Tag Archives: Politics

Essays on politics and current events.

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]

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]

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]

Sarah Palin

The abrupt 2008 national-stage appearance of Sarah Palin (and more on that presently) gave me for the first time an opportunity to consider a major political candidate of my own vintage. Sarah Louise Heath was born February 11, 1964, making her roughly 22 months older than me — close enough to qualify as a chronological peer.

Before Palin, I implicitly assumed candidates to high office to possess greater historical memory and geo-political knowledge than me. Here however I was confronted with someone who invited direct comparison, and who in this exercise fared quite poorly. I hardly need defend myself against the charge of arrogance in this instance. Palin made me feel I would need to dust off H.L. Mencken words to craft a fitting description of her. A poltroon? Milquetoast? Chautauqua was one to keep at hand, to be sure. But in all of this was the unfortunate condescension which says more, or at least as much, about the speaker’s character as it does about the spoken’s.

It does matter to me that Sarah Palin made it to age 44 without ever grasping the fact that there is a South Korea and North Korea, and that this is a legacy of post-war geo-political compromises. Her indifference to the world outside Alaska is a product of her fierce loyalty and attachments to place. In any case, Alaska is a destination of choice for the Leaving It All Behind type of person, no? She can be forgiven her parochial character, except of course that her political ambitions now seem to call for something else.

As for her lack of bookish knowledge — this too is attractive to many. Simple folk live chiefly among simple folk. The formally unlearned will help you dig out of the storm, comfort you in your grief, watch your children grow up. One type of person who may be expected to admire Sarah Palin is the ordinary folk who has precious few dealings with the sophisticated, and, when it comes to that, is always the social inferior being sold a bill of goods. Who can blame the common person for mistrust and acrimony when it comes to the polished bullshit of the Academy?

If only Sarah Palin were the honest, plain speaking person she is held to be. Then at least those in agreement with her could reasonably expect to be delivered the goods, as promised. There is good evidence suggesting the sort of President she would be, and it is not encouraging, even if you happen to agree with her.

Let’s begin by noting the means by which she rose so suddenly to prominence in American politics. (This is the “more on that presently” bit.) John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, in their book Game Change, explain that the discovery of Palin was the result of campaign manager Rick Davis’s Google search conducted with the keywords Republican women. McCain’s campaign manager was looking for a religious conservative woman and found an interview on YouTube between Charlie Rose and Sarah Palin. This makes Palin not only the first female Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, but perhaps the first Google-sourced one also. It furthermore suggests the niche she was chosen to exploit — the evangelical faith-based niche, to be precise.

The 2012 Sarah Palin will be much more fact- and speaking point-crammed than the 2008 version, and indeed is so already. The country bumpkin will have been mostly engineered out of her “optics,” kept at hand for select occasions only. What is most remarkable about her political history is not her ignorance, but her obsession with loyalty and her vindictiveness when loyalty appears to her insufficient. Her aborted term as Governor shows that vendettas, political purges, abuses of power, and dissembling along the way to skirt the matter of ethics, are features of her political style. Her dirty political alliance with husband and knee-breaker Todd (the subject of Stephen Branchflower’s report, which found Palin “abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.11(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act.”) rather suggests that other horrible couple, the Clintons. Remember that you heard it here first.

The surface Palin — bumbling, ever-hopeful, plain speaking, America and gun loving — evokes Ronald Reagan, but in her political style she is much more reminiscent of Richard Nixon. (How uncanny it is, then, that she has come under the tutelage of former Nixon aide Fred Malek.) A power abusing, document hiding paranoic, she is always in a dirty personal fight. Her office in Alaska was routinely set upon the work of disposing of enemies. And when the racket is brought into the open air, as it was with Troopergate, out comes the smiling empty-headed Reaganesque Palin to say that guilt is innocence.

It stands that a certain kind of voter will find much to recommend Palin. She was chosen, and probably well-chosen, for a market. She is the candidate, not so much of the female Republican or even the Conservative per se, but the voter who above all else wills to believe. To believe that tax cuts and less government will yield a powerful America, to believe that folksy goshdarn populism is sufficient to overcome foes at home and abroad, to believe in the surface appearance of things and in what one is told if it is flattering to the ear, to believe that faith will improve the human lot whereas science is to be mistrusted, to believe that deeply political persons can at the same time be rogues and Washington outsiders, and to believe that the sacrifice of a man-god has paid a blood debt and that, as a consequence, death is an illusion and the faithful shall rise again to enjoy life forever and ever, amen.

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]

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.]

