Friday, April 29, 2011

Civic Duty

The Globe and Mail has collected from leading academics and public figures some good ideas for reinvigorating democracy. “How to Redesign a Tired Democracy” is a thought provoking article, and I recommend everyone read the full collection of ideas.

Most of the experts concentrated on poor citizen participation in voting as the centre of their concern, and rightly so, I believe. Some of the ideas have merit, and ought to be given a try. Provincial-level requirements that high school students pass a course in Canadian history, Rudyard Griffiths’ contribution to the discussion, ought to be a minimum expectation. Proportional representation would probably provide a modest additional incentive to vote.

Many of the other suggestions I found untenable or poorly thought out. Direct, Internet-based democracy, for example, would give voice to those already motivated to imposing their influence and whims on others: conservatives and zealots. Political primaries, held up by Brian Lee Crowley as the best way to increase citizen participation, can be seen as a dangerous failure south of the border. Participation in political primaries in the United States is invariably highest among the extreme ideologues in each party, since these are the individuals most interested in maintaining ideological purity in platforms and candidates. During the months leading up to a primary election, middle-of-the-road Republicans retool their stump speeches and position papers to reflect ultra-conservative thought. But the day after the primary they become middle-of-the-road again so as to attract mainline voters.

Sometimes this chameleon act is not enough; in the 2010 election, moderate Republicans were shouted down and voted out, replaced by Tea Party conservatives. Likewise, in Democratic primaries, a candidate is obliged to speak forcefully in support of liberal issues, and the day after the primary becomes a centrist candidate. The result of the U.S. primary system can be seen in a tense, combative, essentially paralysed House of Representatives, where the Tea Party minority among Republican representatives’ ranks has become a feared enforcer of a chilling conservative line. Moderate Republicans know the Tea Party will put forward rabid conservatives as candidates for their seats should they attempt any compromise with Democrats. With dozens of examples of deposed moderate Republicans after the 2010 primary elections, centrist Republicans know the Tea Party poses no idle threat to their security.

Emulation of the U.S. model will not lead to increased citizen participation. Rather, it will tend to decrease the health of elections, government, and the citizenry itself, affirming and empowering the most extreme and diseased elements of society.

The most attractive idea for improving citizen involvement, I believe, was the final idea offered by Jim Stanford of the Canadian Auto Workers Union. Mr. Stanford recommended anyone deciding to vote be rewarded with a “nice crisp $10 bill.” While I find merit in the idea of financial recognition of those who vote, I wish to propose a different idea, with origin in the significance of citizenship.

Citizenship is not only a privilege and an honour, it is a right, and a responsibility. We are perhaps more inclined these days to emphasise the responsibilities of the state toward us as citizens, and in this light consider that the most important aspect of civilised society is the benefit conferred by citizenship. I wish to offer the perhaps old-fashioned notion of citizenship as duty. No reward should accrue to those who perform the normal duties of a citizen for her country. But those who shun their duty should not enjoy the full range of privilege inherent in the healthy and committed acceptance and active exercise of civic responsibility.

An agreeable means of reducing privilege to those who neglect their civic duty, it seems to me, could consist of an increased tax burden. Those who refuse the state the burden of consent would be legally obliged to realise an increase in the burden of financial support. A coupon could be issued to every citizen upon completion of exercising the duty to vote, a proof of civic commitment entitling that citizen to receive a reduction of income tax equivalent to 250 dollars. Such a simple change to the tax law would cost nothing, and would bring in a modest amount of tax revenue from the few hundreds of thousands who could not be bothered to fulfill their civic obligation.

The health of Canadian elections and government will improve when Canadians soberly accept and affirm the full truth and responsibility of citizenship.

