It was only a short step from here to the idle chatter in which cashiers now routinely attempt to engage their customers. No wonder the Europeans find North Americans so tiresome, so unremittingly and artificially nice.

So far I have described mere conventional manners, which may seem irrelevant to a discussion of rage. But the point I wish to establish is that the truth about human affairs is often unpleasant, thus the effort to suppress unpleasantness at any cost is also an effort to suppress the truth. To a degree, the suppression may be wise. I’m certain many of the world’s nice people hate their jobs and the obnoxious people they meet. I am also certain rage is a common emotion, especially concerning the public responses to the acts of politicians. Yet I would scarcely recommend we act on our rage willy-nilly, for instance by indulging in reactionary politics. The case I wish to make on behalf of rage is more complex than this, and perhaps says a good deal about the contemporary public and its discontents.

If you scratch a good number of Canadians today you discover, beneath the conventional niceness, a shirty reactionary. The easy abundance of “send in the army” comments on the CBC website, which accompanies articles on Aboriginal people, is a good example of latent hostilities waiting to be exploited by future politicians. Contemporary public life, meaning electoral politics and media, is characterized by the nourishing, and then manipulation, of base emotions. I have learned, to my great discomfort, that all around there are perfectly nice people who, upon the introduction of certain topics (welfare recipients, capital punishment, the war in Iraq), become quite hostile, as if you’d stabbed a finger into their genitals. They have carried around with them a deep-seated rage, a visceral hostility which is part indignation and part frustration. I have felt these things myself, almost on a daily basis. I have wanted momentarily to murder. I’ve noticed this feeling comes when I read the papers – and again I hasten to add that the media are themselves mostly reactionary, mostly in the business of fomenting and directing discontent. But as the saying goes, it takes two to dance; the public both shapes ‘the system’ and is in turn shaped by it. The whole thing works something like this: media-informed Canadians learn that the country is governed by duplicitous opportunists. Their faces are daily rubbed in the hypocrisy, injustice, violence, and corruption of their ‘betters.’ What do they do? Support the first duplicitous opportunist who has learned how to give voice to their rage. The whole thing is a sham, really, and they know it. But the truth about rage never gets out. All one hears about are the familiar suspects.

Consider ‘road rage.’ Here we have a useful analogy to the current political mood. The growth of the automobile industry is unsustainable. It’s making the cities ugly, crowded, dirty, and uninhabitable. Thanks to the efforts of lobbyists, sane and decent proposals for the organisation of living spaces were long ago defeated. Every year the city planners pave over more green space and further congest the streets with cars and their bad drivers. The arrangement of the world around the automobile now and then strikes the sane person as a species of madness. Everyone knows the problems exist, and yet they are given no practical and immediate forum in which to express usefully their frustration. What expression does exist is arbitrary and meaningless. Nonetheless it is a response to real conditions. The road rage therapist (and there is such a thing) is a sort of pundit who turns the whole matter into a simple failure of manners, clouding the discussion with sociological gas. Road rage, it turns out, is about everything except the road. Wouldn’t it be more healthy though to admit we may hate, for very good reasons, rush hour, crowds, smog, bad driving, traffic jams, concrete jungles, and commuting? At least then our rage would lead us to consider the plain observable facts of our experience, and perhaps to work together toward some decent changes.

This movement from private experience to a public dialogue and collective action would involve a form of human behaviour known as ‘politics.’ In some limited ways, it is true, there is democracy in Canada. Nonetheless I would suggest that the most significant fact of social life at the end of the 20th century is that most people, not only here but elsewhere, are deeply outraged by the public affairs of their country but entirely convinced there is nothing they can do about it. The system is evidently rigged, maybe beyond redemption. So the ordinary folk contain their private, and impotent, rage until a demagogue comes along and opens the bottle.

It is too easy to predict the rise of fascism, or some other such bugaboo. The right wing, currently the source of political momentum in Canada, has tapped into popular discontent; to date however it resembles the fascist right only in some details. Among the social-Darwinist intelligentsia, who promulgate right-wing ideology in the National Post and the Toronto Sun, virulent racism is regarded as déclassé. The acceptable targets of rage are feminists, welfare recipients, unions, and modern liberalism – in short, the advocates of ‘special interests’ generally. One finds among the intellectual right an instinctual deference to traditional authority, and a disgust with anything that suggests collectivist arrangements. This last point perhaps more than any other portends the future direction of Canada, a general withdraw from the public sphere and a return to 19th-century social arrangements. In other words: Leave social problems, and indeed society itself, to voluntary private philanthropy. This is the social background of laissez-faire capitalism, on behalf of which the right-wing has launched its moral crusade. To get there, however, it has been necessary first to turn the public against The Public.

The political left, which abhors individualist talk, underestimates the appeal of the ‘minding one’s own business’ approach. In today’s media-circus culture, the very idea comes as does a breath of fresh air. It is exhilarating. Society, a term which includes political and economic systems, is thought by many to be in a condition every bit as unsustainable as are the roads. Whether or not this perception is warranted is not the present concern; the point is, this notion informs government policy. On the private road of life, one may drive into the sunset, to where there are no feminists, no poor, no welfare sponges, and no teacher unions: in short, no undesirables. The right’s political goal is to rid the individual not only of social obligations, but of society itself – which, as Margaret Thatcher has said, doesn’t exist anyway. The goal has been attracting a good many supporters.

If my intuition, then, is correct, the future may be shaped as much by deep-seated rage as it is by anything else. This may seem to you needlessly dark. That it is perhaps so I concede. And yet there is surely something ‘unnatural’ and disturbing about the average Canadian life – a life under which rage subtends, rarely acknowledged, day after day, until something or someone suddenly brings it to the surface. [-July 1998, revised February 2010]

The Confessions of a University Drop-Out

During the years 1992-1998 I was a full-time Ph.D. student at Queen’s University at Kingston Ontario. It happened something like this. I had completed an undergraduate degree in English Literature at Brock University and a M.A. at Queen’s. The deepest recession since the 1930s, or so I was told, was setting in, and I was faced with bleak prospects. Like many of my contemporaries, I decided to drift further into graduate school. Call it laziness or inertia if you like. At the time it was the best option available, for reasons I’ll show later. And after all, I’d been told since age 4 that an education is the key to success, whatever that means.

I had graduated from high school during the recession of the 1980s, so the territory was familiar. I worked as a bartender, and had even less talent for this than I’d shown as a student. I would have been fired were it not for the fact my employers were kind and generous friends. Eventually I figured out I was going nowhere, and school represented itself as a strategy for improving my fortunes. In 1984 I returned to my education, applied myself for the first time, and completed grade 13. Had you asked me ‘What is the purpose of an education?’ when I was a high school graduate and a simpleton, I would have replied, ‘To get a Job!’ I didn’t care for school until my university sophomore year, when I came to realize that I believed learning for its own sake is a noble endeavour. I admit it is a selfish endeavour also, but then my purpose here is not self-glorification. My point is, I still believe that education is a noble endeavour. I suspect this is a minority opinion, and that most who go to university would find it a bit quaint. They are there for the job training, which is not the same thing, in my opinion, as an education.

You are doubtless eager to chastise me at this point. You suppose I am going to issue the commonplace laments about the University: that it does not educate, that it does not lead to a job, that it is ‘outdated,’ etc., etc. And you want to tell me, as if I’ve never heard it before, that I ought to have studied something useful. ‘Computers. Now there’s a degree! They’re dying for people who know about that.’ True, the market demand for English majors is relatively low, and yet I’ve never doubted that I have a useful degree. I also feel that I got an education, so there will be no laments forthcoming.

I was accepted at Brock University and began my English degree in the fall of 1985. Why did I choose an English major? I don’t recall my thinking, but I imagine I’d figured out by then that I had a knack for literature and an interest in writing. Indeed, I’d wanted to be a writer since the age of 8. My other principal interests were, and still are, biology, general science, and music. But English Literature it was. I chose my courses, bought my textbooks, and went off to class. Of those early years my memories are few but pleasant. I recall the pungent lectures of Michael Hornyansky and, incongruously, the Brock pub, Alphies Trough. The years went quickly, or so it seems in retrospect, and by 1988 I had decided I would pursue a graduate degree. Here I recall my reasons with clarity. I was a good student and loved nothing more than loitering in the company of history’s great and infamous minds.

I applied to Guelph University and Queen’s, and chose the latter after visiting Kingston in the winter of 1989. The trip I remember well because it was viciously cold and because I scored an apartment for the next fall at a house party my first night there. I saw little of the city, but fell in love with it because it was everything St. Catharines was not: intimate, communal, convenient. The students I met all lived within a few minutes’ walk of one another and within blocks of the university. I would discover later that this cliquish intimacy had its dangers, but at the time it felt marvellous – and I have to say that nostalgia for this college-dorm life is doubtless behind the success of Friends, Seinfeld, Beverly Hills 90210, and other such Peter-Pan let’s-never-grow-up TV shows.

I moved to 379 Alfred Street in Kingston on 24 August 1990 – I remember it well – and began my M.A. in September. It was a gruelling year, academically speaking, and personally difficult, but productive and rewarding. As I look back to 1985, when my education began in earnest, the markers of my life’s significant events and discoveries include entries like: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Penguin Classics, Either/Or volume I, Ulysses, Paul Fussell’s Bad, George Orwell’s essays, H.L. Mencken, and so on and so on. Every year brought with it a new set of discoveries, new vistas, a bigger imaginative world. I feel about these what others feel about Ebbetts Field, the moon landing, or the death of John F. Kennedy. You see, I can’t imagine my life without them. Beyond that, it seems almost pointless to try to put the matter into words. Either one understands, in which case the explanation is unnecessary, or one does not, in which case the explanation won’t help.

