Is Winnipeg racist—or something else?

Most ideological “isms” follow a standard recipe.

Marxism is the philosophy of Marx. Libertarianism is the mantra of liberty. Feminism is the doctrine of female empowerment. And so on.

In this sense, “racism,” properly understood, should describe a worldview emphasizing the centrality of race above all else.

Nazis and the Klan were indisputably racist outfits. Grand theories of racial hierarchy were central to their politics. When we consider modern attitudes that ail us, little of what we lazily classify as “racism” seems remotely intellectually comparable.

Even among the most vicious and hateful, hardly anyone believes in across-the-board racial inferiority or superiority. Or that undesirable traits and tendencies are carried in ethnic bloodlines.

What plagues western nations is the less precise habit of what we once called “prejudice” — the unfair judging (literally, prejudging) of particular groups on the basis of unflattering assumptions and generalizations.

This distinction between racism and prejudice can be hazy, particularly when prejudice takes the form of resenting an underclass that happens to possess a strong racial component. These resentments are rarely about race qua race, however, and instead run the gamut from physical fear to economic anxiety to political anger to cultural distaste.

The fact that not all these resentments are rooted in untruths — though how and to whom they are expressed may be cruel, ignorant, and destructive — is what makes combating prejudice such an infuriatingly complicated endeavor.

Maclean’s magazine took one of their trademark trips to the sensationalism well last week with a cover story stating Winnipeg “is arguably becoming Canada’s most racist city.”

It was a textbook instance of the thoughtless way the term is bandied about.

The Maclean’s profile, after all, was not an indictment of racially obsessed attitudes in Winnipeg — there was no mention of what anyone thinks of the city’s 10% Filipino population, for instance — but rather a lengthy exposé of anti-aboriginal prejudices in a town whose most destitute population is disproportionately native.

To Maclean’s, racism against aboriginals consists not only of casual, offensive slurs, but annoyance at aboriginal beggars, an above-average aboriginal murder rate, the fact that 90% of Manitoba foster children are aboriginal, and a 28% high school graduation rate among reserve youth.

That such data — both anecdotal and statistical — is disturbing is undeniable. But to characterize these outrages as entirely the byproducts of racism is to claim a vast assortment of aboriginal social maladies originate solely from the white population’s irrational, race-based contempt. Which hardly inspires optimism about the possibility for improvement.

Canadians of all races have a tendency to resent the poor. Many of the attitudes expressed by whites towards Winnipeg’s aboriginal underclass in the Maclean’s piece — the victim blaming, the hand-waving that poverty is actually pretty cushy — are equally common in Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto, where the poor are considerably more multicultural.

Some sociologists have coined the more useful term “classism” to describe this inability to sympathize with those in a socioeconomic strata other than your own, while assuming yours holds the monopoly on morality. It’s often understood as a method of projecting anxiety over one’s own fragile financial standing.

Further nuance and context is offered by the elaborate, mostly ineffectual mess of laws, institutions, and conventions established by Ottawa in recent decades to better aboriginal lives, which remain deeply unpopular among non-aboriginal taxpayers asked to foot the bill.

Criticism of this system, unfortunately, is not always appropriately divorced from criticism of its clients.

As a model for self-sufficient, prosperous, happy living in a free society, Canada’s Indian reservations are perhaps second only to Communist dictatorships in terms of spectacularly unfulfilled promises — despite the frequently astronomical salaries of those who run them.

Softer sentences for aboriginals in the criminal justice system — as allowed by the Supreme Court’s Gladue ruling — have not helped reduce the aboriginal prison population, nor have a host of aboriginal-exclusive exemptions and privileges in Canada’s tax codemedicare regime, and educational system helped raise indicators of wealth, health, or education.

It is an undeniably vile offense to fail to separate one’s disdain for Canada’s wasteful, ineffective aboriginal policies from the beleaguered aboriginal population whose social dysfunctions and destructive pathologies have been exacerbated by them. As it is to stereotype and slur random aboriginal men and women as proxies or symbols, rather than appreciate them as human beings whose individual circumstances are unknowable.