April 29, 2011

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Of all the major parties in this election, the NDP has consistently demonstrated the most passionate emphasis on a vibrant and authentic Canadian future. In the New Democratic Party’s unwavering support of First Nations’ justice, Canadian arts and culture, Canadian heritage, and the rights of women, minorities, and the disabled, the NDP has shown the uncompromising commitment to Canadian values that should be expected of any political party. Most of all, Jack Layton’s charisma and his genuine appeal to québecois voters have laid the foundation for the reintegration of Québec into a fully united, culturally healed Canada. With greatest enthusiasm and without the least reservation I endorse the NDP and I urge Canadians in all ridings to vote for your New Democrat candidate on May 2.

Canadian values are unique to the world. In 2004, Canadians voted on the historical figure they felt best represented Canadian ideals. Over a hundred worthy candidates were reduced to a field of ten finalists, each of whom was assigned an advocate who was given one hour on national television to make her case. The winner was the man who had spent his life fighting for values we’ve come to embrace as central to Canadian identity: Tommy Douglas. The party he founded, the NDP, has been the unwavering proponent of those same values for the last fifty years.

The NDP seems to be the only major party that understands Canada as a coalition of three national groups: Aboriginal, francophone, and anglophone. This blog is called Trinity in recognition of that truth. The Conservative Party has been shameful in its neglect of Aboriginal justice issues, ignoring every entreaty from First Nations’ leaders. Probably we should not be surprised. The Conservative Party has always stood for the right of those enjoying power and privilege to discriminate against the weak and disenfranchised. The NDP recognises and upholds the dignity of all Canadians, and respects the Canadian tradition of multi-culturalism. The NDP emphasis on recognising the essential contribution of every facet of Canadian culture to the grand mosaic that is Canada is a refreshing and reinvigorating departure from the sterile, punitive, inhumane, and uncivilised policies of the Conservative Party.

The NDP has been most vigorous in its support for Canadian arts and culture. The NDP seems to understand that the preservation of Canadian identity is essential to the country. Canada is not the northern satellite of the United States, but some political entities, the Conservative Party chief among them, have consistently shown a complete indifference to the maintenance of Canadian character and have welcomed the overbearing intrusion of unhealthy foreign me-first pop culture. The recent inquiry by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema Television and Radio Artists was addressed in detail by the NDP; the Conservative Party didn’t even bother to respond. I find it personally hurtful and unthinkable that a political party would choose to ignore Canadian culture and identity. The NDP’s long history of embracing culture and the arts has set a positive and cheerful example for all of us, and I believe sets the proper tone for any party wishing to lead the country.

By far the most promising and welcomed development in this election has been Jack Layton’s personal appeal to the people of Québec. While Stephen Harper whines and rails, Jack Layton listens, thinks, and offers unifying and harmonising ideas. The people of Québec are coming to recognise the honesty and authenticity of Jack Layton’s appeal. The fact that so many in Québec have become energised by Layton’s charisma and his genuine concern for the needs of Québec has led to a great deal of excitement in many quarters. Political observers across the country are wondering if the NDP, under the sure leadership of Jack Layton, might be able to heal the age-old political and cultural wounds between francophone and anglophone Canada.

On every front, the NDP offers Canada a more secure, more optimistic, and more vibrant future. I urge all Canadians to vote NDP on May 2.

28 April 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Snuffing Out Dissent

The Conservative Party has an outside chance of forming a majority government. Canadians should consider the sobering truth that any such government is going to move aggressively to curtail or destroy outright any opportunity for dissent from the Conservative viewpoint. Under Stephen Harper, the Government of Canada—excuse me, the Harper Government—has move more aggressively to erode the protections of free speech than any previous government.

Gerald Caplan, writing today in the Globe and Mail, quoted the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:

Over the past five years, exercise of the fundamental freedom of speech in Canada has been curbed and discouraged by a federal government increasingly intolerant of even the mildest criticism or dissent. Particularly affected have been organizations dependent on government funding which advocate for human rights and women’s equality. Their voices have been stifled, some completely silenced, by cuts to their budgets. Also financially throttled have been individuals and groups that speak out for reproductive rights, humanitarian immigration policies, and for changes in Canada’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

The Harper government’s now lengthy record of silencing – or attempting to silence – its critics also includes the removal of heads of government agencies, commissions, and tribunals who insist on making independent decisions. Academics who have spoken against government actions or policies have also been targeted.

