1.01.2010

where is the outrage? and other thoughts on canadian disengagement

I am so disgusted by Stephen Harper's suspension of Parliament. I know a lot of people are. But at the same time, so many more Canadians are completely oblivious to what's going on. And that's why the Prime Minister gets away with it.

Long ago in wmtc history, there was a recurrent debate in comments about the agency of the USian people: how much blame to assign to the people for policies of their government. Were Americans to blame for the Iraq War? Did they, as some believed, "get the government they deserved"? Or were they victims, deceived by their culture, and helpless to affect change?

I argued for the US public as victims, and I came to see that my conception was too one-sided, that the US public does share some responsibility for their government's policies. After all, public protest played a huge role in ending the Vietnam War - once the liberal middle class got involved because it affected them personally. The absence of huge, mainstream public outcry in the US is an important enabler.

But I also felt that my Canadian friends did not fully understand how ignorant USians are kept by the substandard education system, by the grinding poverty that infects huge swaths of the population even in so-called good economic times, and by the media, which by any standard is much worse than in Canada.

And I saw that Canadians had no idea how completely unresponsive the US government is to its people. Government in the US responds to the people who pay its way, and the same corporate money owns both sides of the aisle.

What's Canada's problem?

I have my issues with the Canadian mainstream media, and its degree of consolidation is certainly unhealthy. But in quality and accuracy, it still soars above the US MSM - a poor yardstick, no doubt, but the comparison is my point here.

More importantly, Canadian MPs are responsive to their constituents to a degree that left me flabbergasted for a long time. Writing, calling, meeting with MPs is so easy here - and it actually makes a difference. I heard this saying: In the US, the people are afraid of the government. In Canada, the government is afraid of the people. With the usual disclaimers for generalizations, it's true.

Unlike most USians, Canadians can make a difference in their country's policies. But except for a small percentage of people who are very political and interested in social issues, giant swaths of the Canadian public are completely apathetic.

Now that I'm part of an activist network, I see the same people driving every movement. Peace, labour, environment, reproductive rights, gay rights - you name it - the same people are behind the grassroots activism. In the blogosphere, it looks like a lot of us are busy, but it's easy to forget what a small percentage of the public "a lot" really is. And even among bloggers, how many people are writing and meeting with their MPs, or joining in-person protests? How much of their outrage gets offline and into the world? I don't have an answer to this question. But I think it might be much lower than it should be.

I often look with envy on less developed, more politically volatile societies where political participation among ordinary citizens is very high.

When we were in Peru, we learned that 100% of the population votes. Andean people who must travel for days through the mountains to reach the nearest polling places will not miss an election.

Look at the numbers of people who flood the streets in protest around the world. When I heard Malalai Joya speak in Toronto, Neela Zamani, an Afghan-Canadian activist, addressed the crowd. She was in Iran during the 2009 protests, and she contrasted her two communities. She said: "Here is a country where you can be killed for protesting, and not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of people took to the street to demand justice and democracy. Here in Canada, we are free, but we are also quiet."

I really felt those words.

I'm not romanticizing repressive regimes, or oppressed indigenous cultures. I don't wish I lived in Iran. But here in North America, surrounded by excessive consumer culture - by 140 kinds of breakfast cereal and 75 kinds of chips, by big-screen TVs and iPhones - if not buying them, then wishing we could - we are like helpless children to our government's parental authority. Powerful forces shape our lives according to their own interests, without input from us, and without a peep of protest.

My co-workers, my neighbours, people I meet casually - apathy isn't a strong enough word for their political awareness. They're disengaged. Their main concerns, after their jobs and their families, are Boxing Day sales and paying less taxes.

And that's how Harper gets away with it.

26 comments:

Chrystal Ocean said...

Good post.

Am pretty much fed up with the vast majority of Canadians and I do think we/they get the government we deserve.

There's no excuse for tamely accepting the propaganda of politicos and their corporate/media buddies, not with the homes of the oblivious amply equipped with computers and access to the Internet. Not excuse at all.

impudent strumpet said...