Reading Chekhov’s Stories

THE RUSSIAN WRITER Anton Chekhov was born in 1860, the son of a poor grocer. He studied medicine, supported himself and his family by writing, and eventually worked his way up to the profession of doctor. He travelled, lived five years on a country estate, and died in Yalta in 1904. He is today regarded as one of the finest writers of the short story. In short, he was a specimen of a Russian rarity, the upwardly-mobile peasant literary genius.

The above sketch is clearly skeletal, but it suggests already the themes with which Chekhov was concerned: rural life, the relation of the classes, and self-improvement through education. Most Chekhov stories involve something like the following. A Russian goes on a rural trip in harsh weather. He is brought by circumstance into the company of a differing social class. Someone brings out the samovar, or tea-urn, and conversation ensues, but the classes do not communicate. There is usually a long passage in which the protagonist dwells upon the absurdity of it all. This one, for example:

Why are there doctors and medical orderlies, he wondered, why are there merchants, clerks and peasants in this world? Why aren’t there just free men? The birds and beasts are free, aren’t they? So is Merik. They fear no one, they need no one. Now, whose idea was it – who says we have to get up in the morning, have a meal at midday and go to bed at night? That a doctor is senior to an orderly? That one must live in a room and love no one but one’s wife? Why shouldn’t things be the other way round – lunch at night and sleep by day? Oh, to leap on a horse, not asking whose it is, and race the wind down fields, woods and dales like some fiend out of hell! Oh, to make love to girls, to laugh at everyone!

There is a good deal to be said about this quotation and the attitudes it suggests. But before we come to the analysis, I should like to explain why I’ve chosen this particular passage. For I could as easily have produced a dozen other on the same theme, all of them making the same point. I chose this one because I have thought exactly these very thoughts. ‘Who decided we must eat breakfast in the morning? sleep at night? work from dawn to dusk for a wage? dedicate our lives to consumption? look forward to the weekend and retirement? etc. etc.’ One can hardly live in an organized society without feeling the subtle and not so subtle external compulsions that determine so much of her behaviour. Are we free? Most of the time we think so, but then come those moments when we know we are living according to a script. It interests me that those moments involve things like breakfast and sleep. After all, war is obviously absurd, but breakfast? Precisely what feels natural, precisely this is being questioned. Beneath the careful crafting of a Chekhov story, one discovers the question, Could the world be otherwise than it is?

The question Could the world be other than it is? tosses us into politics. Here we find what I shall call the skeptical turn of mind – that is, the calling of things into question. A writer whose characters wonder over the meaning of breakfast could hardly be expected to accept human arrangements at face value. Yet what did Chekhov think? He seems to disapprove of the abuses of the Russian class system, but what would he put in its place, if anything? That is the rub. On first reading Chekhov, I find a vague humanism and a pervasive skepticism. Life is absurd. Yes, the peasants are getting shafted, but look at what sort of folk they are! Stubborn, bigoted, suspicious, and above all, stupid. They cannot even perceive their self-interest. Chekhov is commonly portrayed, along with James Joyce, as an exemplary model of the disinterested and apolitical writer. If he is unwilling to accept flattering nonsense about the aristocracy, he is equally unwilling to romanticize, in the common manner of the social reformer, the common folk. The consensus is that he merely describes the world without rendering a judgement.

Is this correct? Consider ‘An Awkward Business,’ which examines an incident between a country doctor, Gregory Ovchinnikov, and a medical orderly, Michael Smirnovsky. Here, as elsewhere, Chekhov establishes a set of contrasts. The doctor is young, educated, and thoughtful. Furthermore, he is a professional with aspirations. Chekhov is careful to note Gregory’s “keen interest in ‘social problems,’” a phrase which seems to me deliberately fuzzy. For Gregory, in contrast to the aged, bumbling, alcoholic Michael, is profoundly at odds with something we would call the system, and yet he’s unable to put his discomfort into practical language. Gregory’s problem is this: he has punched Michael in the face for coming to work drunk. He knows this is unprofessional behaviour, and that he ought to be disciplined, and yet the norms of 19th-century Russian society make only one outcome possible. The ‘old boys’ will rally around Gregory, and as a consequence his behaviour will be pronounced just. Indeed, this is precisely what happens.