My involvement with the Ph.D. program began, ironically I now find, with money. One is required during his or her M.A. studies to apply to several funding agencies for Ph.D. assistance, even if there’s no certain intention to become a doctoral candidate. I therefore wrote a thesis proposal, filled out the forms, assembled a team (advisor, second reader, etc.), and posted the paperwork – a tedious task, and one which I expected to end up nowhere. To my surprise, I ended up with grants from every agency to which I’d applied. Imagine living on perhaps $400 or $500 a month (perhaps you don’t need to) and then suddenly being offered grants totalling about $30,000 a year to do something you find difficult but also rewarding and noble. Well, are you interested? Perhaps now you see why this was the best option.

I completed my required first year of courses, my second year of comprehensive and specialist examinations, and one of my languages (Latin). I still had one language examination to complete (French), and of course the thesis itself. The actual thesis, a scholarly argument of 200-400 pages, isn’t begun until year three, after the first year of courses and the second year of exams. In years three and four I read dozens and dozens of books and articles, hundreds I suppose, and made notes which filled several yellow 1½” ring binders. The actual writing, which began in year four, was protracted and felt often disgusting. There were days, many of them, I did anything to avoid my computer. The problem was I never quite knew what it was I wanted to say, or even why I should say it. My title page read “Autobiographical representations of the Indian, and the making of the self, in Eleanor Brass’s I Walk in Two Worlds, Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, and James Tyman’s Inside Out, by Wayne K. Spear, A thesis submitted to the Department of English Literature in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.” The argument, in a nutshell, was that our conception of ourselves is shaped by narrative conventions, social institutions, and cultural beliefs working in a complex and dynamic interrelation. I came up with some clever insights and a few marvellous paragraphs, but it occurred to me I could say everything I wanted in plain, ordinary English – in about 100 pages. Too bad for me the scholarly mode of writing is tortuous prose by the pound. I had another problem also, which is that my profound skepticism over my project kept creeping into the discussion. Here, for instance, are the opening lines of my Introduction: “There is a refrain among Native peoples with which I would like to begin this study. I have heard it spoken at academic conferences, and in that context it serves as a suitably dark suggestion both of the limitations and the effects of research and of knowledge. That refrain goes something as follows: ‘Indians have been studied to death.’” I may as well have added, from Ecclesiastes, ‘of book making there is no end, and great study is a weariness of the soul.’ This quotation is from memory and may be garbled, but no matter; it’s precisely how I felt about the work I was doing.

Stubborn as I am, I lingered in the thesis-writing stage for 4 years, convincing myself I would finish my dissertation. But in the end I had no incentive, other than being done, and it was making me quite miserable. Writing a thesis is a gruelling ordeal, which would not have been quite so bad had it served a purpose. I do not mind hard work, provided it has a purpose. Certainly I was no longer in it for the money. The government grants had run out in 1996, and again I was living a careful life. I was going on sheer determination, and not even my love of learning could help me now. You see, one learns little writing a thesis; it is a solitary, pedantic, technical exercise, a hoop through which one jumps on the way to becoming a professor. I had decided however that I didn’t want to become a professor. Then why was I sticking with this massive, rambling, pointless exercise called the dissertation? Because I’d made a commitment and had been given public money to do so. I rationalized the decision by telling myself a Ph.D. would give me more ‘options,’ which I think is another way of saying I could become a university professor. It turned out all English Ph.D. roads lead to teaching.

I’d had enough experience of the teaching profession to learn I wasn’t well suited to it. For 5 years I was a teaching assistant, and I realized that most students don’t really care for what they’re doing and are just trying to tell you what they think you want to hear. In other words, they’ve already learned the cynical art of ‘getting ahead’ in the world. Some of them have figured out what they need to pass and put in the minimum effort to get there. Others, god bless them, are good, decent people who never quite get it, no matter how hard you try to help them. As a result, I marked a good many papers littered with statements like the following:

…the wife [of Bath] tries to explain that men write about women’s being unreasonable, because men do not understand who women are, and then she likens women to Venus who stands for partying and spending money.

Most people have an image in their head of a fish stuck on the hook trying desperately but vainly to escape.

The English Romantic writers very often use their works to criticize and judge the society and people in which they live.

Additionally, Byron emphasizes the important role memory serves, as it enables man to remember all the intricacies of life, and at the same time, reminds us that our memory will always be with us from the moment we remember them.

Keats lost both of his parents and a brother before the age of fifteen. He had a chance and got his training as a doctor and could have made money, but chooses to make a living as a writer. He had a love of his life, but was too poor to marry her. One likes to assume this made his writing more positive.

The fact that there is no real inclination to believe that the speaker is actually surprised at the fact that she worships him leads the reader to believe that worship is what he expects. The belief that he believes that he deserves to be worshipped is pure arrogance.

Though hidden in the weather, Browning ironically describes an arrogant person…

A man who tries to weir a women through poetry will say that they are devoted the them and only them.

Social construction for each culture is unique and built on their knowledge of self and the culture in which they live.

It is obvious that Dante [Riordan, of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man] would stand behind the church no matter what the outcome and fiercely believed that sinners should be published.

There is no darkness in Heart of Darkness, yet there is no light in the Heart of Darkness…

I used to find undergraduate essays written like this frustrating, but today I find them amusing and, I admit, touching. There was a time, you see, when I wrote like that too. The above quotations are the product, not of dim-witted oafs, but of the best and the brightest of our high schools. In any case, I think fondly of my former students, most of whom were pleasant and lovely folks, and I wish them all well. This, by the way, is the attitude you’ll find among truly good professors, of which I could never be one. Good professors haven’t any self-flattering illusions about academe, yet they have a deep respect for what the university in principle represents. Somehow, through what seems to me a magical process, good professors make a profound and positive difference in the lives of their students. Besides my limitations as a teacher, the other reason I left the university is the ugliness of its bureaucracies and its complete lack of purpose, at least in the case of the humanities. I worry it will only get harder to teach well, given the current love affair with privatization, technology, ‘efficiency,’ and the free-market.

In retrospect, there are two things I miss about university life. The first is the feeling one has on a university campus in September. It is a feeling of optimism, renewal, and of hope. I have never felt quite so alive as I did each September when I was at university. The second thing which I miss is good seminars, which were rare and thus exquisite. Why do I miss these things? I find the answer almost too unpleasant to state. Nonetheless, this must be said. Beyond the university campus, intellectual curiosity is quite near extinction. Imagination and critical intelligence atrophy in the workplace, where only the narrowest, functional mental tasks are required. This assumes, of course, that atrophy has not occurred already in the public schools. Most of us learn to put behind us the grand philosophical ideals of ‘the good life,’ if we’ve heard of them in the first place, and focus on more practical matters like getting a job. And of course ‘popular culture’ is there to captivate us also. I am not saying this is always the case, but that it is often the case I know for a fact, having observed it. Most of us go through life passively, as spectators. Nor am I inclined to scorn, as I was when I didn’t understand the efficiency with which the ‘real world’ grinds us into conformity. As I’m certain you’ve noticed, human arrangements in America are not organized around basic human needs for creativity and participation, or for spiritual and intellectual development. But in a university they are, at least to a greater degree than in the surrounding culture. That is chiefly why I miss the university.

Never mind the maudlin social commentary and the ‘thanks for the memories,’ you are saying. What about all that wasted taxpayer money? The thousands and thousands of dollars? What about that? Well, it goes without saying I lived very well for four years at taxpayers’ expense. I am not complaining; life was good then. It is not, as one of my professors used to say, ‘politic’ of me to state this publicly, but that is the fact. I will not pretend that the money went only to high-minded and charitable things. At the time I was awarded the grants I owned 2 bookshelves, one desk, one twin bed, one area rug, a computer, and about 800 books. By the end of my Ph.D. I had accumulated furniture, dishes, appliances, a new computer, and 1,000 more books. Anyone who knew me then will tell you I had it very good. I ate decent food and drank wine with dinner at least twice a week, but then I had done so even when my annual income never exceeded $6,000 a year, which was up until age 26. I shared a house with two others, and despite being well below the so-called ‘low income cut-off line,’ we wore decent clothes and had good meals every night. Were we poor? No, not really; the children of middle-class parents never truly are, so long as the possibility of support obtains. While a middle-class Queen’s student, I discovered that perfectly good clothing is sold by the Salvation Army, that a large bag of rice lasts for months, that healthy vegetables and simple sauces are cheaper than meats, that you can make a batch of wine yourself in your house at $2 a bottle, that when all else fails S&R will let you pay for groceries with your Visa – and Visa will let you pay the debt at $24/month and 18.5% interest. But as a middle-class adult I would probably not need these lessons for long. As it happened, my research grants meant that suddenly I had become rich.

