Sunday, 1 May 2011

Editorial - Voltaire May 1/2011

On Canadian Bliss: The Party and the Public Good 

            Happy is the country that can ignore its own government.  Canada, when considered at all, is often thought to elect a Parliament. Apparently, this occurs freely and democratically, although most of the citizens have no idea how it works. Others, in this richest and most generous of nations, are certain that eventually, if they can find a job to pay the rent, they too could afford to not care about Parliament. So in this happy country  most citizens do not follow the uniquely absurd spectacle of 'Canadian politics' - an odd team endeavour where career-politicians compete with one another in grandstanding while they squabble over a few acres of snow.[1] Its current champion leads a squadron called 'The Harper Government' that established its rule in 2006 and indulged in the post-election patronage orgy, as is customary. Because the citizens of this great free land care so little for their government, they hardly know of its conduct or intentions.

             The Canadian people are as dynamic and their politicians are inept, as much citizens of the world as of their town,  and posses a free constitution that recalls an ancient history. 'These people are not only jealous of their own liberty but also of that of others.'[2]  Unfortunately, their Government - which they care little for - reflects few of their positive traits. The Canadians are a fair and egalitarian people who come from all corners of the globe to build a free and just society. It naturally follows that they should be ruled by an elite cadre of partisan hacks and spin-doctors. This highly cloistered group take on the characteristics of the 'Ottawa syndrome' that renders politicians impervious to reason and Parliament. Fortunately, because Ottawa is kept in strict isolation from the rest of the country, the citizens of Canada remain lucidly unaffected by the shouting and posturing observed in the capital. Perhaps it was by design that Ottawa is actually in the middle of nowhere and serves to attract useful idiots like moths to a streetlight.