Regarding the workings of the system, Gregory comments on ‘the sheer, the crass stupidity of it all.’ Here we have the perspective of the radical, the would-be reformer who is interested in social problems. Gregory seems to me to have Chekhov’s sympathy, but the implicit lesson of the story is that, like it or not, the system works. That, after all, is its function – to keep things moving along. Michael himself understands this and begs the forgiveness of his assailant. It is only when the embarrassed doctor suggests instead a lawsuit against himself that things get complicated. The expedient course of action would be to observe social conventions and let the system do its work. Why drag impractical notions like ‘social problems’ into the matter? No answer is given for this question. The impractical notions are simply there, and as a result Chekhov’s fiction is much more complicated than I’ve made it appear. His characters are plagued by a concern with justice, but they’ve learned to get along in an unjust world. It’s worth noting that the passage quoted above (“Oh, to leap on a horse…”) ends with this: “It would be a good idea to burgle some rich man’s house at night, he reflected.” In other words, once we have decided that the status quo is so much cruel nonsense, which clearly it sometimes is, we may move in any direction. Those directions include murder, robbery, and all manner of violence. Having questioned the prevailing arrangements, Gregory learns what everyone else has known all along, that things flow most smoothly when they follow the established channels. The alternatives are, as the story’s title ironically indicates, awkward.

The Chekhov I’ve proposed thus far conforms to the conventional notion of him as a wry observer of human affairs. But this Chekhov is, I think, too much a quietist, too much a man who merely contemplates things as they are without believing one can make a difference. That Chekhov was no reformer I agree. And yet I’m not satisfied with the view I’ve advanced thus far, that he is a skeptic and nothing more. He makes observable commitments and characteristic choices. There are implicit answers to the question, Could the world be otherwise than it is? In short, there is more to be said about the world of Chekhov’s fiction.

We may note the following. Chekhov is more interested in rural Russia than he is in the cities. Whatever implicit views he has may be inferred from his fondness for the ‘backward regions.’ He is interested in peasants, but he consistently narrates his stories from the perspective of the gentleman, or, where gentlemen are lacking, figures of relative high status. The protagonists are sometimes disdainful of their social inferiors but sometimes are ‘anxious,’ which is to say they encounter the lower orders with a mixed emotion of fear and desire. In the latter case, the upper classes do not wish to be confused with the down-and-out, and yet deep down they believe that the down-and-out lead a fuller, richer, more ‘earthy’ existence than they themselves do. The result is that the lower classes assume a sinister but compelling aspect, as in this passage from ‘Thieves’:

‘Phew, that girl has spirit!’ Yergunov thought, sitting on the chest and observing the dance from there. ‘What fire! Nothing’s too good for her.’

He regretted being a medical orderly instead of an ordinary peasant. Why must he wear a coat and a watch-chain with a gilt key, and not a navy-blue shirt with a cord belt – in which case he, like Merik, could have sung boldly, danced, drunk and thrown both arms round Lyubka?

Yergunov is nearly seduced by Lyubka, and he is robbed by Merik, but the greatest danger these characters pose is the one suggested by the story’s ending, that Yergunov will betray himself and defect his class. And why not? The peasants are having a wonderful time of it, robbing and killing with apparent impunity. Here we get another glimpse, I think, of Chekhov’s ‘position’ on the question, Could things be otherwise in the world? Nowhere does Chekhov allow class defection to occur without at least the suggestion of dire consequence. One has a choice to be a peasant or a gentleman; beyond that there is mere anarchy. Furthermore, class mobility is properly a matter of sustained effort and self-transformation. His is the sensibility of a man who through his own effort has left behind poverty and achieved success, and who believes that the answer is for others to do likewise. In short, he is concerned with personal evolution, not social revolution.

This explains the features of his work, some of which I have already identified. There is no grand social-reform vision in Chekhov’s stories because he is interested in the individual. This interest informs the manner in which he both criticizes and affirms the system. The system dooms the occasional intelligent, gifted individual to be born a peasant; nonetheless, for most peasants, theirs is a proper and even necessary role. As Kuzmichov comments in ‘The Steppe,’ ‘The point is that if everyone becomes a scholar and gentleman there won’t be anyone to trade and sow crops. We all starve.’ It’s not clear to what degree Chekhov endorsed Alexander Arkhipovich’s claim (in ‘An Awkward Business’) that ‘It’s only among professional people and peasants – at the two poles of society, in other words – that one finds honest, sober, reliable workers nowadays,’ but isn’t it interesting that he chooses rural settings, precisely where he may best concentrate upon these two classes. My suspicion is that, like Kuzmichov, Chekhov accepts the practicality of the class system. Social revolution is regarded skeptically, while the system, though evidently flawed, is at least valued as a source of social stability. Those characters who do accomplish a sort of revolution, for instance the protagonist in ‘The Cobbler and the Devil,’ find the results disastrous. The cobbler sells his soul to the devil in exchange for riches, but because he has not risen to his position through his own efforts, but instead by a sort of trickery, he is unable to fill his social position credibly. Despite his riches, he is still at heart a cobbler. When he wakes to find the whole thing was a dream, he joyfully accepts his humble lot. He has learned it’s where he belongs.