But to believe the greatest impediment to improving any of this is some hysterical hate for blood or skin is to let everyone off far too easily.

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Trudeau still grasping for reasons not to fight ISIS

Justin Trudeau’s decision to oppose Canadian airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq was always a reaction in search of a reason. Three months after commanding his MPs to vote against a symbolic endorsement of the military mission, it appears he’s still grasping for one.

Resistance to the airstrikes certainly made sense according to rigid partisan logic — it was something Stephen Harper wanted, ergo, it was something Justin was against. By any more sophisticated standard of foreign policy principle, however, it was utterly incoherent.

Liberal statesmen with a more grownup grasp of geopolitics, including Irwin Cotler, Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff, and Ujjal Dosanjh, all publicly opposed the Trudeau position, instead siding with the progressive parties of America, Britain, and Western Europe who agreed the humanitarian and terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State was entirely appropriate to confront with military force.

This has only increased the pressure on Justin — not exactly a foreign policy heavyweight at the best of times —  to articulate exactly what he knows that many much smarter people evidently do not.

During an interview on the Andrew Lawton radio show Tuesday, Trudeau contorted mightily.

“I’ve never been against Canada engaging robustly against ISIS,” he claimed, just “the Prime Minister’s choice around the way we should best do that.”

But if Canada shouldn’t offer military support to an international coalition dedicated to — as President Obama is fond of saying — “degrading and destroying” ISIS —  then what should we do?

Trudeau’s response:

“Canada’s role in engaging with that needs to be best suited to what we can do better than other countries. And on humanitarian support, on refugee support, on military missions that are non-combat, whether it’s medical support, logistic support, or even the kind of training that we got very good at in Afghanistan.”

It was a preening comment reflective of the lack of serious thought Trudeau has given what may someday be his most serious power.

It takes a strange mix of ego and arrogance to state with a straight face that Canada — small, humble, inconspicuous Canada — can do much of anything in the foreign policy realm “better than other countries,” let alone the lengthy list of supposed talents Trudeau prattled off.

When it comes to humanitarian aid, Canada is generous, but hardly awe-inspiring. As a portion of gross national income, our total foreign assistance budget has been stagnant for years at around 0.2% — far lower than much of western Europe, including Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Ireland, France, and Germany.

Similar could be said for our handling of the refugee file. According to the UN, in 2013 Canada welcomed around 160,000 refugees. Unsurprisingly, countries in closer proximity to global hotspots welcomed considerably more, notably Turkey (609,000) and Jordan (641,000).

Non-combat military support? Liberals like to regard Canada as a nation of world-renowned peacekeepers, but today we sit at the low end of countries offering soldiers and military assistance to troubled nations, eclipsed by gigantic margins by everyone from India to Italy.

Thankfully, the business of foreign policy is not an exercise in calculated efficiency in which only the most supremely talented offer their skills while everyone else sits on the sidelines. If it was, America would provide 100% of the troops and funding for every foreign conflict, and Canada would never have participated in either world war — let alone Korea or Afghanistan.

Canadian leaders have long recognized there exists a moral imperative to sacrifice in the pursuit of an end from which we benefit — in this case, the physical destruction of a terrorist army plotting to kill us — and that the burden of global security is lighter when shared.

When we and our allies confront a common cause, Canada is a nation with the capacity to contribute on a number of fronts —  financially, diplomatically, compassionately, and yes, militarily. The skills we offer are not those we do objectively “better” than anyone else, but those most strategically pursuant to the task at hand.

To petty partisans like Justin Trudeau, alas, logic in the conduct of Canadian foreign policy is subordinate to the all-consuming need to hate on Harper.

The Prime Minister is not terribly popular at the moment, and perhaps this sort of shallow contrarianism will prove enough to get the Liberals elected. But when it comes to matters of war and peace, it’s worth pondering what will guide Justin once Harper’s no longer around to tell him what he doesn’t think.

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New comic on Charlie Hebdo

I drew a comic essay for The Nib about Charlie Hebdo in particular and the role of political cartooning in general.

Be sure to check it out and come back here to tell me what you think!

