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Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts

Friday, 2 December 2022

Do Right and Left Mean Anything Anymore?

Meanings of Words change

The meanings of words change over time.  Charting those changes of meaning has been the goal of the Oxford English Dictionary since it's inception in 1755.  Being aware of how the meanings of words are constructed and reconstructed over time is what Jacques Derrida called "deconstruction."  I have leaned hard on the notions of "right wing" versus "left wing" in my writing. (See, for example,  Liberal Entropy:  The Challenge of Doing Nothing.)

"When You think you right . . . "

Reading Tara Henley, in particular her substack article "When You Think You're Right even if You're Wrong," I am troubled by the short-comings of the right-left binary, as is she apparently.  I'm supposed to be a left-leaning liberal and she often sounds like a conservative, so it is disconcerting to discover how frequently I agree with her. 

Etymology of left and right wing

Just a quick reminder:  the expressions date to the period immediately after the French Revolution (1789) and referred to where representatives sat in the National Assembly.  Monarchist who tended to be well-to-do traditionalists sat to the right of the Speaker; anti-royalist revolutionaries representing the proletariat sat to the left.  As time has marched on, the binary has been recast as Conservative versus Liberal,  Republican versus Democrat, even Capitalist versus Socialist, though none of these binaries are exactly equivalent. 


Remember when opposing free trade meant you were a left-wing radical?

What counts as left or right keeps shifting.  Remember when opposing a free-trade deal meant you were a left-wing radical?  (The images are from protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, April 2001.  See also The Erasure of the Left.)  In 2015, Donald Trump, a right-wing Republican, began campaigning against free-trade deals which won over the casualties of globalization, the American working and lower middle class. Eventually, even Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama began to back away from their fulsome support of free trade.

What Has gone awry with the left-right binary?

The real problem in recent years has been the floundering attempts to squeeze every political issue into the left-right binary.  The issues of the day simply do not fit the left-right dichotomy.  Vaccine mandates, Tara Henley's particular hobby horse, are a case in point.   

When Pierre Poilievre, Canada's Conservative Party Prime Minister in waiting, rushed to a photo-op with the anti-mandate "Freedom Convoy" as it headed to Ottawa, I thought he had kissed his political career good-bye.  The convoy managed to arouse a great deal of both public antipathy and fractious support, but the Conservative politician's public embrace of a prima facie working-class protest seemed contradictory if not hypocritical.  Nonetheless, I remained mindful of Steve Bannon's claim that the Bernie Sanders constituency and the Donald Trump  constituency were the same working and lower middle-class voters.  Even David Graeber, a card-carrying member of the left if there ever was one, writes:

Ultimately, the more liberal members of this professional-managerial elite became the social base for what came to pass as “left-wing” political parties, as actual working-class organizations like trade unions were cast into the wilderness (The Utopia of Rules p. 20).


Consequently:

The actual working class, who bore a traditional loathing for such characters, either dropped out of politics entirely, or were increasingly reduced to casting protest votes for the radical Right  (The Utopia of Rules p. 21).

 Left-wing in Canada

When I was working on a local NDP campaign (New Democratic Party; i.e., what passes for "left wing" in Canada), I was struck to learn that our greatest support (number of votes) came from the most upper-crust neighbourhood in the riding.   It made sense to me that "enlightened" professionals would vote for the left, for equality and social justice but, at the same time, it seemed the party whose raison d'être was to represent the working class was abandoning and/or being abandoned by that cohort of voters.

"Luxury Beliefs"

Rob Henderson (another Tara Henley guest) coined the expression "luxury beliefs" meaning "ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes." Henderson surmises that upper-class elites while enjoying wealth and status also want to signal that they are "sophisticated member[s] of the educated class."  As an example he cites a conversation with a middle-class classmate who was raised in a stable home and planned to marry herself but claimed that "monogamy and marriage are outdated [....] oppressive patriarchal institutions.” 

Causes of Poverty

I found his example telling.  When I was preparing a lecture on The Grapes of Wrath, I discovered repeated claims that a significant cause of poverty was marriage breakdown.  It was immediately obvious to me that while marriage and family were, first and foremost, emotional and social bonds, the family is also an economic union. Go looking for who exactly is dealing with poverty and chances are you will discover single mothers and the children of fatherless households.  "It takes a village to raise a child" is a nice idea, but these days few of us live in villages.  In my experience, two parents is the minimal requirement for raising a child, and a supplementary army of siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbours is helpful if not essential.  However, "family values," (as I've discussed elsewhere) remains a quintessentially "right wing" expression.