The Chekhov I am inferring may today sound reactionary, but we should recall the sort of ideas which were about in the 1890s. Social Darwinism was in ascendance in America, Germany, and Russia – to cite only the most historically significant manifestations. One of Chekhov’s late stories, ‘The Duel,’ repudiates proto-fascist notions about the lower classes, i.e., that they are degenerate and must be sacrificed to the greater good. Chekhov had no kind feeling for this point of view. Here however we may introduce another characteristic of Chekhov’s fiction, that it is almost oblivious to the stirrings of what has come to be called Modernism. A rural setting allowed Chekhov to explore the Russian class system, but the exploration is devoid of what really matters, from a modern point of view. I am referring to the conditions of urban life, the urban proletariat, the aristocracy, and mass society. His fiction looks backward, or tries to ignore the march of history altogether. Considered in its historical context, Chekhov’s decision to write mostly about peasants and gentlemen is remarkable.

I should address the accusation that Chekhov cannot be judged by today’s standard. Modernism did not come along until after his death, so how can he be expected to have written about it? I believe this accusation is misplaced, because clearly Chekhov did see what was happening. He knew that something one of his characters calls the ‘in-betweeners’ was emerging between peasant and gentleman (likely a reference to the rural bourgeoisie, known also as Kulaks or miroyed), and he knew about conditions of life in the cities. The point is, these did not interest him as a writer. He must also have been aware of grievances against the tsar, of the ‘Land and Freedom’ movements, and of the growing state repression of reform efforts. Nonetheless, Russia in 1890, for Chekhov, is farm labour, violent weather, inns, and samovars. ‘Upper classes’ means country priests, doctors, and clerical workers: in other words, gentlemen who have been educated out of the peasant class. As I’ve remarked earlier, these are the only two classes of person you’ll find. Chekhov also gives us murderous criminals, madmen, and exiles, but these are people outside society. They serve as a foil to his chief interests. Nor does class as such seem to be his concern. The peasants complain of their lot, and their suffering is presented sympathetically, but with a suggestion that it is inevitable, given their ignorance. There is no hint of the political struggles that culminated in the 1917 Revolution – struggles, one should note, that had been going on for many decades. One encounters the odd peasant rant against ‘the rich,’ as in the story ‘New Villa’ for instance, but we are never encouraged to take these comments seriously. Class oppression does not seem to be the problem for Chekhov, who himself had shown you could move about in Russian society if you had talent and a bit of gumption.

I am tempted to say that Chekhov’s fiction is informed by something akin to ‘classical liberalism’ or ‘meritocracy,’ but neither term is quite appropriate. I do think nonetheless that the stories imply a rejection of social reform (especially revolution) and that they treat ‘social problems’ as a matter of the individual. The world is recognized as a cruel and harsh place, and the poor are shown to have it badly. But Chekhov suggests that nothing can be done for them which will alter the fact of their poverty; alas, there must forever be peasants. One cannot read ‘New Villa’ without getting this message rather clearly. If the odd, individual peasant has talent and education, he may become a professional. In any case, the system will sort things out and people will end up where they belong, either among the peasants or gentlemen. Note that some, like Chekhov’s cobbler, will belong at the bottom and will only be harmed by artificial arrangements that put them elsewhere. The end result of the system may be harsh – will probably be harsh – and you may not like it, but such is life. That is the apparent moral of many a Chekhov story. Chekhov believed in private philanthropy and the obligations of rank (he helped to organize famine relief), and his story ‘My Wife’ shows he found the gentry’s mere lipservice to these deplorable. But the fact of wealth and poverty does not seem to have bothered him, so long as everyone bore his social rank with dignity and treated others kindly. The people who flout this principle get Chekhov’s harshest treatment. One however should not mistake the harshness as the sentiment of a reformer. If I am correct, Chekhov’s fiction offers us a qualified and careful apology for the class system.

All of this no doubt sounds familiar. Something like the ideology I have been describing is emerging as the official political consensus in all the industrialized countries, including Canada. Already it is the dominant view in America. Put crudely, the beliefs are that social reform has been attempted and found misguided, most of the poor are the authors of their condition and aren’t helped by the state regardless, one’s social position is a matter of merit, the individual alone is responsible for his or her fate, and the best one can do is to alleviate suffering through private philanthropy. Along with the emphasis upon the individual we find renewed attention to education, crime, and the family. When the system is conceived as a mere collection of individuals, issues such as personal crime (as opposed to corporate crime), private education, and personal moral values will come to the surface. The behaviour of the individual will become the substance of reform. Class conflict, structural unemployment, systemic racism, and other such grand reformist catch-phrases will recede to the margins of public discourse. The system will be of little political concern. Reformation of the subject will be the political object. (June 1998)

How I Survived My Education

Writing-lines

WE ARE ALL deeply indebted to our education system, for despite it, and maybe even in rebellion against it, we have become educated persons. Education like birth is something that simply must be done, and however much you may have benefited from it, you’d hardly wish to do it all over again.