I do not know what to make of all this. I only know what generally is made. An egregious example of fraud or waste is disclosed (I assume this is how my story would be regarded), and from this a program of revenge is launched. A handful of authenticated welfare cheats is generalized into a social class, hence everyone on welfare is a cheat. A failure or crimp in the system is found, so the system must – all of it! – go. A story in the news now often yields calls for major overhaul, comprehensive reform, sweeping legislation. I suspect something like this will happen with publicly-funded education, and indeed it is happening already. Stories like the one I’ve just told invoke jealousy and rage. I don’t mean to insult you with moralizing; jealousy and rage may perhaps be appropriate responses. There is, for instance, little support for the university among the working classes, and for good reasons. The university appeals to the middle classes and derives from them its political constituency. This fact is obscured by certain rationalizations which are felt to be true only by the middle classes – for example the idea that higher education is an established ‘right’ inextricably bound to the public good. If only that were so. [-October 1998]

Democracy Makes the Best Television

A university graduate, I have endured years of Theory. That is fine, yet were I given the opportunity I should like to teach in an inductive manner, beginning with observation. What follows are my notes toward a freshman course on Canadian Democracy, in which I consider not the Theory of Democracy, but instead the actual workings of democratic governance in Canada. The two, theory and practice, are no doubt related; one even resembles the other. There are however noteworthy distinctions to be made. Allow me to make them.

The professor often starts with a definition. How is the word democracy understood in actual practice? Well, every few years Canadians are expected to pick from among several choices a political leader. To this end, some TV commercials are produced and a few speeches are made. The politicians have learned to market themselves in the manner Procter and Gamble markets its soaps. Democracy in practice is Show folks the goods and let them select. At election time democracy is a practical affair. You can see physical evidence of an active citizenry. Between elections democracy is more an abstract, or institutional, matter. Having chosen leaders, the public lets the system do its work. Democracy is Parliament Debates and representational government. The people do not govern themselves directly, which would be ‘radical democracy,’ but instead they pick others to act on their behalf. Actual democracy is the result of compromises, between efficiency and equity, between authoritarianism and anarchy, and between idealism and realism. In theory democratic government bends to the will of the majority, who know what’s best. In practice things are much more complicated. Nonetheless, actual democracy does invite the common people to participate in the formation of governments. That is its essential empirical feature.

Are the common folk qualified to govern themselves? Here one finds controversy. There is a an argument against ‘radical’ democracy which begins from the observation that the average citizen is inadequately-informed. Modern society is complex and must therefore be run by intelligent and well-trained people. Democracy as a result ought to be restricted to popular elections. Let the people choose competent leaders, and let the leaders run the show. Indeed, existing democracy conforms to this theory. We should note however the argument’s flaws. Our experts make dreadful mistakes; educated experts are not specially qualified to promote the interests and needs of average citizens. Experts tend to be committed to expert opinion, academic theories, and the needs of people like themselves – that is, the élite. But there is a more basic misunderstanding. Democracy is not the theory that the people ought to govern themselves because they are wise, benevolent, and especially gifted. Perhaps the élite are smarter than average, or perhaps not. So what? Professional expertise is an élite obsession and has little to do with the theory of democracy. And what is the theory to which I refer? It is this: if folks bear rights and responsibilities, and if they govern their own affairs, the result will be a society of individuals more capable than before of self-government. In other words, intelligent, informed, and capable citizens are the end of democracy, and not its starting-point. The so-called élite view reverses cause and effect. Perhaps its not surprising that this is so. We should hardly expect the select to embrace a theory that threatens their exclusive and privileged state.

We shall need to isolate two features of democratic governance for further consideration. These are the selection of leaders and the representation of citizens, by no means simple facts. Citizens do choose politicians, and politicians do represent a constituency. Yet these need further clarification. For in practice there are complex webs of influence and manipulation which make governance messy. Governments respond to public opinion, but they seek to manipulate that opinion also. One should also understand that ‘public opinion’ is usually an abstraction inferred from polls, of which I shall have more to write. Does the public know what precisely they have chosen when they have supported a candidate? Do they even know for certain that they have supported a candidate? The relation of votes to a political program is, I suspect, less clear than pundits sometimes suppose. A vote may manifest many things: protest, misunderstanding, hope, ideological conviction, enthusiasm, or cynicism. As a result of low voter turn-out and a multiple party system, politicians are today put in office by a minority of voters, many of whom have only a vague understanding of the issues and a moderate commitment to the party elected. Elections tell you unequivocally who has won the race; why they have won and what is to be done about it are left to interpretation. This is actually-existing democracy.

An elected, representative government needs a base of support both to seize and hold political office. Governments must represent a constituency. The constituency itself is a matter of expedience, a necessity. It is not necessary however that governments represent ‘the people,’ only that they sell themselves to a sufficient number of consumers. Elections are today the sophisticated means by which a product is offered to a market. Success therefore depends upon successful marketing and successful fund-raising – marketing works but it is expensive. The structural conditions which inform modern election campaigns aren’t mysterious. Politicians must have votes and money. They must lodge the product in the minds of potential buyers. Gathering the votes is a tricky matter, but the techniques are rather plain and have been perfected over the years. Television ads, featuring a catch-phrase or an ‘angle,’ are a necessity. The ad agency will try to distinguish its product from the competition, employing to this end a variety of visual techniques. Psychologists, opinion polls, focus groups – in short, market-directed research – assist the product development. The essence of marketing, by the way, is Find out what will sell and then produce it. Will people be more likely to buy your product if the ad slogan is x, or y ? Would a brighter label help? Does the product image need to be updated? These are the questions which absorb the energy of the “best and brightest,” and their work does not come cheaply. Modern campaigns are after voting constituencies and paying constituencies. There are less votes to be had among the paying constituency (mostly corporate donors) and less money among the people. This is also an important feature of actually-existing democracy.

Consider this. The rabble will always dominate in a ‘pure’ democracy because there are more of them than there are élites. It is necessary for minorities who want their way to overcome the majority. The majority must either be conquered outright or subtly manipulated. In practice the only minority able to compete with the popular majority on anything approaching par are the rich. What billionaires lack in numbers of votes they make up for in numbers of dollars. Democracy in practice involves a competition between interests, between votes and money, between the organized and unorganized voter. Politicians cannot afford to alienate either votes or money, with the result that their public performances resemble a comical sort of balancing act. They must obediently serve wealth, which they need, and yet serve also the working man, who they need also. In practice, these constituencies often have competing interests. The working man wants curbs put along the avenues of the boss, but the boss wants deregulation. The worker wants better wages, but the boss wants ‘competitive industry.’ The working man wants to bring in the Red Book, and the boss wants to chase out the Red Menace, or some equivalent. Most of the contortions of political life can be explained in relation to these and other competing interests. Put in this unenviable position, what would you do? The professional lobbyists represent the people who donate the bulk of your funding, and who pay careful attention to the job you do. Most ordinary folks however have other things than politics on their mind: that is what makes them ordinary. So you appease the constituency that is looking over your shoulder and worry about the opinion polls a bit closer to the election, right?

The point I am trying to make is that the democracy Canadians actually have now is reasonable, practical, and even necessary – at least from the point of view of the people who have to make a living within it. If it doesn’t quite live up to the Theory of Democracy, well, that’s a problem for university professors. Besides, there is a good deal of decency to the form of democracy in which currently live. Canada is still a reasonable and tolerant country where dissension is allowed. Now and again there are anti-democratic displays, such as the treatment of the APEC protesters in British Columbia. Overall however Canada has a functioning democracy. Again, it is the character of Canada’s democracy that is under investigation.

I stated already that I would return to opinion polls. These are the principal technique by which the will of the people is divined. Opinion polls are apparently thought by some to be of great use. Politicians, I am led to believe, use them to interpret the public mood and thereby to decide upon ‘themes’ for upcoming speeches. Whether the intended use of the opinion poll is to facilitate democracy or manipulate it (or both, or neither), the actual effects of these devices are clear. As the poll industry grew, the media increasingly began to publish the silly things in their papers. At first they served a decorative function, usually appearing beside a column, in the form of a colourful graph. Then they became the news itself, so that it is now common to hear journalists discussing the polls as if they were the very voice of the people. There are reasons however to suspect the polls are something else. First, the character of a poll must be considered. How is it conducted? What questions are asked, and of what audience, under what conditions? Imagine that the Financial Post asked its subscribers the following question: ‘Dalton McGuinty opposes Mike Harris’ plan to modernize and improve the health care system. Given that Dalton McGuinty has no plans for health care of his own, would you consider voting for him?’ Then imagine the result showed up in the same newspaper as follows: ‘55% of Canadians said they will not vote for Dalton McGuinty in the upcoming election.’ Imagine the rest of the information is not provided; only this dubious ‘scientific’ conclusion appears. So 55% of Canadians reject McGuinty? No, not really. Analysis of the question itself, which clearly contains a good deal of misleading assertions, would reveal that respondents (are Financial Post subscribers representative Canadians?) reject an obstructionist politician with no ideas of his own. Maybe that’s your McGuinty. In any case, the poll hasn’t really measured public support for Dalton McGuinty. It is a lie.

I’ve invented an obvious example of distortion. Most polls are likely more careful than this, but one can’t be sure. Relevant information is lacking. Polls are more than ever used to mediate between the people and their governments, so this oversight, if that’s what it is, should be a matter of great interest. To the degree that democratic discourse is managed by pollsters and their inscrutable polls, it is esoteric and possibly even rigged. Who knows? This leads us to another astonishing feature of actually-existing democracy, that it is utterly dependent upon private commercial media for its existence. The only way citizens are able to exchange ideas and criticisms and proposals is through the media. True, anyone can start a newsletter or a local organization. But political discourse at the national level is another matter. Have you tried to get your viewpoint on the national news lately? No, you wouldn’t even think of it, it’s too absurd. How about the Globe and Mail? Of course not. We’re told that debate and dissension are vital, and that democracy is the exchange of ideas. The theory is that everyone has freedom of speech, and that the voice of the people will be heard by government. The reality is that most Canadians have never experienced the debate except as a member of an audience. ‘Freedom of speech’ means throwing something at the TV. Debate and dissension are the property of media industries, who extend the privilege to a handful of well-paid professional commentators, or rent it to commercial sponsors. The idea, which you’ll find familiar, is that the conditions of democracy are satisfied by the appointment of clever people to think and talk on the public’s behalf. The opinion polls operate on this assumption, and so do the commercial newspapers.

