Thursday’s Child

G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday  was subtitled A Nightmare, because it follows a man struggling to navigate a world absent reason and logic in seeming isolation. Infiltrating a secretive network of anarchists, over the course of the story he gradually comes to realize that his co-conspirators and supposed enemies are in fact allies incognito, each equally afraid and convinced of their own solitude as he. His true enemy’s greatest weapon is deception, empowered only by the collective willingness of those who would fight for good to accept a lie without question.

Over a hundred years after its publication, political discussion has become similarly nightmarish, with those holding innocuous views ostracized and segregated through a deliberate attempt to make opposing opinions dangerous and shameful to hold. Rarely can discussion on a subject be left to the realm of facts and logic. Economic policy is quickly entangled with questions of sexism, so that anyone who argues against government intervention in a free market can be labelled a heartless sexist. Environmental issues are bizarrely conflated with racial concerns, so that one can’t argue against extreme environmental policies them without navigating the murky waters of race relations. Matters of immigration policy are tinged with concerns of homophobia, so that those who advocate for open borders can label as homophobic anyone who doesn’t immediately capitulate.

The goal in inserting emotional issues into unrelated political debate is to provide a powerful weapon to those whose side is otherwise inadequately armed with reason, and to shame into silence anyone who might dare disagree. They attach an unwarranted and unjust social stigma to uncontroversial opinions, and in doing so intimidate people who may share the same opinions to remain silent, lest they be similarly shamed. The result is that people feel too afraid of being labelled a sexist, racist, homophobe, or worse, to discuss pragmatic issues like economics, the environment, or immigration, and withhold valid criticisms. As fewer and fewer people speak in opposition, as dissent weakens, the false perception that more and more people agree grows in its place.

This imbalance produces a society where discussion of important ideas and topics that affect our lives in very real and immediate ways is silenced for fear of public recrimination, and faulty ideas are allowed to spread unchecked. Like The Man Who Was Thursday, people are reluctant to voice their opinion for fear of horrific consequences from their peers, and a false illusion of a much greater conformity is maintained. It’s important to recognize when unrelated issues are conflated for political gain, and to be willing to stand against this practice. The discussion of big ideas should be free from the fear of undeserved reproach from those who unfairly frame and structure the issues.

Talking freely with friends, family, and coworkers about matters both controversial and pedestrian, poisoned rhetoric removed, is important and rewarding. Often you’ll discover that, like Thursday and his co-conspirators, your enemies turn out to be allies engaged in the same fight as you.

Advertisements

Occupy Oceania

The ‘Occupy’ protests of late 2011 gave the world many gifts, from delightful up-twinkles and rockin’ drum circles to the creepy cult-like chanting of human microphones. Though the tents have long since been discarded and the cardboard and sharpie placards recycled, the memories linger. Out of months of news stories and heated debate, perhaps the most persistent trope to emerge and haunt us to this day is that of the divide between the 1% and the 99%.

The concept of the 1% grew out of a Vanity Fair article published in the spring of 2011. ‘1% of the people’, wrote Joseph E Stiglitz, ‘take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income.’ From this rather banal drawing of an arbitrary line through an ascending list grew a drumbeat amongst protestors that ‘the 1%’ were a unified entity to be feared and resented. Far from being an arbitrarily chosen group of people sharing only a single attribute, the 1% were a malicious lot, responsible for all manner of evils that plague the world still. Once a certain threshold of wealth was achieved, it seemed, a person would ascend out of the quagmire of noble poverty in which ‘the 99%’ were forced to wallow, and join the hallowed and secretive ranks of the wealthy. (Every time 100 babies are born, is a new member allowed in? If some lucky person wins the lottery, do those on the list below get shuffled down? Is the member on the lowest rung, who suddenly finds himself only in the top 1.000001% kicked back out into the barren wasteland of ‘the 99%’?)

wealthinequality012915
I didn’t use this image without permission. I ‘occupied’ it. That said, can we agree that cannibalism is wrong?

