Dr. Dawg

Birth of a year

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A belated happy and secure New Year everyone. First, an apology.

Life has been stressful recently, to put it mildly—family matters—and I seem to have hit a wall of writer’s block. So I have not been assiduous about posting articles here.

Yet it’s a good, cheap, even therapeutic way of keeping my grip on things. I love words, and everything they do. My first New Year’s resolution is to get this blog back up to speed. My second one—but I haven’t kept it—was to get the hell off Twitter. For the second time, having relapsed a few months back. It’s genuinely addictive. It’s a time-waster if ever there was one. It serves little useful purpose, other than to get ahead of breaking news stories. It’s Usenet v.2.0, with all of the latter’s flaws, encouraging laziness, self-indulgence and incivility. I like it.

This past year, the remains of which we’re still scraping off our shoes, has seen the metastatic progression of a disease that seems to have infected the entire world. It could well be fatal. Its symptoms have been many: a large orange pustule, delirious monomaniacal raving, recurrent fever, sores that will not heal, partial necrosis. It’s hard to be hopeful at this stage.

No doubt my fading optimism is partly age talking. I get impatient too easily, which was a virtue in my youth, but may now be a vice. But things have gone much too far ever to be restored to factory settings.

In any case, here are some random notes on the year we have just put behind us.

  • The (perhaps welcome) shoddification of political discourse.

Diefenbaker was a bit of a windbag, Stanfield was a gentleman who dropped a football, and Mulroney was an oily fellow indeed, but they operated within Parliamentary convention and civil bounds. Harper did not, and was found in contempt of Parliament—a first in the Commonwealth—but he was not a grinning caricature of a Conservative. Harper was the tragedy; Andrew Scheer is the farce. The same might be said of Mike Harris and the oaf who currently squats at Queen’s Park, respectively. Today too much political utterance is obvious bullshit, expressed moronically, without pretence.

Then there is the leader of the free world. They broke the mould before they made him.

Social media is not to blame, although they can be counted upon to hasten the discursive drop. It’s more a loss of facade—that curtain of politesse and formal courtesies that has masked (for example) murderous geopolitics, accelerating global warming, increasing poverty, job losses, and a bleak future, especially for millennials.

Everyone remembers Obama with fondness, even though he executed American citizens without trial, unleashed drone warfare, and deported more people than Trump. I offer that as only one example of facade politics. If Trump ever did anything good in his life, perhaps tearing down the screen between reality and its polite and fake portrayal is the one ironically positive thing he has accomplished. Trump is raw, unmediated politics. Maybe not “as usual,” but not far away from it either. And (for all the wrong reasons, and in the wrong way, but still) he’s made more people critical of the “objective” media.

So yes, political discourse is now mostly grunts and flung dung, and sometimes we old folks yearn for polite, nuanced discussions with friendly antagonists, but that’s never been what politics is about. Political words should match political acts, and at last they appear to be doing so.

  • Politics and tapu

Sometime we can gain insight from the practices and beliefs of far different societies than our own. The South Pacific notion of tapu is a case in point. Tapu is a complex notion involving the binding, ordering, or containing of the sacred life-force/spirit of mana. What is tapu is both sacred and forbidden; it involves a maze of rules and restrictions. For Māori, for instance, you don’t tread upon wahi tapu (a place that is tapu), you don’t touch a person’s head unless invited to do so, you don’t inhabit a new building until its tapu has been ceremonially lifted, you watch your words in various contexts (using different vocabulary if you are snaring birds, for example), you don’t just blunder onto a marae, and so on.

Let me refer, then, to the case of Marc Lamont Hill, who lost his CNN side-hustle and came within a whisker of losing his gig at Temple University. He had called for freedom and equality for all in Israel and the occupied territories, using the phrase “from the river to the sea.”

Israel, as concept and country, is effectively tapu. It is a sacred “space” where one does not lightly tread. The foolhardy ones who ignore the tapu face retribution. Certain words must not be spoken, certain things must not be done.