They mystery is why doesn't concerns about one's job and family (and paying less taxes) translate into greater awareness/engagement?

L-girl said...

They mystery is why doesn't concerns about one's job and family (and paying less taxes) translate into greater awareness/engagement?

That is definitely one of the mysteries: why people don't make the connection between the world around them - the one they're always complaining about - and the social policies that shape that world.

deang said...

And I saw that Canadians had no idea how completely unresponsive the US government is to its people.

More and more, I'm suspecting that the US government is unusual in this regard, certainly extreme. Because the US government is so often unresponsive or malevolent toward its citizens, US activists are imbued with the idea that all governments everywhere are that way, that no government now or in the past has ever responded to the will of the people, and that no government could actually be "of the people". That belief is hard to break through here in the US because Americans, even activists, are so uninformed about the wider world and about history (fault the US media and education system again for that). I have acquaintances who really had a hard time believing that what Michael Moore's "Sicko" film showed about other countries' health care systems was true, because surely government can't really do good, can it?

Dylan said...

L-Girl, you're completely right.

Winston Churchill once stated, to paraphrase, that the greatest argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with an average voter.

Today, I believe that Churchill's words are still relevant, however, it begs the obvious question: why? Why in an age where more people are literate, more people are educated, human rights are triumphed and freedoms reign, are Canadian voters so apathetic (the understatement of the century) towards their parliamentary system and the democratic process?

Why are so many people WILLINGLY disengaged from politics? What is making them "turn-off" of party politics, their representatives and the social issues that need our attention?

The MSM is partially at fault. Partly at fault is America - in my opinion, by which I would like to highlight our proximity to the United States. People are confused as to why they are voting FOR when they go to the polls. A prime minister? A party to govern? What matters most are the colours worn by their representative by which their platforms, values, and ideas are apparently "implicit" thanks to deeply entrenched political stereotypes. Many Canadians secretly wish for the political dichotomy seen in the US - Liberal vs. Conservative. Democrat vs. Republican.

What do we need to electrify our population at election day? A democratic crisis? A disastrous Harper majority government? I don't know. Certainly Canada has had enough reasons to send Harper back to Stornoway and even MORE reasons to reform our electoral system. Yet, things stay the same because action means -- exactly that -- acting.

DJN said...

Frankly, I'm fed up with this complaining about apathy, disengagement and complacency.

But first, we should know by now that Harper has a ceiling of 40 percent (probably lower - like 36 or 37) and can't muster up enough support to win a majority government - which is what all this nonsense manouvering boils down to. There is a solid 60 percent of the voting public that opposes Harper for numerous reasons: climate change, Afghanistan and the torture scandal, arrogance, prorogation, the deficit, etc. That's something to work with.

Second, of course people are disengaging, shrugging their shoulders and not voting. Where's the alternative? The opposition parties have merely waged a campaign of criticism. They have no positive program that people can look to and say: "okay, the country can go in that direction because the plan makes sense." I don't mean some piddly thing like a carbon tax or a little investment here and there. I mean the sort of socio-economic overhauling of Canada that the CCF/NDP and Liberals were willing to engage in between the 1940s and 1970s.

The alternative is the further irrelevance of parliament and the opposition and more of Harper's nonsense. Whether NDP or Liberals - I don't care at this point - there needs to be a new massive program of economic and social development. It strikes me as absurd that nobody wants to propose a state-led program of windpower production. We've got thousands of laid off manufacturing workers, numerous empty factories and a flailing steel industry. Private industry isn't doing this - it's time the government does before it's too late. We should also have a national transit program that would tie in everything from the production of rails and trains, to planning the system, to building it. Instead, we have tinkering here, tinkering there, and an opposition incapable of offering Canadians something - anything - that will galvanize that 60 percent opposition vote to oust Harper and put this country back on the path of actual socio-economic progress.

L-girl said...

Dean, I agree, it's shocking sometimes, the extent to which even supposedly well-informed US activists are uninformed about their own history.

Dylan, thanks, I agree, those are the thorniest questions. Very perplexing.

