From Politics to Poetry
Updated: 27 min 36 sec ago
I remember once reading an amusing theory about the evolution of an idea. I think it came from Hazel Barnes introduction Jean-Paul Sartre's Search for a Method. However, not having that book at hand I cannot be sure. The theory, if my memory serves, goes like this - A significant idea goes through three distinct processes in its evolution. First, its detractors condemn it as absurd or nonsensical, even dangerous. Second, those who once condemned it admit its veracity but suggest that it is obvious and not particularly interesting or important. Third, those who once denied the idea say that it is not only true, but they thought of it first.
I recount this idea because Stephen Harper's attitude toward the Senate has reminded of this funny evolutionary anecdote.
Harper's bizarrely shifting position on the Upper Chamber can be used, I think, as a kind of symbolic stand in for his entire attitude toward the job of Prime Minister. Harper began his political career insisting that if he were Prime Minister he wouldn't appoint any senators and that he would quickly reform the institution in general. This was Harper's first misrepresentation concerning the Upper Chamber. Thomas Mulcair came out of the gate saying that the NDP's ultimate position on the Senate is to work toward abolition, but despite what the other parties would have us believe, he also admitted from the beginning that this is a long term political goal which won't be easy and would require unanimity. Harper, on the other hand, talked in his early years as though he would simply 'reform' the senate, like this could be just an act of his own political will. Of course, when Harper became Prime Minister it became clear that he knew all along (or had been quickly informed by his legal advisors) that any reform of the senate required cooperation from the Premiers. The problem is that Harper's entire political M.O. is predicated on the principle that he is a law unto himself, and as such he would never meet with the Premiers because such a meeting would be a tacit admission that he cannot act as a dictator but that, on certain issues, he must work with other elected officials on a more or less equal basis. Harper has never admitted to himself or the nation that we are a federation and federations don't operate well through centralized political power.
Had Harper really been interested in senate reform he would have convened a first ministers meeting in his first months in office and begun a dialogue toward reform. Agreement would never have been easy, of course, and would have required a skill that Harper does not possess - consensus building.
In the face of his limited powers, Harper broke his promise and began appointing senators at a rate more frenetic than any of this predecessors. Of course, he asked Canadians to believe the rather incredible story that he was appointing these senators ultimately toward the cause of reform because he was choosing people who agreed with his reform agenda. The problem was that this claim was predicated on the assumption that the senate could reform itself. However, no legal mind in the country seemed to believe this claim. We can thus assume that Harper's huge numbers of appointments to the senate were driven by that other part of his political identity; the unquenchable thirst for power. There was absolutely no way that Harper could leave fallow the soil of his extendible power. Thus Harper set himself on the path to being the Prime Minster that made more patronage appointments than any other in our history, a somewhat ironic turn of events seeing that he began his political career with a focus on ending patronage.
The mainstream media, as it always seems to do, let Harper slide on this incredible and unprecedented flip-flop, one of so many dramatic turn arounds in which Harper has engaged during his decade as PM.
After some years however, it became clear even to the monumental ego of Stephen Harper that his lust for patronage and his inaction on senate reform could become a serious electoral liability. So Harper's next step was to request direction from the Supreme Court. Harper hates the very idea of a judiciary. For Harper we shouldn't have three arms of government, but only one - him. The very notion that an independent judiciary could curb his powers and make decisions that trumped his power is deeply disturbing to Harper. But as a typical opportunist, Harper is not adverse to taking advantage of the courts if he can. Thus, even though we all knew (Harper included) what the Supreme Court would say, Harper went forward out of self-interest. As we all predicted, the Court said that Senate reform could not be enacted solely by the Federal Government (let alone by the Prime Minster by himself), but required the agreement of the provinces. Harper was as pleased as a politician could be. He could now attempt to absolve himself his senate reform failures and blame the courts. This was a further extension of Harper's always unbelievable narrative that he is a committed democrat whose plans are continually thwarted by the courts and so-called interest groups.
The problem with this strategy was two-fold. On the one hand, no one who had paid attention ever saw Harper make a singe meaningful effort toward senate reform, and since we all knew from the beginning that reform required provincial cooperation, the entrance of the Supreme Court into the equation was meaningless anyway. The other problem was that Harper has proven himself such a poor judge of character that the Senate, more than any time in its history, became a symbol of corruption. And to make matters worse, not only did Harper appoint incompetent criminals to the Senate, he also showed that he was personally interfering in Senate business, and we now see the tip of the iceberg of this interference and it has becomes clear that his henchmen were involved in attempted cover-ups and other malfeasance. These problems made Harper's strategy of blaming the courts and doing nothing deeply problematic, particularly as an election neared and an increasingly popular NDP was talking abolition, now a fairly popular position.