Privileged Values 

A corollary to Henderson's "luxury beliefs" are what I would call "privileged values."  (See Virtues, Vices and Values.) Both the detractors and the supporters of woke and cancel culture are, above all, proof that we live in the age of moral superiority.  Today, everyone thinks of themselves as morally superior and behaves or at least vocalizes accordingly.  The great paradox of moral superiority is that people who feel morally superior self-license to  act immorally at every turn.  In other words, if you think you're one "the good guys," then you're likely to think that whatever you do is  "good"--no matter how amoral, immoral or morally challenged it is. And the illusion is easier to maintain if your privileged circumstances insulate you from the challenges, costs, consequences and contradictions of your morally superiority.

John Bolton versus David Graeber

Perusing John Bolton's The Room Where It Happened and David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules, it is fascinating to read a right-wing hawk and a left-wing dove complaining about the same thing:  bureaucracy.  Graeber's thesis is that bureaucracy is sustained by an underlying threat of violence.  Bolton complains that bureaucracy prevents him from exercising the threats of violence which are his stock and trade.  As Donald Trump once quipped, "If I listened to John Bolton, we would have had World War Six by now." In Bolton's mindset, "Give Peace a Chance" is Chinese propaganda.  Despite my having decried and derided bureaucracy most of my working life (see, for example, This Professor Should Be Fired), reading Graeber and Bolton I came away thinking "Thank gawd for bureaucracy!"  

Bureaucracy or the alternative

To cannibalize a bromide about democracy, bureaucracy may be imperfect, but it's better than all the alternatives.  Bureaucracy protects us from  left-wing anarchy and right-wing bullying.  The important point here is that bureaucracy is neither innately left wing nor innately right wing. In specific cases, bureaucracy may tilt left or right, which is why this binary still matters.

"On Baggage, Bureaucracy and Brokenness"

 However, in her most recent newsletter "On Baggage, Bureaucracy and Brokenness," Tara Henley references Alana Newhouse's claim that

[ . . .] the most vital debate in contemporary America is not between liberalism and conservatism. But rather, it is “between those who believe there is something fundamentally broken in America, and that it’s an emergency, and those who do not.”

The examples are numerous: lost baggage, the bureaucratic run-around, the broken health-care system. We've all been there.  Personally, every time I encounter these screw-ups, I imagine a left-right binary.  Someone is profiting from these screw-ups:  the underfunded health-care system allowing the super-wealthy to remain under-taxed, the telecom giants which deliberately send you from one automated "help line" to another intending that you will give up on requesting service or getting a response to your complaint, the airline company paying minimum wage to part-time baggage handlers.

The Problem of perseverance

Henley's observations about "perseverance" in "When You Think You're Right even if You're Wrong" cut close to home.  My cognitive bias always leans left, so I must admit that when an issue seems left-leaning, I'm likely to get onboard.  And, of course, I always think I'm right, even when the evidence challenges my thinking.  I believe in the left-right binary, but when, where and how the binary applies, and perhaps more importantly, when it doesn't apply--these are the real questions.  The problem is when the binary is applied too quickly and easily, too dogmatically, too broadly, too loosely.  In short, the problem is when the binary becomes a replacement for thinking rather than a way of thinking.


 

 

Sunday, 13 December 2020

The Politics of Adjectives

"If corn oil is made from corn, and vegetable oil is made from vegetables, what is baby oil made from? "
 
                                                                anonymous

"The Great Canadian . . . . whatever"

Have you ever noticed how many Canadian businesses and organizations brand themselves as "The Great Canadian . . ." something or other?  Ever wonder why?  In a brief article in the Catholic magazine Commonweal in 1929, Harvard Professor of Literature, Douglas Bush, asked the question "Is There a Canadian Literature?"  His answer was that in order for a Canadian literature to exist it must produce evidence of greatness, a great novel or poem or play--something great enough to be included in the established canon of great literature.  The sardonic response has been that in order for anything to be "Canadian" it must also be "great"; ergo, "The Great Canadian Bagel," "The Great Canadian Restaurant," "The Great Canadian Theatre Company," etc, etc. 

 

Canadian Nationalism:  An oxymoron?

During my enthusiastic Canadian nationalist phase in the mid-to-late seventies, I naively imagined that most Canadians would be eager to embrace Canadian literature, performance and art.  To my shock, Canadians, who would claim admiration for Dutch painting, Italian opera, Swedish cinema, German theatre, and English or American literature, reacted with outrage at the thought of having anything described as "Canadian" "shoved down their throats."  (The violence of this expression always took me aback.)   For the intelligentsia and literati inside Canada, "Canadian" invariably implied "parochial," "tribal," and that famously misunderstood expression "a garrison mentality."

 Does Canada even exist?

