polarization is not the problem. the problem is fascism.

Art by Maaike Hartjes
"The problem today is that society is so polarized. We need to come together and find common ground."

I hear and read this a lot these days. 

In this analysis, opposing points of view are characterized as "extreme". The best option, it is said, lies in the middle. 

This is a deceptive and potentially dangerous belief.

When mainstream views move so far to the right that the ideas, if put into action, would destroy democracy and civil society, then it is our responsibility to oppose those views. 

When bigotry and hate are rallying cries, it is our duty to stand in opposition, and in solidarity with the targets.

When political actions offend our core values, we must call them out and oppose them.

And if that appears polarizing, it's not the fault of the people trying to build a better world -- or trying to save the crappy one we have.

The opposite of extremism may not be extreme

The "polarization is the problem" view assumes that both ends of the spectrum are always extreme, and that a common-sense approach always lies somewhere in the middle. 

So as the right wing has become more and more extreme, the definition of "centrist" -- supposedly middle ground -- has moved further to the right, too. In conversations with Canadians, I have been absolutely amazed that this is a novel concept:  people don't  seem to realize that centre is a relative term

There is no active extreme left in either the US or Canada. There may be random individuals on the extreme left, but there is no political party representing those views, no widespread people's movement, no groundswell of public opinion. 

The parties and viewpoints that oppose the extreme right are either moderate centre-right (Liberal Party, most of Democratic Party) or moderate center-left (NDP, some of Democratic Party). The Liberals, Democrats, and NDP are only far-left in a Fox News-induced fantasy world -- and through the polarization lens.

Take a look at those parties' platforms, the bills they put forward, how they vote. Not so very long ago, their positions were considered quite moderately liberal. The evidence for that is all around us: it's what's left of the public sector that the right-wing has been demolishing since the Reagan/Mulroney era. Advocating for public healthcare, affordable housing, public education, a fair tax code, green energy, and decent jobs is not extreme. Wanting an inclusive society is not extreme.

Define "greater good"

"We need to come together to work for the greater good." 

This is a familiar refrain from the "polarization is the problem" mindset. But how should those with opposing viewpoints work together -- and why?

I can agree that in Parliament and Congress it would be best if political parties could work together. If a party votes yes for something when they put it forward, and vote no on the same thing when another party puts it forward, that is partisanship. It values party loyalty over society at large. It's counterproductive, childish, and wrong. 

But when parties' values are opposed to each other, finding a so-called middle ground isn't necessarily a reasonable goal. Take healthcare, for example. If one party wants to expand the public health system, and one party wants to privatize it, those two parties can't find a middle ground and they shouldn't try. 

Should the party that wants to expand public health care "compromise" and allow some privatization? Of course not! That party should oppose all privatization and seek to roll back whatever privatization has already taken place. Those are the actions that align with their values, and presumably the values of their voters. Finding so-called common ground would mean betraying their values, their voters, and the public health system.

After hearing "we need to come together to work for the greater good," we must insist: define greater good

Can't we all just coalition?

What about a coalition? In most parliamentary systems of government, in countries throughout the world, parties enter into coalitions from time to time. Can Canada do that? Would we want it to? 

I would probably support an NDP-Liberal coalition government, so those parties could work together to defeat the Conservatives. When this was attempted in 2009, it was scuttled by a weak Liberal leader, public ignorance, and propaganda, with a huge assist from the Canadian media. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said a coalition would "overturn the results of an election" -- and no one challenged or corrected him.** (If they did it was not amplified to the point where anyone could hear it.) 

A coalition would be exciting, scary, potentially amazing. Potentially disastrous. Alas, we'll probably never know. It seems highly unlikely that we'll see a coalition government in Canada. But we could try. 

If working together for the greater good means defeating the Conservatives -- who, in the Canadian context, are far-right -- then working together is a laudable goal.

Good guys vs. fascists

All my adult life, I've heard that's it's wrong to think in terms of us vs. them. But I've never believed that. Of course it's wrong when applied to nationality or ethnic background or so-called "race". But my own us vs. them has nothing to do with personal characteristics. My us vs. them is not even about class. It's about worldviews. Values. Right and wrong. 

There are those who want justice, peace, equity. Who want everyone to have a safe and affordable place to live, quality healthcare, quality education. Those who value democracy. Who want everyone to be free to live and love as they choose, to create the families that they want, without government or religious interference. 

And there are those who want profit, empire, and power. Warmongers. Hatemongers. People who believe that where their ancestors were born makes them superior. People who think their life choices should be the only ones available. People who want to reverse social progress. As an old boss of mine, Oz Elliott, used to say: good guys and fascists. 

Being a good guy doesn't mean staying neutral or searching for common ground. It means standing up for what is right.

Polarization is, in reality, resistance. And in the face of fascism, bigotry, and hate, it's exactly what we need.


** For some US readers: A coalition does no such thing. Everyone who was elected is still elected.  What differs is who forms the government.


the propaganda discrediting student protests is sad, frustrating, and incredibly hypocritical

The student movement opposing Israeli apartheid brings my heart so much joy. When I was in university, a similar movement calling for divestment from South Africa played a significant role in the fall of that apartheid. It has the potential to do the same now. Yet mainstream politicians and media -- many of whom attended university during a time of tremendous protest and unrest -- are working overtime to discredit the protestors and their movement. Their efforts appear to be successful. It's disgusting, and incredibly hypocritical.

Ignorance? Why?

The upshot: we are supposed to believe that the protesting students are ignorant pawns being controlled by outsiders. Supposedly they don't even know what they're protesting! 

Why would that be? Why wouldn't students in universities throughout North America be knowledgeable about the situation in the Middle East? One might disagree with their opinions or their stance, but why would we assume they are ignorant?