Thus, in a final, bizarre turn around, Harper added a new moment of hypocrisy to his performance as the Crime Minister, would-be dictator. Comically, Harper reverted to his original position and said that he wouldn't appoint any senators. Only this time he added a twist to his strategy, doing what he does best he blamed someone else. Now Harper tells us that he won't appoint any more senators until the Premiers get their act together and talk senate reform. This is a bit like the director of a film saying his actors are screwing up the movie before he has even started filming. It is not the job of the Premiers to pursue senate reform. Rather it is the job of the Prime Minister to bring the Premiers together and start building a consensus. Leaving aside the question of whether a Prime Minister can actually refuse to appoint senators, and the even more thorny problem that if no senators are appointed the senate will eventually lose quorum and the government will no longer be able to pass laws, why does Harper believe that he can return to a strategy he left behind years ago and still have any credibility on the senate question? The answer is, of course, easy. Because Harper is a supreme egoist who believes that not only that laws don't apply to him but that he is even above political convention itself.
The story of the Senate under Harper is the story of Harper himself; misrepresented facts, half-truths or outright lies, a total unwillingness to work with any other part of government, a reluctance to admit that he can't simply do anything he wants, a tendency to blame others (particularly the courts) for his failures, the habit of appointing criminals and incompetents to positions of power, a continual verbal attack on patronage while continually using patronage to reward allies and extend his power, and a complete disregard for the law and the constitution. As in the evolution of an idea with which I began, Harper now suggests that Senate reform has always relied on the Premiers and he thought of that first. Now if only those pesky Premiers would get their act together and stop defending the status quo.
Yesterday Shad (CBC radio personality) regaled us with a defense of rapper Kanye West. (I find it amazing that anyone has to come to the defense of a person worth a couple of hundred million dollars but culture and the cult of personality is a funny thing) Shad is, apparently, upset that people have been actively resisting West’s performances at events such as Glastonbury and now the Pan Am closing ceremonies. Shad has two bones to pick with resistance to Kanye West’s naysayers. On the one hand Shad objects to people personally judging West and letting that personal judgment colonize their aesthetic opinion of the rapper. On the other hand he wants us to know what a great musician West is and how important it is for his various detractors to understand this.
Shad begins his argument with the logically bizarre contention that it is “arrogant” for people to judge people who they don’t know personally. This is such a strange claim on Shad’s part that I almost don’t think it deserves response. But I feel compelled to say something given the fact that Shad is a replacement personality to the now infamous Jian Ghomeshi, whom we all feel compelled to judge. I suggest to Shad, that there is absolutely nothing arrogant about judging people with whom we are not personally acquainted, particularly people who have chosen to make myriad aspects of their personal life a public affair. I am sure Shad actively make judgments of people he doesn’t know – Paul Benardo and Charles Mason come immediately to mind. Our judgments of people who we don’t personally know need to be treated with caution but let’s not pretend that there is something “arrogant” about it. I suspect Shad is letting his personal feelings about Kanye West interfere with his power as a logician here. However, there is a wider issue that needs to be addressed which is how we let our personal feelings about an artist influence how we react to their work or performance. Shad tells us that he “doesn’t have time to talk about his [West’s] citizenship or his wife or why those conversations are hugely problematic” for him. From how this statement is worded we can, I suppose, presume that Shad doesn’t even want us to talk about West and his personal life. But we need to disabuse Shad of the notion that we can be restricted in our discourse about performers and their personal lives. Now generally, I agree, that there is something strange about letting our personal feelings about an artist play a large part in our judgment of their work. There is a sense in which an artist’s work stands as a kind of cultural document separate from the individual artists and their various contextual issues. The exception is when that part of their personality that we find objectionable enters into their artwork in a significant way, as it does, for example, with a racist writer like Rudyard Kipling. There are many artists to whom I object personally but whose work I adore.