            At the seat of this vast empire of snow, the Prime Minster of the day rules with an iron fist, and does most of the reigning as well, receiving his mandate from the Party he serves. Because the Leader rarely takes questions from the people, or from their Members of Parliament, his unelected apparatchiks are left to communicate major policies to the citizens. Patronage and largesse are widely distributed as senior Party advisers are duly rewarded for their public service. To meet this demand, Parliament even provides a comfortable retirement service for the most diligent of operatives, the Canadian Senate. Ultimate power in this ingenious construction resides with the Parties. They are benevolent enough to allow the Canadian people to choose, from amongst themselves, a ruling oligarch. Because the system favours the larger congregations, the smaller groups indulge in ridiculous fantasies that can never be implemented. The larger Parties, more evolved and cynical that they are, simply say one thing during an election and another in government. But being a great free people, the Canadians are used to their politicians selling them a free lunch, brimming with thin partisan gruel.
            Questions have been posed as to why fewer Canadians are voting, and why young people in particular choose note to vote.  The answer is that government by insolent partisans has not met their surprisingly high standards of public service. The sophists in control of Parliament have mastered the art of talking forever while saying nothing at all, which is particularly effective in Canadian politics where absurdity earns high praise. Since Canadians long ago stopped believing anything their politicians say, no one really cares about the stupid things they utter in public. Of course, this is convenient for the hacks who have neither reason nor shame, which even the Party leaders have renounced. The current Prime Minister, who has chosen to define his mandate by extraordinary economic leadership, was quite certain  in 2008 that the Government would not run a deficit. In his appeal to a few voters targeted by the Party during an unnecessary election, the Prime Minister clearly informed the public that the imminent financial crisis was really a stock-market sale. This retirement-postponing investment opportunity might, however, eventually produce a technical recession. As an economist, it was only natural for the Prime Minister to be confident in the precision of his forecasting,  not having considered the effect of human beings upon his highly accurate models.  After careful and inclusive discussions with the Members of Parliament whom the Canadian people had so recently elected, the Prime Minister (with characteristic humility and statesmanship) decreed that emergency measures were necessary to avoid another Great Depression. The extraordinary fiscal deluge that followed was distributed by the Party with eminent fairness, coupled with the great strategic vision of winning a majority.
If not for the inspirational leadership of the Prime Minister, and for the fact that Canadians are busy watching the hockey playoffs, the competence and honesty of the administration might be doubted. The Party says that its leader is a great economist, capable of guiding Canada's enviable gross domestic product into the future. Why then, I ask, was the great economist seemingly oblivious to the imminence and severity of the financial crisis? The Party answers that Canada is doing better than the USA. What! Am I to believe that with citizens losing their jobs, mothers unable to find or afford care for their children, and Native Canadians suffering in wretchedness and squalor, that these are the standards of a great nation?! The idea is revolting! I am sickened to imagine that this Prime Minister, whose school of economics is discredited, believes that without him Canada shall crumble. What a fool! If he is such a great economist, I say prove it! Where are the 21st century jobs? Where is the infrastructure? Where is the poor relief? And the education? The Prime Minister has soundbites, but no answers. Another subject must be raised, otherwise I may lose my temper.
When the Party ascended to power under the command of the Prime Minister, it promoted the revolutionary idea of accountability in government. The regime claimed for itself the wildly popular notion that the Government should operate in an open and transparent manner, respecting independent thought in the legislature and the public service. And who could oppose it? If only the Canadian people bothered to see what has since become of their Parliament! The formerly august institution is decrepit and in disrepair – trampled upon by the Prime Minister's Office – in a manner unfit for a proud free nation. Their elected members are silenced, their civil servants fired for having informed opinions, and the greatest defender of Parliament, the ancient Speaker of the House, is brushed aside with impunity. It is a matter of record that these despicable practices find their origin in past regimes. Nevertheless, anyone not blinded by partisanship will admit that the abuses are rampant and malignant under the current Government. And all of it orchestrated by a Party who preached the exact opposite! I can only conclude that the Party and the Prime Minister take the people for fools! Maybe, though, it is more simple. Perhaps the Party knows what seems obvious – that the Canadian people are neither watching nor listening to the affairs of their Government. But the Party should tread warily, considering that just  because the people are not paying attention, it does not follow that the people are fools. Sooner than the Party and the Prime Minister might think, the people will see clearly what many have already seen – that the pigs are walking on two legs and living in the manor house.
'You have profited from the times of ignorance, of superstition, of folly, to despoil us of our heritage and to trample us underfoot in order to fatten yourselves on the substance of the wretched. Tremble lest the day of reason arrive.'[3]

Voltaire, PSQR

[1]An allusion to Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism. London: Penguin Books, 2005 [1759], p. 69.
[2]From 'On Parliament' in Voltaire, Letters on England. London, Penguin Books, 2005 [1733], p. 45.
[3]Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary. London: Penguin Books, 2004 [1764], p. 16.

Editorial - Rousseau May 1/2011

Reasonable Discourse and Democracy

It is certainly convenient how the date of the upcoming election falls before the release of so much pertinent information. Reviews of excessive government spending. Inquiries into troubling military incidents. Breaches of due process. In large measure, much of the previous opposition’s campaign has been geared towards identifying these and other affronts to the spirit of democratic accountability in this country. We already know how closed-off, unrepresentative, and churlish this government would be if granted the opportunity to represent us at home and abroad once again. Their ongoing politics-of-fear campaign is a testament to that. As is the incumbent’s insistence on childishly demonizing the opposition rather than engaging in any semblance of meaningful discourse. We are left shaking our heads, wondering if our political culture has really sunk this low. So many of us are forced to sit here, spellbound, unsure as to how this ineffective (and frankly embarrassing) government tasked with representing the ‘will of the people’ is so close to receiving yet another mandate. We are currently confronted with a crisis in leadership, and the legitimacy of our government is in danger of falling into disrepute. We must now ask ourselves how we have managed to get to this point.

