Violating Democrat Norms for the Cause

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As most Canadians are now aware, Canadian Governor General Julie Payette made this controversial statement at a science policy convention on Wednesday:

“Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period,” she said….

And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.

Payette is utilizing her office to arbitrate on metaphysical claims.  In dismissing the notion that “life was a divine intervention”, she is arguing God played no role in the creation of life, and if you don’t believe that too, she is amazed at how stupid you are.

Whether or not you believe God played a role in the existence of life, it is highly inappropriate for the Canadian Governor General to use her office to weigh in on the question, much less deride those who believe differently than her.

This is not merely an abstract metaphysical claim that has no bearing on politics.  If the religious viewpoint can be openly derided by the highest office in Canada, it follows the religious people have diminished place in the public square to voice opinions or help inform policy.  If you are a secularist, this may not seem a bad thing to you – but again, it is not the place of the Governor General to be making these decisions and influencing the direction of policy.

Her comments were also completely unnecessary.  It is entirely possible to mouth platitudes on the importance of science – which the ceremonial Governor General should be doing at such events – without making political statements.

However, those who believe in “the cause” feel differently.  Take federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who has been waging a Twitter offensive with tweets and retweets in support of Ms. Payette.  For such folks, the ends justify the means.  In their universe, promotion of a particular worldview takes precedence over functional Canadian institutions.

After all, it’s hard to imagine that the same folks who are lauding Payette now would feel similarly supportive if she had commented, say, “can you believe that there are people who aren’t aware of how science tells us that a fetus has DNA unique from its mother?”

To be clear, such a hypothetical statement would likewise be very inappropriate from the Governor General.  Yet it is almost certain that were she to say that – which at least is a statement of scientific fact – the reaction on all sides would be wildly different.

Canada has managed to avoid many of the challenges that Trump’s inappropriate rhetoric and tweets have posed to democracy.  Trump’s supporters – even though who know better – frequently turn a blind eye because they too believe the statements further the cause.

Of course, the threats posed by Ms. Payette’s comments are a far, far cry from the danger posed by those of the US President. But they are still significant enough that she needs to be called on it.  The precedent of allowing the Governor General to weigh in on political and metaphysical matters must be nipped firmly and squarely in the bud by any Canadian who believes in the institutions of Canadian democracy – even where such statements may align with “the cause.”

Giving Columbus the Confederate Treatment

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Americans ritually observed another front in the culture wars this week on Columbus Day / Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  An increasing number of cities and states are abandoning the man once revered by most Americans for “sailing the ocean blue” in 1492,  the names of whose three ships children were patriotically required to memorize.   Like all conflicts over historical memory, this one is driven by present-day power struggles, the rhetoric and narrative of which frequently obscures reasoned analysis.  This August in Baltimore,  “the purported first-ever monument to the explorer, erected in 1792, was attacked with a sledgehammer.”     At its root, the Columbus Day controversy poses the question of how America can build a historical narrative that satisfies most Americans.

In the traditionalist view, one purpose behind Columbus Day is the celebration of the chain of events that led to the establishment of the country and to our prosperous democracy, for which we can in many ways be thankful.  It is part of the story of America.  Is it as significant in the American consciousness as Independence Day or as linked to the founding myths as Thanksgiving?  Clearly not, but it has had resonance throughout American history.

Per the Washington Post:

The first reported Columbus Day celebration was held in New York in October 1792 to mark the tricentennial of his voyage. That same year, a French diplomat in Baltimore erected a 44-foot stucco obelisk creating what some historians believe was the first Columbus memorial in the Americas, if not the world.

His grip on the public imagination grew after Washington Irving penned a biography of Columbus in 1828.  And an increasing number of Catholic immigrants latched onto his story as an apt symbol of their own arrival. Near the time of the Columbus quadricentennial in 1892, the Columbian Exhibition at the World’s Fair in Chicago was a sensation. Memorials began going up around the country, including a huge fountain sculpture in front of Washington’s Union Station.