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On Charlie Hebdo

I’ve been in high demand since the massacre. As a cartoonist, commentator, and pre-existing fan of Charlie Hebdo itself everyone wants to know my take.

Here is an editorial I wrote for the Sun News website, in which I compare and contrast the culture of European satire with that of North America.

Such trends help explain why North American satirists will probably never be particularly strong defenders of the rights of folks like the Charlie Hebdo gang. The flavor of free expression the dead Frenchmen fought for – the right of irreverent vulgarity, is falling rapidly out of favor on this side of the Atlantic, where painstaking efforts to avoid the offensive – not just as perceived by Muslims, but also blacks, Asians, latinos, aboriginals, feminists, gays, the transgendered, and a seemingly endless rainbow of other “marginalized groups” bearing a lengthy laundry list of words, images, and allusions that must never be used in relation to themselves - becomes a defining theme of North American humor.

That same article contains a link to this video of me appearing on the Jerry Agar show, talking a bit about the history of Charlie Hebdo, why I support them, and my own experiences as an editorial cartoonist and dealing with censorship.

CNN then commissioned me to draw a cartoon and write a short essay about the whole episode, which you can see and read here. It’s a sort of rebuke to self-righteous cartoonists who have been preening something fierce in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders. Frankly, I don’t think any North American cartoonist is in much of a position to “show solidarity” with the dead, considering how aggressively censorious American cartooning, and indeed American humor in general has become in recent years.

I’ve got more stuff on the way.

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Death of satire

Several years ago, when I was between better jobs and working at a crappy breakfast restaurant, one of our waiters pressed a copy of Charlie Hebdo into my hands. He was from Paris, and knew I was into political cartoons.

“You must read ziz,” he said, “you will love eet!”

And I did. Charlie Hebdo was like nothing I’d seen. It’s a magazine whose cartoons, drawn in that wonderfully rubbery, European style, brim with life and energy as they depict a hilarious world of lunatic politicians, religious wackjobs, screwy foreigners, and of course, plenty of dirty Frenchmen.

To the extent the magazine has ever championed a clear ideology, it’s been nihilistic disregard for anything serious or sacred. Charlie Hebdo got its start in the late 1960s mocking the pomposity of the fast-fading General DeGaulle and would proceed to spend subsequent decades taking aim at anyone and everything else expecting similarly undue reverence.

Many of Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures are silly and light-hearted (these are the ones I prefer, frankly) but their most famous are always shockingly vulgar. Giscard d’Estaing as a scrotal sack. Benedict XVI as a pedophile. Marianne LePen shaving her pubic hair into a Hitler mustache. Jews with big noses. Blacks with big lips. Brits with bad teeth. And yes, the Prophet Muhammad spreading his rear before a pornographer’s camera.

They sound vicious, but such cartoons, with their buggy-eyes and sausage fingers, are always too goofy to be taken seriously — and that’s the point. Grotesquely madcap renditions of all things taboo and self-important help make an uptight, depressing world slightly less so.

It’s a distinctly European sensibility with little equivalent on this continent.

As a cartoonist myself, I’ve noticed an emerging consensus among North American satirists that the purpose of our craft is not devil-may-care mockery, but the pursuit of a narrow set of progressive, ideological goals.

Good satire, according to such logic, must never make unfair generalizations or further unpleasant stereotypes, and should only target the most privileged and powerful (which is to say, white, conservative men). It must strive to take the form of an informed critique of agendas and policies, and its ends should be the mobilization of the masses in productive fury at an identifiable injustice.

We see this ideal most ably embodied by satirists like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver, whose television shows have become far more about delivering a liberal political agenda through the vehicle of satire than utilizing the medium as a source of irreverent whimsy for its own sake. The comedy of these men is the comedy of outrage; outrage at corporate influence and Congressional stagnation and permissive gun laws and so on.

When their jokes go too far, which is to say, when they start to become counter-productive to the needs of the progressive base they’re expected to serve — when Stephen Colbert uses an Asian slur to make a point about racism or when Jon Stewart makes an insufficient display of reverence for the importance of voting —  they apologize and atone, and the ideological edge of their future satire becomes even more pure and strident.

