If the NDP was looking to create reasons for us not for vote for them then their past year has been a resounding success both provincially here in Ontario and Federally. If you want to know what is wrong with the contemporary NDP you need look no further than this weekend's Ontario NDP convention. Despite Andrea Horwath's miserable failure as NDP leader, yesterday at their convention she underwent an obligatory leadership review and received more support than she did last year. If you are having trouble letting that sink in, I will repeat it for you. She received more support than she did last year. Andrea Horwath is an embarrassment to the NDP that extends well beyond Ontario's borders and a poster-girl for hypocrisy. As you will recall, after supporting the minority Liberal Government for years, in their last budget round she suddenly decided to pull that support and force Ontario into an election. This election held serious problems beyond Ms. Horwath's crass and crude style. The plain truth is that the Liberal budget was arguably left of any budget that Horwath herself would have presented if she had been premier and at the very least if an NDP government had presented this budget Horwath would have been the first to champion it as a great leap forward. This is just hypocrisy. There is no other word for it.
But aside from this act of unabashed hypocrisy, it was the political style of the Horwath campaign that progressives should find most troubling. Whether or not Horwath has taken the party to the right is something many people have argued about. But regardless of the veracity of the claim, many traditional NDP supporters were concerned during the election and this concern prompted 34 NDP heavyweights to write an open letter to Horwath saying that they she was "rushing to the centre." The people who wrote this letter, like Judy Rebbick for example, surely did not take this step lightly and the very fact that it emerged demonstrated that there was a serious breach taking place in the Party's core. Did Horwath or her team take these issues seriously the way anyone committed to democracy should do? Of course not. Instead they accused thee NDP 34 of being "hacks" and "has-beens" and NDP strategist Kathleen Monk even went so far as to suggest that they were working for the another political party and intentionally sabotaging the Horwath campaign. That accusation in and of itself is reason enough to never vote NDP again.
This Karl Rove/Stephen Harper strategy-style has not only infected the Ontario NDP, it has become the stock-in-trade of the federal NDP under the leadership of Tom Mulcair. Let's take two important events in recent NDP history. First, the NDP's prevention of the nomination of Paul Manley. The NDP clearly blocked Mr. Manley's nomination because of his (and his father's) stance on Israel, particularly on the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Not only did the NDP deny that this was the reason for blocking Manley's nomination (a denial that is universally suspected to be false) but, more importantly they adopted the Harper political strategy and proceeded to smear him publicly. Manley claims that in private the NDP admitted that Palestine was the reason that they denied him a nomination. The NDP denied that claim, but when Manley asked for a written reason for the blocking of his nomination, the NDP, in true UN-Democratic style flatly refused. But the wording of this refusal was deeply problematic. Andrew Mitrovica wrote about it on ipolitics in an article well-titled, "Is Mulcair just another Harper with a Beard?" Mitrovica wrote -
"To blunt the blowback, McGrath (The NDP's National Director) wrote concerned and outraged NDP supporters, telling them "I can assure you the issue being cited in stories and social media about Manely's rejected application is not accurate. The rejection is not related to the NDP's position on the Middle East." That just poured gasoline on an already out of control fire. Not surprisingly, Paul Manley saw this as a "smear" because it leaves open the possibility that he was guilty of some immoral, illegal, or unethical act."
Mr. Manley rightly pointed out that this was not a job application but was supposed to be part of a democratic process. It is one thing for a Party to block nominations, but to fail to give reasons for that is an entirely different matter and is blatantly untransparent and smells distinctly undemocratic. Mr. Manley is correct to see what Anne McGrath said as a blatant smear because the vocal refusal to explain the blocking of the nomination coupled with a denial that it is Manley's stance on Gaza suggests to anyone who is paying attention that the nomination prevention is rooted in something nefarious of which Mr. Manley is guilty.
But worse than their treatment of Paul Manley was the NDP's treatment of MP Sana Hassainia. Ms. Hassainia ostensibly quit the NDP over their overt support of Israel and their failure to defend the rights of Palestinians. Though the Party did attempt to defend its position in the days following Ms. Hassainia's resignation, (a defence which in my opinion was sorely wanting) they quickly reverted to their Harperesque default position which was to attack and smear Mr. Hassainia. Party spokespersons quickly suggested that Ms. Hassainia had a terrible attendance record in the House and that she was too busy being a new mother to be an effective MP. The entire affair was nauseatingly reminiscent of the Harper regime's attitude toward anyone who disagrees with them.
The fact is that there are many significant policy reasons for progressives to stop supporting the NDP. But increasingly there are also many other reasons to reject the poison politics of the NDP and the provincial and federal levels alike. There is no question that the Harper regime has poisoned Canadian politics. But the NDP can choose to follow the Harper example or to operate with integrity, transparency, and honesty. It is increasingly clear that they have rejected the path of good and opted for the path of poison.
