Empire of Empiricism

I just got called a “crypto-reactionary” for laughing at a “leftist” American for tweeting this bit of intellectual frippery:

“Capitalism is empirically unsound and can only survive in a culture hostile to empiricism. From a humanistic standpoint it is no less grounded in mysticism and dogma than any other reactionary ideology.”

Hard as it is to disagree with the notion that capitalism has attracted a set of intellectual apologists who indulge in “mysticism and dogma” in praise of their chosen subject, it’s even harder to see how “mysticism and dogma” are somehow unique to reactionary ideologies.

While there is little doubt that Marx used the word “science” in a way that is not precisely consonant with what most people think of when they think of physicists working on the A-bomb or chemists brewing up ever more clever plastics with which to destroy the environment, he was hardly a dogmatic mystic. This is absolutely not the case with all the varieties of “leftist” critique of capitalism-patriarchy-white supremacy that today claim to be downstream of Marx the social scientist. If there is an ideological faction out there in the world today that is not saddled with “mysticism and dogma” I would love to meet it in the flesh.

My real problem with this vaguely tautological bit of hollow virtue-signalling is the double whammy of absurd claims made in the first sentence.

“Capitalism is empirically unsound”: what can this even begin to mean? Empirically, capitalism has grown from its meager beginnings in 16th C England and Holland to a world-straddling colossus the likes of which has quite frankly never before been seen. “Empirically”, that is.

“[Capitalism] can only survive in a culture hostile to empiricism.” Now what this means seems rather evident even though it also seems to be referring to life on another planet.

Empirically, if we allow that something as reliant on textual interpretation as history can be called empirical, the opposite appears to be true. The earliest incubators of capitalism were also arguably nations where the cultures were far more accepting of empiricism than most of the rest of the world. Some writers might even go so far as to suggest that one reason capitalism was born in England of the 16th century, rather than 13th century Siam or even 15th century England, was the embrace of empiricism after centuries of intellectual enslavement to dogma and mysticism.

After a little hostile back-and-forth, it emerged that our interlocutor actually meant: ” my critique is that the theoretical basis for capitalism is empirically unsound”. So now we see that it isn’t capitalism that is “unsound” as stated ever so clearly in the initial tweet, it is “the theoretical basis for capitalism” that is “empirically unsound”.

It is my impression that capitalism was a praxis well before it ever gained such a thing as a “theoretical basis”. This would seem to me to mean that “theories of capitalism” are not remotely its “basis” but merely post facto rationales or analyses of its reality. Once this is taken on board it becomes rather mundane to point out that attempts to “theorize” a reality as complex and ever-shifting as actual existing capitalism fall short “empirically”. This would be as true of Adam Smith’s formulations as of Marx’s or Hayek’s.

Unlike socialism or communism, whose theorizations have always preceded and outrun and indeed usually denied its realities, capitalism is what it is and theories run around trying to keep up with its chameleon-like disappearances into whatever social and cultural background it inserts itself.

It’s almost as if Karl Rove or whoever it actually was had put it this way:

“Capitalism’s an empire now, and when it acts, it creates its own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—it’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. It is history’s actor…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what it does.”

This is the reality that anything calling itself “left” has to confront if it is going to further the cause of a socialist future rather than impress followers on Facebook and Twitter with just how apparently intellectual we can be in our little snippets of “anti-capitalism”, regardless of how actually inane they turn out to be.

The problem of course is the virtual impossibility of contemporary westerners, especially North Americans, attaining escape velocity from the liberalism that they stretch and crimp here and there to represent themselves as leftists. When identitarian left-liberals want to let their “leftist” flags fly, they say things like what I laughed at in that tweet exchange.

Looked at closely, these “leftists” rarely manage anything remotely close to a hard-edged critique of the bourgeois society and culture they so perfectly reproduce in almost everything they think and say.

If seeing and saying so makes me a “crypto-reactionary” in their eyes, I suppose I’ll just have to live with that. It sure beats playing middle-class revolutionary while scrambling to get a better job and taking my political stances from Column A, B or C of the contemporary left of neoliberalism.

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Nothing Left

Well, well. Here we are again.

You really have to ask yourself why it is that Americans will flock spontaneously to their local airports to protest their president’s illegal banning of immigrants but can’t be bothered to do the same in equal numbers to protest their president’s illegal bombing of yet another war-torn nation in the global south.

It could be that immigration falls naturally under the “racist-white supremacist” clause of the identity politics version of the social contract, whereas illegal wars that take place far away among “people of colour” who are on all kinds of different “sides” just cannot be comprehended in the “racist-white supremacist” analysis of the world.

It could also be that Americans of whatever political stripe are vaguely in favor of war because they can never really be sure whether it is for good or for ill, so best to just let the bosses have at it.