Such trends help explain why North American satirists will probably never be particularly strong defenders of the rights of folks like the Charlie Hebdo gang. The flavor of free expression the dead Frenchmen fought for — the right of irreverent vulgarity, is falling rapidly out of favor on this side of the Atlantic, where painstaking efforts to avoid the offensive — not just as perceived by Muslims, but also blacks, Asians, latinos, aboriginals, feminists, gays, the transgendered, and a seemingly endless rainbow of other “marginalized groups” bearing a lengthy laundry list of words, images, and allusions that must never be used in relation to themselves — becomes a defining theme of North American humor.

Particularly among young cartoonists, who fear being on the receiving end of social media shame campaigns of the sort that have ensnared creators of leading webcomics like The Oatmeal and Penny Arcade, the impulse of self-censorship has more than eclipsed any any earlier ideal of the artist as boundary-pusher.

It’s proven easy to mobilize support for Charlie Hebdo under the broad slogan of “standing up for freedom of speech,” but free speech in its most sweeping, abstract, unspecific philosophical sense is not what was attacked yesterday, nor what should concern us going forward.

The question is whether commentators in western nations feel comfortable expressing critical opinions about Muslims — an exotic minority group about whom almost all non-Muslims possess at least some fear and ill-regard — or whether fashionable hang-ups about the importance of never hurting feelings will define our collective reaction to this unprecedented cultural challenge.

My faith continues to be with the Europeans.

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A desparate coalition for 2015

In the year 2015, a left-wing coalition government will be imposed upon Canada, or at least seriously attempted.

Here’s why and how.

In recent years, a popular parlor game in America has been skeptically deconstructing the words of any high-profile politician claiming disinterest in running for president. Elizabeth Warren, for example, is currently trying to silence gossip of her obvious White House ambitions by claiming she’s “not running” — present tense — which evokes memories of when Hillary Clinton used to go around saying “I’m focused on my current job.”

In this country, we must view any coalition denials with a similar sort of eagle-eyed scrutiny.

Right now, Justin Trudeau says there are “very, very big impediments to forming a coalition with the NDP.” But “impediments” are merely obstacles to be overcome.

Indeed, when forced into specifics, Justin tends to narrow his “very, very big impediments” into quite minor concerns: he thinks the NDP has too low a standard for recognizing the validity of a Quebec secession referendum (50%+1) and he doesn’t quite trust their disposition towards certain realms of the economy (“trade, foreign investment, resource development” are the three he singles out in his book).

These are not existential disagreements, they are quibbles on the edges.

On the matter of Quebec referenda, a compromise could be easily achieved. Mulcair’s 50%+1 standard is not popular anywhere but Quebec, and polls suggest even Quebeckers support raising the bar. It would be absurd to suggest that’s not a sacrifice Mulcair would be willing to make if the deputy prime ministership was on the line.

On economic matters, likewise, Justin is being too cute by half.

No political party in this country has a consistent philosophy regarding trade, foreign investment, and resource development. The Conservatives, for instance, allowed the Chinese to purchase Nexen in 2012 but opposed the Australians buying Saskatchewan’s Potash Corp. in 2010. They support oil sands development, but also endorse the National Energy Board’s smothering regulations on the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Striking the appropriate balance between economic growth and questions of national sovereignty and environmental stewardship is a complicated task that defies easy answers. It’s certainly disingenuous for Trudeau to imply that the Liberal Party — which opposed free trade with America in the 1980s but endorses free trade with Europe today — has it all sorted out, which makes his criticism of NDP vagueness look more like a bid for negotiation than anything else.

I suspect sometime during the 2015 fall campaign, Justin and Mulcair will stage a joint press conference to announce they’ve suddenly discovered their two parties are not so different after all. They’ll sign some memoranda of understanding that puts Justin’s anxieties about referendums and economics at ease, and Mulcair will say that the choice before voters is “now very clear” — you can either re-elect Harper, or have Justin Trudeau as prime minister, fully backed by the NDP caucus.