The 1% were a vague, nebulous enemy, and therefore perfect scapegoats. All manner of evil characteristics were attributed to them. As wealth implies greed, greed implies callousness and a lack of caring for one’s fellow man. Success, it is reasoned, can only come at the expense of all those who rank below them on the ordered list that exists only in the imagination of the mob. The wealthy must be evil, having committed the sin of possessing wealth.

It is obviously ludicrous to cast ‘the 1%’ as a unified, organized group. In any data set there will always be 1% of the total that lies above the rest on some scale. 1% of the population makes some proportion of income compared to the remainder 99%. So does 2%. Or 7%. 17% Or 0.0065%. Why choose 1% as the crucial divide? Why even limit the pool to North Americans (Although including the rest of the world would place a sizeable chunk of the entire continent of North American solidly in the 1%)? There’s nothing magic or significant about the notion that income exists on a scale, and the only reason that 1% was chosen for the Occupy Wall St rallying cry was that it’s an enticingly simple statistic, something crucial when firing up a mob.

The chant of ‘We are the 99%’ is seductive not just for its catchy rhythm and militant tempo, but because it assures the chant-er that they are on the side of good, and part of a larger group. A group made up of 99% of the population is so inclusive as to be virtually meaningless, but this too is part of the siren call. Because the definition of ‘1%’ and ’99%’ are so precise in number but vague in meaning, anyone can convince themselves that someone, somewhere, must be in the group above them, which safely pushes them into the virtuous 99% below. Therefore everyone can claim membership in the side of good. There’s no nagging doubt that they might be on the wrong side, because there will always be someone better off somewhere, to play the role of villain.

SONY DSC
Think there are 100 people in this picture? Could get awkward for one of them…

The irony is that ‘the 99%’ portray themselves as the underdogs, a disadvantaged minority, while having enough clout in a democracy to push through any manner of public policy they want, regardless of its morality or virtue. This is a windfall for politicians, as ‘income inequality’ is a completely invented problem that will never be ‘solved’, but is easy to sell to voters. People will always make different amounts of money, and resent those who make more. Income inequality is a persistent malady that can only be addressed through government intervention, usually in the form of a new tax. It would seem that politicians have yet to discover a problem for which the solution isn’t a new tax or regulation.

Five years later, this catchphrase is still regularly trotted out, and because it’s become so common, we’ve forgotten to question it. Be wary of any political platform which references ‘the 1%’. Dividing the world into ‘Us vs Them’ is old political hat, propaganda that has been used for centuries. The 99% vs 1% angle is a hip new spin for the 21st century, but as despicable as the practice has always been.

Canada’s Electoral Reform Charade

In 2015 Justin Trudeau’s Liberals ran on a platform promising to change Canada’s electoral system from a plurality or ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system to … something else. They weren’t terribly specific with what the alternative would be, but they were darned sure it wouldn’t be plurality. Elected with 39.5% of the popular vote, they’re now obligated to provide Canadians with specific details of their plan, and are scrambling to frame their pitch.

To this end, the Government of Canada has begun the charade of staging ‘Electoral Reform Consultations’ in towns and cities across the country. Citizens who attend are, under supervision, divided into small groups, and prompted to discuss amongst themselves topics such as mandatory voting, online voting, lowering the voting age, and finally why first past the post is terrible and all other systems of voting are virtuous and noble and just plain better. Questions are framed to guide discussion to the desired response, time is limited to ensure that no substantive debate actually occurs, and the (Liberal) coordinator presents a small sermon after each discussion to highlight the approved conclusions, and ensure the crowd that ‘consensus’ has been reached. A show is made of collecting notes from each group, and assurances are given that these will be delivered to a committee who will heed their words and present their findings in December. Attendees leave believing a) the government’s preferred choice is the best, b) they came to the same conclusion on their own, and c) they played an integral role in Canadian democracy. It is Orwellian peer-pressure fuelled propaganda at its finest.

