Jonathan Kirshner: On the rise of Trump, and the irreversible damage done

Great article by Jonathan Kirshner in the LA Review of Books, as we begin the countdown to the end of the post-World War II world. On the question of, How Trump? Kirshner argues that economic inequality and a rigged system weren’t enough on their own to account for Trump’s victory. Not to put too fine a point on it, the United States has never, ever been through anything as bleak as faced by Germany in the 1920s and the 1930s, when they elected Hitler with a measly 33% of the vote: millions dead, starvation, a collapsed economy, a country stripped of its military and means of economic support by vengeful victors:

As a nation we’ve never faced a test of our national character as daunting as that, but we have faced plenty worse than what we’ve got today, and until now had never thrown in our lot with the first demagogue that came along.

Instead, you also have to look to racism (he ignores the rampant misogyny faced by Clinton, a huge oversight in an otherwise insightful article) and a changed media climate — the rise of the Internet:

The internet is exponentially more pernicious: entry is free, accountability is absent, and — here we are more stupid — the ability of people to distinguish between fact and fiction has virtually vanished.

That said,  I think people are exactly as smart (and dumb) as we’ve ever been. People have always been prone to believe anything that’s put in front of them; it’s just before news (and misinformation) came from a few sources. We didn’t have to distinguish between fact and fiction because there were only a few news sources. Now “news” comes from all over.

On the damage done: It’s irreversible, and won’t end well:

from now on, and for a very long time, countries around the world will have to calculate their interests, expectations, and behavior with the understanding that this is America, or, at the very least, that this is what the American political system can plausibly produce. And so the election of Trump will come to mark the end of the international order that was built to avoid repeating the catastrophes of the first half the twentieth century, and which did so successfully — horrors that we like to imagine we have outgrown. It will not serve us well.

With the battle, and the war, and the civilization lost, Kirshner is already looking forward to the next great (final?) American crisis:

But we will face a great moment of crisis, after the next major terrorist attack in the U.S. (something no American President could prevent), which will present something like a perfect storm: a thin-skinned, impulsive leader with authoritarian instincts, a frightened public, an environment of permissive racism, and a post-fact information environment. In such a moment basic civil liberties will be at risk: due process will be assailed as “protecting terrorists”; free speech will be challenged as “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” And that will be the moment when each of us must stand up and be counted, and never forget Tolstoy’s admonition: “There are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him.” Our portion is to make sure that never comes to pass.

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Canadians! Fear Trumpism? Then join the Conservative party to keep it off the ballot

[Edited to correct the deadline for joining and being able to vote in the leadership campaign. It’s actually March 28. Apologies; I have no idea how I got the date wrong.]

Yesterday, I paid my $15 and joined the Conservative Party of Canada. At this very moment, they’re deciding whether Trump-style hate will be on the ballot in the next election in the form of Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney. If one of them, or a similar candidate, wins – and Leitch is the current favourite – then there’s a 50/50 chance that our next Prime Minister will be a Trump acolyte (the NDP, in its wisdom, having decided to get out of the business of actually contesting elections). That’s the lesson from the US election.

Canadians are fortunate that we have a say in who the next potential prime minister will be. We have a vote in the future of our country. The Conservative leadership election is open to all Canadians who have been members of the party for at least six months [EDIT: the deadline is actually March 28]. The vote is on May 27, so if you sign up in the next two weeks by then, you can have a say in who becomes the next Conservative leader, and the next potential prime minister. And there are candidates, such as Michael Chong and Chris Alexander who have directly repudiated Leitch’s particular brand of hatemongering. (Full disclosure: I also gave $25 to Chong’s campaign.)

If you’re shocked by the low voter turnout in the US election, here’s your chance to put your money ($15) where your mouth is. If you support the Conservatives, there’s no reason for you not to become a paid member and stand up for Canadian values. If you haven’t previously supported the Conservatives, when you join and check out the profiles of the candidates, you might find that some of their policies aren’t quite as evil as our tribal approach to politics would lead you to think. And you can always influence these policies, because we’re all Canadians here and we have a say in what happens next.

One of the only silver linings in this entire election season was seeing some Republicans repudiate their party — a fundamental part of their identity — to focus on what united them with others Americans, rather than on the seemingly intractable partisan divide. Over the past few decades — in Canada as in the United States — we’ve lost touch with the fact that there are some fundamental Canadian ideals that transcend party affiliation. Respect and support for the weak and the marginalized is one of them. Punching down is never cool. We have to make sure that everyone is able to do the best they can in this country.