The experts never talk the way ‘ordinary people’ do, at least not in public. I don’t mean by this that the experts are less vulgar, or more erudite. Rather, they are obsessed with the procedure of politics rather than the application of policy to real life. How did the PM’s speech go? Did it ‘resonate’? How will it ‘play’ among the back-benchers? What do the polls say? Ordinary people don’t care so much about these things. They want to know What’s it got to do with me? But as I’ve argued, the function of ordinary people (that is, folks not paid to have an opinion) is to give the experts an audience which can then be sold to advertisers. And the function of advertisers is profits. All the theories about the sanctity of public debate amount to this, Democracy in the service of Profits. This may sound cynical, but it isn’t. Most people, including media owners, are sincere advocates of public debate. The problem is that real conditions are structured in a manner that makes not-for-profit public discourse nearly impossible. Once you reach the national level of public discourse, money talks – first and last and longest and loudest.

A description of actually existing democracy is beginning to take shape, and it looks something like this. A set of candidates with political ambitions study the public in a scientific manner to determine what sort of mood they are in. A product is put together to exploit that mood and is promoted at great expense. The whole affair is managed by one group of professionals while another looks on and jabbers. Most Canadians are obliged to act as an audience, until the crucial moment when they make their selection (or don’t). Opinion polls, interpreted by pundits, tell you what you’ve just chosen and why you’ve chosen it, and the discovery is presented, glossed, analysed, and debated by TV and newspaper ‘personalities’ hired for these purposes. In short, democracy is industry. After the election, Canadians are freed from even the suggestion of civic responsibility, while the civil servants tend to the necessary business at hand – holding onto power, voting on legislation, raising money, and coping with the demands of the several thousand career lobbyists that swarm centres of political power. The journalists tell the people (or don’t) what their elected leaders are up to, careful, if unsuccessfully, not to bore them or demand too much mental effort. Technical matters, like the content of bills or international treaties, make bad news; it’s better to focus on the sensational, or ‘human interest’ stories. The best news does not disturb the flow. It moves the audience along effortlessly from advertisement to advertisement. Inevitably a scandal will come along, perhaps about something trivial but emotion-charged, like the display of flags in the House of Commons. The editorials will rage, and the politicians will try to smooth things over or else to assign blame elsewhere. The system takes everyone’s interests into consideration: the interest of the leaders in their power, the interest of the papers in sales, the interests of advertisers in marketing, the interests of the pundits in their careers, and the interests of investors in the establishment. The process by which these interests are made secure is called democracy. Most Canadians know democracy as television. This is where the interests of citizens are taken into consideration. For the establishment works hard to ensure that democracy makes the best television. [-November 1998]

A Winter of Discontent: The Broadsheets vs The Tabloids

One may infer a few things about my writing career from the first publication – a poem entitled ‘Winter,’ which appeared in the Toronto Sun on 17 October 1976. I quote it in full.

I hate winter as you might know
I hate the wind, I hate the snow
You stand out there and you’ll be freezing
You’ll catch a cold, and you’ll start sneezing
I think the winter isn’t fun
It isn’t warm, there is no sun
You have to wear all of those clothes
But still you get a runny nose
You can’t go swimming in a pool
But still you have to go to school
You can’t go riding on a bike
And that’s what I think winter’s like.

A good bad poem, that. I’ll put aside the fact that Alexander Pope was writing Greek Pastorals at the same age, and concentrate on this poem’s chief merits – that it is clear, that it rhymes, that is has rhythm, and that it lacks artistic pretension. Isn’t that more than can be said of much contemporary poetry?

Now that I am older, I look back and see glimpses of my adult self in this work. I continue to dislike winter, and I am still a bad poet. There is more. Something of the curmudgeon is here, for I could have written a poem called ‘I Love Summer,’ but no, I just had to get my digs in against Winter. It’s a list of grievances, really, cleverly arranged to bring delight but still grumpy and discontented. Today’s Sun editorialists would no doubt label this the beginnings of a ‘liberal’ outlook. Isn’t that what Liberalism is? An endless list of grievances? My god, lighten up! Vote Tory!

This poem was written before I’d learned how to make my point with irony and humour. The ironist in me today is amused by the fact that it was the Toronto Sun which introduced me to the public. The truth is, I think the Sun is goofy. It is a daily trotting-out of murders, car accidents, child molestation and other perversities, fires, freaks, and mayhem. In other words, it is TV. (Christie Blatchford, who was a Sun columnist for 16 years, sketched the paper’s character nicely in an October 29, 1998 National Post article: “…the [Sun] loves, in no particular order, Tory government, breasts, more folks in jail, better controls on immigration, lower taxes, less red tape, fewer civil servants, a return to basics in education, and breasts.”) Then there are the advertisements, full page after full page of them. Even for a commercial newspaper, the Sun is excessive in its use of advertising. The sports coverage is passable and certainly better than what you’ll find at the Globe and Mail. Also, the Sun’s tabloid format is to be preferred to the cumbersome superabundance of the Toronto Star. (Really, do we need two Wheels sections?) Unlike the Star, the Sun can be read from end to end in an evening; it has a user-friendly Coles-Notes approach to daily events. There are other strengths of the paper, the chief being that it knows its audience well and never fails, pardon the pun, to deliver. Nonetheless, it is tabloid journalism, and unpretentiously so.

But to return to the subjective: the really goofy thing about the Sun, in my opinion, is its coverage of public affairs. Here is a description of the Sun I read the day I began this essay, 19 October 1998. On the cover the headline reads ‘It’s Flutie Day in Buffalo,’ below which there is a colour photograph of the quarterback and a small column, to the right, describing the Buffalo fans’ reaction to a 17-16 upset over Jacksonville. In the bottom right-hand corner one finds the words, ‘Pet pitbull savages owner, Page 4’ (the font is approximately 26 points). On the obverse, i.e. page two, there is an ad for the Sunday Sun featuring a model in a haute couture hourglass bathing suit – her curvaceous sides are nicely exposed from shoulder to hip – partly over which the words ‘Paris Fashion’ are imposed. The remaining upper-half of the page is given to an article describing Mike Harris’s plan to attract women voters in the upcoming provincial election. He is quoted as saying, “We do have a gender gap. We are not communicating clearly and directly with women.” A bit further on in the article, Social Services Minister Janet Ecker adds, “We need to do more. Women are pretty skeptical voters. It is important for women to understand what we are doing.” The ‘gender gap’ sounds like a Darwinian missing-link, and the assumption that women aren’t swarming to the Tories only because they don’t understand what the Tories are doing is conventional patronizing, but never mind. Another article, occupying the frame of the aforementioned, is headlined ‘The PC party, party, party!’ and compares the bashes of Conservative Members of Parliament and other various candidates. In case you’re interested, “The most popular parties were hosted by Management Board Chairman Chris Hodgson and federal Tory leadership candidate Brian Pallister.” The rest of the page is advertisements.

Page three features, of course, the Sunshine Girl: always nubile, always enjoys music, dancing, roller-blading, and volleyball, always has as her aspiration college and afterward bucketsfull of money. The Sunshine Girl is a generally tasteful and welcoming statement, an implicit manifesto; it says, ‘Relax, there are no liberals here. Help yourself to a can of beer.’ And once you’re comfortable in your armchair, contentedly drinking your beer, what is it you want? These, of course: ‘Pitbull rips owner’s throat,’ ‘2 teen girls rob, assault victim,’ ‘Hard-core TV freebie shocks mom,’ ‘How did granny die?’ and ‘Peek into you neighbour’s bedroom.’ Thus begins the News section, on pages 4 and 5.

I could go on, but what would be the point? The Toronto Sun is a niche paper, quite harmless really. According to the 1998 Canadian Global Almanac, it’s got the fourth largest daily newspaper circulation in Canada, after the Star, the Globe, and Le Journal de Montréal. It’s preaching to the converted, but I doubt it has converted them. The last recession, or tax hikes, or falling wages, or the Star, or a 1972 mugging, did that. No one I suspect is buying the Sun for in-depth analysis of the latest provincial budget, or of anything else. (They could, however, have read a recent article about Tory Finance Minister Ernie Eves’s new hairdo.) They’re buying it for the Sunshine Girl. They’re buying it so they can read something that doesn’t require them to think. Or they’re buying it for the reasons social democrats buy This Magazine and Canadian Forum: confirmation of their beliefs, further evidence that the enemy is evil, and reassurance that their side can win. Perhaps also they’re buying it for the sports coverage. The Sun needless to say is an openly right-wing publication, but its appeal cannot be boiled-down simply to ideology. It is the newspaper that – nudge nudge, wink wink – isn’t just news as usual. One may compare the appeal of the Sun to the 1995 appeal of its beloved Mr. Harris, who (nudge nudge) wasn’t just politics as usual.

