Archive for January, 2009

Bitter Dependency

The Jewish human rights organization B’nai Brith issued a communiqué today calling on the Canadian Government to increase funding for aboriginal communities in the upcoming budget. “B’nai Brith representatives have had the opportunity to see first hand the deplorable living condition of Aboriginals living in northern Manitoba, as well as central Ontario. “

The sentiment is understandable. No one who visits the reserves comes away without an ardent wish to see conditions improved. The question is whether increased governmental funding is the remedy. I sound unfeeling, but let me say it. Giving money dignifies  the giver and demeans the receiver.

Today we read that some of the Indian residential school survivors who recently received “Common Experience Payments” have since committed suicide. Jack Branswell and Ken Meaney, “Native suicides linked to federal payments,” National Post, A1. Did receipt of the payments remind individuals of their vulnerability as youngsters in those schools? Did it reinforce memories of abuse?

Did it forcibly suggest that they are still to this day persons who have to be taken care of? Compensated? Dependency is bitter.

Also in this issue of the Post is Lorne Gunter’s review of Gordon Gibson’s A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy: Respect the Collective – Promote the Individual. One to read. Take this line from the review: “Imagine, for instance, your mayor receiving all the money for local welfare and you having to cozy up to him or her to get your cheque.”


A Killing Drop in Temperature

Not long ago – ten or fifteen years? – well-educated people thought the world was on the brink of a sudden and killing drop in temperature. My neighbour the eminent scientist was then of that opinion.
I remember a CBC program from the winter of 01-02 on Barbara Pentland’s music and life. Pentland and her friend Dorothy Livesay, ardent environmentalists, believed that human negligence and capitalist greed were hastening the return of the great glaciers. The end of life on earth was nigh. The CBC gave us Livesay reciting her poem entitled “Ice Age,” followed by Pentland’s composition of the same title. (I enjoyed both.)
The artists thought polar ice was advancing. Today we think it’s retreating. We’re still worried, notice. We’re still casting around for persons to blame.

Tom Flanagan’s Mistake

If the Conservative’s upcoming budget is defeated in the House of Commons should the Governor General invite the Liberal-NDP-Québécois coalition to form a Government? In the Globe and Mail of January 9, Tom Flanagan says: no. The G.G. must dissolve Parliament; Canada’s electorate must speak.

Flanagan’s wrong: the Governor General has a choice. She can opt for dissolution but may also call on Ignatieff to take the reins. It’s up to her. Tom takes an absurd and surprising position in his January 9 column, calling Canada’s “machinery of responsible government,” antiquated, a leftover from “the pre-democratic age of the early 19th century.” Responsible government, the parliamentary practice by which the party or coalition in power must retain the confidence of the people’s elected representatives in the House of Commons on taxing and spending measures, is Canada’s supreme guarantee of political freedom. It is the way in which our constitution ensures the contestation of political parties for office.

British North Americans wrested their freedom from the Imperial Government in1848, when responsible government was introduced in first one British North American province and then another, overthrowing the colonial oligarchies – the Chateau Clique, the Family Compact, the “Official Parties” in the Maritime Provinces. Once responsible government was established, the extension of the franchise and the development of extra-parliamentary parties were inevitable.

Tom’s a victim of the reinterpretation of Canadian political history introduced in the mid-twentieth century and still in vogue (think of George Grant, Gad Horowitz, Louis Hartz, Seymour Martin Lipset), which ignores the story of responsible government and argues that our true Canadian heritage reveals a bent toward toward populism, communitarianism, and, for goodness sakes, oligarchy. In older text books, Confederation is described as the affirmation of the freedoms won in 1848. In the reinterpretation of our history favoured by Grant and his disciples, Confederation is said to incorporate the culture of collectivism and deference (deference!) that supposedly underpinned the Family Compact.

In brief: before 1848 Governors acted as Head of Government, weighing in on one political side or the other, using the authority of the Imperial Parliament to suppress dissent in the colonies. After 1848 they were required to confine themselves to the role of Head of State. And so it is today. Governor General Jean is our Head of State. She’s a referee, not a player. In a stalemate (when there’s a fight on the ice), she blows the whistle, repositions the participants and then steps out of the game, letting the competition for political power, on which depends our liberty, continue unfettered. It’s a mistake to try to enlist her on one side or the other.