Did students protesting the war in Vietnam know what they were protesting? Of course they did. Students now have even greater access to information, from more sources, then those students -- the current protestors' grandparents -- did. Of course there is false and misleading information out there. There always has been. We manage to sift through rumour and disinformation, and arrive at our own opinions. Why can't these students? Answer: they can.

Outside agitators

The charge of being controlled by outsiders is probably the oldest tactic in the anti-movement playbook. Southern plantation owners said their enslaved workers were happy until northern abolitionists meddled in their affairs. Striking workers are routinely said to be pawns of their unions, who supposedly have a separate and nefarious agenda. Revolutions the world over are blamed on "outside agitators". Translation: these people are too stupid to organize themselves.

Some of the protestors at the campus occupations are not students. People from the community may get involved to show solidarity and lend support. There's nothing unusual about that, and nothing wrong with it. It doesn't mean the students aren't self-organized. 

Freaks and provocateurs

We've long seen how the media singles out the odd-looking, the radical-looking, the menacing-looking for interviews. Anyone with purple hair, multiple piercings, and facial tattoos is an easy choice. Ordinary-looking, middle-class-appearing people don't make the nightly news. 

And don't forget the impact of hired provocateurs. This, too, has been a feature of mainstream reporting on movements from time immemoriam. The use of provocateurs -- hired by local police departments or the FBI or right-wing media -- has been proven many times over. Yet accusations of provocateurs are dismissed as fantasy or paranoia.

"The stereotypes about today’s students are often ludicrously far from reality"

In a New York Times opinion piece, Elizabeth Spiers writes: "Dear Boomers, the Student Protesters Are Not Idiots".

Appearing last week on "Morning Joe," Hillary Clinton lamented what she views as the ignorance of students protesting the war in Gaza. The host, Joe Scarborough, asked her about "the sort of radicalism that has mainstream students getting propaganda, whether it's from their professors or from the Chinese Communist government through TikTok." Ms. Clinton was happy to oblige. "I have had many conversations, as you have had, with a lot of young people over the last many months," she said. "They don't know very much at all about the history of the Middle East or frankly about history in many areas of the world, including in our own country."

I've taught students at the college level for 12 years, most recently at New York University's journalism school. I've also seen and heard the assumptions made about them by some of their elders — administrators, parents and others. So it's no surprise now to hear protesters described as "spoiled and entitled kids" or delicate "snowflakes" who cower in their safe spaces and don't believe in free speech. Billionaires like Ken Griffin, Bill Ackman and, of course, Donald Trump — as entitled as anyone — have been particularly vocal in their disdain, calling the students in one instance "whiny" and demanding that they be punished for protesting. Representative Mike Lawler, a Republican from New York, even suggested that TikTok should be banned in part because "you're seeing how these kids are being manipulated by certain groups or entities or countries to foment hate on their behalf and really create a hostile environment here in the U.S."

Whether they realize it or not, Ms. Clinton, Mr. Lawler and the rest are engaging in a moral panic about America's youth that is part of a larger effort to discredit higher education in general. That effort includes fearmongering about diversity programs and critical race theory. But it starts with students.

In the current panic, the protesters are described as somehow both terribly fragile and such a threat to public safety that they need to be confronted by police officers in riot gear. To justify the police department's excessive response at Columbia University, Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry showed Newsmax viewers a large chain and a book with the title "Terrorism" that had been recovered from one site of protest. The former was a common bike chain Columbia sells to students and the latter was part of Oxford University Press's lovely "Very Short Introductions" series, which covers topics from animal behavior to Rousseau and black holes. . . . 

High-profile public figures of all ideological stripes have varyingly called for the students to be kicked out of their institutions, made unemployable or sent to prison. They've floated implausible scenarios in which the protests turn deadly. Students brave enough to risk their financial aid and scholarships are derided as childish rather than principled. And though they are educated to participate in civic life, as soon as these students exercise their First Amendment rights, they are told that protecting private property is a more pressing public concern. It's as though some older adults simply can't wrap their heads around the idea that college students, who are old enough to marry, have families and risk their lives for their country, are capable of having well thought-out principles. . . . 

In my experience, the stereotypes about today's students are often ludicrously far from reality. College students of this generation have far more knowledge about complex world events than mine or Ms. Clinton's did, thanks to the availability of the internet and a 24/7 news cycle fire-hosed directly into their phones. Representative Lawler may be correct that some portion of that information comes from clips on TikTok, and social media can be misleading, but there's no evidence that college students are more likely to be misled by TikTok than people Mr. Lawler's age and older are likely to be misled by Facebook. In fact, research indicates that younger people are more savvy and skeptical about media, and more likely to triangulate among different sources to see if something is true.

They may also be more sensitive to the horrors of children being killed here and elsewhere because they grew up participating in active shooter drills and watching the aftermath of mass shootings on the news. They are less financially secure than generations prior, and less likely to believe that institutions will save them or reward them for loyalty and hard work. But they are not babies, and they are not oblivious or na├»ve. And their ideas and actions cannot be dismissed just because some bad actor — no mass movement is without them — does or says something stupid.

For years, for decades, I've heard members of the Baby Boomer generation brag about student protest during the late 1960s and early 1970s. No matter that those protests didn't take off in earnest until middle-class white students lost their student draft deferments and were at risk of being sent to the killing fields. And no matter that after those protests, most students graduated, married, took jobs, lived an average life, and never attended a rally or a demonstration again. The fact is, they did that. They stood in the crowd, they raised signs, they chanted. And guess what? They smoked weed, which was illegal, and I bet that there were people in the crowd who were ignorant of certain issues. But they did it. And they helped end a war.

What makes you think the current protestors are any different?