News as usual, unfortunately, is a tiresome affair. Even the highbrow Newshour with Jim Lehrer is at bottom silly. Every night a suited, career Republican is trotted out to volley the issues with an apposite suited, career Democrat. The result is a moribund parody of democratic debate and a reminder of what Gore Vidal had in mind when he spoke of ‘the chattering classes.’ Alas, from here things only degenerate, or get better, depending upon your point of view. News, in the minds of many, means ‘gobs of vague irritating talk about something we can’t change in some place we’ve never heard of.’ What’s to be done? Well, if that’s how it’s got to be, let’s at least make the talk juicy, nudge nudge, know what I mean.

Conservatives in the 1970s began launching newspapers and other various media to reintroduce their values and ideas into the public domain. Even Sun columnists admit they were on the lunatic fringe in the beginning. Now some on the left, who’ve noticed the fringe beneath their feet, have begun saying it would be nice to have a national social-democratic – note the lower cases – answer to papers like the Sun. The feeling is that if newspapers are going to be enhanced political pamphlets, which apparently they now are, let’s at least broaden the spectrum beyond David Frum vs. Andrew Coyne. Let’s have a national left-wing newspaper. At this point however I’m mindful of something George Orwell wrote in a 1939 essay entitled ‘Boys Weeklies.’ Noting that boys’ magazines tend to have a conservative slant (something about militarism and the cult of the powerful leader), he asks, ‘Why is there no such thing as a boys’ left-wing paper?’ Orwell, a socialist, provides an answer which I think continues to be relevant:

At first glance such an idea merely makes one slightly sick. It is so horribly easy to imagine what a left-wing boys’ paper would be like, if it existed. I remember in 1920 or 1921 some optimistic person handing round Communist tracts among a crowd of public-school boys. The tract I received was of the question-and-answer kind:

Q. ‘Can a Boy Communist be a Boy Scout, Comrade?’
A. ‘No, Comrade.’
Q. ‘Why, Comrade?’
A. ‘Because, Comrade, a Boy Scout must salute the Union Jack, which is the symbol of tyranny and oppression,’ etc. etc.

Orwell goes on to suggest that a left-wing paper would probably be something like the passage above, and that “no normal boy would ever look at it.” I expect that in the case of a left-wing Canadian newspaper, something similar could be claimed: most Canadians would never read it. What incentive would there be? It would likely feature all the characteristics that make the political left mawkish to a majority of Canadians: humourless, preachy, self-righteous, jingoist, predictable, self-absorbed. The left is famous as the folks who take it upon themselves to tell you what’s wrong with everything you think, everything you do, and everything you want. Imagine a publication staffed by We-Know-Best school-marms, and you’ve got it.

Perhaps it’s useless to argue that a social-democratic newspaper could be interesting, entertaining, and best of all, a thumping good read. In theory, anything can happen; in reality, the political left is today a handful of ageing activists tenured at the CCPA Monitor. It is in many regards a secret society, labouring in obscurity to produce arcane works known only to the initiated. Probably more people read my bad 1976 poem in the Young Sun than have read, say, the most recent issue of Canadian Dimension – which advertises itself as ‘a magazine for people who want to change the world.’ Change the world? Here even the faithful are inclined to feel vague embarrassment. Anyway, it sounds awfully ponderous to most contemporary ears, rather like an invitation to help out with calculus homework. Even the NDP has given up on the 1960s and is busily repackaging itself as Nice Capitalism in time for the election. Whether the emphasis falls on the nice, or on the capitalism, is a moot point. Either way, the traditional list of socialist grievances has been shred, and the Open for Business sign is out being lacquered. The question for the left is, What’s left?

The short answer is Not Much. I’m tempted to argue that social democrats need not just a newspaper but a Sunshine Girl of their own as well, by which I mean an indication of some sort that, Yes, progressivism comes in styles other than Shrill and Reactive. The high ground doesn’t necessarily lead to the mountaintop; it can run through the market too. In any case, the market is where the action is. Nor does the high ground mean holier-than-thou. Part of the appeal of the ‘progressive newspaper’ is that it could offer the public an alternative to the prevailing murder-and-mayhem, anything-for-a-buck manner of presentation. Folks of all political persuasions tell me the current state of our airwaves and newspapers dismays them and that they would gladly welcome something different. Of course, there is a good measure of ordinary human hypocrisy in this, and it remains to be seen how many really do deplore the gutter. My point is that there’s always room in the culture for pukka journalism, ‘pukka’ being defined by Chambers 20th Century Dictionary as “out-and-out-good: thorough: complete: solidly built: settled: durable,” and so on. I’m not implying that there’s no good journalism at present in Canada, but only that there’s room for innovation. Conrad Black, who for decades has committed himself to the idea of a high-profile national conservative newspaper, realized his dream this week with the publication of the National Post. Today (29 October 1998) the third issue has come out. I have read all three, and I find there is a good deal in them to commend. Conrad Black, I’m sure, will have his critics – but give him credit. He has offered his alternative on behalf of conservatism. And to his critics he has always said: If you don’t like my newspapers, you are free to start your own. [-October 1998]

Downsizing and The Dollar Store

The dollar store is a good example of that creature commonly termed a phenomenon, something of apparent and great import which cries out for explanation. In every city they are popping-up almost like roadside weeds, taking advantage of meagre soil. You may pass them by without regard, but take a careful look and you’ll discover a good deal about the niche they exploit as well as their own remarkable qualities.

I can’t go into a dollar store without being impressed by the sheer productive capacity of industrialism. It’s impossible to overstate the ability of machines to make stuff, stuff of very low price and astonishing variety. Not only this, but there is almost an effortlessness implicit in the cheapness and abundance. Whereas scarcity of goods is the classical economic problem, here there appears to be a casual glut. The goods roll out by the millions in hundreds of factories and are shipped to thousands upon thousands of dollar stores. The numbers! And yet this feat occurs unremarked. The Socialist of an earlier era wrote hymns of praise to the awesome power of machines, but today we are supposed to forget about this power and instead dwell upon the ancient fact of scarcity: not enough jobs for workers, not enough money for social programs, not enough labour productivity to justify wage increases, not enough food to feed the children, etc. Austerity, based on diminishing expectations, is the order of the day. In contrast, the dollar store reminds us that at some point in our history (when?) we attained a technological level sufficient to solve the basic human problem of scarcity. It became possible, for the first time, to lift all people out of a condition of deprivation. There was no longer a technical reason for people to live without food, clothing, and shelter. Utopia, defined as a generalized state of physical well-being, was at this point not only thinkable but practical. There is so much wealth about, in fact, that it’s possible now to dedicate considerable resources to the manufacture of baubles. That, in a sentence, explains the phenomenon of the dollar store.

We’ve established then what a marvellous and unparalleled thing industrial-based capitalism is, so far as productive power is concerned. It’s fashionable to lament the destructive effects of the machine, but really, would you prefer to return to the simple days before penicillin and electricity? Neither would I. There is too much to give up to make giving up a viable option, and anyway we should admit also that we enjoy our mass-produced trinkets as much as the essentials, if not more. Even the notion of essentials has been changed by mass-production. You could hardly extricate yourself from the industrial system, but suppose you could. Historical evidence suggests you’d enjoy pollution-free food and drink – and die at 42, as a result of complications from a common cold. Industrialism, we should remember, was compelling because it emerged amidst the conditions of near-universal poverty and misery.

Needless to say poverty and misery are widespread even today. I’ve praised industrial capitalism’s quantity of production, but what about the quality of distribution? For instance, most of the goods come from China, a low-wage country. William Greider has coined the phrase “job arbitrage,” which means moving jobs from a high wage market to a low wage market, not to eradicate global poverty but indeed to take advantage of it. In the dollar-store universe, North America is significant only as a point of consumption, which is another feature of distribution. We’re told the market arrives at the best of all possible conditions, so don’t worry. But look at those conditions: the market has shuffled things with the result that the North American worker is becoming obsolete and the impoverished ‘developing-nation’ worker is exploited. That much has long been known and discussed, but what about the North American consumer? Will the market render this creature obsolete also? The dollar store is only representative of a universal trend – exportation of capital, goods, jobs, and indeed every other domestic function. Consumption is the only job we’re given in many industries. And you’re replaceable, you know. When the Chinese market is more fully developed, it may turn out to be cheaper and more profitable to sell the goods there as well. If workers can compete so too can consumers. The dollar store at least lowers the standard to the point at which the game becomes possible.

Is the dollar store, then, the cutting edge of an unintended consumer-force downsizing? Surely it trivializes the social roles which attend industrialism. Put the 99-cent Virgin Mary nightlights beside the Utopian-Socialist conception of human potential and you’ve got something which approaches contempt. The dollar store implies you aren’t really worth very much, even as a consumer. ‘Just spend your damn loonie and get out already’: this is what these places convey to me. You’re so close to being not worth the bother, 50-or-so cents away from lumpenprole. One suspects secretly that the store is a diversion to keep us from noticing the entire economy has at last been shipped-off somewhere else. All that remains are the beads and trinkets which have always attended such dealings. [-June 1998.]

Native in Niagara

I have been asked by the editor of a local magazine to prepare an essay “that deals with the issues of being Native in Niagara, or of growing up Native in this region.” It took me a good deal of time to arrive at a response to these topics, and even in retrospect I’m unsure whether or not the response is a good one. By good I mean only worth the time and trouble of the reader. I do not mean ‘a good representation of Being Native,’ whatever that is. What follows is a candid attempt to respond to a direct request.