By making an announcement mid-campaign, rather than after the election, today’s Libs and New Democrats will avoid the PR pratfalls that derailed their 2008 attempt to install Stephane Dion as coalition prime minister.

Unlike 2008, a mid-campaign announcement would deflect any criticism that the Liberals and NDP are attempting to hoodwink voters (particularly New Democrat voters) with a prime ministerial bait-and-switch — unlike Jack Layton, Mulcair would not go through the motions of pretending to be running for prime minister.

It would also avoid the constitutional hornet’s nest of getting Governor General Johnston involved in the sort of standoff faced by his predecessor, namely adjudicating the legitimacy of two rival claims to the prime minister’s office — an authority polls suggest most Canadians believe should not be in the hands of an unelected figurehead.

CTV’s Craig Oliver says behind-the-scenes coalition talks have already begun between high-profile Liberal and NDP emissaries — “with the knowledge of the leaders,” in his words — a fact which makes all the sense in the world, given recent headlines about the two parties’ slumping poll numbers.

The task facing journalists going forward is to ensure the public hears the details of any such schemes as early and often as possible, and not be appeased by exceedingly qualified, weasel word pseudo-denials.

In the United States, the gold standard for clarity is often said to be the immortal response of famed Civil War General William T. Sherman on attempts to lure him into the 1871 presidential race: “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.” In other words, no under every conceivable circumstance.

Thomas Mulcair has never gone that far.

Will Justin?

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My 2014 predictions in retrospect

I had honestly forgotten about these until now (which I suppose is the idea), but I apparently made some predictions around this time in 2013 about what I expected to be some of the defining Canadian political events of the year 2014. 

Let’s see how well I did.

Parliament will not fulfill its court-ordered obligation of writing a workable, compassionate prostitution law

I was wrong about this — parliament did, in fact, wind up passing a new prostitution bill this fall, the so-called “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.” It embraces what the kids are calling the “Scandinavian model” of sexual commerce —  criminalizing the purchase of sex while tightly regulating the sale of it.

As I noted at the time, this was exactly what the Tories’ socially-conservative base wanted, but I was skeptical such an approach would be pursued because, “as the CBC notes, it’s likely the courts would find such a law just as constitutionally dubious as the ban on selling.”

The Conservatives took a gamble, which was frankly somewhat out of character for a generally risk-adverse government. Premier Wynne of Ontario says she’s interested in mounting a constitutional challenge to the new law, so we shall see if it pays off. The CBC is now saying they consider a credible legal challenge unlikely, however, in part because they don’t expect the Act to be widely enforced.

The Senate will not be reformed

This one sounds painfully obvious today, but it’s worth remembering that at the end of 2013, a year of unprecedented Senate scandals, there was some optimism that the popular desire for change might have finally reached critical mass.

But I was skeptical. Noting that the Harper government had asked the judiciary to define the constitutional terms for Senate reform, I remarked that it was “hard to imagine the Supreme Court — this Supreme Court, at least — concluding that the federal government has as much unilateral power to change the Senate as it’s desperately hoping.”

The Supremes more than lived up to my expectations, and in April ruled that it was unlawful to hold Senate elections, or impose term limits on senators, without first amending the Constitution of Canada. Prime Minister Harper responded by declaring the dream of Senate reform officially dead.

Neither pipeline will be approved

By “neither” I was referring to the Alberta-to-Texas “Keystone XL” pipeline and its west coast counterpart, the Alberta-to-BC “Northern Gateway.”

President Obama has still not approved the former, and has continued to belittle its purported benefits. It likewise failed to gain a symbolic vote of approval in the United States Senate a few weeks ago, which though meaningless from a functional point of view (it’s not Congress’ decision to make), still garnered a lot of media attention and helped re-enforce a narrative that the thing is doomed.

There’s probably still a slim chance Obama could approve Keystone as part of some horse-trading deal with a now Republican-controlled Congress who have made approval of the pipeline one of their top priorities, but with the President now firmly in his lame-duck “Bullworth” phase, where he seems increasingly comfortable with rule-by-decree, it’s hard to know why he’d bother.