1297874296513_original
Democracy isn’t about being cajoled like school children

One wonders why the Liberals would go to the effort of public consultations in this format when there already exists a precise and well-understood mechanism for polling the will of the population, which has worked for humans for millennia and Canadians specifically since 1867: a vote. A referendum on the issue would obtain the opinion of a far greater number of Canadians than their series of small consultations, and voters would be free to express their opinion from within the sanctity of a polling booth, not surrounded by a group of their peers. The Liberal Party is dead set against the idea though, one suspects because this may not produce the answer they want. Referendums are loud, visible and most of all binding. By hosting ‘Consultations’ they are free to entirely ignore any feedback they don’t like, while maintaining the appearance of listening to their constituents.

As Liberals are so fond of inverting election results, let’s consider the result from 2015: 60.5% of Canadians didn’t vote for the party with electoral reform as their platform, and of those who did, it’s entirely unclear what percentage consider electoral reform necessary, and what their preferred alternative would be in such a case. For the Liberals to claim that they have a clear mandate from Canadians is preposterous and entirely self-serving. There are benefits and detriments to any electoral system, and every eligible Canadian deserves a say in the matter, in a manner which respects the importance of the issue. That is a referendum, not orchestrated and choreographed round tables.

7
I’m pretty sure that votes are already counted in FPTP. You just don’t like the totals.

 

Or, if the Liberal party (or even the NDP) is truly so upset at the notion that plurality voting can lead to parties winning without 50% of the vote plus one, perhaps they could make the noble sacrifice of disbanding entirely. Presented with a choice between the two remaining major national parties, Canadians would surely elect one with the majority of votes that they insist is so vital to representative democracy. Although they will make impassioned speeches in town halls about the need for a fair voting system that solves the problem of minority governments and represents the diverse opinions of its people, I doubt they would be happy if their consultations produced this bit of feedback.

Rachel Notley’s Social Tinkering

Premiere and leader of Alberta’s New Democratic Party Rachel Notley has a peculiarly favourite phrase to use when discussing her government. “We have already embarked upon a budget that is geared to giving us levers that we can pull”, she told Metro News in a December interview reflecting on her party’s progress. Discussing her party’s energy policy with The Globe and Mail in January, she explained that “we need to have as many options, as many levers, at our disposal as we can.”

It would seem that, to Mrs. Notley, the purpose of government is to create and finagle ‘levers’, to wrangle its population as one would an ancient steam engine, tweaking and fine-tuning society’s behaviour with a goal of steering it towards a destination decided upon by those behind the wheel. If the release of carbon dioxide is a bad thing, for example, the government must spare no cost in reducing it. If farmers are at risk of injury, it’s the job of the government to protect them. If a worker is at risk of being replaced while on strike, only the government can save them. The question is never ‘why?’, only ‘how?’.

21172125083_aedf15f1a9_z

In the months since their election, these levers of which Mrs. Notley spoke have taken form in new taxes, new regulations, and new reasons for the government to raid and confiscate private property. Is it coincidence that so many of the world’s ills can be solved only by a more powerful, invasive government?

The belief that the world would be a perfect utopia if only the government had sufficient control over its citizens is central to the NDP, a party which only removed references to socialism from their official constitution 3 years ago, not in response to any change in their core beliefs, but because they realized that it looked bad. The NDP is still a socialist party, they just don’t like to brag about it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy this point in history it should go without saying that socialism doesn’t work, but even in the golden-plained, resource-rich western paradise that is Alberta, there are those who stubbornly fight against logic or reason, and strive, heads held high, towards the miasma of human suffering which socialism produces. The economic collapse of Venezuela is a stark, current example, if any more were needed, of a government that tried to control its populace through regulation and taxation. Neither noble nor effective, this philosophy slowly strangles a population while those who work the knobs insist that just a few more adjustments will solve everything (though they are of course shielded from the effects of their own failed experiments).

Parallels between Alberta and Venezuela are few, but they should not be ignored. Oil-rich and once booming, both found themselves with leaders (with similar views on climate change no less) who underestimated just how much havoc an over-bearing government can wreak. Believing that “only socialism can really create a genuine society“, Hugo Chavez was quick install his own levers, to steer his country towards his imagined utopia, with inevitable and dire consequences. Alberta is now similarly flirting with socialism, placing in power those with the same misguided philosophy  that bankrupted Venezuela. Though the outcome will be depressingly predictable, one hopes it will be delayed long enough for sanity to return to the province.