Experience has taught me that to be Native is to be asked a good deal about being Native. I’ve noticed the same is true of other human curiosities; civilians want to know what it’s like to fight in a war, and the non-autistic are fascinated by autism. I’ve wondered how my life would have differed so far had I lived it as a woman, though I don’t recall ever seeking out women for comment. I suspect the question would baffle them. Where does one begin her answer to the question, What is it like to be a woman? Doubtless with the observation People ask the darndest questions.

And yet surely it matters whether one is a woman, a soldier, or a Native. There are answers even to the darndest questions. If you’ve heard of sexism, violence, and racism you won’t be surprised by the replies. Or perhaps you will, because women are not exclusively defined by the category Woman, soldiers are not merely soldiers, and Native people are not reducible to the term Native. Although this observation may sound like so much nit-picking, it isn’t. Native people are always asked to account for themselves as Natives, despite the fact that their lives are not lived necessarily and only under that rubric. You may ask, What is it like to be poor, or rich? What is it like to be a single mother, or an adopted son? What is it like to grow up middle-class in Niagara? Native people do these things and others every day. It matters that they are Native, but it matters too that they occupy other identities. Native people are subject to the same intersecting conditions of class, geography, history, gender, etc. as everyone else. Native women, for example, have more in common with non-Native women than with Native men when it comes to their experiences in the workplace. This is but one example of the nuanced character of human identity, and there are many more. Native people contend with the same social and cultural conditions with which non-Natives contend. Such is Native life, in Niagara and elsewhere.

There is a paradox at the heart of the fascination with Native life, of which I suspect every Native person is well aware. Native people grow up in a media culture obsessed with Otherness yet stubbornly ethnocentric. When Native actors appear on TV, for instance, they usually do so as The Indian. ‘Ordinary’ Native lives are ordinarily invisible around Niagara, but The Indians are all over the place. Natives are studied to death by Royal Commissions and assiduously kept (as much as possible) beyond public consciousness. Every minute detail about reserve life is unearthed and catalogued, and few non-Aboriginal people ever step foot on a reserve. Why should they? Everything is known about Indians, isn’t it. By age 5, a child can draw a picture or tell a story about them. The reports and studies and autobiographies of Native people abound, and yet so do the crude assumptions of the 5-year-old. Complex information about Native people which doesn’t accord to the simple stereotypes tends not to stick. As a result, Native people themselves cast an ironic glance upon the media hunger for ‘Native issues.’

It may be that what I’ve described so far is the stuff of which Native issues are made. But as I see the matter, the local Native concerns are as follows: education, employment, and social programs. Those who live on the reserve (putting aside the fact that the Six Nations reserve isn’t quite in Niagara) may concern themselves also with local economic development. They would like to have, and most do have, a reasonable measure of control over their circumstances. As for the many Native people who do not and perhaps have never lived on a reserve, their concerns are again familiar ones: jobs, money, health, quality of life. Concerns over the preservation of indigenous traditions pose an especial, but by no means insurmountable, challenge. Furthermore, it’s a fact of Native lives that some Native people are less interested in traditional ways than are others. Some are uninterested altogether. Beyond these statements, generalization about Native life in Niagara is a difficult affair. Nor does a consideration of the issues help much, for reasons I shall now consider.

Think about the phrase ‘Native issues’ for a moment. What does it convey to you? For many Canadians, it means above all else militarism and road blocks. A road block of course is an obstacle; it serves no active purpose and merely hinders progress. As such it is the perfect symbol of futile and obstinate resistance, which is how the Indian has historically been regarded by officialdom. The Oka occupation fascinated the media because it conformed so well to their conventions. It is doubtful whether much attention would have been given to the Mohawks’ concerns otherwise.

Furthermore, the political context for any future discussion of Native issues will likely be hostile. Constrained by a manufactured scarcity of public resources, public discourse has become a nasty affair. Its principal theme appears to be Who Should Get What, or rather, more to the point, Who Shouldn’t. I imagine that soon we’ll hear a good deal about Native people as a special interest group. Perhaps you regard them this way already. And yet if I am correct in what I’ve said thus far, it is not the ‘interests’ of Native people which are special but rather their legal-historical relation to the Canadian state. The current orthodoxy, articulated by Mr Harris and others in the Calgary Declaration, has got matters backward. The result is that citizens have been pitted one against another over their ‘special interests.’ In the case of Native peoples how could it be otherwise? They are still portrayed as a species apart, as a people defined by a peculiar set of ‘issues.’

I believe that a complex, difficultly-digested statement about Native life in Niagara is the only kind worth writing or worth reading. I am not saying that the issues ought to be disregarded, but only that they should come with thoughtful qualifications. And so I have tried to complicate things as much as possible in 1,200 words rather than simplify. I do not know which is the more difficult challenge, but I believe complexity is healthier so far as Canada, Niagara, and the representation of Native lives are concerned. [August 1998.]

Society and the Individual: Liberals vs Conservatives in North America

If you ask me, What is today the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative?, I would suggest that the liberal and conservative differ over the individual’s relation to society. This is an old distinction, and no doubt you’ve heard it before. Still, it’s useful to regard a lesson long ago learned.

Let’s begin with the contemporary or neoconservative position, from which we shall depart to consider historical and geographical variations. You’ll recall Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals. At its simplest, this assertion tells us society is an abstraction. There is no concrete object to which a person may point and say, There is society. To speak of society, in other words, is to speak of something that exists only in the mind. Society is a mental construct. Thatcher however was not interested in philosophical matters. Her statement reflects a fundamental and practical current conservative principle, that the basis of the good society is the good behaviour of the individual. I shall define ‘good’ presently. For the conservative, society is the word we apply to aggregated individuals. From this follows certain conclusions. The acts of government ought to be limited in such a manner that the individual is free. For the conservative wants to promote the free, responsible, and productive citizen. To achieve this end certain preconditions are necessary. There must be stability and order, so that the individual is protected from the harmful actions of others; this calls forth the rule of law. The rule of law, set forth and enforced by the state, must be as extensive as is necessary for order, and as limited as necessary for responsible individual freedom. Law-bound individual freedom and responsibility constitute the basis of conservative society. The end of conservative political philosophy is the free but responsible individual.

Conservatives have tended to approach the public good through the back door of pessimism. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his political treatise Leviathan, put the conservative case for the rule of law nicely. He argued that people are by nature selfish and acquisitive and that unless law constrains them they will engage in “a war of all against all,” each person struggling against all others for personal advantage. His chief concern was that acquisitiveness would lead, in a lawless society, to theft of private property. And indeed, for both liberal and conservative one of the chief purposes of the state is to protect the rights of those with property against those who do not have property. But for now we should note that the basic fact of life for Hobbes was that it is, in its natural state, “nasty, brutish and short.” The good society, which for many conservatives means above all else a lawful and orderly one, must overcome human nature with force or the threat of force. Conservatives, in other words, have a rather pessimistic view of human nature and the potential of human beings to evolve. Thus, the conservative does not speak so much of ‘social problems’ as of individual crimes and failures of character. The conservative may prefer to treat homelessness as a criminal matter and urge the passing of laws to clean the streets of the Undesirable. Poverty may be seen as a failure of the individual, in which case the solution is to provide incentives and disincentives to the poor. The good society comes about when the individual obeys the law, acts responsibly, and takes advantage of the system’s incentives. Conservative government is limited in its scope to securing the optimal conditions for individual advancement, and the individual is limited only by the rule of law and by economic incentives and disincentives. Conservatism is the philosophy of conservation in the sense that it regards the natural world as static: human nature does not change, and so neither do the basic laws of society and economics. This does not constitute a denial of the need for reform; rather, reform is seen as a gradual accommodation of changing social conditions to fundamental economic laws. The best of all possible worlds will come about not because of reform, per se, but because individuals act freely within the channels established by law and convention.

Some of what I have said needs clarification, for the conservatism I am describing is an abstraction. We may distinguish between many particular kinds of conservatism, for instances, contemporary American or classical British conservatism. There are variations both of geography and history, and even within a specific time and place we should expect a diversity of thought. The Progressive Conservatism of Benjamin Disraeli and the Social Darwinism of Charles Sumner are both placed under the heading Conservative, yet in many ways these philosophies are at odds. Furthermore, classical British conservatism is closer in many ways to modern American liberalism than it is to British neoconservatism. Classical British conservatism tended toward a collectivist view of society and perceived individualism as a challenge to the ‘social contract.’ In general however conservatism is the ideology of natural law, and its prescription for the public good is the strong interventionist state, at least where individual moral conduct is concerned.

Classical British and American liberals, unlike their modern counterparts, were the advocates of “laissez-faire”, that is, the theory that individuals ought to be left alone in their market dealings. This is usually thought of today as a conservative position, but it was not originally so. Classical liberalism and laissez-faire were based upon a profound mistrust of the state, for liberals felt the state if unchecked would lead to autocracy. The British liberals who established the United States of America opposed the absolute powers of the Monarch as well as the exploitative arrangements of mercantilism. Liberals sought in its place constitutional government and limited democratic representation. We should note that not all classical liberals were democrats, and that none of them proposed universal suffrage. Representational democracy at most meant that owners of property (that is, the white, male bourgeoisie) and not the nobility should be in charge. In some limited ways, liberals and conservatives have exchanged positions on the question of state intervention, and this exchange tells us important things about the respective ideologies. ‘Laissez-faire’ meant something other to the market anarchist Adam Smith than it does to the contemporary corporate CEO who calls for wholesale deregulation. Unfortunately, our technical terms have not kept up with historical changes. I shall return to the matter of these changes a bit later. Right now, I shall try to articulate the liberal principles which have obtained over time.