Winds of Change on the Charter

In a recent comment on the Inroads Magazine chatline (Queen’s University), Garth Stevenson writes:

“Mea culpa. I have to confess that I supported entrenching a charter of rights and freedoms in the constitution back in the early 1980s. But it has proved to be the worst thing that ever happened to our country, other than two world wars.”

To which Henry Milner replies: “I agree with Garth that the Charter has proven to be a bad idea.”

Why are Stevenson and Milner sounding like the Calgary school? Like Rainer Knopff, Ted Morton, Barry Cooper, et al? The immediate issue before them is the prospect that a charge against the polygamists in British Columbia will fall to the Charter’s freedom of religion clause. I’d say they have in mind as well “a long train of [court] abuses.”

More from Stevenson’s note: “Remember how opponents of ‘same sex marriage’ were ridiculed and denounced by all the usual suspects a few years ago for suggesting that polygamy would be the next item on the agenda? So who turned out to be right? What will come next: ‘marriages’ between humans and animals? Wait and see.”

Colonial Gaza

It’s commonly said that the Palestinians are a colonized people. Israel is the occupier-colonizer. Take this comment in a letter to the National Post protesting Israel’s military attack on educational institutions in Gaza (January 8, 2009, “CUPE has the right idea”): “The denial of educational resources to a colonized people is a longstanding practice of occupation forces or settler-colonial powers.” Colonizers are powerful; the colonized are victims. The formulation has become a “trope,” a way of thinking in the social sciences, a tool of analysis.

How far can we take the trope? I’m ready to say that the Palestinians in Gaza are a colonized people. They resemble victims. But who are the colonizers?

Colonizers can be defined as groups or countries that make rules for others by which the colonizers themselves are not bound. And as I explained a couple of days ago colonizers often enforce those rules by paying into the colony’s coffers. In the first decade of the nineteenth century according to one early estimate, the British contributed nearly one half of the costs of government in Lower Canada.  A colonizing regime may have other and nastier ways of enforcing its will. But for the purposes of the argument here let’s keep our eyes on the money.

In a free country, the citizens pay the shot. The whole thing. They pay their governors’ salaries and expenses and fund their policies, and they expect to be able to dismiss them from office if grossly unsatisfactory by choking off funding. So the prosperity of the people becomes something the governors have to take seriously. That’s Canada’s system today. It’s not a perfect one. (But who’s come up with a better?)

Now think about a situation in which the taxpayers of a foreign country could slip funds to Canadian legislators. A situation in which the government of a foreign country, or an international agency, could propose and bankroll ambitious schemes of “improvement” for this country. The sovereign power of the people of Canada to determine their nation’s affairs would be short-circuited. We’d be a colonized population again, our political agenda determined elsewhere, our legislators no longer working wholeheartedly for us because no longer dependent on us.

Turn to Gaza. Who’s paying Gaza’s rulers; who’s paying for programs and policies?

Noemi Gal-Or, who contributes to the Inroads Magazine chat line (Queen’s University) observes: “Gaza is flooded with money from Arab sources as Hamas’ military organisation and infrastructure evidences, while the humanitarian and economic funding is left to sponsorship by the rest of the world – the UN and mainly the West. From Arafat’s coffers to the Hamas’ – money was never a problem, nor should it be. Its allocation and distribution certainly always was and still is.” (Thanks, Noemi.)

So by Ajzenstat’s definition, Gaza is a colony. But is Israel the colonizer? Insofar as it is supplying humanitarian aid, yes. But so are the “Arab sources” mentioned by Gal-Or. Iran, the UN, and “the West” relieve Hamas of the necessity of improving the lives of its people.