But really, the failure of the American “left” to actively oppose American imperialist militarism since the last gasp of that One Big Rally back when Cheney and Rumsfeld organized Bush II into invading Iraq is not a failure of any actual “left”.

Because for all intents and purposes there is no American left, just a simulacrum thereof consisting of online identity politicking claiming the leftist label and the occasional socialist-materialist leftist so frightened of the attacks from the Id Pol Vampire Squad that they might as well be on the radical liberal team themselves.

The Emperor has orange hair and bad clothes and zero effective internal opposition.

May we hope that Russia and Iran backed by China will step up where leftists fear to tread?

The Lonely Planet Guide to Democratic Retreat: Parts One & Two

I

These days, when the intrepid journalists and NGO press release writers (is there a difference?) who “cover” SE Asia talk about the “Retreat of Democracy” hereabouts, they almost always mean the retreat and/or failure of liberalism.

But that doesn’t matter to these people because, in the western chauvinist view, any regime that isn’t liberal is, by definition, not democratic– no matter how much support it has from its people– because what makes a regime in the old colonial world “democratic” is the support of western journalists and NGOs.

And they say we live in a post-colonial world!

Thailand, which as anyone will tell you was once a “beacon of democracy” in the region, is sliding down the league tables for everything from democracy to freedom of the press to simple all-round freedom. If there is anything a western liberal hates more than a military junta it’s hard to say what that might be. And while they tend not to like populists, even when elected with significant majorities, and even when they remain popular with majorities of their electorates, military juntas are really really really bad.

The paragons of liberal evangelizing do, however, always seem to avoid discussion of Egypt when going on and on about the evils of military governments, perhaps because the Obama State Department was loath to label the coup there as a coup (because Muslims?) and because the EU has mysteriously maintained and supplemented its trade relations with Egypt, at the very same time as it has put all discussion of free trade with Thailand on hold until such time as what passes for democracy in Thailand has been restored.

It may be because the Thai junta has curtailed freedom of speech and expression and jailed some 100 people for violations of Lese Majeste and other laws limiting speech while the Sisi junta has only murdered some 800 protesters and jailed and tortured thousands.

Or could it just be that since al-Sisi has been elected with a landslide 97% of votes in a recent election, the Classics Illustrated definition of democracy has been adhered to and there is no need to wonder about what would otherwise be a glaring discrepancy? Inquiring minds want to know.

We all need a sense of proportion I suppose.

Perhaps “‘Tis a muddle, and that’s aw” as Stephen Blackpool in Dickens’ Hard Times might have said of this odd discrepancy, and it’s best to leave it at that. As anyone who has ever tried knows, asking difficult questions of liberals is often the quickest and easiest way to find yourself  accused of racism and/or being a cast member of “Literally Hitler”, since not holding the approved opinions is obviously an indication of holding the evil ones.

And Myanmar, which just a couple of years ago was the journalist’s and NGO’s emerging “beacon of democracy” for the region, is mired in tragedy with 700 thousand Rohingya having been forcibly relocated to Bangladesh and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi having had her portrait removed from the foyer of some building in some college in the UK. Sometimes it’s hard to know which of those things strikes western people as more ‘significant’, but that’s pretty much par for the course.

The British colonization of Burma rarely if ever comes up in journalistic accounts of the ethnic conflict in Myanmar, regardless of the fact that it’s plainly a case of the British colonial policy of ethnic mixing for the purpose of creating division and weakness having foisted on the Burmese an intractable problem that most of these journalists and all of the NGO folks probably believe GOOGLE could solve with a Diversity Memo, as long as people like James Damore are kept out of the loop. Why won’t these “Burman supremacists” just recognize that diversity is strength and that decade after decade of endless inter-ethnic war is not evidence to the contrary?

We are not, after all, dealing with intellectuals when we talk about journalists and NGO people. They are more like a species of the (usually) male backpackers who, having read and reread their Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, sit in cafes and guesthouse restaurants throughout the region holding forth to the less literate members of the fraternity on the exotic wonders of the cultures of SE Asia. Given half a chance, these westsplainers will even launch into lecturing the locals on what their cultures are really all about. At that point, said backpacker is half way to a career in NGO finger-wagging or journalism.

 

And this is how the rest of the world comes to understand SE Asia.

II

As horrible as the situation of the Rohingya unquestionably is, the people of Myanmar stand solidly behind both Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, an organization many of them most definitely did not like or trust until just recently. The democratic legitimacy of the present hybrid administration in Naypyidaw is not really in doubt, except of course to those whose preference for liberalism over democracy leads them to the conclusion that Burmese Buddhists are just another “basket of deplorables” in need of correction by the UN, if not even more forceful foreign “democratic” compulsion.

