Tuesday, November 27, 2007

-Markets, -Speech, -Bird!

A Very Political Day

To immediately dispel any fears you may have, this post shall not dwell on Stockwell/Doris, however political he may be. A few happy accidents transpired today, and as a result I found myself immersed in political discourse on multiple occasions. Incidentally, I also have my Political Science lecture today, to speak nothing of the ensuing discussion group. Those aren't so much accidents, but they both contributed to the volume of debate that I experienced. This is actually the sort of day I would like to find myself living more often, but enough with the tangents: I'll get sidetracked enough conveying this story and the thoughts and opinions that surround and colour it.

It started with a radio, the one I keep in my room. Normally, I have it set to CBC Radio 1, partly because the CBC is quite good if they hit their stride, and the other reason is, well...have you heard the noise that passes for radio here in the 'wa? Sure, sure, we have occasional gems like Live 88.5's musical-history show, but by and large our radio stations play either iffy mixtures of good/bad/wtf from the '70s-'90s, overplayed/too-mainstream rap and hip hop, or repeticious rock mixtures, classic and contemporary. Hell, even Live 88.5 - which my clock radio was set to for a while - woke me up with "Hey there Delilah" more than once. Hell, once is too much to hear the aural assault that Plain White Tees has the temerity to call "music"! This morning, my radio was set to neither CBC nor Live. By some late-night accident, it had been set to 93.1 - some kind of public radio station (Gold will begin to snicker at this juncture, and so too shall the rest of you once you've seen this) - and lo, here was a very interesting interview. I can't say too much for the interviewer besides "meh, ok", but Interviewee Justin Podur I found to be quite well-spoken and informative. Justin runs a vastly more spiffy blog than this (and when I say "vastly" it is an understatement) called The Killing Train. The topic of the interview was the current situation in Columbia, something that I had heard nothing about by radio or newspaper...although it is quite possible that I simply missed the time or page when/where it was mentioned.

There are a few separate stories covered in the interview: It seems that Columbia's president has decided not to enter into proposed negotiations with FARC, and has - of all things - now accused Hugo Chavez (proposer/proponent of the talks) of supporting terrorism. The discussion ranged from the nature of hostage-warfare (we'll call it) between the government and FARC, Columbian President Uribe's paramilitary connections, and those of party bureaucrats, the role of multinationals in sponsoring said paramilitary groups. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I was informed that Canada is pursuing a free-trade agreement with Columbia! The theory presented by Mr. Podur was that this was a move to help the US ratify a similar agreement, on the grounds that "if it's good enough for Canada...". Any free-trade agreement with Columbia, it was also argued, was essentially part of a campaign to allow multinational companies greater access to the country and its resources. Canada, for example, has mining interests in Columbia, and business can only get easier for our corporations under free-trade. I can't really comment on this analysis, because I have very little background knowledge about the situation in Columbia. The most I remember are bits and pieces from the group which covered FARC in World Issues last year. That being said, it doesn't sound out-of-place or out-of-character. Mr. Podur has a link to the uploaded interview, so have a listen for yourself!

Naomi Klein's new book, The Shock Doctrine (on my to-read list), and Ms. Klein herself are mentioned more than once during the interview, and I suspect that it's hard not to look at free-market economics anywhere after having read the book and not see coercive forces at work. In doing some research for a project some two years ago, I picked up a very small work by Klein, which I can only assume was a preview or precursor to The Shock Doctrine: No War. Her thesis was that the Bush administration had plans to transform Iraq into a free-market Utopia, to showcase the superiority of Capitalism, the Free Market, and the Invisible Hand. The risks of doing business in Iraq are certainly part of the failure of these plans, but Klein's real point is that it took a full-scale war in order for these changes to be made, because ordinary Iraquis would never accept them if given time to contemplate the ramifications of a completely open market. While the entire scope of the Shock Doctrine is as-yet unknown to me, the concept is at least not foreign to this mind. Back to Columbia, where the very same procedure was employed to scrap those social services for which FARC is fighting (again, so sayeth the interview).

I have a lot going on in my head in relation to this, because it touches on a lot of issues. First up is the humanitarian tragedy that the West is at best complicit with, and at worst actively creating. I have to hand it to the Neo-Marxists, because of the three post-9/11 IR theory adjustments, theirs is the only one that makes a decent amount of sense. While a rejection of "Western" culture and liberalism certainly isn't impossible, it doesn't really hold up when you consider that for all George Bush and his predecessors have talked about spreading democracy and freedom, have we really done so? In the case of the Shah's reinstatement in Iran, it's clear that our economic needs have always, and will always - so long as we continue not to care - be placed before humanitarian concerns. On a political level, it makes sense: Money and Oil get votes, keep the corporations happy, and just a few of those infomercials begging for your money to save some terribly unlucky child in the developing world are all you need to mitigate any guilt which might arise from a comparatively Kingly/Queenly lifestyle. The second tragedy is that these colonial policies have given a terrible name to what is for the most part a good way of life. I don't think that the West is perfect, but one cannot say that living in a warzone is superior. Women may still be fighting for equality, the environment may be suffering dearly at our hands, but we are at least cognizant of these issues, and there are growing numbers of people (well, so the increased popular vote for the Green Party would indicate) cognizant of this sort of issue. Maybe our proposed solutions are no better than the beg-o-mercials, but at the end of the day, you can live in relative safety and wealth here, and while we're bound to take that for granted, people who have lived in far worse places can appreciate the true value of what we have here. The tragedy is that when we go abroad, we speak about this quality of life, and then what we deliver isn't really about democracy and free markets, it's about what we want to strip-mine your country for. IR Realists will, of course, take this as evidence that self-interest rules the international system. That would make sense, sure, but I suspect that the bastards who have done this are IR Realists, privately if not publicly.