I remember peculiar details whose significance today escapes me. I was once forced to stand in the hall for something I’d done, or hadn’t done; I had to go to the bathroom but I feared interrupting the class, so I pressed my legs together and danced until the pressure was more than I could bear, and then I wet my pants. This sort of unpleasant experience is unusual only in particulars. Most of my memories of school involve the themes of crime, authority, fear, and punishment. I suspect any other student could tell comparable tales. Nothing which could be construed as a ‘lesson’ remains afterward. I remember only the punishment, and the rest might as well never have happened.

The grammar school I attended had a long tradition of military-style education. The principal as late as the 1950s was typically a retired sergeant, or some similar figure. ‘Stern, male, and authoritarian’ seemed to be the chief requirements of the job. The yet-surviving Victorian model of the teacher was vanishing, but examples were still plentiful enough. The awkward phrase ‘Victorian model of the teacher’ is my own, and if I had a better phrase I would use it. It designates the educated middle-age woman who, having raised her own children, is thrust upon the children of others only to keep her busy. Behind the practice were some ugly assumptions about women and children which I suspect are familiar. Even today the assumptions inform our education system, which is why tenured university professors tend to be male and grammar-school teachers female. One assumption, which applies to other professions as well, is that work done with children really isn’t important enough to command the respect and wages of work done among adults. Thus the school was a dumping ground of sorts, and though inspired and gifted teachers could be found, they were accidents. Deviation from the norm was an unfortunate condition to be beaten back, and the creative teacher faced, then as now, a host of opponents.

To appreciate the character of the education I’m describing, you’ve got to consider the sort of things one was expected to learn: spelling, penmanship, punctuality, respect for authority, and obedience. All of these involve conformity to standards, whose justification is taken as self-evident. One learned to spell ‘correctly,’ with the help of a British dictionary. The authority of the dictionary was taken for granted, as if there were only One True Dictionary. I was also taught there was a correct way to make a lower-case ‘p’ – with the vertical stroke rising above the curved, much like the Old Norse thorn, þ. Regarding punctuality, never my strong point, I was reminded that I’d never get a job if I couldn’t learn to be on-time. Here the clock was the authority, and there could be no questioning the exigencies of the schedule (correct pronunciation: ‘shed-jewel’). Regarding respect for and obedience to authority, no matter what subject was ostensibly under consideration, these were the lessons. I suspect they were ultimately all that we were meant to learn.

In my case the system failed; I somehow learned not to respect and obey, as a matter of habit, authority. School showed me that our leaders are not self-justified, and that they indeed often behave far from justly. I learned these lessons while reflecting on my experiences. As an adult I could see clearly that the function of the system was to produce moderately intelligent middle-managers and docile proles. That is what the industrial capitalist system of my childhood needed, and that is what it mostly got. The system was designed to produce people who would show up for work on time and do what they’re told, how they’re told, no matter how demeaning, pointless, or even stupid it may be. The system produced these folks the way it produced everything else: in mass quantity, according to specification. In such a world it’s inconvenient to question the structures and dictates of work, just as it’s awkward to ask why ‘fill-um’ is the correct Canadian way to say film. Such questions were discouraged. In both cases one was expected to do as one was told, period. Authority, I discovered, is often a mere matter of expedience. Education standards, for instance, may serve the interests of education bureaucrats more than they do students, and the function of the authorities may be to ensure that the standards always triumph. In my opinion, you’re not educated if you’ve never had this suspicion.

When you start to ask questions, a curious phenomenon occurs. Things begin to unravel. You learn that authority stands on shaky ground. The teacher is not all-knowing and in fact only says fill-um because she was told by someone (another authority) that it is proper to do so. Behind every authority is only another authority: the Oxford dictionary, the CBC, the Queen, and so on. Question any individual authority and there is nothing in principle stopping you from questioning authority itself. How frightening such a state must be for teachers whose insufficient training and meagre resources make them entirely dependent upon the teaching guide. Their authority is all that they have. At least the bureaucracy offers them the conditions they need to do their job. One person’s hell is another’s heaven, and I know today that mindless fill-in-the-blank work is a blessing if you’ve got the right temperament. Bureaucracy, after all, serves a useful and even civilizing function. You need only do and think as you’re told; the system will then propel you along toward your pension.