Perhaps Hillary could convince her friends in Saudi Arabia to contribute to the process of enlightening the benighted Burmese in much the same fashion as they are doing in Yemen. Perhaps liberals in the media and NGOverse could offer explanations as to why the Rohingya “issue” has received so much coverage and the tragedies unfolding in Yemen and South Sudan so little by comparison. But then again, Ken “Interventions ‘R’ Us” Roth of Human Rights Watch is hardly a voice to be trusted in relation to actual human lives as opposed to human rights.

But Thailand and Burma have been superseded as exemplars of “Democratic Retreat” in SE Asia, as the international news cycle churns, and audiences become immune to yet another heartbreaking photo of doe-eyed Rohingya children and one more chilling portrait of a clown-faced Thai general making cracks about women who wear bikinis asking for rape.

The “beacons” of populism and authoritarianism most in the spotlight these days are Roderigo Duterte of the Philippines and Somdech Hun Sen of Cambodia, a pair of worthy contestants in the media competition to crown the Most Evil Destroyer of Democracy in SE Asia.

Duterte seems a likely champion: he has overseen and joked about and justified the extrajudicial execution of some 8000 mainly very poor people in his war on drugs. He makes Thaksin, the on-again off-again hero of democracy in Thailand, look like a real piker for only having killed between 1300 and 2700 in a similar deployment of police-based death squads.

Duterte, like Prayuth in Thailand, makes rape jokes that send the outrage monitors spiraling out of control around those parts of the globe that go in for that sort of thing, but Duterte seems to have ingested a witches brew of curdled testosterone and methamphetamines before he does his repulsive performances of toxic masculinity. He goes so far as to claim to have killed personally in his quest for justice and suggests that gang rape would be OK if only he gets to go first. Trump is an amateur at provoking PC outrage in comparison to Duterte.

But consistent with the liberal horrorshow vs democratic success pattern I am outlining here, as of January this year Duterte had the highest approval ratings, including a measure of “trust”, of any Philippine president since the 80s and the People Power Revolution. As was the case with Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, who won a historic second term in a landslide after years of consistent criticism for human rights abuses (including the extrajudicial executions in his drug war and repeated flagrant attempts to intimidate and silence media voices), Duterte maintains his democratic legitimacy and the support of his electorate.

But here, of course is where the liberal media and the liberal NGOs and the liberal academics beg to differ. Having the support of an electorate is not a sufficient condition for claiming democratic legitimacy. especially when that electorate is made up of poorly educated ‘peasants’ or desperately poor people who are angry at the people who occupy the liberal, predominantly white, empyrean, where all justice is just and all jokes have been cleared by the PC censors before any politician dares utter them.

For this unseemly constellation of personalities and mass emotion we have the handy term ‘populism’, which is used to refer to “Rule by the Basket of Deplorables” by people who would rather not be frank about the class and race hierarchies they cling to even as they deny them utterly. You might say of people like Duterte that while “they may be sonsofbitches, they are most definitely their sonsofbitches”, and so need to be excoriated and deposed if at all possible.

Who’s To Blame? Not “The State”

I’ve been having an interesting “discussion” on Twitter regarding the recent uproar over Indigenous kids representing a ridiculously high proportion of children in care being kept from their parents for long periods of time.

At issue in my end of the discussion is the tendency of people upset by this situation to want to blame it on “the state”.

As someone who spent 7 years working with kids and who sat in on various meetings related to child placement in foster care, returning kids to their families, and assessing progress in ‘treatment’ and thereby justifying continued residential care, I find the notion that this is somehow “the state” behaving badly as “the state” somewhat ridiculous.

To begin with I admit my take may be somewhat biased because of my Ontario-centric point of view. Indigenous kids are not as overwhelmingly predominant in Ontario foster care as they are in other provinces- 30% vs 80-90% according to the Macleans article I linked to above. Not only that, but child protection services in Ontario are the purview of Children’s Aid Societies, legally designated NGOs, so not what we normally associate with “the state”.

I have a very clear memory of a series of meetings my agency had with social workers from Children’s Aid as part of the process of having one of our children adopted after years in our care. The CAS people came with profiles and analyses of potential families and we discussed the appropriateness or inappropriateness thereof. There was a lot of disagreement and argumentative discussion about two of the families, the characters of the would-be “moms”, the jobs and attitudes toward child-rearing of the wannabe “dads”.

The third family, however, offered the possibility of a “kumbaya moment” for the two sides in these meetings. Dad was a politician, a sitting provincial MP if I recall correctly, and both the “hippies” from our children’s mental health center and the “bureaucratic authoritarians” from the CAS agreed wholeheartedly that there was no way this child was going to be given over to the sleazoid hypocrisy of a politician for a dad.

