Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Prime Minister’s Secrets. But First, What is a Conservative?

Being new to Canada, I am still trying to learn the history of this country. It turns out to be much more interesting than I had realized, having been schooled in the US and having depended so much on US media for so long. Busy learning some history, and a new culture, I do not yet knowing much about contemporary Canadian partisan politics. 

My eyes and ears are primed, though, to notice news items that illustrate “how things work” commonly in high politics -- thus related to Grand Political Strategy and Global Human Ecology -- just about anywhere in the modern world. Thus some recent news items about Canada’s conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper caught my eye and are worth some comment here.

First let me be clear though about calling him “conservative.” That is his term and the term they use up here and it seems to be like what “conservative” has come to mean by the man on the street in the US, which is not the only meaning of “conservative.

For example, I think of myself as a conservative fellow. By that I mean I tend to be cautious about making judgments and decisions, and very naturally hold back from “must haves” and fads. No one would call me a trendy!  I believe strongly in individual freedoms and rights and to me these are very conservative US constitutional and indeed world democratically understood human values. I have a very plain automobile, and I prefer to walk when I can. I dress very plainly (conservatively?), and when I have tried from time to time to dress more fashionably I have quickly lost interest.

I do not ordinarily call myself a “conservative” however because that word has been taken over ideologically. In some cases it has come to mean for some the very opposite of what I mean. So let me be clear that when I am forced to use Harper’s label for himself and his party it means that they have an ideologically “conservative” social and economic political agenda. He is part of an ideological “conservative” movement of our times in North America and Europe that claims to represent prudence and tradition. 

“Prudence” sounds great to me on the surface. “Tradition” I would be cautious and selective about, because I feel that some traditions are fine and others would keep us all stuck in the mud. I like the tradition of people being polite and courteous to each other. I don’t like the tradition of celebrating Christmas with a mad rush to spend, spend, spend, and then spend.

With both words, however, it really depends on who gets to define them. Certainly I don't get to define them!! What do they actually mean in the world of political fighting and spin? Whatever they “believe,” the ideological conservative politicians and lobbyists tend to side with the interests of business -- and it seems especially with the interests of big business, and even with those of multinational corporations and banks -- creations that don’t want to pay taxes or have to deal with regulations, and that tend to be against consumer protections and rights. 

Thus my own frugal “economic conservative values” and efforts to stay out of debt have conflicted with their “economic conservativism” that has focused on not paying their taxes and indeed on their encouraging of consumer spending. Sorry, that’s just way the cookie crumbles. It’s just me. I enjoy fresh air more than fresh furnishings. I’m just standing here, trying to stay put, trying not to get blown over in their storm and frenzied promotion of “economic growth.” 

When it comes to social conservativism, my values center on respect for individual rights and freedoms – live and let live.  Educate the young so that they can develop the maturity to take care of themselves and become responsible neighbors and parents and so that rationally self-governing communities can form. This is conservative in my mind. In my mind a fellow-citizen, indeed a fellow human being, is a flesh and blood individual and I think it is a preposterous stretch and legal spin to take profit making machines made up of flesh and blood parts, and grant that these are individuals, “legal individuals” or otherwise.

Consumers should expect products to be advertised honestly and people have a right to know what they are being sold to eat and full disclosure if there are risks. Call this consumer protection or whatever, I think this is conservative, though some that call themselves “conservative” would say that this is over-regulation and that I must therefore bear for all to see the scarlet letter “L” for “liberal.”  I think of them as “ideological conservatives,” not true conservatives. 

So this is Phil; and you can see why I am not comfortable about labels. There has been so much political spin put on the language that we use in public discussion that I feel a bit dirty even to enter into the language used in public discussion. Maybe the best I can do is just state this, as I have just done, and then go on and try to make my points using conventional terms of discourse.

What does all this have to do with Prime Minister Harper? I will get to that. But first I wanted to explain that I have problems with the label “conservative” as it has been used in the US, and frankly I am not yet exactly sure what they mean by it up here in Canada. I also want to confess quite frankly that being new here I am in no position to say if Canadian “conservativism” is good or bad for Canada!