Although this may sound cynical, it describes the way most of us live. Consider the realm of opinions. Even if we don’t believe most of what we read, we at least have read most of what we believe. We couldn’t possibly have first-hand knowledge of all that goes on in the world. We have to believe something to function. I don’t mean ‘belief’ in the religious sense of ‘faith,’ as in the phrase ‘to believe in God.’ Instead I mean belief in the sense that we concede the world is pretty much what the experts say it is. Though the meanings overlap, they differ in the sense that the expert describes something you could see for yourself, like an atom, if you made the effort. Experts pretend to describe objective facts, in relation to which blind faith is not only unrequired but inappropriate. If you doubt the descriptions, you are free to examine the matter for yourself and to form your own opinion. Most of us however haven’t the time or inclination to do this, and so we acquire our opinions second-hand. This is not an argument against the media, but merely a description of the way in which opinions necessarily operate in the real world. We can only go so far in challenging conventional wisdom, if we challenge at all, because beyond conventional hearsay there is conventional heresy, and beyond that little more than regions of fire and dragons. The conventions, whatever their shortcomings, serve a function.

One of the great and overlooked paradoxes of the education system is that it is blamed for all social ills and called upon to remedy them. The possibility that it is neither the disease nor the cure offers little opportunity to the polemicist and so is rejected. Civilization has its discontents, but this is not entirely the fault of the education system. Even if we restrict the discussion to learning, the education system can be shown to have a doubtful role. Einstein’s genius did not flower as a result of his contact with the University; he was at best a mediocre student. There’s no doubt in my mind that the education system of my childhood tended toward stupefaction, but stupidity was not always the outcome. Yes, school inoculates the young against intellectual curiosity – but this is only merciful, so long as the adulthood to which the young may look forward consists mostly in mindless work, endless sitcoms, and cajoling advertisements. When’s the last time you heard an education reformer observe the obvious, that there’s almost nothing to do with intellectual curiosity except make a pest of oneself. The corporations do not want it, despite their talk of the knowledge economy; the government does not want it; the TV does not afford it; and your boss will retaliate at its first appearance. In short, intellectual curiosity is as useful to social success as bad breath. Nothing is cultivated at such cost, with such pains, only to be met by such perfect indifference. That is why the education system works the way it does. And it does work, by rooting out intellectual curiosity and replacing it with ‘workplace skills,’ lest a peaceful and gainfully-employed existence be forever precluded.

Any system will fail at least some of the time. Intellectual curiosity may survive prolonged therapy. In my case the education system was indispensable to my efforts, like the floor against which an athlete must push in order to leap. I began my life as a critical thinker when I first discerned what the education system is really designed to do – and how far this reality is from what education spokespersons claim it is designed to do. Reformers insist they want to make the education system a place of critical thought. Think about it: a generation of critical thought would pretty much put an end to the advertisement and PR industries, not to mention a good many political careers. The whole culture would have to be remade to suit the thinking and tastes of clever, skeptical people. Critical thought would pose a larger technical challenge than the Year-2000 bug. Our dullness is a national treasure. It is an industrial lubricant; without it the wheels of progress would grind to a halt. No more blockbusters, no more bad newspapers, no more trickle-down economics, and on and on. Do we really want to end civilization as we know it?

I would, but that is only because I am a pest who’s survived the education system. [-June 1998.]

Bertrand Russell on freedom of speech

Writing to the New York Times on the 20th of April 1940, Bertrand Russell reminded his audience (chiefly, the editors of the Times) of an unpleasant fact. His no-nonsense, that’s-the-way-it-is manner you will recognize as characteristic. “In a democracy,” he urged, “it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.”

The occasion of Russell’s letter was a Times editorial implicitly supporting a decision to ban Russell from teaching at the College of the City of New York. The outraged sentiments in this case belong, I presume, to the ecclesiastical authorities, politicians, citizens, and newspaper editorialists who demanded that the College Board ban Russell, and who to that end launched a bilious project of defamation. The history of that project is long, complicated, and rather ugly; a more thorough review of it can be found in the form of an Appendix to Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1988). This account itself is derived from The Bertrand Russell Case, published in 1941 and edited by Horace Kallen and John Dewey. For the present purpose, which is to extrapolate from the above quotation, only a relatively brief sketching of events should suffice.