L-girl said...

Frankly, I'm fed up with this complaining about apathy, disengagement and complacency

I don't understand. I've never posted about this before. I've barely thought about it before! If you're fed up, it's with something other than this blog or this post.

As far as "where's the opposition", I'm not talking about what the entrenched political parties can offer us. I'm talking about what we ask and demand of them. Leadership has to come from the people, telling our representatives what we want - from the grassroots, to the parties, to the law, in that order.

This post is not about what politicians are not doing for me. It's about ordinary citizens not demanding change from their elected officials.

L-girl said...

Also

But first, we should know by now that Harper has a ceiling of 40 percent (probably lower - like 36 or 37) and can't muster up enough support to win a majority government - which is what all this nonsense manouvering boils down to.

Yes, and I think everyone here knows that. What of it? What does that have to do with the political disengagement of the citzenry?

Second, of course people are disengaging, shrugging their shoulders and not voting

And btw, I'm not talking about voting, either. Voting is insufficent, and should not be confused with active political participation.

Stephanie said...

But except for a small percentage of people who are very political and interested in social issues, giant swaths of the Canadian public are completely apathetic.

I couldn't agree with you more (we have already discussed this)! My own frustration with this apathy has me feeling utterly pessimistic of late and I am constantly reminded of the classic Led Zeppelin tune "Comfortably Numb".

Now I got that feeling once again.
I can't explain, you would not understand.
This is not how I am.
I have become comfortably numb.
[...]
The child is grown, the dream is gone.
I have become comfortably numb.


IMO the Canadian public responds to their government as though they were anethetised in a similar way by the very comfort of their lives however not drugs (Laura we've talked about this in an earlier post). Marx talks about the effects of religion to mollify an oppressed people.

I would postulate that for many Canadians today it may no longer be religion but consumerism rather...the people I observe around me place a great deal of importance and take great comfort even solace in their purchasing 'power'. As long as we can get to the boxing day sales to get that wid-ER screen LCD TV...(consumption would include of course the passive act of sitting in front of said wider screened TV eating up all that is offered with no effort to verify or even to investigate further the validity).

In the social sciences (particularly in linguistics) we speak of Zipf's law.

Zipf's law states that given some corpus of natural language utterances [think of mass media here], the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. Thus the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, which occurs twice as often as the fourth most frequent word, etc.

So if I could just twist this basic scientific truth a little bit to apply it to that strange phenomena so often discussed here about the repeating false truths "Say it often enough that makes it true, right?" Thus, by Zipf's law the predominance of a shared 'public opinion' is inversely proportional to its rank of frequency in the mainstream media (our corpus). The twisted part being that there appears to be a similar implicational relationship to the 'truth value' based on frequency such that the most frequently reported becomes the most often quoted and adopted public opinion and by implication most true.

Why should that be? In phonetic and phonological analysis, we often speak of the principle of least effort very much like the proverbial 'path of least resistance'.

For example, one might consult a generalist co-worker down the hall rather than a specialist in another building, so long as the generalist's answers were within the threshold of acceptability.

Religion and consumerism make easy fits for this practice. I can go to church or consume but I don't necessarily have to do good deeds OR actually inform myself before formulating opinions and similarly I can have lots of things without working at their construction and before purchasing a product I need not trouble myself with far reaching implications-ethical issues for example that would just be too much bother. This same principle could be applied to our Canadian Society. The masses can take great comfort in being part of a large group of like-minded folk who consume bigger and better every day but always with the least effort (passively consuming without concern for the implications of their consumerism to them and others).

And finally of course, this mass consumption as a perceived inherent *value* in our society just renders people more enchained. When, in fact, the greatest liberty is perhaps attained in the act of NOT consuming.

redsock said...

Comfortably Numb

Pink Floyd, not LZ.

L-girl said...

Consumerism has absolutely replaced religion as the opiate of the masses, if indeed religion was ever that. Consumerism is the defining -ism of modern life, the tie that binds the majority of people. It's so convenient for the powers that be - both makes them rich and makes their subjects compliant.