I remember leaving that particular meeting feeling vaguely dirty. I was probably the most “hippoid hippy” on our team- and so more or less hated politicians and government and “the state” as a reflex- and yet when I really thought about it, I couldn’t help wondering whether our shared prejudice was what determined the outcome of that discussion rather than any sense of what was actually best for the child. After all, the family was well-off, well-educated and mom was at home to give the kind of time and attention that our soon-to-be former “patient” would doubtlessly need over the next few years.

Our center served a large area of the province because we were viewed as the “last resort” for kids who either couldn’t be cared for by other agencies or who other agencies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole: too violent, too crazy, too little likelihood of progress. I loved most of the people I worked with and respected their attempts to do their best for the children that we worked with. I also loved the kids. It was a rich time for me in many ways and I have been permanently affected by my experiences with the people I met and worked with, children and adults alike.

But by the time I left I was disappointed in how we worked with our kids and their families.

ADHD was in the process of “being invented” and so more and more our kids were being medicated. I entered the field in the dying days of psychoanalytic influence in treatment modalities. We read Erikson and Anna Freud, attempted to generate a treatment approach based on a combination of Erikson and Piaget, and most of us believed that the Browndale approach to retrogression therapy, while flawed and potentially dangerous, was nevertheless essentially correct in its understanding of how our kids had been damaged by toxic relationships. Using Ritalin and antipsychotics to mask symptoms and suppress behaviour was chemical imprisonment, not therapy.

I spent years campaigning to put an end to “therapeutic holding”, first in my unit and finally in the agency. Around the time I left, the ministry issued guidelines that therapeutic holding was to be avoided. I have no idea how consistently that has been upheld or whether in fact another change in the weather has led to holding making a comeback in therapeutic spaces. I hope not. The line between ‘therapeutic holding’ and corporal punishment is one that is too fine to be left up to the momentary judgement of an adult who has just been spat upon and is being told to go fuck his mother.

But perhaps most significant was my recognition that all of our jobs- CCWs, social workers, psychiatrists, pediatricians- were dependent on kids remaining in treatment. I can’t recall the number of times I or someone else asked at an assessment meeting when we were going to finally acknowledge that one or another of our kids was “done” and ought to go home. Occasionally someone would joke that if we let them all go we’d all be out of work.

It seemed that someone, often the designated case worker, was always arguing that either the child or the family were just not ready. If the kid seemed to no longer need our support, then it was noticed that on return from home visits he was antsy or depressed. If mom was back in a stable relationship and no one was drinking to excess in the new family home, then there was a fear that everything would fall apart if our kid was sent back to live in that environment. The child would ruin the family’s progress or the family would ruin the child’s.

Most of the children I worked with from 1974 till 1980 stayed in treatment for at least 3 or 4 years, some longer. When we opened up an adolescent unit some of our kids just “graduated” from our center to the other unit. Saying goodbye to the majority of kids we had had in care for most of the workers was always a wrenching experience. It seems that being kicked in the shins almost daily for years on end can be a stimulus for a kind of love that I can still feel at a distance of ten thousand miles and almost forty years.

Some of our kids we tried to place in foster homes, but were rarely successful for the same reasons other treatment centers and agencies had passed on the kids we treated. I can honestly say I never met a foster parent I liked. Often they were moralistic Christians who you just knew were going to be into “spare the rod”, even if the “rod” in question was just going to be harsh words and time outs and constant criticism and preaching. It was also obvious to me that financial supplement to family income was often the real motive behind fostering and I don’t care how small the stipend is or was. I have never been a fan of “good intentions” and I doubt my view of foster parents would change much if I were to get back involved in the system now.

At one point after I left the agency and was studying at university, I ran into financial difficulties and tried working in a group home for adolescents. I lasted about two weeks if I recall and was just about ready to start a movement to have the private company running the chain of homes shut down. It was so much not what I expected from my years as what I came to realize had been spent as a prima donna CCW in a well-funded treatment center that I was in a state of outrage for months. The kids were no problem but my coworkers, my “supervisor”, and the corporation itself were a travesty. All of them. Talk about systemic abuse, here was the very definition.

The center that I worked at for six years from ’74 to ’80 was located in my hometown. I noticed at one point that out of the 18 boys we had in residence, roughly 70% of them came from the neighborhood that I grew up in. None of the other workers had grown up there and I often felt that my distinctly working-class background set me apart from my coworkers, especially where judging the appropriateness of certain behaviours was concerned. What was normal and necessary for my brother and I and all of our friends growing up and living on the streets of our neighborhood was nothing more or less than pathological for my coworkers and especially for the solid bourgeoise who came in as consulting psychiatrists and pediatricians at regular intervals.