Cynics may observe that Columbus Day has also been a vehicle for the Italian-American community to celebrate its culture and promote its Americanness.  To draw upon a scholarly source, the characters in the Sopranos certainly thought so.   His “discovery” is also based on myth – that he proved the earth was round, not flat, is one such piece of nonsense.  But the figure of Columbus obviously had important and positive historical resonance with mainstream American society as well.  Why?  Because his “discovery” set in motion the chain of events that made the USA possible, from the pilgrims until the present.

For supporters of Indigenous Day, conversely, the issue is a morally simple one.   Not only were the actions of the man himself questionable even by the standards of his own day, but his “discovery” enabled the genocide and centuries of displacement and cultural degradation that followed.  The indigenous victims of the expansion still feel the effects of centuries of displacement and genocide to this day, a fact which few observers of the average indigenous quality of life could deny.

Is this view the correct one?  It is a very strong argument.  One thing that is certain is that by attempting to extirpate Columbus Day from the calendar by substituting it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, traditionalists can understandably view it as an implicit attack on the legitimacy of the American tradition.  At the very least, it is at least a change in historical focus.

This change in emphasis is part of a broader overall shift.   Traditionalist Americans may resent a history that casts their ancestors as aggressors and other people as victims – even though that narrative often has truth to it.   It is a newer narrative that frequently casts older America myths and traditions not as things to be celebrated, but rather reviled.

Another way to adjudicate this question is in the parallel recent issue of statutes honouring the Confederacy, which are now coming down throughout the USA.   This parallel is useful because, while the two issues are part of the same broad question of historical narrative and have many of the same players on both sides, they are still different enough that the response to one does not necessitate the same feelings about the other.  The core animating issue of the Confederacy was its desire to keep other human beings as slaves – that which was positive about it was at best a certain kind of aristocratic gentility, which was in any case highly romanticized and built upon the scarred backs of chattel slaves.  Confederate statutes, erected decades after the Civil War, more obviously represent something odious with few redeeming features, and their removal is warranted.

Conversely, presenting Columbus as an icon of genocide, whose memory must likewise be cleansed and purged from the public square, is a more difficult moral judgement. If his discoveries made possible the evil that came after, they also made possible a great good:   setting the process in motion that culminated in the democracy enjoyed today by hundreds of millions.   None of that, however, detracts from the fact that Indigenous Peoples have excellent cause to protest celebration of the man.

For the time being, while I celebrate the empowerment and celebration of indigenous peoples, I am uneasy about seeing Columbus’ memory increasingly displaced from the public square or as a target of iconoclast ire.  While recognizing the grave historical injustices that occurred and whose effects are still ongoing to this day, I do not subscribe to the broader “aggressors and victims” narrative of American or western history.  It is too simplistic, too divisive, and too antithetical to a healthy national identity.

It is disconcerting that there is no obvious resolution to this question.  Of course, historical myths needn’t be logical or even wholly true, so future myths and holidays that more easily include and satisfy most Americans may still be possible.  That is made more difficult when such questions are not adjudicated by dialogue and discussion, but rather by hammers, ideologues, outrage police, and Nazi thugs with tiki-torches.

The Second Amendment is an Unhealthy Relic

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Full disclosure:  I am Canadian.  That cultural barrier may mean I will never “get” the fixation of some of my American friends and neighbours on the Second Amendment and its right to bear arms.  To me, the Second Amendment is an outdated feature of the early democratic experiment, a relic that has long outlived its usefulness, and the “right” of gun ownership a positive threat to communal safety.

In the US, however, firearms are part of the conception of fundamental democratic rights as understood by many Americans, evidenced by the Second Amendment.  Just last summer, Trump appeared to encourage political violence if Hilary Clinton were to toughen gun laws.   Evidence also shows that fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than in the 1990s. What is going on?

The first place to look is at the Second Amendment itself.  One very common defense of the Second Amendment focuses on the right to bear arms as necessary to maintain the existence of a democratic state, and without which, the government would devolve into tyranny or perhaps be overwhelmed by foreign invasion.  For the Founding Fathers worried about the longevity of the republican experiment and drawing on the experiences of the Revolutionary War, the concern may have been warranted.

