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Saturday, February 22, 2020
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When it comes to culture wars, we ain’t seen nothing yet in these parts


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Legalized marijuana (this very week); gay marriage; endless apologies for past sins and grievances, no matter how slight. Canada is no slouch on the progressive front – or at least what passes for trendy progressiveness that ignores the underlying anti-democratic oligarchic trend.

That’s true despite the likes of Doug Ford and Jason Kenney intent on reversing progress – and the clock – on a number of fronts, particularly as it applies to social issues.

We’ve not seen anything like the culture wars south of the border, where partisanship and irrational tribalism have all but destroyed the notion of a civil society, but we could end up following suit. Canada usually trails the curve when it comes to such things. That’s certainly true of the lessening tolerance for change and the (in some cases justified) scapegoating of “elites” and immigrants, among other targets of growing anger.

As with dog-whistle politics and resentment elsewhere, we’ve reduced some large, systemic problems to often ill-informed screeds about the likes of abortion, gender rights, immigration, sexuality, race and even governance itself. The very mention of words such as “refugees,” “climate change” or “CBC” are now codes for a subtext that takes valid discussions into the worse forms of us-versus-them identity politics.

Much of the degeneration of civility is intentional, a divide-and-conquer distraction from the real crimes against our collective humanity.

We’ve fallen into the trap here, though Canada hasn’t gone as public with its extremism. In the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, the political victories of more extreme elements have prompted those even more removed from mainstream thought and civility to become more outspoken about their views.

The rise of such politicians comes from an underlying resentment and anger, some of it related to race, immigration and rapid, visible change. You can say these people are wrong – people are people, why can’t we all just get along? – but that doesn’t make the issue go away.  Instead, we’ve seen the rise of the likes of Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Nigel Farage in the UK.

Closer to home, Stephen Harper employed the dog whistle in the 2015 election, a model adopted by Jason Kenney, now attempting to take power in Alberta, and the people that brought Doug Ford to the head of the Ontario PC party and the premier’s seat.

In Ontario, an uptick in the culture wars came early and often under Ford, who was overt about it on the short-lived show he and his late brother Rob did on the late and unlamented Sun News channel.

Writing shortly after the Ontario election for the Washington Post, Canadian political commentator David Moscrop noted a change in tenor.

“Wittingly or otherwise, Ford has declared a culture war in Ontario. During the campaign, he launched predictable volleys. He opposed supervised injection sites for heroin addicts. He railed against elites. He praised police services and vowed to restore law and order,” Moscrop wrote.

“Marinated in plain-spoken, folksy ‘common sense,’ and drawing on an American playbook, Ford has brought a dangerous populist politics of cultural resentment and revenge to Ontario. We can expect outrage and self-righteousness. Regression and oppression. A slip back to an imagined never-time of cultural rigidity and economic retrenchment. And this at the moment when inclusiveness, environmental responsibility and a commitment to decent deliberative politics are needed to advance a just and pluralist democracy.”

Decent and deliberative are a big ask for today’s brand of politics. Deliberation long ago gave way to sound bites an kneejerk reactions.  Anger and divisiveness are nothing new, chipping away at decency over many years.

The actions of our politicians follows a general decline in society, not just civility. In the course of a couple of generations, we’ve undone centuries of efforts to create a society based on the common good. Much of the we’re-all-in-this-together ideals that came out of the Great Depression and the Second World War, for instance, has been replaced by relentless individualism.

Rapid urbanization whereby we no longer rely on family, friends and the broader community – indeed, we may not even know our neighbours – makes us forget just how interdependent we really are. A consumer-based society, pushed by marketing, focuses on individual pleasure. This comes at a cost to the collective ‘us,’ especially when it discussing matters of financing the common good: taxes are seen as taking money away from ‘my’ enjoyment. Increasingly, we’re encouraged to give rein to our natural tendency to look after number one. Couple that with an individual’s capacity to seek immediate gratification, and long-term planning for our collective future becomes even more difficult.

There’s nothing wrong with looking out for personal interests, but we’re in danger of forgetting that most of the middle-class gains of the postwar years stem from socially-driven ideas. In purely economic terms, the collective efforts are the rising tide that lifted all boats – some more so than others, certainly. Today, however, there’s an element that seems hell-bent on undoing precisely the conditions that allowed for the great prosperity now under attack.

And it’s so-called populists – the ones who prove you can fool many of the people all of the time – who are aiding and abetting the decline.

In being duped, we’re on a downward trajectory.

Pointing to global shift to this current version of populism, University of Toronto political scientist Peter Loewen, also writing in the Post, notes the decline in pluralism.

“To be sure, the world is experiencing a populist wave. It represents a shift in both citizens’ preferences and the practice of politics. Across Europe and North America, support is higher for candidates who express both anti-system and anti-pluralist messages,” he wrote.

Anti-system messages share a common feature. Populists argue that political systems are unresponsive, corrupted and captured by a small elite. They are not entirely wrong in this.

Anti-pluralist messages show more variation. There is often racism and xenophobia. Take Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s anti-Semitism, or President Trump’s antipathy toward Hispanics and Muslims. These are nativist sentiments, pitting the national “us” against some ethnic or religious other. A milder but still detectable nativism is found in the appeals of Nigel Farage, the British politician and architect of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.”

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