For example Canadian economic policy has been good for helping Canada to weather the global economic crisis even though its economy is so closely tied to the US economy.  Business people in the US used to say derisively that the Canadians were much too "conservative" economically, too old fashioned, and they would send lobbyists up here to try to break the economy "open" and "modernize" it. I would say maybe we should say Canadians have been "prudent" and the American go-go loose credit binge was predictably a bubble waiting to pop. In fact left wing governments as well as “conservative” ones supported the prudent economic policies, as I understand it now.  That is, Canadian economic prudence may have little to do with the Conservative party for all I know right now. 

To complicate things more, the Canadians do tax a lot, but they pump money back into infrastructure and general health benefits. There is a campaign back home to convince Americans to call this “socialism” -- but my gosh, it has the effect of subsidizing business up here!! For example the workers do not demand health benefits from employers because workers (all Canadians) have excellent government health benefits. Of course there is grumbling, humans being all too human, but in general the Canadian citizens love their health system. Such social services also lower the production costs for Canadian businesses and helps them to build and to keep them strong, as does good infrastructure. If this is really socialism, it is of a species that also is a huge, huge subsidy to capitalism. Go figure. Scratch head. Again, I need to learn more – and then I will have to figure out what I learn means! 


  1. Here in the USA you are definitely a liberal.

    All conservatism in the USA has become what you are calling "ideological conservatism", and everyone you would call a "traditional conservative" has been kicked out of the club for being ideologically compromised.

    The way you talk about believing in the US Constitution, it's rights and individual citizen protections are under constant attack by US conservatives as being "liberal biases".

    The way you talk about health care puts you way, way to the left of President Obama, who very early on in his "health care reform" jettisoned the idea of any public option in health insurtance, at a time when polling showed a majority of Americans wanted a public insurance option.

    Conservatism has been hi-jacked by huge corporations in the USA, and they have mounted a campaign to twist conservative social agendas into pro-corporate, anti-citizen legislation. They do this by financing conservative movements like the Tea Party (think of the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch), and casting pro-corporate agendas as "conservative" and de-riding pro-citizen agendas as "socialist".

    In America today ANYTHING which seeks to assert the rights of individual citizens in the face of huge corporate profit-grabbing, has been demonized as "socialism", and the ideological conservatives marched in lockstep to defeat any assertion of individual liberties, even when such is voting against their own self-interest.

    This is the travesty that "conservatism" has become in the USA, largely thanks to a takeover of the mass media by the ideological conservatives. They have launched a propaganda front that would make Hitler and even Chairman Mao envious of the way they manipulate the public debate on every nature of issue, with the public largely unaware of their machinations.

    Also, your respect for science marks you as a liberal. It is a requirement for US conservatives to be anti-science, in particular to eschew the scientific method (google up "The Republican War on Science.") To be a conservative you must be in denial about global warming and climate change (another propaganda coup brought to you by Big Corporate through financing of propaganda outlets such as the Cato Institute), and you must be a Biblical Creationist who is strictly opposed to the theory of evolution. We call these people "flat-earthers", and the denialist/flat-earther viewpoint is the only one accepted by conservatives in the USA.

    So, whether you like the label or not, by todays terms, you are most definitely a liberal.

    Of course, you may protest with claims of being a "traditional conservative" . But understand that in America today "traditional conservative" = "liberal". In todays polarized political world, there is no third position, no in-between.

    Also, a hallmark of conservatism today is pure ignorance. I was reading an article today about Obama, and in the comments, a self-proclaimed 'conservative' piped up and said "Obama is a Muslim. As such he has no God, he's an atheist". This is the intellectual level that conservatism functions at in the USA, and if you are appalled by that, well then you are not a conservative.

  2. Thanks Yogi. Sad, sad that we do not get to define ourselves!! Moreover the powers that be can manipulate the labels. Positively Orwellian. When I was young Earl Warren was a solid California Republican Governor. Then as a Justice on the Supreme Court it was hardly a surprise that the Court went in the direction of individual freedoms. Republican Senator Barry Goldwater seemed to have reasonable American principles but I would say was quite impractical. Since then the "conservative" label has been so corrupted as you describe that sadly, people would no longer understand if I called myself a conservative. Yet I don't want to use "their" labels because I happen to think this way or that about particular issues. Good comments. Thanks.