Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Neoconservatism in Canada

Caesar Augustus

An article in the latest issue of Humanist Perspectives provides an important backgrounder to recent political developments in Canada.

Written by Shadia B. Drury, and entitled "The Rise of Neoconservatism in Canada", the article amplifies many of the themes identified in my most recent posts, "A King in All But Name" and "Canada's Shameful Record Gets Worse".  As Professor Drury declares in her article's concluding statement,
"So far, there is every indication that [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper will keep his promise that Canada will be unrecognizable when he is done."
Shadia Drury has written extensively on the phenomenon that is the neoconservative movement in the US, and on the political philosophy of Leo Strauss that spawned it.  She is the Canada Research Chair in Social Justice, and the Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Political Science at the University of Regina.

The article begins with a reminder of just how strongly Canadians have held to the notion that we are different than Americans, and how proudly we proclaim that difference.  While both countries share their ancestry with Great Britain, American culture and politics became far more belligerent and militaristic with its War of Independence.  While Canada learned and absorbed the traditions and institutions of the mother country, the US took a much more combative road.  In the revolutionary era, American Protestant Churches,
"beat the drums of war and insisted that America was the new Israel, Americans were the new chosen people, the British were the Egyptians, and King George was the Pharaoh.  Those who opposed the war were denounced as enemies of God and his chosen people."
Evocative phrases such as "shining city on a hill", "manifest destiny" and "American exceptionalism" all reinforce this idea of Americans as the chosen people in the land of a new Israel.  And the politics of America reflects this self-proclaimed and self-righteous religious and cultural pre-eminence, as the article suggests,
"The distinctively American brand of conservatism is radical, belligerent and brutally competitive...In Canada, a British style of Conservatism was allowed to thrive...[it was] interested in conserving the good while gradually reforming the bad."
Canada has come to represent the very best achievements of British liberalism.  It is therefor little wonder that envy of the US system had no prominent place in Canadian politics -- until recently.  The recent reformation of the Conservative Party of Canada has radically changed the discourse and trajectory of politics here.

Prior to the emergence of Stephen Harper's new Conservative Party, the traditional "Tories" held to the British model of governance.  They supported the British political tradition that reflected the gains won through the liberal revolutions in Europe -- that set limits on executive power, insured due process of law, defended the rights of individuals and prevented the abuse of power.  Unlike the American experience, governance in Canada did not carry the millstones of apocalyptic delusions and radical experimentation.

The ascension of Stephen Harper has changed all that.  The principles of the British Parliamentary system, which were "achieved at a great cost and over a long period of time", are now in peril.  The strategies and tactics employed by the Harper Government ape the worst of the so-called neoconservative movement.  Not content with the inherited wisdom of the past, neoconservatives are eager for radical change. Indeed, as Stephen Harper said in a recent interview, when he is finished with Canada it will be unrecognizable.

In past writings on the subject, Professor Drury has linked the rise of neoconservatism in America to two European thinkers -- Leo Strauss and Friedrich Hayek -- and says that the phobias and delusions of these men dovetailed with American ideology and propaganda in a way that was fertile to the growth of the neoconservative movement.

The philosophy of Strauss, in particular, was highly amenable to the ruling elites in America.  Strauss upheld Plato's position that the wise few should rule the masses without legal restraint.  The scholarship on Strauss reveals his teachings,
"What is needed is a wily elite ruling behind the facade of democracy.  This devious elite would partner politics with religion; it would engage the masses in a constant struggle against an existential threat to the nation and its god.  In the state of of existential dread, the democratic masses would be too pre-occupied with the external enemy to turn on their betters."     
According the Professor Drury, Strauss was severely criticized for his elitist and anti-democratic opinions.  But, as she says, "Americans tend to romanticize democracy", and politics is "characterized by hyper-democratic rhetoric".  And in America, democracy has become wary of the liberal tradition, to the extent that important elements of liberalism such as the protection of individual and minority rights have been marginalized.

And it is a paradox that the neocons' true disdain for democracy, coupled with their hyper-charged rhetoric for it, fuels a crusading foreign policy in the name of those very democratic ideals.  It was the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, you will remember, who were the primary architects of the Iraq War.  Even today the millions of casualties (the collateral damage) are justified as the price the grateful Iraqis paid for their "freedom" and democracy.  Conditions on the ground, there and in Afghanistan, would render a much different judgement, even as the decline of the American empire proceeds.    