Now, how we make that happen is fair game for political disagreement. But before we get to that fun debate, we have to decide what type of Canada we want. That’s what’s on the ballot in May. If you fear what happened in the United States on Tuesday, here’s your chance to finally make a difference.

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Canada: The functional country (and not just by default)

At a time in which it seems the world has gone completely mad, the Canada Day holiday stands as a chance to take the day off and catch our breath amid the insanity.

Our two main international cultural reference points (apologies to France) seem completely unmoored. To the south, an orange-skinned, short-fingered grifter is the Republican candidate for president, a spectre who doesn’t so much fan the embers of hate, fear and resentment of non-whites, Muslims and women, as douse them with kerosene and break out the flamethrower.

Across the ocean, David Cameron has single-handedly brought the United Kingdom and the European Union to the brink of destruction. Future barroom fights won’t start over who the greatest British Prime Minister was (experts are divided between Lord Palmerston and Pitt the Elder), but over whether Cameron is the worst British PM or the worst democratic leader in world history.

Given this chaos, it’s weird to realize that Canada – the country without an identity, home of the perpetual constitutional crisis – is currently one of the most functional, well-run and cohesive countries in the world. And it’s not just because everyone else is busy scoring own goals. We have much to be thankful for.

It feels unCanadian to say, but our leaders have, from time to time, shown a bit of wisdom. It’s hard to overstate how lucky Canadians, Mexicans and Americans are that back in the heady, post-Cold War days of the 1990s, our governments explicitly rejected EU-style institutions in favour of the more limited North American Free Trade Agreement. They intuitively understood that nationalism and a desire for democratic politics would make such an arrangement untenable in North America. Now, tragically, it looks like Europe is facing this same reality.

Our democracy is also in pretty good shape. Prudent banking regulation helped us avoid the worst of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and thanks in part to opposition pressure on a minority Conservative government to open the fiscal taps, we avoided the crippling austerity that has plagued Europe.

As xenophobia engulfs Europe and much of the United States, we’re also fortunate that we set up our political system to skew pro-immigration. It’s not by chance that the Conservative party had to reject the Reform wing’s more xenophobic elements to gain power; that voters smacked down the Conservatives’ blatantly racist anti-Muslim “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line in the last election; and that this anti-Muslim attitude was attacked so passionately at the Conservatives’ own recent convention. Though our relative isolation makes it very hard for Canada to be swamped by huge numbers of refugees, this shouldn’t detract from multiculturalism’s policy success.

Confederation itself, with its equalization and transfer payments, ensures that Canadians roughly share the fruits and burdens of our labours. Even Quebec separatism is off the front burner, thanks partly to successive governments’ conscious attention Quebecers’ demands.

Not to get too rose-colored, but all this is democracy in action. These things don’t just happen; we built this system. And it’s working.

Finally, there’s the much-maligned Canadian identity. For all of the talk that we’re merely hockey-mad non-Americans, Canadian identity is both deep and durable. Waking up to the Brexit results brought me back to the failed 1995 Quebec referendum. Like the Remain campaign, the Canadian No forces emphasized the scary economic consequences of Quebec separation. As with the Remain campaign, this campaign of fear wasn’t enough.

However, unlike the Remain campaign, the No forces were able – at the very end – to shift into another gear and appeal to Quebecers’ sense of Canadian nationalism. In Britain, there is relatively little European nationalism to which Remain could appeal.

Experts disagree on why No triumphed in 1995, but the fact that the No side could appeal to Canadian nationalism revealed a base level of Canadianness in all provinces and territories that glues us together. Debates about what it means to be Canadian are healthy and normal, but we shouldn’t doubt for an instant that Canadianness is real and mighty.

Of course, Canada is far from being a paradise. Our treatment of Canada’s indigenous population is a disgrace and ongoing humanitarian disaster. We’re not doing enough on climate change. Economic prosperity isn’t shared as widely as it should be. There remains much to do to build a better, more just Canada. But we’ve been doing it for 149 years, and we’ll continue to do so. As they used to say south of the border, the state of the union is strong.

Happy Canada Day.

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Stephen Clarkson, 1937-2016

Terribly sad news. Stephen Clarkson was the external reviewer on my dissertation and a real inspiration. His signing off on my dissertation was a career and life highlight; his work the starting point for everything I’ve written and taught about North American regionalism. The brilliance of his work in this and other areas doesn’t come across at all in the Globe and Mail’s perfunctory obituary; much, much better is Louis Pauly’s on the University of Toronto’s website.