So, yes. The state. We were established and funded under the Ministry of Health when I started and had been moved under the Ministry of Community and Social Services by the time I left. Every year we had to shop like madmen to spend our budget on new canoes and tents and backpacks because we couldn’t afford to lose funding for the next year. At some point we started having problems with getting our kids out of our in-house classrooms and into regular classes at local schools because a funding battle was looming with Boards of Education making moves to take over responsibility for all special ed service provision. Some kids died on a canoe trip organized by some agency so word came down from the Ministry that we had to start cutting back and reconsidering our focus on outdoor programs.

When they started closing “reform schools” in Ontario we were more or less commanded to hire one or two people from those facilities but the philosophy and approach of people in corrections could not have been a worse fit with an agency built on treatment approaches. One of the people we hired was let go within a year because I had initiated a campaign to have him fired for abusing one or two of the kids. “The state” made us hire him and we decided to fire him. And that is a paradigm case for the relation between our agency and this “state” that so many people want to blame for Indigenous kids being taken and kept away from their parents. “The state” mandates that children be protected and sanctions certain powers to be exercised by those working in agencies established to enact that protection, but the individual agencies and workers make all the decisions within that broadly established mandate.

There is a series of tweets from @DepencyLaw that I think get at exactly why it is absurd and vaguely infantile to identify “the state” and the currently popular “systemic racism” as the ultimate cause of the problems experienced by Indigenous families in this regard:thread

It seems to me impossible to read that series of tweets, which corresponds to what I observed very closely, and see it as confirmation that it is somehow “the state” which is responsible. Workers and their agencies are empowered by the state but not directed by the state to behave in the way that series of tweets suggests is common. You don’t blame automobiles for the accidents their drivers cause and this is not a case of “the state” somehow mistreating citizens. It is citizens of one race and class mistreating citizens of another race and class.

It is very far from fashionable to point to “classism” in a discussion of “racism” in the contemporary environment, just as it is anathema to point to individual responsibility and moral/ethical failings when a handy “state” can be blamed for “systemic racism”.

But fashion and genuine understanding are far from the same thing.

As long as there is such a thing as Child Protective Services mandated by Child Protection Legislation there is going to be discrimination based on race and class, not because the state embodies systemic racism or classism but because the definitions involved in establishing what constitutes a “safe” environment, “potential for harm” and “nurturance and care” are always and inevitably going to be expressions of class and culture.

In the end, the only way to avoid the horror of a mother and her children being kept apart for a decade by “well-intentioned” social workers is to dismantle any and all legal systems backed by state power that permit such things to happen with state sanction. There is no “tweaking” these agencies so that race and class will no longer matter as long as they are staffed by human beings.

Just as there is no chance that children are not going to be abused and neglected by their parents as long as their parents are recognized as sovereign within the family structure.

Canayjun, eh?

I don’t know much Canadian history. I’ve tried but always found it boring. I don’t find it necessary to apologize for that and neither do I agree that it invalidates any opinions I may have regarding social issues in Canada.

I don’t know much about First Nations people in Canada. The few times I’ve made the attempt to correct that I get annoyed and bored in equal measure. I am put off by mythologized “histories” of people who had no written language and no historical tradition beyond the “oral tradition” and its “stories”. I find notions of “racial guilt” passed down through generations of such indefensible constructs as “white people” to be offensive in the extreme- intellectually and morally offensive.

I have no problem accepting the truth and relevance of the history of treaties signed and treaties broken that characterizes much of the history of relations between the “Crown” and various indigenous peoples in Canada. As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies and a healthy mistrust of the state and the middle-class people who administer it, it would surprise me if the history of treaty relations were any different.

I have no problem accepting that the issue of the Residential Schools which has come to act as a cynosure in the discussion of indigenous rights in Canada is an issue whose real history is replete with abuse of all kinds. As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies who spent 7 years of his life working in what were once known as children’s “mental health centres” I have no difficulty accepting that in such institutions as the residential schools there will be adults whose wielding of power will result in sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children. I look back with pride on the one occasion when I worked hard to have a coworker fired for what eventually people in authority in our agency agreed was abusive treatment of some of the children in our care.

I do, however, have a problem with “blood and soil” approaches to politics and identity. As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies I find the sacralization of land and culture and racial identity that characterizes so much of the discussion around indigenous issues offensive. “Blood and soil” is often a shorthand phrase used to refer to a predominant aspect of fascist, specifically Nazi, ideology and I use it here fully conscious of that fact.

Private property is theft. Leaving aside the utter unreality of mouthing such a principle in the world we live in, it is nevertheless a guiding principle in any approach to socialist ideation. We hear often that the indigenous peoples of North America did not have a notion of private property and this is often emphasized when we are discussing the pre-colonial idyll that European invasion and conquest interrupted. For indigenous people to attempt to grab and hold parcels of land and the various mineral and other rights associated with it on the basis of never having held a notion of property rights is odd, to say the least.