I must admit, I have long suspected that the name "Canada" came from Portuguese map-makers who labelled the topography of my homeland "ca nada" meaning "here nothing."  (See Pure Laine Québécois)  Frank Davey,  who is routinely described as “a leading authority on Canadian literature,” is quoted as saying that “Canada does not exist except as a political arrangement for the convenience of individuals accidentally happening to live within its arbitrary area.” Hugh MacLennan, author of what, for some time, was consider the quintessential Canadian novel, Two Solitudes, was also categorical that "there is no Canadian literature." Eventually, we came around to admitting that Canada does exist as a nation, a state, an imagined community of people and diverse peoples, a big piece of real estate with borders and a quirky history, and it was okay to call something Canadian because we had a flag and a beaver and a constitution and a police force mounted on horseback, and Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Celine Dionne and hundreds of thousands of other names worth mentioning.

 Is There an Anglo-Québécois Literature?

Always a glutton for punishment, as an English professor in Quebec, I went from defending the adjective "Canadian" to promulgating the modifier "Anglo-Québécois."  Reactions tended to be a rolling of the eyes rather than the visceral "shoved down our throats" response.  However, resistance to "Anglo-Québécois" was similar to what I had earlier witnessed in reaction to "Canadian." 

Josée Legault, in her book, L’invention d’une minorité : Les Anglo-Québécois, is adamant that   "s'il est indéniable qu'un certain nombre d'anglophones résidaient bel et bien au Québec, on ne pouvait toutefois parler de l'existence d'une 'communauté' anglo-québécoise"  ["even if it is undeniable that a certain number of Anglophones do in fact reside in Quebec, one can still not talk of the existence of an Anglo-Québécois 'community'."]  In an essay entitled  “Neil Bissoondath disait . . . .,” professor of literary studies Gilles Marcotte was equally adamant that “Il n’existe évidemment pas telle chose qu’une littérature anglo-québécoise [ . . .]."  ["There obviously exists no such thing as an Anglo-Québécois literature . . . ."] 

What the experts say

Just as professors, critics and authors who would seem to have a vested interest in the recognition of Canadian literature resisted the idea, English professors, critics and authors in Quebec, typically repudiated the notion of an Anglo-Québécois literature.  Jason Camelot is a professor of English at Montreal's Concordia University and the co-editor of a collection of essays entitled Language Acts: Anglo Quebec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century.   In his introduction to a special issue of the journal Canadian Poetry on Anglo Quebec,  Camelot agrees with Marcotte that “there is no such thing as Anglo-Quebec literature in the sense that there is now Can Lit and la littérature québécoise."  More surprising still, Linda Leith, author, editor and impresario, who has done more for and about English literature in Quebec than anyone, has avoided the expression Anglo-Québécois to describe her work and interests.

Thinking inside the box 

 I know we are all supposed to admire people who "think outside the box" but, really, I wish there were more people (like me) who could think inside the box.  I may not agree with Professor Marcotte, but I understand his logic.  For Marcotte, Québécois literature is by definition French.  Québécois literature in English, for Marcotte, would be the equivalent of a married bachelor.

The term "Québécois" only became the politically correct designation of a citizen of the province of Quebec in the late 60s and throughout the 70s.  Earlier, "Québécois" was understood to mean a resident of Quebec City. With "French Canadian" now signalling Francophones outside Quebec, inside my symmetrically-inclined, Canadian box, Anglo Québécois seemed all the more legitimate as a designation for Anglophones living inside Quebec.

The difference between a wine glass and a glass of wine

I must confess that when I began writing this post, a discouragingly long time ago, it was with exactly the opposite intention of what I have written here.  I intended to maintain my obsessive conviction that "grammatical mistake" should be "a mistake in grammar," and "comparative literature" should be "studies of literature in a comparative context." Any composition manual will tell you that placing an adjective in front of a noun is more succinct and elegant than following a noun with an awkward clause or phrase.  Additionally, an adjective in front of a noun has the potential of becoming the next big thing:  "post modernism" versus the more informative "modernism after 1965," "oral literature"  (a contradiction in terms since "literature" means what is written) versus "written representations of orality," and "block chain" versus "a chain of blocks"--this latter phrase at least gives an inkling of how this technology works.  Nothing whets the appetite of an academic more than the possibility of coining the next big thing, the next viral catchphrase.

Clearly, many of the phrases we accept are, to use one of my favourite academic expressions, "sites of debate." The problem I see is when we accept without debate. I still wonder why, when the Americas comprise two continents and 35 countries, the adjective "American" is typically, exclusively applied to the USA.  I spent four years studying the works of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce as "English" literature, barely noticing that these authors were all Irish. Politics matters.

I recognize that the appellation  "Canadian literature" means something more than and different from "literature in Canada," or "literature about Canada," or "literature by Canadians."  But I also see that when all these things have been happening for some time, the political decision to use the adjective this way makes sense, even if we might pause and stumble over exactly what the adjective "Canadian" might mean in this case.

 

Do Right and Left Mean Anything Anymore?

Meanings of Words change The meanings of words change over time.  Charting those changes of meaning has been the goal of the Oxford English ...