It was Prof. Clarkson (it still doesn’t feel right to call him Stephen) who suggested to me, an MA student who approached him out of the blue at a conference in Ottawa in the early 2000s, that if I was going to study Canada-US politics, I should include Mexico in my research. Only my friend Keith Serry’s suggestion that I also study copyright has been more important for my academic career.

One quick story. In 2007, I was at an Association for Canadian Studies in the United States conference in Toronto(!) as a third-year PhD student. I had not had a good conference. My (undercooked) paper elicited exactly zero interest, and I didn’t do well in the networking department. Last panel of the conference, late Saturday afternoon (aka, the dead zone), I was listening to a presentation promoting a North American student model parliament whose underlying assumption was that if you just got rid of all the power politics that come from the United States being the world’s biggest superpower, and Canada and Mexico’s reluctance to surrender their sovereignty (i.e., if you just pretended the world was other than what it was), then everything would be fine. Stephen Clarkson was in attendance (not on the panel).

During the Q&A, I asked the panelists: if a model parliament’s underlying assumptions are fantastical, then isn’t the whole exercise pretty much useless? That went over about as well as you’d expect. Great way to end a dismal conference.

Except Prof. Clarkson — who I’m pretty sure had no idea who I was — came up to me after the panel was over and said, “Now, that’s the question, isn’t it?” This brief remark not only redeemed what had been a miserable conference, but confirmed to me that I might have something worth saying.

You don’t have to get everyone’s approval, just the right people. Prof. Clarkson was definitely the right people. RIP.

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It’s list time! Best music of 2015

In my off hours I host a one-hour general music show on CFBU, Brock University Radio (streaming here; m3u file). It’s on Tuesday nights from 9-10 pm Eastern Time, if you’re so inclined. The genre, such as it is, is “left-field pop,” so chosen for its vagueness.

Every December, as a condition of our CRTC licence, general music hosts must, by law, provide the listening public with our top songs or albums of the year. I split mine up over the past two weeks; I’ll post the actual shows to Mixcloud and link to them here, if I get around to it. In the meantime, here’s my list of the top 30 songs of 2015.

Quick note on #2: In any other year, Grimes’ Art Angels would’ve been easily my top choice. As a musical and artistic statement, it’s at least on a par with Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s exhilarating.

But if you know anything about Australian history and the Stolen Generations, Briggs’ The Children Came Back is like a punch to the gut. One of the most moving and hopeful songs I’ve ever heard. (Seriously, watch the video.) Best tune of the year.

30. Sleaford Mods, Key Markets, No Ones Bothered

29. Danko Jones, Fire Music, Piranha

28. No Zu, Ui Yia Uia

27. Downtown Boys, Full Communism, Wave of History

26. TV Freaks, Bad Luck Charms, Thirteen

25. The Beverleys, Brutal, Bad Company

24. Scary Bear Soundtrack, Ovayok Road, Ovayok Road

23. Simcoe, Simcoe EP, Afterglow

22. Day Ravies, Liminal Zones, Fake Beach

21. East End Radicals, Zero Hour, Ylpd

20. Rebel Tears, I Hate the Beach

19. OK Badlands, Good Logic

18. ttwwrrss, ttwwrrss_2, Rooftop

17. Hello Seahorse!, Nada Extraordinario

16. Lazertits, Gender Studies

15. JuliaWhy?, Wheel, Turntable

14. Windfall Found, Pulling for the Heavens, Soaring (Pulling for the Heavens Pt 1)

13. Podiums, New Club Banger

12. Raised on DJs, Steady Diet, Already Forgot

11. Angie, Free Agent, Down for the Count

10. The Drones, Taman Shud

9. Victories at Sea, Everything Forever, Up

8. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Aqua Profunda!

7. Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer, Mister Difficult

6. Old Kid, This Echo, OK, Okay

5. FFS, FFS, Police Encounters

4. Sahara Beck, Bloom EP, Brother Sister

3. US Girls, Half Free, Damn that Valley

2. Grimes, Art Angels, Kill v Maim

1. Briggs, The Children Came Back (feat. Gurrumul, Dewayne Everettsmith)

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Adam Goodes and the tragedy of Australia’s missed international moment

I heard the news of Adam Goodes’ retirement early last Friday morning, 14 hours removed from Sydney. As a Canadian and a relatively recent convert to the joys of Australian Rules football, I was surprised by my degree of despondency over the news. It wasn’t so much that his playing career had come to an end, as all such careers must. Rather, it’s how the circumstances surrounding his departure have resulted in a tragically missed opportunity for the country and a stain on its image that will take years to remove.