To understand this question, I believe it is useful to return to the idea of democracy itself. The utility of any thought experiment lies in its potential to encourage us to re-visit many assumptions we have about social and political life. During any election campaign, there is always discussion surrounding the state of democratic practice itself. Questions surrounding citizen engagement, institutional reform, or party policy are always present, and should remain at the heart of modern politics. As many do not hesitate to remind us however, we do not live in a world of ideals...part of democracy’s appeal lies in the fact that there has never been consensus as to what an ‘ideal’ democracy would entail. What we can be sure of however is that there are ways we can identify ideal conditions for democracy. The obvious ones (of course including a legislative assembly, an executive, an independent judicial branch, and a vibrant and engaged civil society) have been analyzed and discussed by politicians and academics for centuries, and will undoubtedly continue to inspire our interest for centuries to come. We will continually gauge how close our democratic institutions come to satisfying these ‘ideal’ conditions in our ongoing civil conversation. What we may be in danger of missing however, is an adequate discussion of how the language of politics itself shapes our views, thoughts, and emotions. We may not be aware of the effects our increasingly pedantic political discourse will have on future generations. I believe it is crucial that we must add ongoing, critical, and enlightened discourse to the list of ‘ideal’ conditions for democracy outlined above. But what would ‘ideal’ political discourse entail? Is there even such a thing?

What ensures our liberty as individual citizens and unites us under our common government are the obligations we hold to one another. Those elected to govern and those who are governed are mutually obligated to one another. The social compact necessary for legitimate government entails an arrangement where individuals place their ‘person and all their power’ in common under the supreme direction of the general will. Once a member of this compact, each member becomes an indivisible part of the whole (Rousseau, Social Contract 148). Following democratic practice, it is through open and free deliberation that we come to determine this general will, and those entrusted to articulate the will of the people must be held accountable at all times. These are the assumptions we hold as sacred in our civil religion.

As informed and engaged citizens, we must develop a stronger appreciation for the unbounded power of information within a democratic community. The articulation of the general will is only possible through free, open, and democratic discourse incorporating all elements of society. Our individual freedom is inherently dependent on the maintenance of this fragile discourse. As Canadian citizens, we have witnessed our government’s systematic manipulation of information, blatant disregard for parliamentary protocol, and gradual abdication of responsibility to the Canadian people over a number of years. Our government is guilty of compromising the ideals, conventions, and decorum our parliamentary system is founded upon, and those guilty of such abuses must be held responsible for their actions.

This publication is a necessary step in cultivating a truly free political community. I hope this may serve as an indictment of our most recent representatives, and an endorsement of those who are in the best position to articulate the general will of Canadians. What we must remember is that our democracy is historically situated and necessarily imperfect. We must therefore be cognizant of the institutions, procedures and conventions providing the framework for our ongoing societal discourse so as to effectively mitigate against those ‘particular wills’ who do not have the common interest of our country in mind. This publication is necessary to provide the foundation for a new form of citizenship, and, through it, to provide the intellectual cohesion necessary for re-establishing our fragmented social discourse. We can finally begin cultivating a new form of politics. Our liberty is our obligation.

-J.J. Rousseau (PSQR)