This blatant suppression of basic human rights by a government constitutionally responsible for guaranteeing their expression is unprecedented in Canada’s history.

Journalists following Mr. Harper on the campaign trail were at first miffed that the former occupant of the PMO would not answer more than four or five carefully selected questions at press conferences. Near the beginning of the campaign, a reporter had the audacity to pose the question: “Why do you refuse to take questions?” Mr. Harper, of course, refused to acknowledge the question, asking, “Are there any questions?” When the reporter repeated the question, Mr. Harper ignored him.

Perhaps we were to understand from Mr. Harper’s rhetorical response an openness to questions, but his refusal to that point to address more than four or five questions was a well-established, repeatedly demonstrated fact.

Mr. Harper, to an extent unprecedented in previous governments—even Mr. Mulroney’s Conservative government, has been bent on muffling any communication that does not align perfectly with his vision of a free-market, diversity-poor Canada bent on destroying Aboriginal and women’s rights.

We already know the sorry mess caused by free-market individualism. The free market has created the most dangerous disparity between rich and poor ever witnessed in history. If you are unfortunate enough to visit a large American city, you run a fifteen-fold increased chance of premature death at the business end of a handgun compared to your odds in a comparably sized Canadian city. If you are stupid enough to visit Detroit, St. Louis, Washington D. C., or the south side of Chicago after sunset, your odds of violent death increase as much as 2100 percent, giving you a 315-fold higher chance of becoming a fatality. The “land of the free” incarcerates nearly one percent of its population—6.4 times the rate of incarceration in Canada. If we include people on probation or on parole from prison, over 3.5 percent of the American population is held in one way or another by the criminal justice system.

There is no freedom in Mr. Harper’s unwholesome form of governance. The muzzling of voices that should be heard, the arrogance at press conferences, and the elimination of diversity are the price Canada will pay should it decide to elect a Conservative majority. The price is too high, for the real cost is the destruction of those good and solid features of the social mosaic that define Canada as a tolerant and healthy civilisation. Don’t give the Conservatives a majority.

April 23, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Vote for Cultural Identity

Imagine a crime drama in which putting the bad guys in jail is secondary to the theme of human dignity. Imagine television and radio programs that do not extol unbridled individualism as the highest expression of human identity. Imagine a culture that reveres diversity, dignity, and community as core constituents of the common good. Now imagine the expression of such a culture forever removed from the human consciousness.

The Alliance of Canadian Cinema Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) today delivered its report on the five major political parties’ response to their eight-question query. The New Democratic Party provided detailed answers to each question and pledged its support of Canadian Arts. The Liberal Party of Canada and the Green Party of Canada likewise provided answers, but were not quite as bullish in their support of Canadian Arts. One of the major parties did not bother to respond at all: The Conservative Party of Canada.

It is rare in political campaigns for a party organisation to forego any opportunity to get the message out. Regardless of the obscurity of the group or their cause, political candidates and their staff make time to address the group’s concerns. A decision might be made to remain silent if the group were politically extreme, or if the cause were too controversial. The only other reason to remain silent was a matter of triage: the least important groups would be addressed last, or not at all.

Canadian Artists are neither politically extreme nor do they support controversial causes. The value of Canadian culture is not an unthinkably strange position. The most obvious reason for the Conservative Party’s silence regarding the ACTRA query is easily understood. The Conservative Party can’t be bothered with anything as unimportant as Canadian culture. The Conservative Party made quite clear its vision of the future. There is no room in Stephen Harper’s dreams for a Canada that includes dramatic presentations of unique Canadian culture and art. If the people of Canada want to watch television or radio, why, there’s a premium supplier of high quality art just south of the border. Canadians can tune into Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. They can watch the unbiased reporting on Fox News. They can read Ann Coulter. Who wants to watch Canadian actors, anyway?