In the event, this does not appear to be supported by the evidence.  One might ask if there has ever been occasion in the past two centuries to think “but for guns…”  In other words, are there concrete examples where, but for the existence of an armed citizenry, the US would have devolved into tyranny?  The existence and proper function of democratic institutions lies not in ownership of firearms, but in the prevalence and acceptance of these norms by its citizens.  This does not require an armed citizenry to flourish.  In America, the crucial foundations for this tradition were borne from the centuries of English democratic evolution and confirmed by President Washington’s personal humility and commitment to democracy.

Across the pond, continental Europe and the UK enjoy their own democratic traditions and robust freedoms without such laws.   Even Switzerland, famous among European nations for widespread possession of firearms among its citizen army, does not allow most of those militia members to carry bullets at home.

Given the overwhelming might a modern government could deploy against its own citizens with drones, fighter jets, tanks and weapons of mass destruction, the calculus of our current age is also radically different from that of the Founding Fathers.  In the early republic, Washington’s generation would have envisioned Napoleonic set-battles or Revolutionary guerilla warfare which featured far greater parity between sides.  The asymmetry between a repressive government and citizenry is now orders of magnitudes higher.  Fantasies of resistance to that dystopian government may presuppose the empirically dubious causal link between arms and democracy, but even if they did not, the small advantage to be gained in that unlikely hypothetical are outweighed obscenely against the costs paid every day in reality.

Yet these arguments hold little water with supporters of gun rights.  Take again these statistics provided by CNN illustrating that far fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than was the case in 1990.  Between 1999 and 2013, the biggest justification for gun ownership, “protection”, increased from 26% of gun owners to 48%.  Yet the evidence shows there is actually less gun violence today than in the 1990s.  

So why does the US seem like a less safe place for gun owners? Perhaps it owes something to the familial and societal breakdown suffered by many lower-income Americans.  For an American victim of decades of wage stagnation, and who is also no longer able to depend on the same degree of familial or church support as in previous generations, the world may indeed appear much less safe.  The post 9/11 and post-Columbine world, with its spectacular acts of random mass violence, may also play a role.

Another key place to look is in the statements of the NRA itself.  This recent NRA advertisement presents a world where firearms are the bulwark against the onslaught of the liberal hordes.  This advertisement suggests the need to bear arms is indeed borne from political fear.

Such conceptions appear little more than paranoid delusions and disgusting right-wing fantasies, the indulgers of which warrant Hillary Clinton’s infamous epithet “deplorables”.  They are also highly alarming indicators of societal breakdown, fueled in no small measure by lurid imaginations and NRA propaganda.  They are part and parcel with Trump’s veiled threat against Clinton.

Yet, like all effective propaganda, they contain a kernel of truth.  In this instance, albeit in hideously disfigured form,  there is legitimate concern over progressive ideological domination in certain cultural arenas.  This is hardly only the concern of the violent extremists that this ad is designed to appeal to.  But for the NRA and its supporters, this concern manifests in fetid, overblown fantasies of a hostile regime where armed protection is the answer.

Another reason why there may be less support for stricter gun laws is the notion that, even were the most draconian prohibitions on gun ownership in place, criminals would still obtain firearms, putting law-abiding citizens at a disadvantage.  There are good reasons for questioning whether this would actually be true – but conjecture aside, this view is undeniably pessimistic.  It presupposes the inefficacy of laws and police on a significant enough scale that citizens must arm themselves to be safe.

Regardless, Americans are for better or worse stuck with the Second Amendment, though long gone are the days of Washington and front-loading muskets.  Though there remains much to admire about the United States, I cannot help but be relieved a constitutional right to bear arms does not exist in my country.  And while US gun violence is down, the perceived need to bear arms is increasing, an increase which may be explained by fears of a hostile, collapsing world where laws can no longer protect citizens.  The existence of the Second Amendment makes possible this unhealthy reaction.  Far from promoting the stability of the democratic experiment as Washington’s generation intended, the outdated Second Amendment may be driving it in the opposite direction.

Nazis, Antifa and Our Mutual Fears

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President Trump’s incompetent and mealy-mouthed equivocations of Nazi and Antifa violence in Charlotesville have furthered the already substantial American political divide.  While many Americans were alarmed to see Nazi thugs excused by the President of the United States, other Americans were relieved to see Antifa condemned, which they view as a significant threat to democracy and freedom.  In this view, Trump’s response is explained not so much by racism or widespread support for the KKK, as by a fear of what Antifa is believed to stand for.