We begin with the classical liberal view, which remains to this day, that human nature is contextual and that it may and does evolve over time. The liberal may not even believe in a human nature as such, but rather may argue that people will behave differently in differing contexts. In short, human nature is culture; it is a social creation. This explains the liberal interest in social reform. Liberals often see crime, for instance, as social in nature, by which they mean to say that the individual is not the sole cause of his or her behaviour. The root of crime is felt to be the prevailing social conditions, and social reform is typically the proposed solution. Imprison all the criminals you wish, the liberal will say, and you will still have crime and criminals as long as the social conditions obtain. Indeed, the penal system shall only make crime worse (prison is simply another culture informing, or misinforming, the indivdual). The source of the crime is external to the individual. The liberal would likely regard Hobbes’s description of savage nature, and the theory of the state to which it leads, as inappropriate to the modern society. Classical liberals and conservatives disagreed not only generally about the use of state power, but specifically over the punitive functions of the state. Capital punishment was seen as especially repugnant by liberals because it gave to the state the ultimate right: to intervene into a human life itself. The liberal view of capital punishment was based upon a mistrust of the state in combination with an optimistic approach to the good society, which claimed that social reform can better lead to harmony than can punishment or threats of punishment.

You’ll recall that I have set two matters aside for later comment. The first was the observation that conservatives (and often liberals) argue that one of the chief purposes of the state is to protect the rights of those with property against those who do not have property. The second was the observation that ‘in some limited ways,’ liberals and conservatives have exchanged positions on the matter of intervention. I claimed that this exchange – which I shall substantiate – tells us important things about the respective ideologies. I shall now say what I mean by all this.

The rights of private property are thought to be important for a number of reasons. Plunder is not consistent with the good society. There must be some means by which to prevent or at least discourage robbery and other forms of injustice. In the absence of such means, we would likely see the war of all against all described by Hobbes. Without state protection of private property, the economic system would be sustained only by the private use of force. This was indeed the case before the emergence of the constitutional state. The rich hired private armies to protect their economic privileges. Later, the owners of private property (who came to be called capitalists) found it advantageous to exchange their private armies for state armies. They lost private control of their soldiers but gained also, for the costs of maintaining an army were passed to the state. The result was that the costs of protecting private property could be broadly distributed among the social classes; they would no longer be confined to the capitalist class. Security of private property rights gave investors the confidence they needed to conduct business activity. Again, without state-supported private property rights, either private provisions for these rights must be made or else the capitalist economic system must collapse. From this fact emerged the capitalist state.

The preceding paragraph establishes the terrain on which liberals and conservatives have both agreed and fought many battles. Some classical British conservatives argued that private property carried with it not only privileges but responsibilities. Their ideology was rooted in the fact of the Monarchy and in the “organic” conception of society, the view that society was an organism in which all parts depended upon one another for their survival. This view balanced (at least in theory) privileges and responsibilities. Classical British conservatism was paternalistic, by which I mean it regarded individuals as bound to one another in the manner of a family. Corporeal metaphors were also common; hence, the nation was like a body and the king was like the head of that body. As a result of a mixing of metaphors, we today speak of the head of a family. Classical conservatives did not challenge the authority of the Family Head, but neither did they believe that the strong could use their strength in any manner whatsoever. Classical conservatism was profoundly moral, profoundly rooted in the idea of a natural moral law. We may note in passing that contemporary conservatives tend to have kept the classical notion of a natural moral order while discarding or underemphasizing the classical belief in the organic society; in other words, they have privatized natural law. Classical liberals, as we have seen, rejected not only natural law – they believed law is rational and created by ‘Man’ – but the paternal model of social relations as well. Their hatred of the Monarchy led them to reject the ‘strong state.’ The paternalistic state seemed to the classical liberal synonymous with tyranny. The conflict between classical liberals and classical conservatives was thus over the nature and responsibilities of the state, at the heart of which stood the individual. Both argued in a specific manner for limited government, and yet there was disagreement over the character of the ideal state. Although it is a gross simplification to say that liberals feared tyranny and conservatives lawlessness, nonetheless debates regarding the role of government tended to concern these and related themes.

I now return to historical change. The social and economic influence of the modern industrial corporation had been anticipated both by classical liberals and conservatives, yet it is largely this development which led to the modernization of these ideologies. Liberals had always argued that government must be kept as limited as possible to leave larger scope for the individual. Conservatives however felt that the state had a responsibility to keep human nature in check, especially when it threatened the propertied minority. Even today conservatives call for less government and more state power, that is, more police, more military expenditure, more and tougher laws, more prisons. In other words, classical conservatives were the supporters of the activist state and classical liberals were opponents of big, tyrannical government. (By the middle of the 20th century this had reversed somewhat, as liberals called for an interventionist foreign policy and conservatives argued the isolationist position.) Gradually, however, the capitalist economic system produced considerable concentrations of private wealth and economic power. This was defended by the Social Darwinists, who saw wealth as an expression of moral and biological superiority. For classical liberals, however, the notion of unimpeded individuals meeting face to face in the free market to compete with one another as buyers and as sellers was becoming outmoded. Classical liberals such as Thomas Jefferson had been deeply suspicious of the moneyed incorporations (what we today would call corporations) and believed they would distort the economic system and make a mockery of democracy. Jefferson considered the private business corporation as an aristocratic instrument, a way of establishing and extending private privilege at public expense. The economic man of classical theory was now forced to contend with the economic corporation of modern reality, both as a buyer of goods and as a seller of labour. In this exchange, the corporation could exercise many unfair advantages. The transformation took many decades, but by the middle of the 20th century many liberals had abandoned laissez-faire in favour of a limited activist state. They reasoned that since the conditions of the economy had changed, the conditions of government must change also. The New Deal was essentially a conservative impulse, being an attempt to keep the capitalist economic system from collapse. Government was called upon to restore balance and health to the economy. Notice however that the state has also been used by liberals to protect the individual from the potentially tyrannical power of the private corporation.

Conservatives took a differing course during the development of the private corporation. Generally, they were supportive of the judicial decisions which constituted private corporations as legal persons. Three strains of conservative thought informed this support. The first was the conservative faith in the rule of law, the second was the idea that especial responsibilities are conferred upon the powerful, and the third was that the economy is grounded in the law-abiding individual. Conservatives advocated the entrenchment of property rights in law as a necessary precondition to economic development, and they furthermore assumed that from these rights would follow responsibility. The same laws which constrained the citizen would constrain the investor. ‘Corporate’ laws were unnecessary since the corporation, like society, did not exist; the corporation was only an abstracted manner of speaking about individuals engaged together in a co-ordinated business effort. The incentives and disincentives necessary to guide the corporation were already in place at the level of the individual economic agent. This was enough assurance for most conservatives.

Liberals may agree that ‘society’ is a fiction, a thing invented, without conceding the conservative position that it does not exist. The point for them is that it is a practical fiction. Consider public investment. An individual citizen cannot alone cause a highway to be built, but a society can. Government is the instrument by which individual contributions are mobilized in the service of social ends. While it is true that society is an abstraction, it is not the case that it is merely the sum of its parts. We shall discover the same if we regard the private corporation. Here also we find an institution designed to mobilize resources toward a collective end. Not only is the private corporation not the sum of its parts, it is designed not to be and derives its utilities precisely from this fact. The corporation is an autonomous instrument in the sense that it supersedes its constituent individuals; it is a legal fiction endowed with certain rights and privileges, among them being immortality. Indeed, the corporation came into being as a way to obviate the legal, economic, and social limitations faced by the individual investor. In this sense a corporation does for capital what a union does for labour. Both would be quite pointless inventions if they were only a collection of individuals and not a legal fiction endowed with special properties. And the same, liberals argue, is true of social institutions and the society which it serves. Society is more than the sum of the individuals from which it is abstracted, and only with the broad view that the concept of society offers can grand projects in the public interest be launched.

Well, a conservative may say, that’s precisely the problem with society. Modern liberalism is based on the false assumption that things can be made better with a little manipulation at the top, that is, at the level of big government. Conservatives prefer to let individuals manage reform themselves, by creating the conditions in which they can exercise their law-bound freedom. In practice, this means state intervention in order to present the individual with incentives and disincentives. Conservatives do not accept the proposition that society (or racism, sexism, exploitation, structural poverty, and so on) is to blame for dysfunctional behaviour. They admit certain disadvantages, such as physical and mental disability. Beyond this they regard the individual as alone responsible for his or her fate. Liberals, conservatives may argue, are wrong on a number of points, but these especially: they are wrong about ‘victims of society,’ they are wrong about human nature, and because of this they are wrong about reform.