Russell at first was granted the appointment, by the Board of Higher Education on 26 February 1940, to teach 3 Philosophy courses: logic, foundations of mathematics, relations of pure to applied sciences and the reciprocal influence of metaphysics and scientific theories. Nineteen of the twenty-two Board members were present for the vote, and all nineteen were in support. Only when the decision was made public did trouble begin. A Protestant Episcopal Bishop by the name of Manning wrote to New York’s newspapers, denouncing “a man who is a recognised propagandist against religion and morality, and who specifically defends adultery.” Here I shall interject myself to suggest that these accusations weren’t so errant as they may appear. Russell was a propagandist against religion and, in a sense, against ‘morality’ too, morality here defined as a coercive fear-based system of control grounded in and perpetuated by the Church. Of course, Bishop Manning probably meant to imply that Russell was ‘against moral goodness,’ but that is another matter. The Bishop’s sentiments having been outraged, such quibbles went out the window. As the campaign against Russell aged, other judgements were rendered. The materialist philosopher and self-styled agnostic was called “a professor of paganism,” “a desiccated, divorced and decadent advocate of sexual promiscuity,” “an ape of genius, the devil’s minister of men” and an “anarchist and moral nihilist of Great Britain.” This last quotation openly displays the chauvinism informing these attacks; their general drift is that Russell is not one of Us, he’s one of Them, hence he must be repelled. It’s noteworthy I think that Russell’s response was to defend, not his opinions, but his democratic right to be one of Them. After all, it’s clear that’s what he indeed was.

What happened next is as follows. A member both of the Board and of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Charles H. Tuttle, altered his decision after claiming he’d been ignorant of Russell’s views. Tuttle put the appointment back on the agenda, public vilification intensified, new accusations appeared, and yet the original Board decision was sustained by a vote of 11-7. The campaign however only got nastier, if this was possible. City politicians and administrators urged the cancellation of college funding, the toughening of immigration policy to keep out “dogs” like Russell – the word was Councilman Charles E. Keegan’s – the undertaking of investigations into the education system of New York, tarring and feathering, and so on. During this controversy Russell had his defenders too, among them liberal religious leaders and publishers, academics, and politicians such as City Council Republican Stanley Isaacs, all of whom defended Russell’s appointment at great risk to their careers. Along the way Albert Einstein delivered one of his enduring observations: “Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities.”

Defeat of the Board was undertaken in a lawsuit issued by a Mrs. Jean Kay of Brooklyn and presented before Justice McGeehan. Kay filed a taxpayer’s suit in the New York Supreme Court, where her lawyer argued that Russell had not taken a competitive examination before receiving his appointment. To this, the lawyer added the charges that Russell was an alien, atheist, and an advocate of sexual immorality, all of which necessarily ought to exclude him from teaching. The Board’s lawyer attempted to restrict the case to the legal question of whether an alien could be appointed to a post in a US city college. Unfortunately for both him and Russell, McGeehan was a crusader on behalf of public morality and ruled two days later that Russell’s appointment was an “insult to the people of the City of New York.” Russell later was represented by independent counsel, but an application for permission to answer Mrs. Kay’s and her lawyer’s charges was dismissed by McGeehan on the astonishing ground that Russell had no “legal interest” in the matter. Successive requests for permission to appeal were also denied. However, McGeehan himself could not stop the Board from hiring Russell. In the end it took the combined efforts of New York Mayor LaGuardia, Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons, and several members of City Council, who banded together to ensure that Bertrand Russell would never teach in New York. Mr. Lyons introduced a resolution at the meeting of the Board of Estimate, which was made part of the terms and conditions of the budget. It read, “No funds herein appropriated shall be used for the employment of Bertrand Russell.” No funds were.

Believe it or not, this is the brief version of the story. The full version contains a good deal more twists and turns, principal players, ugliness, and also courage. The general theme of the story, if I may be allowed to use literary terms, is the Struggle for Intellectual Freedom versus the Defence of Decency. On the one hand we have Freedom of Speech, and on the other, ‘No, not if we don’t like what you’re saying.’

Here we arrive at the entrance of the Times. After a long silence, an editorial appeared on 20 April 1940 in which it was argued (among other things) that the appointment of Russell was impolitic and ought to have been declined by the recipient “as soon as its harmful results became evident.” That is to say, none of this would have happened had Russell just shut up and gone away. The Times editorialist concluded that it was all his fault.

In his response, Russell acknowledged that “it would certainly have been more prudent as far as [his] personal interests are concerned” had he declined at once his teaching position. He refused however, arguing a withdrawal would give tacit assent to the proposition that “substantial groups shall be allowed to drive out of public office individuals whose opinions, race or nationality they find repugnant.” As for the controversy he had occasioned:

I do not believe that controversy is harmful on general grounds. It is not controversy and open differences that endanger democracy. On the contrary, these are its greatest safeguards. It is an essential part of democracy that substantial groups, even majorities, should extend toleration to dissentient groups, however small and however much their sentiments outraged.

And then he added, “In a democracy it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.” This seems to have been the fundamental issue for Russell, as well as for the people who came to his defence. Challenging this point of view we find the propositions that some things are better left unsaid, and that ‘the people’ have a right to ensure that they aren’t said. This we may designate the right not to endure having our sentiments outraged.