One only need reject a few of the prevailing beliefs of one’s society to be almost entirely alienated from vast majority of people. In Canada all you really have to do is dislike Hockey and you suddenly find yourself marginalized. But all marginalization should be not be regretted, because sometimes holding unpopular beliefs is the beginning of chance. Some marginalized beliefs can keep you outside the mainstream while giving you counter-culture credibility. The abolitionist movement in England was such a case. Over a period of one hundred years the abolitionists went from being marginalized to being a credible, and much admired, political force. However, certain core beliefs of a society are so widely accepted without question that to bring them into doubt not only sets you against the vast majority but also can make you appear downright unhinged by most people. If, for example, you were an Aztec and you suggested that the sun was not a god, your fellow citizens would simply think you were crazy.
According to the well-known German philosopher Jürgen Habermas this notion of unquestionable beliefs is what sets modern society apart from so-called more traditional ones. Habermas in his ground-breaking work The Theory of Communicative Action, claims that what sets “modern” societies apart is that its citizens can voice competing moral and normative claims and that those people can, if called upon, discursively redeem these claims. In simpler terms, this simply means that, according to Habermas, we can disagree about social and moral issues and we can discuss them and potentially defend them through some form of ‘rational’ discourse. When I read Habermas’ work in the early 1990s I was fairly dubious about this claim. The more I thought about it the more it seemed to me that, just like older societies, our own “modern” society contained certain beliefs that are simply not up for discussion. If, for example, you claim in our society that competition is a bad thing, ninety-five percent of people will simply think are crazy or stupid.
There are other, deeply held, beliefs that our society overwhelmingly accepts without question. Patriotism is one such belief. Try questioning the notion of patriotism in mixed company and watch the reaction. People will either have a strong (even violent) reaction, or they will just seem utterly confused and treat you as some kind of weird hippy or naive, mental incompetent. I know this because I have experienced such reaction to many of my beliefs all my life. And no belief has elicited a stronger reaction than my rejection of the military.
From the time I was a young kid, I was deeply disturbed and confused by society’s unquestioning and unconditional support for the military. (And I grew up in Vietnam-Era US, where there was much more doubt about the military than there is today.) My argument was, and continues to be, simple. The military is an institution whose sacred operational mechanism is blind obedience among its members to kill anyone that the state tells them to. Of course, as I became older I realized that like with so many things, the majority of people believe that their own nation’s military is somehow different from all the others in the world and throughout history, and that their military would only do good things. But regardless of what I believe is willful naivety on the part of most people, I think the issue is still very simple, and history demonstrates it remarkably well. Standing armies unquestionably obey any orders that they are given and killing is their stock and trade. Let me dispense, from the beginning with the obvious objections that will come, probably vociferously, to many people’s minds. Of course, killing isn’t the only thing that soldiers do. Professional Hockey players don’t only play hockey – their job involves lots of activities – but hockey is their institutional imperative. Putting aside whether this or that war is ‘necessary’ or morally justified, many good things might happen in the midst of an armed conflict. The real question here is the notion of what they used to call a ‘standing army,’ a fixed institution that relies on a set hierarchy and blind obedience within the ranks and, ultimately, to the state.
Part of my objection to the military grew gradually out of my experience with people’s reaction to armed conflict. Though practically everyone I met claimed that they thought war “is bad,” the claim more often than not seemed entirely hollow. The longer I live, the more I think that the slogans “war is bad” or “war is a necessary evil” are ideas that people feel the need to say but seldom actually believe. In fact, as Bertram Russell came to believe through his pacifist activism, I think many people are secretly thrilled by the idea of war. If they weren’t, I don’t think war movies and violent action films would be so overwhelmingly popular. The idea of military conflict makes people feel powerful and in many cases I would even contend that it gives many people (particularly many men) a psychosexual thrill. I have come to believe that this thrill has become central to our social and political systems. People continually pay lip-service to ‘peace’ and to anti-bullying campaigns, politicians tell us that violence is terrible and even cowardly, but bullying and violence are integral to their very operation.
The violence and machismo that is at the heart of our military, and people’s admiration of the military and unwillingness to question it, is part of a web of violence that permeates our society. There has been a great deal of talk recently about our ‘rape culture.’ But we will never eliminate our culture of rape while bullying and violence still permeate every part of our society. Albert Einstein said that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” And he is right. To achieve peace, equality, and a life without violence means fundamentally changing the way we think about our most sacred institutions like the military, sports, education, and our political culture. It cannot happen overnight. We are all, to a great degree, products of our environment and we carry all sorts of difficult baggage into daily life. But until we are willing to at least question notions like “necessary war,” or cut-throat elections, or our hero-worshipping, our obsession with appearances, etc., then real social change will continue to be well beyond our reach.