As always there is today disagreement about the role and nature of the government. Liberals insist that government is too much involved in helping the rich, and conservatives insist that government is (in the words of the 1995 Common Sense Revolution website) “a captive to big special interests,” meaning people on welfare, the homeless, feminists, and unions. It is interesting to note that both sides are engaged in a battle on behalf of social and economic justice. For one side justice means advancing the rights of people of colour, for the other it means income tax cuts. We should note that both sides feel the injustice deeply; neither is, I think, insincere. And contemporary government is complex enough that both sides can support their case. For when we talk about ‘the government’ we are talking about a motley collection of interrelated but also contesting arrangements. One part of government saves the taxpayer money by firing staff or causing others to, and another promptly spends that taxpayer money helping these folks find jobs elsewhere. One part of government indeed serves the rich, and others serve the so-called special interests. Then there are the many other parts of government serving other ends and getting in the way too. In a diverse society with many competing interests, we should expect just such an arrangement. The behaviour of modern democratic governments reflects the complexity and conflicts of the modern world. This does not mean that a particular government cannot lean either in the direction of liberalism or of conservatism. The point is, government is heterogeneous, and there will always be contradictory efforts within a representative democratic government itself. Even within a single ministry, you will find that public policy often discloses the apparent illogic of contradictory mandates. Once we understand the heterogeneous nature of representative democratic government, we are better able to explain the endurance of the debate between conservatives and liberals. Each group describes an aspect of political reality. And that reality as a whole is diverse and complex enough to render each perspective compelling.

Does this mean that liberalism and conservatism are both equally correct? This is a difficult question to answer. Consider the competing views of human nature. The conservative has little patience for the liberal view that criminal behaviour should be regarded as a symptom of a deeper social problem. The liberal tends to believe that criminal behaviour can be prevented, or at least lessened, with an improvement in social conditions. Even the notion of crime puts the liberal ill-at-ease, for much of what is criminalized by the conservative – poverty, homelessness, unemployment – is felt by the liberal to be no fault of the individual. The conservative usually doubts that crime is produced by ‘the system’ or by society; instead, crime is seen as a matter of individual character. Who is correct? The liberal can reasonably argue that in a perfect society, one without social inequality and injustice, there would be no crime. But of course this is a circular argument, for a perfect society presupposes the absence of crime. In any case, there is no empirical basis for the liberal claim because there is no perfect society for us to observe. The conservative can reasonably argue that crime is a failure of character, for one’s character is always one’s character, whether it was shaped by individual will or by social conditions, or more likely, by both. The conservative social and economic systems are based upon the Hobbessian belief that individuals are selfish and acquisitive; since the systems are designed to reward these traits, they tend to produce them. Is Economic Man thus an expression of human nature, or is he a self-fulfilled prophecy? The world as it is does not allow us to test theories of human nature under the controlled conditions of a laboratory. All we have is the messiness of the world as it is. Human nature and human culture are integrated one into another. Perhaps no political philosophy has adequately represented the complexity of this integration, and perhaps no political philosophy ever will. It is precisely the limitations of political ideologies that has ensured their survival as ideologies, that is, as systems of ideas. The limited nature of our political ideologies is not likely soon to change. [-January 1999]

The Grassroots Always Look Greener

In the 90s, the word grassroots was used a great deal by Newt Gingrich to explain the success of his colleagues, the victorious 104th Republican congress, who were elected by the American People — that is, the 15-or-so percent of the public who had voted for one of them.

Gingrich’s enthusiasm over the triumph of the American People over Washington was, I think, sincere. It was not based in fact, by which I mean voter turn-out, but enthusiasm rarely if ever is. The idea that The People have been independently working toward a better society while Washington was employed elsewhere is a reassuring fiction, or at least a gross exaggeration of what is indeed happening in the world. The purpose of this essay is not to dismiss the prospect of a so-called grassroots campaign, but to populate that prospect with some really-existing folk. For I have seen the grassroots up close.

Some time ago I was canvassing on behalf of a local Catholic hospital which had been ordered to close by an agency of the Ontario government. (This was during a period of provincial and municipal restructuring.) My job was to go out among the grassroots and gather the signatures of ordinary folk who, presumably, were opposed to the order. I was sent out with a lapel button, a clipboard, and printed hospital propaganda into an area of Kingston known as the Fruitbelt, a mixed region of low-income manual labourers, welfare recipients, poor retirees, middle-class shop owners, and hospital employees. The houses were all rather modest, but were distributed across the class spectrum more broadly than you will find in most Kingston neighbourhoods. Community volunteer work allows you the privilege of seeing something that is unknown to most politicians: the way people actually live. Many people do not see into the houses of other social and economic classes, or even into the houses of their own neighbours, a fact which is probably debilitating to democratic politics. Here is an example of what I mean. Some of the houses I went into had a smell or appearance I felt to be repulsive; some others felt instantly welcoming. Each house projected a social class I couldn’t help but instantly recognize, by the power of acquired intuition. At some point my ‘progressive views’ had to admit houses and people that I find instinctively repulsive, otherwise those views would be so much chatter. Well, this fact rarely enters into the discussions of democracy and grassroots campaigns, which are always presented as a matter of jolly folks getting together to fight Big Brother. That they will have to get together in the queer livingrooms of people they find smelly, and who anyway are not one of their kind, is conveniently ignored. So it was in the hospital campaign.

I recall an elderly woman who lived in a tiny, hot bungalow. Her walls were covered with religious paraphernalia, photos of the Pope and so on. A sure ally, I decided. I explained why I was in her house and offered the clipboard for her signature. With a knowing shrug she offered her support and told me the hospital was being closed because, as she put it, “the Jews want their land back.” At another house an eager defendant of the Free Market didn’t care much for the Canadian health care system. Another person was a Seventh-Day Adventist who “didn’t believe in doctors or medicine” and who consequently saw no reason to support a hospital with his taxes. Others reasoned that, since the people in charge thought the closure was a good idea, it must be. In the end, there was no common theme, no general view, no shared aspiration which I could infer as the public interest. Why should there have been? These people had never considered the matter among themselves, and likely never would. Probably a majority signed my petition in the end, some perhaps in ignorance of the issues, some just to be polite. From a statistical point of view The People had spoken. Only, in private very few said what the hospital management wanted to hear.

I don’t conclude from my experiences of grassroots politics that public consensus is impossible. It is at several steps’ remove from impossible, somewhere in the vicinity of Bloody Hard. It must be negotiated face-to-face, and inevitably divisive matters will get in the way: resentment, racism, class- and gender-based hostility, fear, anti-semitism, complacency. As I’ve suggested however, the debate is usually precluded by the lack of a physical place in which to get things going. Democracy needs wood and concrete at least as much as it needs ‘information.’ There is no shortage of shopping malls, but shopping malls probably won’t do. Neither will going door to door to collect signatures, which results in nothing more than an opinion poll. I hear a good deal of well-meant but idle talk about ‘public debate,’ again without any reference to the actual conditions under which it must necessarily take place. In any case, debate reminds me of church attendance – decent and wholesome, but avoided whenever possible. In my experience, both are typically a burdensome affair whose chief accomplishment is to drive away honest, thoughtful people.

It is possible that democracy is one of those ideas that work admirably so long as they are never practiced. Think of democracy, for a moment, not as a system but as a lifestyle. To live the democratic life you would be required not only to vote once every few years but to keep yourself well-informed in the meantime and to show up regularly for public meetings. You would be required to maintain social relations with a diversity of persons and to perform certain duties in the public interest. You would be required to get involved when something goes wrong, which it often does. In short, your life would be less your own. It takes little reflection to realize this is precisely the sort of arrangement many of us labour to avoid. As many others, my family long ago withdrew from the burden of church attendance. It seems to me that membership in all sorts of civic organizations is declining. Public life today means going to the movies, which folks do less than in previous years because the VCR has privatized the theatre. ‘Home entertainment’ is almost redundant these days. And be honest: don’t you generally prefer it that way? Every one of us complains about the politicians, but at least they are doing the dirty work we prefer not to do. Democratic participation, whatever its philosophical merits, is a pain.

Social interaction is becoming unnecessary for an increasing number of tasks. Computers will soon replace most (perhaps all) of the human beings with whom you would have dealt in the past, by which I mean not your friends and family, but bank tellers and ticket sellers and salespeople and so on. Most of the things you need to do in person will soon be available ‘on-line’ from your house, if this is not the case already. I am not suggesting that social interaction will disappear, but only that it will be less necessary for certain purposes. Nor is this evidence of the inevitable direction of affairs. Public life will not disappear because there is less need for human bank tellers. A life with a smaller public aspect will however be possible, if you prefer. Deal with other human beings, or not; it’s your choice. Social interaction is becoming less a matter of necessity and more a matter of consumer choice. Although we tend not to think of politics as a matter of lifestyle, consumerism plays its role here as well. When is the last time you voted for an inconvenience?

Grassroots work has shown me how rational and functional contemporary democratic politics really is. There is no reward and much disappointment for the progressive individual who is informed and politically active. Many uninformed (or ill-informed) and inactive citizens may do democracy a disservice, but they have no compelling reason to behave otherwise. A detachment from civic life and electoral politics makes a good deal of sense to those who choose such a course. Do I conclude that politics is useless? No, but I understand the reasoning of those who do. The pursuit of the public good at private expense is perhaps after all a sucker’s game, whatever its supposed virtues. There is a further point to be inferred from my experiences: only among the grassroots does one discern that we in fact have the Government we want, regardless of complaints about particular governments. The system runs nicely without the necessity of public effort, and if things get intolerable enough there are public polls to convey our discontent. Government has evolved toward a state of technocratic efficiency as has everything else. Here ‘efficiency’ means ‘with minimal public intervention.’ Our reward for accepting the system is that most of the time we are left alone. This is often true also of what politicians designate a grassroots campaign. The Contract with America, after all, was delivered to the people via the couch potato’s bible, TV Guide. A place more ill-suited to negotiating a social contract could not be imagined, but the irony went mostly unnoticed. Perhaps that’s because there was no irony: it was Government as usual, conveniently arranged for the citizen who prefers to stay home. [April 1999.]