L-girl said...

(Laura we've talked about this in an earlier post)

During that discussion in comments, I said I would probably write a post on it... and this is it. :)

Stephanie said...

Thank you Redsock

Pink Floyd indeed...not LZ! I'm blaming jet lag. *shrug*

Stephanie said...

During that discussion in comments, I said I would probably write a post on it... and this is it. :)

And I suspected as much. It is a great post. I just wish *sigh*...that it weren't so true.

L-girl said...

Thank you, Steph. It's SO frustrating. Coming from the US, where no one listens to you no matter what you say, so there's a tremendous sense of learned helplessness - to Canada, where elected officials will actually listen, but so few of us are talking - it's maddening.

L-girl said...

You know, I was thinking about what Imp Strump said:

They mystery is why doesn't concerns about one's job and family (and paying less taxes) translate into greater awareness/engagement?

and I remembered something from when I was teaching. At the youth centre, I ran a kind of freewheeling current events / history / civic participation class. The point was to help the young people understand that what happened in the larger world that they said was boring or irrelevant directly affected their lives in very important ways.

We talked a lot about the US Constitution, Supreme Court decisions, and also local legislation.

These kids were "inner city youth" (as the euphemism goes), from very difficult backgrounds, all low income, all people of colour. It wasn't hard to find SCOTUS decisions that directly affected their life chances, that's for sure.

It's as if the adult population of Canada needs a crash course of the same nature.

Stephanie said...

It's as if the adult population of Canada needs a crash course of the same nature.

I agree but I am so pessimistic in recent weeks that I can hear the stock response..."it won't make a difference blah blah blah".

Far too many of us take so much of our freedoms for granted and don't recognise the potential to make a difference through participation in day to day governance.

A civics course, as you propose could be amazing if we knew how to reach the potential student to get them to sign up.

Perhaps we should make this part of the process to attaining the right to vote. Like getting your driver's license you must first take some courses and then pass the test before you can vote. :)

Stephanie said...

in fairness however, as your comment makes clear...the malaise is far too prevalent amongst the Adult population.

For me, the only hope for the future comes from the many youth and young adults around me who are FAR more engaged...it would be unfair to target them.

L-girl said...

Oh yes, this is not a course exclusively for young people!

In some countries, benefits such as health care are tied to voting. You can vote "none of the above" but you have to vote for something to get your cards.

This could never work in the US where anything compulsory is automatically rejected, but it's an interesting idea.

Also, I agree that the stereotype of the apathetic young person is ridiculous, as you suggest - given that the adult population is much worse.

Joseph said...

Interesting post.

I actually happened upon your post while googling "canadian apathy".

I do have some qualms with what you're saying though. I'm an "American-born Canadian" who moved to Canada just over 7 years ago. I'd say in my time here things have deteriorated rapidly.

I personally think apathy is greater in Canada because the system is disconnected from the people and change doesn't happen as deeply as you're saying. They feel that it's useless to even try and change the system. We have a large and unending system of patronage and gov't by appointment in Canada and it runs just about as deep as it can go: from pork barrel spending and waste of the public funds, to health care, to judicial appointments, to all the quasi-governmental panels full of "experts" that never see the light of public scrutiny and the transparency that brings. We have Auditor Generals who make excellent recommendations for reform, yet their reports are just "suggestion" and they are not legally binding to make changes. True, the Court of Public Opinion is harsh but when the electorate is disconnected - who cares? It's not in the Canadian governmental tradition to have open conflict with a view to change like it is in the US. Canada is the country of "peace, order and good government", but an order and good for whom? This where the country has gone astray. I'd encourage you to delve further into the system and how it works (or doesn't). We have lots of pretty laws but no teeth to enforce them or we have laws that are enforced for the benefit of the privileged few at the expense of many. There are reports like those from Global Integrity that back me on this. Canadian business also runs this way, tons of ogliopolies keep us from being innovative in the global marketplace. You pay more for less because it's good for Canadian business to keep things as they are and there is no impetus to change. The Wind Mobile case is interesting because it shows the cracks in the system.