I am not suggesting we cut off humanitarian aid. It’s surely one of the most extraordinary and admirable aspects of today’s world that governments, private groups and individuals in the wealthier countries ungrudgingly attempt to alleviate conditions in poorer ones. But the interference in other countries, while admirable and indeed necessary, has that unfortunate effect of –  even if only temporarily – demeaning the recipient’s independence, the precious self-sufficiency on which depends the population’s self-regard and ability to govern themselves and improve their economy. Think of the reaction of the Indian Government to the tsunami of 2004. Western countries and agencies geared up to send aid to the affected Indian provinces but India asked us to refrain. India was in a position to take care of itself and assist its unfortunate neighbours.

It’s in areas like Gaza that the full consequences come home. Gal-Or goes on: “Hamas could have shown that it was a government to be recognised in international law not only in words but also in deeds, and primarily – in deeds designed to protect their own ‘citizenry’. They still have this opportunity available – in theory and in practice.” She ardently wishes that Hamas or some other party had been able to “take control over the Palestinian economy in Gaza and develop it.”

But they didn’t. Hamas has absolutely no reason to alleviate Gaza’s suffering. And many reasons to exacerbate it. I don’t see a way out of this dilemma.

Colonies, Taxation, and Freedom

Paying taxes makes you free. Can I really be saying that? Yes. Today I’ll look at British North America; tomorrow, Gaza.

I used to think of colonies as assets; the home country, the metropolis, exploited them for their resources and cheap labour. But colonies can be expensive to maintain and in nineteenth-century Britain there were always those who complained that keeping the British North American colonies was just too d. expensive, a significant drain on the home-country economy. Colonies have to be governed and so the home country sends over administrators, and pays their salaries, and the salaries of their aides and the colonists brought on board as advisors. Colonies have to be defended. The home country outfits and supports colonial militias. And so on. Think of it this way: the British taxpayer was supporting a raft of governmental services in a distant country.

The critics asked what they were getting for this outlay. Glory. Prestigious employment opportunities for their younger sons, in the colonies and in the Colonial Office. Somewhere to dump failed British entrepreneurs, orphans and urban riff raff. Hardly worth it, eh?

The system suited some of the colonists very well. It suited especially those whose salaries as advisors and commissions in the militias were being underwritten. Not to mince words, it suited the colonial oligarchs, the members of the Family Compact, the Chateau Clique, the “official parties” in the Maritime Provinces. And their friends and families. (And “their cousins and their uncles and their aunts.”)

Think about how it worked. The colonial franchise was a broad one for that period, elections were held frequently, and after each election new people and parties, with new ideas and aspirations would show up in the colonial Assembly. But almost without fail the British-appointed Governor would elevate to the important posts of government in the Executive Council and Legislative Council, familiar members of the Family Compact or the Clique, paying their salaries as necessary out of funds supplied by Britain. It would be the same old gang running the province! You might suppose that price of membership in the Family Compact was deference to imperial masters. But it was never clear whether the Governors were really in charge. Lord Durham, for one, was of the opinion that most Governors were manipulated by their Executive Councillors.

Hence the profound dissatisfaction of the colonial radicals and the constitutional liberals. Hence the Rebellions of 1837 and ’38. In 1848, at last, in first one British North American province and then another, the liberals triumphed. They won the right to pay the expenses of government. The term we use for the political practice they introduced is “responsible government.” Thenceforth the salaries of Executive Councillors would be paid for out of funds voted by the elective Legislative Assembly. Freedom at last! The oligarchs went down to defeat.

Being taxed is the mark of a free citizen.

It’s something to remember next March and April as we fill out forms and hunt for elusive deduction slips. But there is another matter to consider. Aren’t we today, we Canadians, paying the expenses of governments in some distant countries? We don’t call ourselves imperialists. Heaven forbid. We call ourselves benefactors, good-deed doers.

The questions for tomorrow are these: Who’s paying the expenses in Gaza? Who is taxed? Who are the colonizers?

Sweet Zilch From the CPSA

We’ve heard nothing from the Canadian Political Science Association’s Board about what happened at their December meeting.