As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies I have come to accept that in the case of a country like Canada it is probably true that the best we can hope for in the 21st century is a defense of the liberal democratic system that is laid out in the constitution and the charter of rights and freedoms.

There are things in our constitution and our charter that I disagree with, specifically those which provide for “group rights” and those which provide for the protection of the “cultural practices” of identified minorities like the indigenous peoples. I believe fervently that wherever or whenever “group rights” or traditional “cultural practices” infringe on the rights of individuals, the rights of the individual must always take precedence.

Just as I find it offensive and absurd to refer to the “two founding peoples” of Canada as if their predominance in the early days of the establishment of modern Canada gave them some special status, I find it offensive and absurd to assert that the people who were on “Turtle Island” before Europeans arrived should have some special status.

As an atheist I object to any and all special treatment for religions and religious institutions. I object to government funding of religious schools, as happens in the case of Ontario and Catholic schools, and I object to the tax-free status of any and all religious organizations. I don’t want “prayer spaces” to be made available for Muslim students in public schools and I don’t want Christian theology or Native Spirituality taught in public schools. From my point of view, one woman’s “oogy-boogyism” is as absurd and counterproductive as any other man’s.

I believe that freedom of speech and thought and opinion and belief are the bedrock of the minimal good that is provided by liberal democratic institutions like Canada’s charter. I also believe that these freedoms are under attack from many sides in contemporary democracies like Canada.

“Hate speech” legislation is bad enough but it at least requires lengthy and unwieldy legal procedures to be implemented. The censorship algorithms and the “algorithmic chanting of racism-sexism-transphobia” that are more and more coming to dominate in social media, thereby arbitrarily limiting debate on issues of pressing importance in free societies, are more likely to act as the death of liberal democracy than the protection of the minorities they ostensibly set out to protect.

The virtue-signaling crowd who most definitely dominate discourse in Canada are not interested in debate or discussion of any kind. They know what is right and, probably more importantly, who is right. Neither are they interested in the “democracy” half of the liberal-democracy equation, because that involves a recognition that each and every single person in the country is equal to each and every other single person, regardless of colour, creed or level of education.

I think it is a shame and a troubling sign of things to come that “the left” has abandoned the notions of freedom of thought and belief and expression to the scheming, devious buggers on the right, because dimes will get you dollars that the day will come when all of the virtuous refusals to allow for the free play of thought and expression wielded presently by the authoritarian “good” people of the contemporary “left” will become justification for the absolute shutdown of dissidence by the authoritarian right.

 

Liberalism versus Democracy: Round 1

A lot has been written recently about the decline of democracy and the the crumbling of the liberal world order.

It has indeed become something of a commonplace to set the election of Donald Trump beside the success of the Leave campaign leading to Brexit, then go on to point to the electoral shock of the AfD entering the Reichstag in Germany and the steady rise of Marine LePen and the National Front in France, and conclude that if the sky isn’t precisely falling, it certainly is clouding up.

Add a dash of Hungary and Orban, the Poles and PiS, and even the plucky Czechs leaning to the right, and we are forced to recognize that a hard shift to the right is threatening the status quo of the Pax Americana, that  understated version of imperialism that has soothed the world’s liberals into a profound sense of righteousness and absolute certainty in the justice of the overweening power they have wielded ever since WWII ended.

The hierarchy of significance of these offenses against the world order is clear: liberalism is the hallmark of the Anglosphere and for right-wing illiberal populism to gain such power as to elect a goon like Trump in the imperial metropole and to have the sidekick Brits kick against the pricks of the European Union is almost unbelievable. These two nations have after all been running the world on the “liberal imperialism” plan for centuries now.

Next in order of importance are the two continental champions, the erstwhile co-leaders of the EU, who have struggled so long to pretend that the Bundesbank (aka Germany) has not actually taken control of the European project, even to the extent of ignoring directives issued by Washington. France and Germany, whose rivalry was central to the most murderous wars of the 20th Century and possibly all human history, are drifting to the right and that is almost as scary as having l’Orange in the Oval and the UK mounting one long racist rally and calling it Brexit.

Almost as an afterthought come the former Warsaw Pact nations and their ugly fascist-leaning governments that seem to be inexorably pushing their peoples back to the authoritarian past, apparently just because they really really don’t like Muslims. And as was the case when the Balkans exploded less than a decade after the death of Tito, many western commentators point to the history of these former East Block nations as an explanation for this descent into nationalist xenophobia. They are, after all, not part of “the West”, not really.