A civilisation is known by its fruits. One of the most obvious of those fruits is the way in which it wishes to represent itself to the world in its artistic creations. Canadian ideology and its expression in the arts, in its emphasis on maintenance of the common good, is unique to the world. I cannot imagine a politician taking a position that Canadian Arts carry such little importance that they are not worthy of substantial government support. I remain undecided regarding support for the NDP or the Liberal Party. But I can urge everyone reading this, if you believe Canadian culture is worthy of expression, to consider voting for any candidate in your riding other than the Conservative Party candidate. I support Canadian culture, and I cannot imagine ever doing otherwise.

April 21, 2011

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fiscal Anticonservatism

Call me conservative.

I listen to classical, baroque, renaissance, and ancient music, not rock and roll. I do not use coarse, abrasive, or profane language, and I tend to congregate with people who likewise prefer not to lace their utterances with four-letter words. Our sixteen-year-old son has a strict weekday curfew: in the house by 9:00 in the evening, lights out by 10:00 p.m. I enjoy the routines of my life, and I am often averse to change.

Conservatism is “The disposition to preserve or restore what is established and traditional and to limit change.” It finds greatest emphasis in “placing value in established institutions, and subjugating individual freedom to order, rank, security, and the good of the community.” If this were the only definition of conservatism, I would be recognised as one of the leading proponents and practitioners of this philosophy of life. The primary definition I quoted is the first one listed in the unabridged Webster dictionary. The second is drawn from the Canadian Oxford. A person dedicated to the principles of conservatism would derive greatest satisfaction from governmental systems that preserved social order and provided for the common good. This is traditional conservatism, and I am a staunch advocate of this common-sense preservation of society.

There is no place in civilised society for anarchists bent on destroying the social order. There is no place in civilised society for Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, or any other organisation dedicated to the killing or enslavement of people, or the creation of discriminatory structures based on race, ethnicity, religious belief, gender, physical disability, or sexual orientation. In fact, freedom to engage in any of these uncivilised activities is no freedom at all, but slavery. The signature I use at Critique Circle, one of the writing organisations I patronise, expresses my philosophy in seven words: “Civilisation is incompatible with indiscriminate personal autonomy.” Civilised society is worth defending. If we do not preserve, protect, defend, and provide for the common good, we do not live up to the minimum standard by which we can be judged to have expressed our identity as human beings.

There is a more modern definition of conservatism, though. This one is taken from the Canadian Oxford dictionary: “Any of several political philosophies, esp. one... promoting individualism and non-intervention by the state.” This definition is also from the Canadian Oxford, and it certainly expresses a confusing and typically modern view of conservatism. Individualism is the supreme good. In this view of life, the state, or any organisation that reduces personal freedom in any way, is seen as a barrier to fullest expression of individualism. Even if a change tends to promote social disintegration, such a change is to be favoured above any social commitments that reduce or tend to obstruct personal freedom.

One of the greatest personal freedoms is the decision regarding allocation of personal property and wealth. If I do not wish to support the common good, I should not be obliged to do so. Taxes, in the eyes of the modern conservative—the American individualist or Libertarian—are the supreme negation of personal autonomy because these governmental mandates force me to allocate my wealth to projects I may not wish to support. Why should I pay for someone else’s children’s education when I have no children? Why should I pay for someone else’s dental care when I brush and floss and have no dental bills? If I pay for some fat slob’s heart and blood pressure medication all I’m doing is supporting an unhealthy lifestyle that’s going to end up killing the guy anyway; it’s money wasted, and I prefer to spend my money on things that matter, thank you very much.

Individualism, modern conservatives believe, is in fact the supreme expression of the common good. Any good thing we might wish to have will naturally flow out of a primary concern for the self, not for society. If jobs, for instance, are a good that society esteems, jobs will be created most effectively in a society that places no restrictions on individuals. Look at it this way, conservatives tell us: If a factory owner has a choice between paying twenty percent of profits in taxes or using twenty percent of profits to hire more employees, she’s going to prefer to hire more employees. Lower taxes lead to increased surplus capital, and surplus capital is turned into more labour to crank out more widgets at the factory. More jobs means more people buying widgets, factory workers are paid more to produce widgets faster, more people are hired to meet rising demand for widgets, and thus begins an ever-upward spiral toward prosperity.