I imagine that Adam Smith is turning in his grave, because of the horrible suffering that has been inflicted in the name of his free-market ideology. From what I read in studying his work, Smith's ideal Capitalism was not the monopolistic, plutocratic, sadistic abomination that now lays claim to that name: it was a place in which the best product was sold at the best price - a zero-profit system! - to the benefit of all. Was this empty rhetoric, for the purpose of acquiring support, only to establish a new economic order no kinder, no gentler than Mercantilism? I don't like to think so: As a thinker of the Enlightenment, Smith lived around the time of the American and French revolutions, a time in which the ideals of Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire and others were new and in fashion, values that are now at the core of what we call "Western Civilization". No, this was not empty rhetoric - it was the libertarian dream, perhaps a little like the American dream, although not necessarily with the same excesses desired. I can only speculate as to what Smith's personal dream might have been, to speak nothing of what dream he might ascribe to the working man or woman.

This is a decent, if forced segway into my views on Samuel Huntington, and the Clash of Civilizations. In case you're wondering why a paper written in 1992, re-enforced in 2001 is being discussed in 2007, it's because it also happened to be the focal point of today's Political Science lecture. It's also something I refuted in an essay which I wrote for grade 12 History. You may be asking yourself how this relates at all to the betrayal of Adam Smith's ideals, and with good reason. I shall begin by explaining the thesis of my essay. It was my observation that the "Clash of Civilizations" was nothing more than meta-nationalism, a convenient excuse to promote hateful patriotism and war for the benefit of an elite few in both Western and Islamic society. Someone, I think it might have been Gorbachev, some old soviet guy...whoever it was, they said that a farmer could desire nothing more from war than to return home alive and intact. This is true for the civilian population of any supposed "civilization": war brings the specter of death down upon them, their comrades, and their loved ones. Perhaps I overlook the spoils of war, but then I have this suspicion that the elites masterminding the aggression would not be so inclined to share the bounty. Building on this, I think it can be said that the bellicose elements claiming to represent "western values" in the face of some outside threat, be it terrorism, Russia's new authoritarianism, or some as-yet-uncreated "enemy" are seeking to usurp the title of "western society" for their own ends, even though their moral character is not at all in line with that of the population. In the absence of aggressive socialization and propaganda, public pressure doesn't start wars, doesn't call for torture, doesn't abide the abrogation of rights and freedoms! The "Clash of Civilizations", the "War on Terror", this is the conspiracy of Smith's usurpers, the "Western" pretenders, making use of this "Shock Doctrine" to bring us into line. It's about money, power, and it's not about the kind of values that you or I have. I'm not even remotely possessed of the idea that these people are a real-life Section 31...I think they serve their own ends, and I don't buy for a minute that we need their cruelty, their insatiable lust for profits to live as we do. Think about it: if a shoe costs $250, what difference does it make to you whether it was made by an American, properly paid and with safety standards and legal recourse, versus a man in China, with none of those protections, and one-tenth the pay? NONE! It only makes a difference to the company that's squeezing more profit out of the Chinese man. Local production and proper pay doesn't have to make items more expensive. It CAN, but only if the company selling it to you is still convinced that it is entitled to $249.99 on top of what that shoe actually cost them (economies of scale being what they are, I suspect that the price of an indiviual shoe, or pair thereof is essentially infinitessimal)

So, where am I going with this awful mess of tangents and anecdotes? Basically, hearing about how Columbia has been abused has got me in another funk about the state of the world. My PolySci prof has on more than one occasion quoted Francis Fukuyama as saying that with the triumph of liberalism over socialism at the end of the Cold War, the time of ideological conflict is over. I beg to differ, because liberalism has yet to win over Disney Despotism, AT&T Authoritarianism, or McNopoly.

It was brought to my attention by a fellow Political Science student in my discussion group that the room used for said class would be playing host to a panel discussion on how to revive conservatism (the pure ideological form) in Ontario. Not wanting to be impolite to this fellow student, I decided I'd stick around to see some of the discussion. Fortunately, another student from my class was also encouraged to do the same, so I wasn't alone in a room full of conservatives. Well, guess who was coming to sit on the panel? None other but Randy Hillier, and so I got to meet the man and shake his hand. The guy has a granite-like grip, it's quite formidable! He's not as bad in person as I might have expected, and - more surprisingly - not as ideologically conservative as I might have expected!