Russell’s argument is, I think, characteristically harsh. We tend to think of freedom as a bundle of personal rights. Put crudely, democracy in this view consists in my doing what I want without you getting in my way and trying to stop me. We tend less to consider the necessary complement of this formulation – that is to say, rarely do we approach democracy from the point of the view of that fellow who has a strong moral impulse to do the stopping. When we do find ourselves in that position, freedom usually ceases to be the issue. The function of Russell’s letter is to make us see the matter from this complementary perspective. We are reminded that going swimmingly about your happy business without the interference of shits isn’t the sole outcome of democracy; it’s also having to live with the daily outrage of people who insist upon going about their happy business, of which you happen not to approve. Bertrand Russell is a writer who reminds you that your civilized comforts are possible only because somewhere there is someone else suffering on your behalf. The loftiest principles have to be founded somehow, usually in the muck. Since most of us tend to see democracy from the Get Off My Cloud perspective, Russell’s habit of looking up at things from the gutter is disconcerting.

Democracy isn’t a convenient arrangement. When Our side is winning then, obviously, it’s all fair and democratic. But when it’s Their side having a day of it, democracy seems somehow to have failed. We are all susceptible to that sort of hypocrisy, aren’t we? The remarkable thing however is that some of the people who came to Russell’s defence must have been personally offended by his views. At the very least, some of his supporters did not share them. Among his voluminous writings – forty-three books by my count – you will have trouble finding one positive word about religion. Russell, especially skilled at invective, reserved his harshest attacks for the church and its representatives. I have no doubt he felt as strongly about abolishing ‘superstition’ as his opponents felt about abolishing ‘immorality.’ Russell, in his own manner, was a moral crusader. In the world toward which he laboured, there was no place for God and religion. And yet among the people who defended his right to speech as well as to teach were Rabbi Jonah B. Wise, Professor J.S. Bixler of Harvard Divinity School, the Reverend John Haynes Holmes, and the Episcopal Reverend Guy Emery Shipler, the last of this list even disputing Bishop Manning’s right to speak on behalf of the Episcopal Church. Given Russell’s opinions, the public support of these individuals was quite generous.

You may also say this support was self-interested, but that does not diminish the gesture. Democracy itself is founded on, among other things, self-interest. When certain people are no longer willing to have their sentiments outraged, and seek to alter social arrangements on that account, the freedom of all is endangered. Russell, a logician, used words with great precision. Note that he did not write, ‘In a democracy, it helps when people learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.’ His view of freedom was self-interested, but it also considered the public interest. Follow Russell’s argument to its logical conclusion (he would be gratified by this approach) and you find the proposition that in a healthy democracy one finds, not only personal liberty, but people who’ve learned to endure being pissed off. One’s self-interest in liberty is easy to identify, and yet there is an equal self-interest in tolerance of others which tends to feel less compelling when you’re hot under the collar.

I’ve been considering freedom and democracy in abstraction, removed from the messiness of real life. Almost no one would argue against freedom in principle. And yet there are cases every day where freedom seems to many an intolerable burden. What do you make, for instance, of the freedom to publish Nazi tracts, kiddie porn, and hate literature? Here is a question that invites us to draw our personal boundary around freedom, something each of us does. In my case, I almost wrote in the above sentence: “What do you make, for instance, of the ‘freedom’ to publish Nazi tracts, etc.” The quotation marks around ‘freedom’ are a dead give-away; they tell you that, deep-down, I don’t think freedom ought to be extended to the hateful acts of creeps. Thus, when it’s Their speech under question, the issue is not Freedom, but rather Combating Racism, Violence, and Hate. That’s how I feel deep-down. Somewhere presumably higher-up however I suspect that racism and violence don’t go away just because you’ve told them to. Banishing unpleasantness from the public domain was the solution (or ‘solution’) of the Times editorialist, who presumably conceived the ideal public domain as a kind of smooth elevator ride, and ideal public debate as a kind of Muzak. The Times offers us comforting illusions of an easy peace, and although most of us believe peace is what we ought to have, our experience shows us Russell is closer to the truth of things.

By peace I mean the absence of controversy and dissent. We often complain that politics is nasty, that there should be bipartisanship, that people should put aside their differences and get things done, and that the government is too inefficient. To a degree I think the complaints are well-founded. Yet I also find it curious that dissent, controversy, and inefficiency should be regarded in this case as negatives. All of these could be eliminated through the institution of a fascist dictatorship, but few if any of us want this because we cherish the freedom of speech and the right to representation. In practice however these translate roughly into dissent, partisanship, and inefficiency. The trouble-free democracy advocated by the Times editor turned out not to be democracy at all, but instead the right of the raucous to their peace and quiet. In the end they got it, too. [October 1998.]