It is usually the case that very little time is spent on laying out what is meant by ‘democracy’ or what the ‘liberal’ in the “liberal world order” really signifies in these articles. We are assumed to know and, sure enough, most people in the west are quite willing to throw around the term ‘democracy’ without ever giving a moment’s thought to what it is, outside occasionally quoting Churchill’s reluctant approval.

One way to think about the ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ that are usually mashed up into our beloved liberal-democracy is to recognize that each plays the role of limiting the possible excesses of the other in a modern state. Democracy is rooted in the notions of consent of the governed and majorities as the measure of what might be called the will of the electorate. Liberalism, as the ultimate expression of individualism, acts to limit the tendency of majorities to ride roughshod over the rights and freedoms of minorities and individuals who deviate from the norm.

Many of the institutional hallmarks of liberal democracy are more liberal than democratic per se. Rule of law, equality before the law, the full panoply of human rights, civil rights and individual rights: any or all of these might be dismissed as irrelevant or contrary to custom and belief by a majority of citizens in a modern state. Conservative polities in Muslim-majority countries may not accept the equality of women in certain legal contexts or the right of gays to engage in either sexual congress or marital union. Nationalist majorities in Europe may cling to a preference for “nation-states” as they were originally created in the bygone 19th century as “imagined communities” of people sharing a language, a culture, and a historical tradition, thereby rejecting immigrants and immigration, and denying them the liberal rights and privilege that are assumed to belong to citizens.

As Kathy Smits says in her discussion of Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire:

     “… it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking.  In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld'”

Put another way, for most westerners liberalism is the air we breathe, the ground we walk on and the lingua franca of all our conversations about values. Or at least it has been up until relatively recently. Keats caught the overwhelming power of the liberal worldview when he said

            ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –- that is all                                                                         Ye know on earth, and all ye need to  know.’

A slightly less respectful expression of what liberalism means to the vast majority of people in  western countries would be something along the lines of “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarden”. Hence we have the poignant irony of a thought leader like Ben Affleck defending the Islamic world from the Islamophobia of bigots everywhere by declaiming that a billion Muslims just “want to go to the store and have some sandwiches”, to which Egyptian-American Muslim scholar Shadi Hamid replies:

This is why the well-intentioned discourse of “they bleed just like us; they want to eat sandwiches and raise their children just like we do” is a red herring.* After all, one can like sandwiches and want peace, or whatever else, while also supporting the death penalty for apostasy, as 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims and 83 percent of Jordanian Muslims did in a 2011 Pew poll.13 In the same survey, 80 percent of Egyptian respondents said they favored stoning adulterers, while 70 percent supported cutting off the hands of thieves.                     *

And that is without asking the obvious question. “How popular are sandwiches among the world’s Muslims, especially among those living outside the sandwich-eating west?”

For a democracy to be democratic there needs to be some mechanism for majorities to choose those who will govern in their names. The usual mechanism for this is to hold elections to send representatives of specific groups to a parliament or congress where laws will be made and national initiatives debated and approved. Corollary to this requirement is a politically aware, preferably active, electorate.

At this point in the defining of what constitutes a democracy, a western liberal will almost always add something about either human rights or rule of law or both. That is, westerners usually reflexively define democracy as liberal-democracy and find it near-impossible to understand how that undermines the very basis of democracy if democracy is understood to involve the expression of the values and beliefs of the people who make up the demos.

In Indonesia, the nation presently wearing the crown for SE Asian “beacon of democracy” now that Suu Kyi and Myanmar have lost that title after such a short reign, there are politicians and Islamist civil society representatives who label “liberalism” a foreign ideology along with communism, socialism and religious radicalism. According to Pew, something like 93% of Indonesians reject homosexuality, more than in one-party authoritarian Malaysia or even Pakistan with its revolving door democratic and military dictatorships. And yet, unlike those two nations, Indonesia has no law criminalizing homosexual behaviour or relationships between consenting adults. Only in Aceh does a sharia-based regional law applying only to Muslims criminalize homosexuality.

When politicians and civil society spokespersons call for a rejection of LGBTQ++ rights and for laws to criminalize homosexual acts, they are speaking for a very large majority of Indonesians. Nevertheless, it is a journalistic and academic commonplace to see these politicians and these groups as “threats to democracy”. That is, to represent the values and beliefs of the majority of an electorate that does not share liberal values as they have evolved over the past 2 or 3 decades in that tiny region of the planet known as “the west” is to be “anti-democratic”, whereas to uphold the values of, among others, the former colonial powers in the region, is to safeguard “democracy”.

It really doesn’t take much imagination to understand why it is that electorates around the globe are turning away in droves from this conception of “democracy”, seeing how it is little more than a version of the kind of liberal cultural imperialism that Kipling celebrated and that Winston Churchill was willing to defend with war crimes and genocide, those markers of the liberal-democrat venturing outside her own democratic backyard.