Northern Gateway was notable in 2014 mostly because people largely stopped talking about it. The BC government has not changed their tune — “our position remains no” said the provincial environment minister in June — and while the Harper administration has now formally given the thing the A-OK to go forward, their endorsement was exceedingly qualified (indeed, it was actually phrased as merely accepting a “recommendation to impose 209 conditions on Northern Gateway Proposal”).

Several of those 209 conditions, in turn, involve getting some sort of assent from affected aboriginal bands, something that looked impossible in 2013, and has only gotten moreso in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2014 Tsilhqot’in ruling, which greatly expanded the scope of aboriginal sovereignty.

While the Gateway people began to push that boulder up the hill, attention in British Columbia shifted to a third proposed pipeline, the Kinder Morgan “Transmountain,” whose opponents gathered a huge crowd of protestors on Burnaby Mountain last month.

Polls show, as they did in 2013, that British Columbians are quite solidly against pipelines, even if the precise reasons why are a bit muddled.

I noted that the Prime Minister may eventually face political consequences for being perceived as too blindly supportive of the oil industry (in watching the anti-Transmountain protests, it was striking how often the PM’s name was cursed in the same breath as Kinder Morgan’s), and with British Columbia shaping up to be one of the key battlegrounds of the 2015 federal election, the consequences could prove significant indeed.

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Danielle Smith’s opportunistic defection is classically libertarian

Lawrence Auster, the prickly, far-right philosopher, once quipped that libertarians are like remoras — they have no loyalties or allegiances, only hosts.

In his American context, Auster was speaking of Ron Paul, the shrill, hopelessly omnipresent Republican presidential candidate whose interest in the good of his party — or even country — often seemed secondary to his desire to bask in debate stage spotlights, and spout, er, colorful opinions about how America brought 9–11 upon itself, or the genius of a bullion-based monetary system.

Canadian libertarians (many of whom idolize Dr. Paul) aren’t much different. They relish the notion that their ideology, which worships individual choice above all else — culture, decency, practicality, you name it — is almost heroically unorthodox, and the result is an inflated sense of self-importance coupled with juvenile hostility to the constraints of a party system they consider beneath them. I remember attending a conference a while back in which some libertarian thought leader-type proudly declared he had worked for Stockwell Day and Marc Emery — you could all but see his eager eyes scan the audience for blown minds.

Danielle Smith was a doctrinaire libertarian first and foremost, and for that reason her rushed installation as boss of Alberta’s Wildrose Party back in 2009 deserved a great deal more skepticism than it got. As a TV-talking head and newspaper columnist, she inhabited a world that valued her idiosyncratic ideas above all else, and in making her leader, Wildrose tied its destiny to a woman with few political instincts beyond doing what satisfied her own intellectual predilections.

As an arch-social libertine who favored legalized prostitution, decriminalized marijuana, and abortion-on-demand, it was clear from the beginning that Smith possessed absolutely no respect or understanding for the reality that Wildrose — like any viable conservative party — would always possess an important social conservative constituency. Indeed, judging from her own words, she clearly found the faction irritating, offensive, and embarrassing, like a boil to be lanced.

Her constant haranguing of her party to loudly and publicly confirm it loved “the LGBTQ community” was a good example. In the aftermath of a provincial election the media concluded (without much hard evidence) Wildrose lost entirely on the basis of a single dumb candidate saying stupid things about gays frying in hell, Smith demanded her party membership “double affirm” its platform promise to “defend the equality of all persons regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.”

The motion passed, though that was apparently still not good enough. This past November Smith demanded they double affirm that double affirmation, provoking a so-con revolt as the base rejected the wishes of a leader whose contempt for them was becoming undeniable.

It’s important to characterize Smith’s subsequent actions with accurate language. There is —  in my mind, at least —  a strategic and philosophical case to be made for merging Premier Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives with the party that has basically always existed as a breakaway faction of it, but this is not what Smith has done. Smith has simply abandoned a political party she has grown intellectually tired of, largely because it contains people who do not think exactly as she does.

Danielle Smith was always an ideologue, but ideologues are not always the unbending ramrods of popular cliché. Many are actually quite pragmatic, at least in the sense of being willing to compromise and sacrifice just about anything in the pursuit of their ideological goals, including promises, jobs, rules, and relationships.

