Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold


My friends, there’s no denying the impact of the past couple of days. The way it stands now, we’re going to have to live with a Harper majority for the next four or five years.

And while it’s nice to fantasize about the Conservatives doing themselves in by getting too comfortable, or too arrogant, or taking the muzzles off their backbench whackjobs and throwing some red meat to their so-con base, we can’t count on that. How we organize to fight this is going to be the subject of several blog posts, and perhaps the strategic focus behind worthwhile Canadian initiatives such as the one currently being organized over at Sixth Estate. Check it out when you can.

But getting organized is also going to mean facing some uncomfortable truths: about the polarization of Canadian politics, about the role of the media, and about the role of the Liberal Party.

Once again, please understand that this is coming from a resolutely non-partisan perspective. Vitriolic tantrums and over-the-top sniping from certain corners of the blogosphere notwithstanding, I have nothing but respect and even affection for a lot of individual Liberals.

The Liberal Party itself, however, is another question. As an institution, it’s intimately involved with the history of our country and the shaping of our national identity. It doesn’t hurt us to acknowledge that, and to honour historical figures such as Laurier, King, and Trudeau, even if we don’t agree with everything they did. While I don’t wish for the party’s demise, however, I won’t shed a lot of tears for it either. It’s had a long run posing as the party of the centre while functioning as one of the vehicles Bay Street uses to control the institutions of governance and implement its neoliberal continentalist agenda. Let’s not forget that it was under Paul Martin and Jean Chretien that the Liberals slashed the social safety net to ribbons in their cultish devotion to deficit reduction. And does anyone remember a Liberal government doing anything to get us out of “free trade” in the last 30 years? Me neither.

My dear Liberal friends, I feel your pain and your anger. I understand how hard it is to see an institution with which you’ve become so identified and into which you’ve poured so much time and energy – much of it in a genuine spirit of democratic commitment and engaged citizenship – fall upon such hard times. I’m not trying to rub it in.

And I’m not condemning partisanship per se. It has its uses, both tactical and strategic. Whether individual citizens can bend those tactical and strategic facilities to a program of genuine popular sovereignty is another question, and one for more than one blog post – or blogger, for that matter.

Indeed, it’s not a partisan observation to note that the Liberals have, for decades, found political success by running from the left and governing from the right. I know, I know, that’s a truism that approaches the status of cliché, but given the electoral posturing of the three major parties, it’s not broadly inaccurate either. And given the results of Monday’s election, we’re not doing ourselves any favours by pretending that the country isn’t a lot more starkly divided between left and right. Wiser observers than I have already suggested that right-leaning Liberals went Conservative while more progressively inclined Liberals went with the New Democrats. How broadly true that is, and to just what extent that pattern played out, is something we won’t know until the numbers are broken down more comprehensively.

But considering the possibility and its implications is something we can’t shy away from. Saying so isn’t an insult. Sniping and throwing insults isn’t going to change that. I don’t want to see a polarized political landscape either, but the fact is that such polarization is at the foundation of the Conservatives’ electoral success, and it’s in light of that success that we need to formulate a counter-strategy. Wishing it were otherwise isn’t going to help.

It’s in that light that we need to re-evaluate the whole notion of “centrism.” While it has an intuitive appeal, it’s also associated with a simplistic approach stemming from intellectual laziness (more on the role of media in a minute). In much of what passes for civil discourse nowadays, a devotion to so-called centrism is little more than posturing. It’s an easy rhetorical framework: set up two extremes as straw people, find or manufacture spokespeople to advocate them, and then bring the narrative home with the sage and banal observation that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Avoiding this is one of the most important tasks before us, for several reasons. Most important – and I’ve blogged about this before, so my apologies for the repetition – is the need to use language precisely, and not let words be stripped of their meanings. If we are to fight a long-term ground war, then it is absolutely critical that we not allow the other side to control the playing field by defining the terms in which the conversation is to take place. We cannot cede control of the discursive turf. If we do, we’ve lost before we’ve even started.

If you need evidence of this, just look at the eruptions of anger, belligerence and insanity bubbling up from the Sewer of Stupid to the south. Ordinary words like “liberal,” “socialist,” “immigrant,” “feminism,” “gay/lesbian,” “environmentalist,” “civil liberties,” “reproductive freedom” and “public health care” have been turned into epithets. Half the time, they’re not even part of reasoned discussion any more. They’ve been turned into rhetorical incendiary devices, calculated to take the conversation out of the realm of reason and drag it into emotionally volatile terrain wherein people are easily manipulated, riled up and worked into a spittle-spraying frenzy. Just look at your average teabagger rally.

So while the term “centrist” has an intuitive appeal, it can’t be part of a mushy and imprecise approach to language based on the fear of offending people. Nor can it be hijacked into an implicit narrowing of the benchmarks denoting what’s considered “acceptable” or “reasonable” or “serious.” When we allow the discussion to be controlled like that, we surrender more options, ideas and policy tools than we realize. How are we to confront the challenges before us if we agree, ahead of time, that so many approaches are out of bounds because they’re too far removed from an artificially defined “mainstream?”

Another reason: fetishizing “centrism” enables a pattern of simplistic, binary, “he said she said” narratives from the corporate media – and from other transmitters taking their cues therefrom. It should be obvious by now that we can’t count on help from those quarters. We’ve got a long ground game in front of us. There are a lot of detailed and involved conversations that need to happen. Given their organizational, political and financial interests in reducing language to the lowest common denominators, and simplifying narratives to easily digestible bites, the corporate media aren’t going to contribute to that.

Finally, it’s also a convenient way of doing an end run around the uncomfortable complexities inherent in most public-policy questions. Civil society is a complicated, multifaceted organism. It requires careful tending, balancing of interests, identification of objectives, negotiation of common goals, and a willingness to meet our neighbours halfway – all informed, of course, by a devotion to the principles of stewardship. Stripping ideas of their complexities is no way to do that.

Let’s have no illusions about the enormity of the task before us. There’s more to talk about, of course: electoral reform, an alternative context for the discussions we need to have, and how to engage our fellow citizens in a spirit of constructive debate. In that regard, I need to apologize for some of the snarky remarks I’ve made in commenting on other people’s posts and in reacting to other people’s comments.

Partisan party politics may not be our primary vehicle for mobilizing a broadly based popular opposition, and in fact given the sniping I’ve been watching, I’m less inclined to rely on them than ever. Unfortunately, they’re still the main vehicle whereby we, as citizens, interact with Parliament, which is still the seat of both sovereignty and the legal and constitutional mandate for any government no matter what its political stripe.

No neat wrap-up this time, I’m afraid, but that’s because there’s a lot more to talk about.

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