Rumour had it that the CPSA Women’s Caucus would ask the Board to issue a “protocol” about correct behaviour at academic panels. Here’s the version that was circulating last fall: “We [the Women’s Caucus] request that the CPSA Board create policy concerning (1) speech that promotes hatred or creates a hostile environment; and (2) the consequences of such speech. In particular, we would like guidelines concerning professional conduct during the Annual Meeting (for panels and all other formal and informal sessions). These guidelines should include instructions for session chairs, participants, and discussants. We also request the establishment of protocols for registering complaints and a process for their resolution.”

Did the Board consider this request? I’ve made inquiries but received no informative responses. “Bit of a tempest in a teapot,” said one respondent. He asked not to be named.

By all accounts there were hurt feelings all around at the session of Congress (UBC, spring of 2008) at which Frances Widdowson presented her thesis on mismanagement of aboriginal affairs in Canada. Hurt feelings and little fruitful engagement of issues. (See previous blogs: From Fierlbeck, November 2, 2008; Free Speech in Academe, September 10; Harvey Mansfield on Canada, August 28.) Widdowson’s argument was drawn from her book, written with Albert Howard, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation (McGill-Queen’s University Press).

Her contention is that policies put forward to address problems of Canada’s native peoples are contributing to their misery. Respondents at the Congress session said that Widdowson lacks sympathy for the Aboriginal “narrative” and worldview. Does it all sound more or less like business as usual in academe? You would think. But some people concluded that Widdowson was “promoting hatred and creating a hostile environment.”

Getting everyone to play nice, be polite and get along is a big concern in universities these days.

What We Said

What did we talk about at our holiday dinners? (While avoiding sex, money, politics, gossip, maliciousness, and complaints.)

Children’s literature: why do adults read it? Why is it an academic specialty? Political scientists hold conferences on the Harry Potter books, for goodness sakes. Do we read kid lit because we crave stories? All agreed: there aren’t enough stories in adult fiction. We’ve learned to do without melody in music. But it’s hard to get over an addiction to stories. Melodies and stories; both suggest that there’s meaning and purpose in life. Someone notes that the stiffly Catholic magazine First Things, a “Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life” reviews children’s books.  (I remember that a few years ago First Things embarrassed itself with a rave review of the first two volumes in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series. Then the third one appeared uncovering the ultimate purpose of the children’s quest: to pull down Heaven and kill God.)

We talked about popular books on philosophy and philosophers. Most highly recommended: Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. (Wittgenstein and Popper.) And from the same authors: Rousseau’s Dog, which describes “an unseemly fight” between Hume and Rousseau. And Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza. (It’s a betrayal of Spinoza’s universalism to describe the particulars of his life and times.)

Signs of hope. A good mid-winter topic. People know things are going to turn out all right but want assurance. We want a direct line to God. The Well in the Wilderness. If only we didn’t have to rely on texts and the interpretation of texts. It’s pointed out that Rabbinic Judaism tells us to be wary of signs of hope. We’re supposed to be wary of teachings about end times and absolutes. Patience: that’s the rabbis’ advice. They sound like the sages of the Wisdom literature. Or the Stoics, for that matter.

We talked about peace and plenty. We’re living under good laws – well, maybe not the best laws. In a beautiful land, enjoying a gloriously snowy, sunny winter. All the world indicators are improving. More women are in school, more babies live past their first year, more people are listening to Bach. More people are performing Bach! Why aren’t we hopeful, grateful? Why are people so preoccupied with the financial crisis and the environment: the sky’s falling, oceans are rising. (I think of Ulysses’ speech in Troilus and Cressida: “the bounded waters raise their shoulders higher than the shore, to make a sop of all this solid globe.” Fear of floods: that’s an old fear, probably the oldest. The waters below the earth loosed again.)

Can we allow ourselves to look for little signs? Little hopes? Jews are not supposed to read horoscopes. But synagogues in Eastern Europe usually had the Signs of the Zodiac running in a frieze around the sanctuary ceiling. Who knows why?

Money came up after all. The table was covered with chocolate coins in gold foil wrappers. Why do the coins depict eagles and not loons and moose? For that matter why don’t the wrappers depict the Greek and Roman images on the coins that circulated in Palestine at the time of the Maccabean Revolt?

And we didn’t forget to talk about movies. The question was: which do you like better, movies or film?