Editorial - Spinoza May 1/2011

Voter Insolence – The Consequences and Solutions   

     What are we citizens proclaiming when we elect an executive to rule over us?  If the process unfolds according reason, that executive will act as the best example of national citizenry.  After all, a state prospers the most when it acts in accordance to the will of the citizenry.  We the citizens are the caretakers of our imprecise national definition.  As such, we have the duty to insist that our executive reflect our national wishes.  Since human minds often linger between ideas of many actions and consequences, democracy affords the state the same flexibility in identity inherent in individuals.  This flexibility affords our country the ability to adapt, evolve and progress as we the citizens see fit.  As subjects to the right of common wealth, we must assert that our nation be guided upon reason.  It must be this way because free people will only submit to the evidence of reason to counter their own passions.  Thus, the law becomes the only equalizer between citizens.  It is the only way for society to aspire to a peace for all citizens of the common wealth.   How else will a man resist his own passions and self-interest?  How else is he to expect protection from another man’s passions or self-interest?  This reality necessitates that people submit to the common wealth, yet we are not powerless as subjects.   We citizens are subject to but also the defenders of the common wealth. After all, if the aim of our civil society is to promote an existence of harmony between citizens, or peace, then our common wealth must be upheld by reason.  The law is our only defence against those with greater power of authority who wish to alter the course of not only our state, but of our very lives and futures as well. 
     There is a sinister power that looms over the horizon.  The enemies of reason are on the march.  They rightly understand that necessity for a harmony of citizens in a civil society is natural for all citizens.   However, their vision of unity is abhorrent of reason.  Law based upon reason, again is the only equalizer between men.  Yet, for them it is merely another obstacle in the path of their lust for authority.  The first of course being that annoyance to all power mongers, the power and right of every person whom they wish to control.  The problem for us is, they are much more aware and afraid of our power then we are capable of understanding how to use it positively.  Our citizenry has become a predictable machine.   Its vigour is breaking down and the functioning of the elements of our common wealth is strained to a point where a collapse is not imminent but it might be inevitable.  The ones in authority are delighted.  We are apparently content in our present situation.  As we come closer to selecting a new executive, citizens know these same old machinations are once again in process.  Yet they do nothing!

     Enter the incumbent and his strategy of divide and conquer.  The easiest way to gain authority over fellow citizens is not through active persuasion and compromise.  Rather, it is to despoil the conversation entirely and render the process detestable in the minds of once diligent citizens1.  How else can he explain the sheer contempt shown towards the intelligence of citizens?  He has withdrawn from public debate2.  He refuses compromise as a legitimate avenue of discourse despite the fact that he has no mandate to demand such absolutism3.  He engages in misinformation about himself and his opponents4.   It is as though the history of one’s record counts for nothing and the singularity of a message for the future is sufficient evidence for a renewed mandate of authority.  We are expected to believe this is legitimate discourse.  If this power is in fact legitimate, I liken it to my legitimate right to force a table to eat grass. It may exist legitimately in my mind, but in reality, it is absurd.  Both instances are abhorrent to reason.  Is one any less ridiculous than the other is?  If guidance by reason stands as the only way to create a level field between citizens, it should stand that guidance by irrationality seeks to create inequalities between citizens.  And if our process is hijacked by irrationality, it follows that rational citizens will withdraw from an arena which affords them no power.  In a state as benevolent as ours, we are afforded such luxury.  But when all reasonable parties have left the arena, we are left with a terrifying spectre.  The enemies of reason drive us out of our rightful spaces.  They use irrationality and contempt for intelligence as their weapons of choice. Worse, because they win, their opponents mirror their strategy in hopes of impersonation thus spiralling the process out of the control of the rational citizen5.      

            Citizens do not be afraid!  We are not required to continue along such a tangent.  Although the incumbent attempts to frighten us into submission, he has made one grave miscalculation.  He believes that we obey out of fear.  As such he makes arguments against reason in order to strike terror in our hearts so that we may elect him to save us6.   Our obedience is not wrought through fear of punishment but rather through the dishonour that should accompany disobedience.  If our common wealth disengages from the duties of citizenship, it is because we believe that our citizenship is no longer reflected in those duties.  We are not abdicating our right because we are afraid.   No matter the justification, the danger of this reality is all too apparent.  The vacuum left by the citizens’ departure becomes the property of the enemies of reason and the common wealth.  Their lust for power comes at the expense of ours.  Our citizenry snakes away cowardly from the political arena just as the real serpents tighten their coils around our liberty. A wise man once said, ‘a commonwealth whose peace depends on the sluggish spirit of its subjects who are led like sheep to learn simply to be slaves can more properly be called a desert than a commonwealth1.’   I for one do not want to live in a barren political wasteland.  I prefer my common wealth instead.  Which would you like to live in?   

JBSpinoza – PSQR –



1. Baruch Spinoza. Tractus Politicus (1677). Chapter 5: Section 4.   

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