In abandoning no fewer than three distinct democratic mandates — Wildrose boss, opposition leader, and MLA —  Smith has calculated that her ideas, not her party’s, not the Alberta conservative movement’s, hers, can achieve greater effectiveness in closer proximity to the new premier. So that’s where she now sits.

In other words, a new host has been found. I doubt it will be her last.

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Don’t call it a dynasty

In the wake of Jeb Bush’s recent vow to “explore the possibility of running for President of the United States” (which in the elaborate dance-of-seven-veils that is contemporary campaigning has been interpreted to mean he’s definitely running for President of the United States), commentators across the spectrum have been wringing their hands over how “dynastic” American politics has become.

Noting that “a Bush has been on six of the last nine presidential tickets,” Mark Steyn sourly observed that “one man and his sons will have supplied three-fifths of America’s presidents within a quarter-century — in a republic of over 300 million people.” Many cited the number 34 as the age you’d have to be without ever seeing “a Bush or a Clinton” on the presidential ballot. Aaron Blake at the Washington Post went even further, claiming that since 1964, “there have been only three elections (midterm or presidential) in which a Bush or a Clinton hasn’t been on the ballot somewhere for something.” 

People like to be cynical about the state of American democracy in no small part because it helps justify apathetic non-participation in the political process, which is always easier than the alternative. The idea that American politics is dominated “by two families” who control all elections is but the latest meme in this regard, equivalent to other shallow tropes like “the corporations run everything.”

Reality, of course, is a lot more nuanced than any tidy theory of fetishizing last names can hope to reveal.

“50 years of Bushes and Clintons” certainly sounds like a frightening number — until you realize that nearly 30 of those simply describe the long (and it should be noted, not particularly consequential) political career of George H.W. Bush, with eight of those describing his entirely forgotten vice presidency. The number of general elections contested by a “second generation” Clinton or Bush, similarly, is exactly two — when George W. ran. So let’s avoid any fallacies of large numbers.

But what about the families themselves? One can make a credible claim that the Bushes are bluebloods of the old style (though never as rich as folklore presumes), but any attempt to paint the Clintons as such is painfully tortured. As Bill Scher noted in The Week, Bill Clinton, “the patriarch of the supposedly insidious Clinton monarchy is the stepson of an Arkansas car dealer.” He rose through the ranks to become governor of the nation’s 17th smallest and eighth poorest state, before mounting a quixotic presidential bid he wound up winning largely due to a lack of viable alternatives from the Democratic establishment.

That Bill’s wife would proceed to serve two terms in the United States Senate and then mount a presidential run of her own surprised few, considering what an ambitious politician Hillary had always been in her own right. As 90s-era jokes about the “president and her husband” made clear, it was never obvious who was riding whose coattails. Now a former secretary of state to boot, should Hillary choose to pursue the presidency a second time she would do so as one of the most objectively qualified candidates in US history — certainly more than her husband ever was.

That little matter of qualification is no small variable when it comes to separating a genuinely dynastic political system from one that’s merely had a few independently successful politicians sharing the same surname.

On the Bush side, Dubya and Jeb were separately elected governors of two geographically distant, culturally distinct states, and both crafted unique political brands to do so — one as a strong social conservative closely aligned with the born-again Christian subculture, the other as an immigrant-friendly multiculturalist. As a trio of presidents, father and sons would likewise represent three distinct strains of Republican ideology, with Senior the moderate Reaganite, Junior a foreign policy hawk, and Jeb a post-Tea Party centrist.

By contrast, countries with a genuinely hereditary political class, like India, the Philippines, or perhaps soon Canada, believe qualification begins and ends with pedigree, and presumes voters are simple-minded and nostalgic enough to entrust their national leadership to even the most spectacularly inexperienced politicians simply because they liked their folks.

Nothing of the sort is happening in 21st century America. Decades of individual deviation within two small political families (whose public image, it should be remembered, is largely defined by marital infidelity and oedipal insecurity) have made it quite difficult to articulate what exactly “brand Bush” or “brand Clinton” represents to the average voter. The five politicians contained within are each distinct and complicated enough to demand careful consideration in their own right.