Patrick O’Connor, the chairman of Temple University’s Board of Trustees, accused Hill—with a completely straight face—of “unnecessarily blackening” the image of the school. Ponder the resonances of that. In the event, Hill kept his job, but the tapu he conveyed by his presence at the university had to be lifted, in the form of a disparaging official statement from Temple.

Whano, whano,
Haramai te toki,
Haumi ē!

  • Normalization of the abnormal.

Even in its day, Nazism was an abnormal, depraved politics. After its defeat in 1945, the notion of white supremacy, which had been around since the “Age of Discovery,” was melded in some murky quarters with the Hitlerian project. It remained on the fringes of society until relatively recently, with the ascent to the Presidency of the US of white supremacist Donald Trump, who counted developed “alt-right” ideologues in his entourage (Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka). The encouragement that this sharp turn to the far-right gave to the dregs of society, not only in the US but in Canada as well, will only get worse. But. more importantly, it has mainstreamed what used to be confined to Klaverns and seamy compounds in the woods.

A white supremacist who hangs with Nazis and recites the “Fourteen Words” ran for Mayor of Toronto: a Toronto Sun columnist called her a “good kid” and the Premier of Ontario had his picture taken with her. That same “newspaper” gleefully publishes bigoted commentary, including the memorable “refugees slaughtering goats in a hotel” story. The Munk Debates recently hosted Steve Bannon, giving this fascist unprecedented respectability. The leader of the Conservative Party of Canada flirts with the far-right and includes three of them in his inner circle.

On American television, white supremacists like Tucker Carlson rule the airwaves. Good old-fashioned anti-Semitism is making a comeback, too, not only in the form of one-man pogroms as in Pittsburgh, but in regular public commentary. It has always been present, of course, but is now openly expressed, if in somewhat coded form, by mainstream commentators, who use “Soros” and “globalism” as the stand-in words for “international Jewish Conspiracy.”

The most alarming thing about this political teratogenesis is its rapid infiltration into normal political commentary. There is a gawping, slack-jawed tendency by the mainstream media to see fascism, racism and other forms of bigotry as just more ideas to be taken down, stenographer-style, and passed on to the public without critique—or presented as one of two “sides” in that inimitably lazy practice that marks today’s “journalism.” Here’s a ripe example of the latter. It never occurred to the writer that going to Obama’s house to see for himself might settle the matter.

How does the obscenely abnormal become normalized? By being embraced, either out of design or carelessness.

  • Nationalism, populism and the honing of hatred

Canada being a civic state, not an ethnic one, it is hard for some people to grasp the blunt appeal of nationalism, which is always more about who doesn’t belong than who does. Attempts to make this ugly form of populism a force in the country do not seem overly promising at the grassroots level yet, although the death threats and yokel-daft accusations that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a traitor are worrying. What is more of a concern is that the Official Opposition is borrowing far-right anti-immigration rhetoric from some sketchy European far-right movements, as well as from the Trump administration, and playing directly to this fringe.

Don’t let Maxime Bernier’s attempt to summon the spirit of Réal Caouette fool you—that’s just the Overton Window being shifted. Andrew Scheer’s party is doing not badly in the polls. He has lauded a far-right anti-immigration activist, and proceeded to disingenuously misrepresent a UN declaration on migrants. The federal election this year promises to be an ugly one, with this kind of calculated pandering to the bigots, and we’re likely to see more of it.

  • Is democracy wasted on the people?

And this brings me to my last point, in the form of a question that I was tempted simply to leave here. For better or worse, the people will and must decide how history is made. But as I’ve said before, if vox populi, vox dei, the Lord surely does work in mysterious ways, at least on occasion. There was the overwhelming majority decision in BC to vote against representative democracy. There was the election of a genocidal fascist in Brazil, and several far-right governments in Europe. There was the recent elevation almost to sainthood of a Ukrainian Nazi collaborator, to wild applause and celebration in that republic.

These stories and others give one pause, encouraging us to reflect upon the nature of democracy, its imperfect forms, its obvious limitations in our own society and in others, and the tools and capacities required to make it work better, however “it” is defined.

That’s a discussion that may be highlighted in the coming year, which indeed promises to force us all back to the basics. Commentary, as always, is welcome.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on January 7, 2019 5:55 PM.

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