A Citizen columnist was the first member of the panel to speak, and it's quite safe to say that he was a conservative. This might be a compliment, but only because he was consistent, and even then I'm not sure if that's for the best. A speaker with strong conviction will put on a better show, but the very ideological flexibility that this man so condemned is precisely what makes a person or party fit to govern, in my opinion. The reality of the situation is that Canadians didn't elect a Conservative government. Even FPTP - which proponents claim produces strong governments - did not result in a majority. Enough people voted for them in the right places, and the populace has accepted their control of Parliament without invoking the Lockean right to armed resistance, so they have legitimacy. If they had a commanding majority of both seats and the public vote, that would be a clear mandate to pursue their ideological ends. Such as it is, they have been allowed to govern, but not to impose the fullness of their beliefs upon Canada, or at least that's how they seem to have treated their stay in office so far. Returning to my original thought, I guess I'll commend the Citizen columnist on giving a very confident speech. Ok, good feeling's gone.

Conservatism just cannot be sold to me at any price. There are the obvious social and sexual freedom issues (namely that conservatives want there to be none), and on top of that, the entire establishment has very religious overtones. The columnist used a quotation that said "the only successful revolution is one in which you repent" (not an exact quote, but as close as I can get). At another point, he addressed members of the student society hosting the event as "young and rebellious" people. It was very odd to see that the philosophy of "THE MAN" had taken on something of an activist culture, especially when contrasted with statements extolling "traditional family values". While I enjoyed the parts of his presentation in which this columnist laid out the groundwork for a political revolution (because those instructions are more or less universally applicable), he predictably brought up the twin dead horses of the right-wing: Abortion and Same-sex marriage. Well, I was preparing myself for the usual bashing, but I didn't expect this man to support the use of the notwithstanding clause to make both illegal again. On top of this, he noted that a string of Roman-Catholic Prime Ministers had not taken that action. I wonder if this man was aware of that event called the Enlightenment, from which we take our current secularist-rationalist tradition? For all his words about following the lessons of the past, this guy is just as selective with those as the ruling Conservatives are with their ideology!

Randy Hillier, the next speaker, was not as well-prepared as the Citizen columnist, but then he's a shit-disturber-turned-MPP, and unlike the preceding speaker, does not make his living on eloquence. Hillier's tack was to explain his definition of conservatism, which happened to sound a lot like classical liberalism. In Mr. Hillier's opinion, there are two philosophies of government: one in which the people control the government, and vice-versa. Hillier calls the latter socialism, in that sort of tone which carries a subtext of "those commie bastards", and says that it's the conservative's job to oppose the curtailing of liberties. If he's a true conservative, I assume he means unless those are the liberties of women, homosexuals, and workers. His first example of a farmer being banned from selling raw milk was quite solid, but his second example was not at all convincing. Mr. Hillier came down against smoking bans, including one in Nova Scotia (I believe), forbidding individuals from smoking in the car if they have a child. Elsewhere in his speech, the same man proposed that conservatives stop being so afraid of what people will think, and speak their minds on issues such as abortion. Now, he never did specifically condemn the practice (only increasing the irony, given that he was saying to conservatives that they should not be afraid to voice their opinions on it!), but the circumstantial evidence is very much against his having a Red, no, Orange-Tory soft spot on one of the right-wing's key issues. Essentially, Mr. Hillier apparently supports more protection for the unborn than for the children that the unborn will become! He did not make his opinion known on smoking during pregnancy, but it would be more than a little amusing if he was so pro-individual choice that he would allow some forms of fetal damage, but just not abortion. I doubt he could be that hypocritical and not notice, though. My impression is that Mr. Hillier, such as I heard him speak, has been the unfortunate victim of big-letter/little-letter confusion (how people confuse political parties with ideologies of the same name, the only difference in spelling being initial capitalization). Even if he is not pro-choice, and condemns same-sex marriage, that would only make him a very hypocritical classical liberal. As I've heard it, and this is a theory supported by the Citizen Columnist's speech, conservatives don't so much mind the violation of rights and the democratic process, so long as the result is in line with religious/traditional morality. While this does not make his Conservative party membership at all contradictory, it is a little puzzling that he was chosen for a discussion on the future of ideological conservatism in Ontario.

While my decidedly unfriendly bias may have you wonder if the event was really as hypocritical as I make it sound, I think you'd find the same level of contradiction in anything so rigidly ideological. There's an upcoming left-wing event on the first of December which I will try to attend, which may shed some light on my hypothesis.

I think that about covers Monday's events, and so with that I will close the post.

"Give me strength, reserve, control....give me heart, and give me soul"

-Coldplay, Politik


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