Which is exactly as it should be in a democracy.

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Anti-anti politics

A powerful force in politics today is the strength of what we might call “anti-anti” sentiment. Self-doubt and cowardice prevent a lot of us from stating exactly what we’re for, but few have anxiety about stating what we’re against. And what we’re against, increasingly, is other people being against other things.

In America, the notion of anti-antism has its roots in the so-called “new left” of the 1960s, who often went around declaring themselves “anti-anti Communist.” Which is to say, they were neither anti-Communist like mainstream Democratic politicians — who had committed all sorts of monstrous crimes in Vietnam and elsewhere in pursuing that goal — nor pro-Communist like some of the socialist parties of Europe, who were equally unattractive apologists for the totalitarian oppression of the USSR.

Being anti-anti-Communist allowed leftists to criticize American foreign policy remorselessly, often openly echoing Soviet talking points, yet simultaneously dismiss responsibility for emboldening the other, “equally bad” evil empire. The result was a kind of aloof detachment from the strategic realities of the Cold War in favor of unimpeachable self-righteousness and moral purity.

Today, we see similar tactics emulated across the spectrum on a host of  issues.

On the environment, for instance, many modern conservatives embrace a worldview best described as “anti-anti climate change.” Their cause is not in favor of CO2 emissions, nor is it — as their critics endlessly allege — blind support for oil, coal, and pipelines. Instead, it is merely a critical orientation rooted in a deep, reactive skepticism of the sort of people who have the loudest voices within the environmentalist movement. Aware that the climate change cause is championed most vigorously by those whom they are already skeptical (progressive politicians, Hollywood liberals, urban street protestors and their ilk) offering policy prescriptions of the sort they ordinarily oppose (regulation of business, tax hikes, social engineering), their default stance is contrarianism.

An even more vivid example would be the current moral crusade to curb the “rape culture” of our schools and workplaces, championed so vigorously by the online social justice set. There has been an enormous amount of pushback from the right towards much of this, to which the social justice types have replied that anyone critical of their agenda must be actively in favor of rape, misogyny, gendered violence, and sexism. A more accurate reading would see anti-antism at work — obviously no one is pro-rape, but many conservatives do find fault with society’s increasingly liberal standards used to determine whether the crime occurred, and what other behaviors should be considered culpable.

It’s not a phenomenon limited to the right, of course. On the left, engagement with post-recession fiscal issues has become fairly anti-anti, in which we routinely see austerity measures opposed not because anyone, beyond the hardest hard core Keynesians, actually supports debt and deficits, but rather because it’s considered important to not concede an inch to those free market demagogues who “got us into this mess,” etc, etc.

Ditto for abortion, which Wendy Davis — an anti-anti politician if there ever was one — attempted with decidedly limited success to mobilize a liberal coalition around. Not celebrating the procedure, nor desiring it to be completely unregulated and unrestrained, but rallying furiously against anyone who might have a problem if they were.

Similar things could be said about the neutral-but-defensive liberal reaction to race riots in the aftermath of Fergusson, or indeed, the troubling behavior of Michael Brown himself. Then there’s the the convoluted existence of feminists we could describe as being anti-anti-anti rape culture, in which even brazenly untrue allegations of sexual assault, such as the ones contained in that now massively discredited Rolling Stone story, are defended simply because acknowledging their flaws could embolden the anti-antis.

The problem with these modern strains of anti-antism is the same as what made the original doctrine of anti-anti Communism so unimpressive — it’s a style of argument based on criticizing the tactics and agenda of your enemy while never revealing your own, and thereby lazily abdicating the difficult, but intellectually critical obligation of defending the conduct of those who have.

Any philosophy worth taking seriously should include some attempt to define a positive vision of an ideal society, and thereby a set of measurable, achievable goals — which in the political world means policies — to be pursued to this end. A ideology that only identifies its enemies only goes halfway; one that merely criticizes its critics’ criticisms goes even less than that.

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