I've personally felt my representation at federal and provincial level has been completely ineffectual. Try getting a reply or an acknowledgment..it's next to impossible. I called my Rep. Jim McDermott's office to lodge my support for the health care reforms and someone actually answered the phone at 2pm on a Sunday! So, I've had the opposite experience as you. I've always found my US representation to be available.

I'm also frustrated at the lack of socially progressive laws in the US as you appear to be. However, just because we have the laws in Canada doesn't mean we have their hearts. The Americans are at least dealing with this struggle even though it's messy. At least in Western Canada, racism and classism are 2 of the "isms" most pervasive and it's ugly.

I think the greater tragedy (if you want to call it that) is that here in Canada we have the bones of truly being the envy of the world through results rather than just hubris. However, we consistently fail at this for some of the reasons I've mentioned. The Americans may have their flaws but so do the Canadians and there is just as a great of a disconnect between the gov't and it's people here as in the USA hence the reason for your post.

L-girl said...

Wow, our experiences are certainly very different! Not just yours vs mine, but yours vs almost anyone I know.

I'd encourage you to delve further into the system and how it works (or doesn't).

I've delved pretty deeply already, as I'm deeply involved in a movement that's leaning heavily on our MPs. I also contact my own MP and MPP regularly. Unless I'm not getting your meaning here?

We have lots of pretty laws but no teeth to enforce them or we have laws that are enforced for the benefit of the privileged few at the expense of many.

Such as what? I'm not disputing you, I just don't know what you're referring to.

I've personally felt my representation at federal and provincial level has been completely ineffectual. Try getting a reply or an acknowledgment..it's next to impossible.

I get both, all the time. I get emails, and meetings. So does everyone else I know, those who bother to try.

I've always found my US representation to be available.

What state? Federal, state or local level?

I'm also frustrated at the lack of socially progressive laws in the US as you appear to be.

No, I'm not frustrated with the US. I've completely, 100% given up on it.

The Americans are at least dealing with this struggle even though it's messy.

What do you mean? What struggle are USians dealing with? I seriously have no idea what you're talking about.

The Americans may have their flaws but so do the Canadians

Well, yes. But my point isn't that people have flaws. The US system is completely and utterly broken. There is nothing left of it. It's a shell - a facade - of democracy.

Canada has a functioning democracy, but the people don't use it - not nearly enough.

That's the point of this post.

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts, perhaps you'll explain further.

L-girl said...

This post brought out an unusual number of "no profile available"-ers. It will be interesting to see if any of them return to discuss.

Stephanie said...

Here is a nice little piece of outrage fromJames Laxer. I just love this bit:

The styles vary. When Harper stands up to answer a question, he does up his jacket in the manner of a butcher securing his apron before he gives an animal the chop. Peter MacKay adopts an unctuous manner at the start of an answer and concludes by sliming an opponent. John Baird bullies and spews contempt. And Jason Kenney plays the jackal, preferring to sink his teeth into dead meat left behind by the others. He’s the one who claimed that York University is such a hotbed of anti-semitism that what goes on there can be compared to “pogroms”. As the grandson of a rabbi who has taught there for the past 38 years, I guess I’m lucky I’m still alive.

impudent strumpet said...

Yeah, I'm sure that's why York gives it students Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off.

L-girl said...

Great writing by Laxer. He is so good.

That statement by Kenney is so offensive. Not long ago, I read descriptions of actual pogroms, visited by the Czar's men on Jewish shtetls (villages) in eastern Europe. It was hideous beyond belief - so much worse than I had imagined, and I've been imagining it a long time, as that's my ancestry. Kenney's hyperbole is insulting.

And on the same tangent, as a Jewish person, I find it SO disgustly offensive that criticism of the policies of the modern state of Israel is falsely equated with anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism exists. It is real and it can be deadly. Equating standing up for Palestinians with that very real bigotry is ... is... grrr. It leaves me speechless with disgust and anger.