But let me say that Shad (if he has any pretensions of being a cultural critic) should understand that a guy like Kanye West is a special case. West has not only let his personal life become a matter of public record but he has embraced the corporate-driven cult of mega-star personality in a way that few have. We live in an age of art as commerce, and this commerce is increasingly driven by large, corporate institutions. Kanye has not only embraced this, but he has become a ‘mover and a shaker’ in this process. Thus, judgment of West’s personality plays into our judgment of him as a performer in part because he wants it to; he has helped to generate this cult of personality so he can hardly complain when it affects him. But there is something even bigger at stake than this here. And this is the issue of the culture of the empty celebrity. We not only live in an age of art as commerce but we also live in an age of the empty celebrity; people who are famous for no reason than their status as reality television stars. Of course, there have always been people who have garnered fame for reasons that have nothing to do with their merit in terms of achievement. But with the age of ‘reality television’ this has become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. And I would argue that this phenomenon is one of the more toxic aspects of modern culture. The Paris Hiltons, Honey Boo-boos, and yes Kim Kardashians of the world are anathema to the very notion of art and artistic integrity because they make celebrity and wealth the very guiding principle of achievement. One no longer has to have a talent, pursue meaningful endeavours, or make a genuine effort to become competent, one simply has to have a pretty face, and nice round ass and have a penchant for showing off at a monumental scale (as well as have an unquenchable thirst to be rich). Keep in mind too that most of these people who are famous for being famous are women who trade on their sexuality. Some might say that this has always been, to one degree or another, a central aspect of success in capitalism. But it has reached new heights in contemporary, technologically driven society. And here is the important part – Kanye West has willfully become a central part in that cultural poison. I find Kanye West’s arrogance and conceit highly distasteful. But lots of artists (and people in general) are arrogant. I can look past that to a degree. What I can’t look past is the way that the cult of personality, the drive for fame at all costs regardless of skill or talent, the hyper-sexualization of women just to get ahead, and the corporatism of culture have infected our society and the important role that Kayne West has invested in that in his art and personal life. That’s not arrogance Shad, that’s cultural critique.
Now let me just deal briefly with Shad’s other point, and that is Kanye West’s merit as a performer. I don’t want to get too deeply into this in as much as Shad is certainly entitled to his aesthetic opinion, and I will even concede that when it comes to music he is certainly more qualified than I to express that opinion. But, having said that, I must take issue with a couple of things that Shad has said. Shad concedes that commercial success is not a “great measure of artistic merit.” Let me say that Shad is hedging his bets here. Let me say that commercial success is NO measure of artistic merit. If it were Rod Mckuen would be a greater poet than Keats, and Thomas Kinkade would be a greater painter than Turner. However, what Shad does put a lot of stock in is Kanye West’s “critical” success. But here history has an almost equally dismal record as it does in commercial success, at least in an artist’s lifetime. History is littered with artists who gained plenty of critical success in their lives only to be thrown on the dustbin of history later on. And conversely, a huge number of artists who are now considered “great” garnered nothing but contempt from critics while they were alive. Though the list of such ‘critical’ failures is far too long to recite, let me use one interesting example. In 1798 two entirely unknown poets published a book entitled Lyrical Ballads which was roundly condemned almost everywhere it was given critical attention. That book is now considered by many as one of the most important, if not the most important, single books in English poetry. Those two poets were none other than William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. These two artists were, for most of their lives treated with utter contempt by the critical community. And the reason for the condemnation was fairly straightforward – the critical community represented the establishment. Even where the critics were not politically conservative, they were aesthetically so. On the other hand many very successful artists garnered great critical as well as commercial success only to be forgotten. The French novelist Eugene Sue is a great example. He was the toast of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, critics loved him and the people bought his books. Similarly, the Dutchman Lourens Alma Tadema was the most successful painter of the entire Victorian era. His fame now pales in comparison to the Pre-Raphaelites who were working at the same time and who were slain by almost every critic and struggled to make any kind of living.
Furthermore, when it comes to critical acclaim, Shad would do well to remember that it is seldom objective. The very notion of independent theatre criticism didn’t even exist, for example, until the advent of the work of the great Leigh Hunt in England. Before that, theatre critics were so closely tied to actors, producers, and theatre owners that good periodical critiques of plays relied on little more than connections (or in some cases money because some theatre owners simply paid for good reviews). But even where critical acclaim has not been so obviously corrupted, it is a phenomenon that should always be treated with suspicion. Blackwell’s Magazine spent decades attacking the Romantic poets because of a host of personal prejudices on the part of their various editors, actual personal issues with some of the poets themselves, political and class bigotry, and simple aesthetic conservatism. Meanwhile they lauded poets like George Crabbe, for example, who aren’t even read today in the rarified atmosphere of university classes. I am not necessarily saying that all critiques are as tainted as theatre criticism was in, say, London in 1800, but it should always be treated with caution. Another thing Shad would do well to remember is the statement by the great George Orwell –
The more I see the more I doubt whether people ever really make aesthetic judgments at all. Everything is judged on political grounds which are then given an aesthetic disguise. When, for instance, Eliot can’t see anything good in Shelley or anything bad in Kipling, the real underlying reason must be that the one is a radical and the other a conservative.