Since I was introduced to the sport by a couple of Swans tragics and the sensational 2012 Grand Final (which also happened to feature a fine performance by a fellow Canadian, Mike Pyke), I’ve talked up the game incessantly to fellow Canadians. I’ve even created a course at my home university comparing Canadian and Australian society through the lens of ice hockey and Australian Rules football. At a screening of Port Adelaide’s Round 21 upset of Hawthorn, one of my colleagues, witnessing for the first time the skill displayed by these sublimely gifted athletes, wondered, “Why isn’t this more popular in North America?”

Through all of this, including 5:30 am appointments with Friday Night Footy (great way to start your day when your team wins), I’ve learned more and more about the rules and history of the game, and in so doing, about the history and culture of Australia. Since Canada and Australia are so similar, it’s also led me to reflect on my own society, and hockey’s place in it.

From my side of the ocean, the Australian Football League and Australian Rules football stand as beacons of what Australia and Australians are capable of at their best. In a world of global commercial homogenization, maintaining a thriving indigenous sport is a huge accomplishment. Coming from North America, where sports franchises are the playthings of multi-billionaires, to be moved the moment a given profit margin cannot be maintained, it’s inspiring to see the deep connection between communities and their teams. The AFL is also light years ahead of the National Hockey League in terms of women’s representation in coaching, umpiring and administrative positions, and in the stands, even if true equality is still far off.

Then there’s the game itself. To this Canadian’s eye, it’s an incredibly graceful and exciting spectacle, the passing no less than the kicking and the tackling. It’s physical without being violent (give or take a Brian Lake choke hold) and matches hockey for speed and creativity. Even Bruce McAvaney’s commentary, which I understand drives some Australians to distraction, is so inventive that it never fails to yield some Facebook-worthy phrasing to confuse, amuse and intrigue my Canadian friends.

Beyond that, there’s the positive role the AFL attempts to play in the wider society. The changes resulting from Nicky Winmar’s gesture and Michael Long’s stand for basic respect speak volumes not only about the AFL, but also Australians’ willingness to confront hard realities about the darkest parts of their history. Themed rounds, for example, are foreign to me as a Canadian, as is a league taking a strong political position on anything remotely controversial, such as Indigenous rights or multiculturalism.

Critics might see these rounds as tokenism, but they also send a powerful message about the importance of unity and reconciliation to a country (like Canada) still scarred by the sins of genocide and racism. In Canada, where politeness is often a mask for the societal ills we dare not acknowledge, such candour is alien.

Which brings us to Adam Goodes’ retirement. I can’t think of a single hockey player who can match his record and the eloquence with which he promotes his message of recognition, reconciliation and equality (for all the disdain he cops, Goodes is preaching a pretty generous and compassionate message).

That the racist (and with the clarity offered by distance, the booing is obviously racist) jeering continued into the final moments of his final match is, for someone who sees in Australia hints of how things could be better in Canada, profoundly disheartening. Despite the stand taken by his fellow players, captains, rival teams and the AFL itself, the booing continued. And while it may not have driven Goodes out of the game (though it came close), it certainly coloured his leave-taking in a way that nobody – champion or otherwise – deserves.

The loss is not Goodes’, but Australia’s. Nobody can take Goodes’ accomplishments away from him, including his courageous stands for respect and against racism. Rather, this year of booing shows that, despite two decades of sustained efforts by the AFL, and by the commendable actions and words of our sports heroes and leaders, there remains a substantial racist hard core amongst AFL barrackers, and thus in Australian society as a whole. While Goodes’ retirement will end the booing (for now), it also means Australia no longer has the chance to make it right, to emerge from the pain of the past few months a better country, to serve as an inspiration to others as it did with its response to Winmar and Long.

From Canada, where we deal, more quietly, with the same issues, this failure is disheartening. If socially acceptable racial vilification can still occur – toward a champion and humanitarian, of all people – after sustained decades of anti-racism work by leading institutions and people, what hope is there for the next Adam Goodes? The tragedy is Australia’s, and Canada’s.