Thirty years ago, this philosophy of rewarding the wealthy by reducing their tax burden relative to others was called “trickle-down economics.” Reward the wealthiest, most industrious members of society and the benefit would trickle down to us ordinary folk in the form of higher wages, more jobs, and greater prosperity for all.

History, of course, records that something very different occurred. Deregulation of the savings and loan industry, without a concurrent removal of loan guarantees, led to sustained and high-level gaming of the system, especially in the real estate market, where speculators built grand corporate meeting emporiums that were never rented and shopping malls that never attracted customers. This was an excellent investment, since the speculators owned more property, and when they received loans through savings and loan institutions, their loans were guaranteed by the United States government, and therefore they lost no money on their poorly researched investments. Ordinary people paid for their mistakes—or, in most cases, their deliberate gaming of the system. The stock market crash of 1987 was a direct result of deregulation, corporate greed, and significantly lower corporate income taxes. The debt of the United States, which had slowly increased to one trillion dollars from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt all the way up to Jimmy Carter, was tripled to three trillion dollars by the time Ronald Reagan left office in 1989. In eight years he had inflicted three times as much fiscal damage on the country than all previous administrations combined. This was accomplished by decreasing the amount of corporate and individual income tax collected to support government programs.

The most destructive legacy of the Reagan years was the retooling of the entire U.S. economy toward service companies and away from manufacturing. Manufacturing was discouraged since it was expensive. If a factory had to be built, a strong preference was made, and tax incentives were created, for building the factory overseas or in Mexico or in any other country where labour was cheap and plentiful. The same trend has applied all over North America. Lower taxes are used to move labour overseas. This leads to higher unemployment.

These are historical facts.

Modern-day conservatives recognise they face a tough sell when it comes to lowering taxes. They try to appeal to both the greedy, selfish, modern-day conservatives, as well as the traditional conservatives. “If you lower my taxes,” they tell us, “I’ll hire more workers at my factory.” Selfish conservatives like this, because they have more money to spend and less to pay in taxes. Traditional conservatives like this, because they recognise the benefit to society in creating more jobs.

But then we run into those nasty historical facts, and the unavoidable repetition of historical events. If you give a selfish person more money, she’s just going to try to use that money to earn more money, or power, or political influence, or any other resource she can apply to serve her unquenchable whims and lusts. Selfish people don’t care what happens in society, they care only about their individual freedom. As Karen Howlett and Paul Waldie reported in today’s Globe and Mail, lower taxes in Canada have not led to job creation. Lower taxes have led to more unemployment, more jobs in overseas sweatshops, and decreased spending on Canadian infrastructure. Basically, lower taxes lead to a multi-tiered destruction of Canadian society. Howlett and Waldie take specific examples of Western Glove Works, which used to operate a factory in Winnipeg. Now the Silver denim jeans line is manufactured in Asia, and those who used to make jeans on the production floor are working at Tim Hortons or at any of the other fine service establishments that pay a fraction of what they earned making jeans.

Nowadays, if you are a traditional conservative, you vote NDP or Liberal. Voting Conservative is the surest way of destroying the society that our parents and grandparents fought to preserve—some of them literally with their very lives. Some of my relatives are buried in graves in France, because they did not wish to see Hitler and Mussolini destroy civilisation. Selfish conservatives—the modern-day anarchists and Nazis who would preserve their wealth and power while deliberately destroying social order and the common good—are much more effective in their destruction of civilisation than Hitler and Mussolini ever could have been. They are finding among us more and more people willing to believe in the good to be derived from the selfish abandon to wealth, power, and lust.

I remain a traditional conservative. And if I could vote, I would exercise that privilege in voting for either of the parties that have consistently supported traditional conservative values: the NDP and the Liberal Party of Canada. And just as I have never, ever voted for a Republican, I would never, as long as I draw breath, vote for a candidate of the Conservative Party of Canada.

April 19, 2011