Four years ago today I wrote a blogpost expressing my concerns with the modern manifestation of Remembrance Day. Even as recently as this week I received a positive comment on that post. I genuinely believe that more people would express concerns about Remembrance Day but they fear the reaction. This is unfortunate. When people in what is supposed to be a democratic society are hesitant to express rational and meaningful concerns about something, particularly about the dangers of nationalism, I get concerned. But since almost no one else is willing to talk about it, I will.
I grew up partly in Los Angeles California during the height of the War in Vietnam. It was a turbulent time and even as a child I had a sense of the turbulence, the violence, and the ideological rifts that were tearing apart the nation and the world. Though my parents weren’t activists, they were still vehemently against the war in Indo-China and the inhuman way violence that was being committed there. Though my maternal grandfather was a retired Master Sergeant in the USAF there was little sympathy for the war even in my grandparents’ household.
However, strangely enough what I knew about war and soldiers I was mostly learning from someone who was not in my family. Mr. Campbell was an old man who ran a little five and dime store in my neighborhood in Santa Monica. He as a grizzled, yet charming, old guy who never failed to be cheerful towards me when I came into his crowded little shop despite the obviously difficult life that he led. Mr. Campbell had fought in WWI and had been left nearly blind by gas. “The Germans did everything they could to kill me,” he would say will a crooked smile, “but I am still here.” Despite his injuries, he wasn’t bitter about the war and he didn’t seem to hold it against the Germans as many seemed to do. He even pointed out to me more than once that he had married a German woman despite the war. She had died years ago but whenever he spoke of her moisture came into his eyes and even as a kid I understood the unspoken sadness that overcame him.
I have a few vivid memories of Mr. Campbell, one of which occurred on Veteran’s Day, the US name for Remembrance Day. It must have been in 1973 because I remember it was a Sunday and I walked by Mr. Campbell’s shop and was surprised to see it open on Sunday. I went into the store and there was Mr. Campbell sitting as usual on a tall stool behind the counter reading one of those large print books for people who have severely impaired eyesight I knew it was Veteran’s Day because I had seen some kind of military celebration in Douglas Park on Wilshire Boulevard. I greeted Mr. Campbell and he smiled, as he always did, when he heard my voice. I asked him why he was open on a Sunday, and then mentioned that it was Veteran’s Day.
That was the first and only time that I saw Mr. Campbell look angry, and he spoke to me at length in a way that even now, forty years later, I still recall.
“I have never celebrated Veteran’s Day,” Mr. Campbell told me. “When I was gassed no one cared and they kicked me out of the army with almost nothing. They pinned a Purple Heart on my chest and then kicked me to the curb. And since then I have watched Veteran’s day celebrations with nothing but contempt. They act like they want people to remember but they don’t care. They just use the whole thing as a way to promote another war. They will always have another war for young kids to fight and it is all for making money for some jerk who sells weapons and bombs and acts like it is all noble. But it isn’t, it is just bull.”
I don’t know exactly why I remember these events but they stuck in my head. Perhaps it is because as Mr. Campbell told me these things the war in Vietnam still raged and young Americans were still coming home in boxes. And over the years I came to realize through my youthful friendship with Mr. Campbell that if Remembrance Day is to mean anything it should be a painful reminder that wars are an outward manifestation of our worst failures as a race, and a reminder of the terrible price that people pay for those failures. Meanwhile, blindly pro-war leaders like our own Prime Minister blatantly use Remembrance Day as a way of promoting patriotism and whipping up the very emotions that lead to these terrible human failures.
Perhaps the saddest part of all of this for my life is that Vietnam obviously failed to teach us is that our wars are almost always a machine for making wealth. But the skepticism that Vietnam brought to people didn’t last long and by the 1990s it was all but gone and once again Western Governments seem to be able to commit their nation’s to war with a minimum of critical thought on the part of the media or the people. One war comes on the tail of another and the only thing they have in common is that regular people suffer and the rich make billions of dollars from them.
Here in Canada one war stopped and the next one quickly began. Meanwhile, the many millions that the Government spent celebrating the War of 1812 (a war that was fought before we were even a Country), was spent while they are busy cutting services for the very veterans that they are supposed to be celebrating. It is perhaps the greatest act of hypocrisy from a government that has made a career of hypocrisy.
So I chose to remember Mr. Campbell and the terrible record of human failure that allow our leaders to take us into one war after another. And when people talk incessantly about the “fight for freedom,” I remember that it is not foreign countries that have been a threat to our freedoms. Just like today, the greatest threat to our freedoms are our own governments and the corporation who support them. Every freedom we enjoy from voters rights to gay marriage has been wrenched out of our governments by committed democratic and unions activists.
So while our leaders are ‘leading’ us once again into another ridiculous war remember that such violence almost always bespeaks a basic human failure and that the real threat to your freedoms are the ones from your own leaders whose chest thumping and drum beating is just another diversion from their real intent.