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Torture, US democracy and the rule of law

I’m trying to think through the obscenity of the US torture program, and my fears about what the Obama Administration’s non-response tells us about the health of the US democracy.

After all the terrible things I read yesterday, I was still sort of shocked to read this account, titled, “I Can’t Be Forgiven for Abu Ghraib: The Torture Report Reminds Us of What America Was,” by someone who admits to torturing people at Abu Ghraib.

That the author, Eric Fair, is haunted by having tortured people in the service of the US government is understandable and human. His commitment to talking widely about what he and other US torturers did is commendable.

But at the same time, it stuns me that essentially he’s freely admitting to committing crimes against humanity (as have Dick Cheney and George W Bush). That they so casually admit that US government representatives “tortured some folks” (as Obama said recently) demonstrates how greatly the taboo against torture in the US has been weakened.

Unless the people responsible for this obscene program of torture, rape and murder of prisoners are brought to justice, the torture report is about what America is, not what it was. And it is a dark, lawless place, where police hardly ever even face trial for killing citizens, and a free pass to torture and wreck the economy is available to those lucky enough to be rich or in a position of authority.

For us non-Americans, it’s often easy to criticize the United States because we don’t have to live there. It’s a lot harder to criticize your own society, which is why we should celebrate Americans like the authors of the torture report, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, people who have spoken truth to power at great risk to themselves, and even comedians like Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert. Calling out your own government’s injustices is hard. Most people shy away from any type of conflict. Standing up against the power of the government and the wrath of your fellow citizens, even for basic human decency, requires more personal fortitude than most of us have.

We Canadians are as bad or worse in speaking truth to power here at home. A quick check of Maher Arar’s Wikipedia page confirms my recollection that no individual Canadian has been held accountable for Canada’s role in his rendition to Syria and almost-certain torture. Stephen Harper shut Parliament down in 2009 in order to avoid dealing with the question of whether Canadian soldiers who transferred Afghan prisoners to Afghan authorities knew the prisoners would be tortured and thus committed war crimes. Our own complicity and lack of accountability is something to keep in mind when thinking about the impunity faced by US torturers.

But, like it or not, the United States – or, rather, the idea of the United States – plays an outsized role in the world, often for good. For all its hypocrisy, the idea of the United States – government by the people, for the people, and the rule of law – is a good one worth striving for. In the past decade, and especially the past few weeks, the possibility of rule of law and government by the people, for the people, has been dealt one blow after another. Again, it’s one where police killings are hardly ever brought to justice, the poor and black are jailed far out of proportion to the rest of US society, bankers can engage in illegal fleecing of individuals’ life savings and be rewarded for it, and leaders who freely admit to torturing other human beings are given a pass by a constitutional lawyer. If I set these facts in front of my students, they’d think I was talking about the dictatorship in China. This is where we’re at.

Just so there’s no confusion: I’ve been a huge admirer of the United States. I think their system of checks and balances (minus the money) is at least as good as, and in many ways better than, the Westminster system as it’s developed in Canada. Its vibrant culture and commitment to free speech is inspiring. I even attended Obama’s first inauguration, sharing that cold January day’s historic moment with a million ecstatic, patriotic and hopeful Americans. I was there because I thought Obama’s election, driven by a grassroots movement, represented the American capacity for renewal, that even though the country had suffered through eight years of torture, stupid wars and criminal greed on Wall Street, its democracy and rule of law was strong enough to make it better.

I no longer believe that. The only thing that keeps me from total despair is, as Andrew Sullivan noted yesterday, that the US system of government is still healthy enough to produce from within such a damning document, what he calls “arguably the most important act of public service in holding our government accountable in modern times,” and that some Americans are still willing to stand up for bedrock values like human dignity and the rule of law:

Everything that happened in this damning report is because of Americans. But the report itself is a function of other Americans determined to push back against evil done in this country’s name. Those Americans have been heroes in exposing this horror from the get-go, and they include many CIA agents who knew full well what this foul program was doing to their and America’s reputation.

Still, yesterday was a dark day. I might be overreacting. If we see indictments based on this report, particularly of high-ranking officials and not just the hands-on torturers, we’ll know how healthy the US democracy is. If not, then the American people will have their work cut out for them, if they want to keep their Republic.

For better and worse, so much of “the West” takes its moral cues from the United States. Left unchecked, the crumbling of the idea that the rule of law is even possible will spread outward, to countries like Canada. And unless you’re rich or politically connected, this can’t be a good thing.

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