Regardless of where you stand on such a philosophical contention, it should be clear that the success of an artist in her own lifetime is little indication of long term influence or an historical reputation. I understand that Shad wants us to take West’s critical success seriously and it should be a factor in whether we boycott his work or appearances. However, my reply to Shad is that anyone with any kind of historical knowledge of art, its successes or failures, would put little stock in sales or critiques when it comes to judging an artist’s work. Shad obviously thinks that Kanye West is a great musician, that’s fine, maybe he is, I don’t know. But I will let history make that judgment. But if Shad really wants us to embrace the work and performance of West he scores few points with me by failing to realistically deal with West’s place in a poison culture of personality cult, his sales as a performer, nor his success with the critics who often represent a corporate culture of extreme wealth. On the other hand, if Shad wants to tell me why he actually thinks West is worth listening to, I am all ears.
Let me admit with complete honesty that the Conservative Party certainly didn't turn out quite like I thought it would. I am as far from Conservative as one can be I think but years of Conservative rule didn't play out like I imagined.
Some stuff that we all predicted obviously came true. We knew that they would be war-mongers, and they have been. We knew that they would destroy those areas of social spending that were meaningful to the vulnerable like, for example, the way they have completely eliminated all federal spending on things like adult literacy programs, and most programs for women who find themselves in a difficult legal or domestic situation. We figured that they would be terrible on the environmental front, though the scope of their destruction of environmental protections has even come as a surprise to many.
But here's the thing - even though I know that Conservative promises of "smaller" and less-intrusive government is almost always a lie (and has been since neo-liberalism began in the late seventies), I don't think many of us predicted the degree to which they would live that lie out in such momentous and obvious ways. If things play out like they seem to be going, this "Conservative" government will have never balanced a budget! I find it frankly just amazing that they can continually post deficits and add the largest amount of national debt of any government in Canadian history, and still call themselves conservative and have a significant amount of support from other Canadians who call themselves conservative. This government calling itself conservative is looking like the Chinese government calling itself 'communist.' Their strategy of gradually eliminating government revenue as a way of undermining government was entirely predictable (and a strategy that is difficult to recover from for subsequent governments) But I guess I was naive enough to think, with all their talk in the years before getting elected that the flip side of undermining government revenue would be a slash and burn strategy that would give them "balanced" budgets and at least the illusion of fiscal "responsibility." (Even though such strategy is, in the long run, deeply irresponsible for a modern society that needs active government not just to protect our social future but to protect our economic one as well) I was also naive enough to think that the Conservatives, after years of complaints concerning Liberal corruption, would create some new degree of transparency and responsibility in government. I knew that even these efforts would be somewhat illusory, but I thought they would at least make some sort of effort.
It is remarkable, but what we have now is a government that is bares little resemblance to Conservative. Yes, they have gutted every ounce of environmental protection that we had. Yes, they have shifted government from a body meant to protect and enrich society to one that protects and enriches corporations. But everything else is illusion. They are the most economically irresponsible government in our history. They not only posted eight straight deficits and put the country into a much deeper economic hole than it was before, but they did so while failing completely to invest in our social future. We are now a less diversified economy, no further ahead with alternative energies, our young people are under increasingly debilitating student debt while training for jobs that don't exist, our infrastructure is crumbling, and the future looks bleak. It is funny that the Conservatives always accuse the other parties of being "tax and spend" machines. But their strategy seems to be cut various taxes but still spend just as much, or more, than before!! Isn't that the very opposite of what most people associate with 'conservative?' And to cap all this off they have made every effort at destroying the privacy of citizens and have created the most intrusive, police-state-like government in the Western world. All of this has been done against the backdrop of paranoiac secrecy, new levels of toxic partisanship, and consistent record of illegality in election fraud, (as well as a growing litany of other kinds of fraud).
All of this tells me that ANYONE who votes for this Conservative Party is either hopelessly misinformed or congenitally stupid, but certainly not even vaguely conservative.