When Madeleine Albright suggested that the sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children were “worth it” and Hillary Clinton crowed “We came. We saw. He died.” in celebration of the death by ritual sodomization of Gaddafi, they were speaking for liberal internationalists everywhere. Unfortunately for those who would see liberal-democracy spread to the vast tracts of the globe that are yet to come under its sway, the great majority of people outside the liberal-democratic west find it much easier to imagine themselves in the place of those Iraqi children and a man like Gadaffi than they can see themselves reflected in plutocratic psycho-killers like Albright and Clinton, neither of whom is easily imagined sitting down and having a sandwich with the world’s billion Muslims.

*Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (p. 13). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

 

Addendum:

Liberalism is credal. And like any religious creed, it sets the stage for heresy. This is of course the source of the infamous “It’s not my job to educate you” response to questions aimed at some element or other in the creed.

It is obvious that this vacuous phrase comes in handy for those unable to muster a reasoned defence of whatever article of faith is being questioned and has led many dissenters to suggest that it is a measure of either the stupidity or the ignorance of the liberal who is intent on excommunication (sexist! racist! homophobe!) rather than education or debate.

And while that may often be the case, it is also a measure of the degree to which those articles have indeed become nothing more or less than articles of faith.

As Kathy Smits says in her discussion of Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire:

“… it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking. In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld”

When Stanley Fish began his pristine assaults on the obfuscatory illogic and illiberalism of liberalism back in the 80s, his focus was on the cult of reason and its fundamentalist insistence on the primacy of the one and only standard by which any and all arguments, principles, or beliefs were to be judged: that is, reason itself. He addressed his arguments to a topic that was highly relevant at the time: religious fundamentalism.

Since that time, liberalism has been “radicalized”, if that is the appropriate term, by the so-called “left”, centered on identity politics, that dominates so much of the English-speaking world and presumably has made inroads in much of Western Europe.

It is no longer just the primacy of reason that contemporary liberalism promotes as the bedrock of liberal faith. Pretty much the whole panoply of “human rights” as laid down in the tablets of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights are now simply to be taken as unquestionable truths.

As with so many aspects of the contemporary global culture, it is easy to trace this overwhelming universalizing tendency in liberalism, and its equally overwhelming predominance in what has come to be called “politics”, to the United States of America. It is in the Declaration of Independence that the literate world first hears the blast of what would eventually be labeled “Tumblr-liberalism” by the astute and acerbic Angela Nagle:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The foundational irony of these words being used to announce the existence of a slave state by a cabal of slaveholding misogynist elitists has of course followed this liberalism wherever and whenever it lifts up its voice to insist on someone’s absolute right to tell someone else how things are meant to be done.

Which takes us back to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

 

 

 

 

Bouquets and Brickbats for the Blessed

The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people from Rakhine State in Myanmar is a still-unfolding horror for the victims of the Tatmadaw and Rakhine militias who have deliberately, and with wide-ranging support from almost all sectors of Myanmar society, driven more than 600,000 stateless people into squalid makeshift camps in Bangladesh.

The effects of this latest round of forced displacement have rippled out beyond the sufferings of the Rohingya people to include the destruction of Aung Suu Kyi’s carefully cultivated image as an icon of human rights advocacy. Her brazen denials that anything untoward has taken place, even going so far as to offer praise for the military’s success at maintaining “stability” in difficult circumstances, almost deserve some sort of reward for obstinacy in the face of massive international disapproval.

In reality she has been stripped of a few meaningless awards from virtue-signalling institutions like St. Hugh’s college (who have gone so far as to remove her portrait from the main entrance)  and the City of Oxford. Her honorary membership in a UK trade union will also be suspended.

One might be tempted to wonder how Unison feels about her Ministry of Labour offering a $3.50/day minimum wage law in the face of Myanmar union insistence that even $5.00/day is barely enough to cover daily expenses for most workers. But what has that to do with union membership, really?

Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar
Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Also caught in the harsh light that such brutality brings to bear on the difference between media imagery and real-world behaviour is Pope Francis, whose moral cowardice in refusing to utter the word Rohingya while calling for “peace” with all the grace and aplomb of a Miss World contestant deserves far more scorn than media outlets are apparently willing to express.

Rather than castigating him for what is by any measure a failure of moral responsibility, media outlets have been almost unanimous in excusing his silence as “tactical” and subsequently praising him for finally uttering the taboo-in-Burma term on his last day in Bangladesh. Emotionally charged photographs of a Rohingya man shedding tears of joy over Francis’ concession to decency accompanied the articles praising Francis for what is in reality nothing at all.

Such “icons” of humanistic values are thin on the ground these days and wise editors don’t want to toss yet another hot clickbait item into the dustbin of history.