Professor Drury asks why the neocons in America, so obviously influenced by an anti-democratic philosophy, would push the democratic mythology to such catastrophic ends.  Her answer is illuminating,
"Neocons...share [Strauss'] faith in the importance of religion, nationalism and war for the health and well-being of the political society...Religion, nationalism and the looming menace of an existential enemy are the key neoconservative ingredients in the war against liberal laxity and weakness.  Moreover, liberal niceties such as the rule of law, insistence on due process, and the limitations on executive power, can be formidable obstacles in the effort to defend society against unpredictable hazards."
And so, on now to Canada.  The undemocratic political philosophy practiced by Stephen Harper has been a subtext to his leadership for several years.  If he is not specifically Straussian in his strategies, Stephen Harper employs the philosopher's general tone and direction. He has a preoccupation with the military and nationalism, has created a strong linkage between religion and politics, and is highly secretive and controlling of the operations of government.  As Martin Lawrence wrote of Harper in his book Harperland,
"There is a harshness, a lack of humour, humanity and moderation that disregards the traditions of Parliament where all members have a right to treated as honourable." 
As I have written in earlier posts, Harper's legislative agenda supports the basic tenants of the neoconservative world view, such as his crime bill and anti-terrorism act, both deemed wholly unnecessary, if not counterproductive, in Canada today.  The Harper agenda of deep integration between Canada and the United States is moving apace. The question is why.  Why, as the Drury article asks,
"would anyone trade Canadian freedom, individuality, skepticism, and a healthy balance between capitalism and socialism, for American religiousity, mindless faith, perpetual war, and unfettered capitalism?  Why trade Canadian sobriety for a toxic concoction of American imperialism?"  
In answer to that question, we begin with the recognition that political movements develop for reasons that are complex, and in response to political motivations that are diverse; Professor Drury more specifically offers three possibilities to explain the rise of neoconservatism here in Canada.

First, as has been discussed in the many posts related to the recent 10th anniversary, 9/11 did change the world.  And liberal principles such as the rule of law, respect for individual rights, the insistence on due process and strict limitations on executive power have been deeply compromised in its aftermath.  Into this vacuum have rushed neoconservative ideals.  The article suggests that some Canadians genuinely feel that joining fortress America is the only prudent course. The recent announcement of highly integrated security initiatives between the US and Canada only reinforces that view.

Of course, advocates of this garrison mentality in Canada conveniently neglect the American culpability in stoking the resentments and inequities that brought about the blowback that was 9/11.  The aggressive war mentality that Canada has recently adopted in Afghanistan, its increasingly belligerent position toward Palestine, and its blind support for Israel whatever the costs, are out of step with mainstream opinion of the majority of our citizens.  As the Straussian philosophy suggests, however, this is a trifling matter for Harper, since our elites are endowed with a deeper insight, and will therefor ensure that the Canadian public adopts the correct attitudes.  

Second, and as has been demonstrated in America, Canadians of faith, and in particular the evangelicals, are highly amenable to the ideals of neoconservatism.  For them, religious virtue and ideology provides their preferred foundation for society.  It is well known that Stephen Harper has tapped into the evangelical and broader religious communities, and often tags his speeches with "God bless Canada". And his lock-step support for Israel can be seen in the mobilization of his christian base.

Finally, Professor Drury identifies Western Canadian alienation and the region's perceived rugged individualism as being compatible with neoconservatism.  The long-standing domination of Canada's east-centered Liberal Party has been a lightning rod for protest, and Stephen Harper's visceral hatred for liberals and liberalism is well known.  He is an ultra-partisan politician, tactically brilliant, and known to rise each day with a mission to destroy his adversaries -- and he is intent on transforming the new Conservative Party into Canada's natural ruling party.  Western alienation, and the protest movement that spawned The Reform Party was steeped in grievance, and it remains today the backbone of Harper's electoral strength.

Stephen Harper's views are consistent with all three possibilities that Professor Drury offers on the rise of neoconservatism in Canada.  He is absolutely sincere and committed to leaving Canada unrecognizable by the time he is done.

And when he recently committed Canada to adopting America's wars as our own, Harper began to make good on his threat.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: "American Woman", The Guess Who, American Woman.  Enjoy.

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