There is first considerable convergence among the respectable left and right.  Nazis, Klansmen and other actual white supremacist organizations are the avowed enemy of society and harbour ideas that are destructive to human decency and to the fabric of society.  It is understood that our current peaceful and prosperous international order (by historical terms) emerged precisely from the crushing defeat of such a movement.  That movement, whose aspirations are indelibly burned into our collective conscious in the hideous images of the concentration camps, can never again be allowed to approach power and influence.  In that sense, the need to “keep the lid on” right-wing extremism is justified given its historic crimes and potential for destruction, as well as the fact that many of its current members continue to use the symbols and language of fascism.

However, there is a key difference between the left and right.  For many on the left, white supremacist organizations remain a continued threat to democracy, freedom and equality.  Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League must be constantly vigilant to monitor society for hate.  The current structures of American society today are thought among many progressives to consistently reinforce white supremacy, and help foster unequal economic outcomes between white and black Americans.

For many on the centre-right, however, white supremacists, while disdained, have also been something of a bogeyman in recent decades.  In this view, the actual numbers of modern Nazi party or other race-oriented white supremacist organizations have continued to see their numbers decline and their ability to influence policy in their favour has seemed virtually non-existent. Notwithstanding the lurid wishful-thinking of many social studies departments, the evidence that societal structures remain racist seems unconvincing, considering for example how Asian Americans have the highest average income or why people of so many races still want to move to the USA.

However, when actual, bona fide Nazis marched this summer in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and the President of the United States of America did not immediately and unequivocally denounce them, many people rightly found it alarming.  For many on the left Trump’s attempts to mollify right-wing extremists confirmed their fears that there truly are many Americans who support Klansmen, Nazis or a white supremacist society.

Without question, white supremacist groups have seemed emboldened to speak out under Trump.   Much of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration is seen as dog-whistling to large swaths of the population who want to “make America white again.”

However, the evidence that there are large swaths of the US population supporting Nazis or the KKK a white supremacist society is at best spotty given the past thirty years of US political history.  That thesis is also unsupported by the voter support given to Barrack Obama.   The question of institutional racism is a more complicated one, and certainly the swath of police violence against law abiding African Americans suggests this is still a very significant problem.

However, I believe Trump’s tactic to condemn Antifa in the same breath as Nazis reflects not so much dog-whistling to a massive, racist base as a deeper unease on the right at what they think the Antifa stands for.

The divide in the political spectrum again causes mutual incomprehension here.  To most people on the respectable left, Antifa are viewed as criminal troublemakers who use the occasion of protesting to further their own anarchist agenda of violence and vandalism.  Their presence is generally not welcome, as it foreshadows the degeneration of peaceful protest into tear gas, batons, and smashed chain store windows.  However, Antifa is ultimately a small and inconsequential group whose threat pales in comparison to that of white supremacists.

For many on the right, including respectable conservatives who despise Nazis, they see something quite different.  They observe how Antifa uses the lexicon of progressives (“Anti-Hate!”) and how Antifa has targeted a variety of conservative speakers at universities, not only Nazis.  In short, they see in Antifa their fear of progressive capture of intellectual space, particularly at universities, and the perceived willingness among progressives to use intimidation or violence to enforce it.  Those who view Antifa in this way are almost certainly many of the same people who, in Ross Douthat’s words, feared giving progressives the political power to match their cultural ascendency, and thus voted Trump to avoid a Clinton presidency and her attendant Supreme Court choices.   For these folks, Antia may represent a similar if not greater threat to democracy than that of white supremacist organizations.

If one believes there is a method to Trump’s madness, this is likely it:  Trump was reassuring a base that is not so much racist as it is afraid of progressive ascendancy.  Of course, Trump is singularly unskilled at making coherent arguments and distinctions and his response served only to deepen the political and cultural divide.

Unfortunately, the tenor of the conversation and the quality of the current generation of US political leaders is likely to only lead us further down the abyss.