Thursday, May 12, 2011

Politics: the "Land of Dust"

Canada recently had an election and as someone who has devoted enormous amounts of my precious time to politics, the experience brought me mixed emotions. I was angry, because I think that politics is ultimately a game that exposes much that is wrong about people. I was also very attracted to it, though, because I tend to believe that the democratic ideal is something very noble and valuable. I have no truck or sympathy with cynics who refuse to engage in the process of choosing our government, even though I am fully aware of how far the practice diverges from the ideal.

I've learned a lot of things from my involvement in politics, and increasingly I've wondered how I could pass on this information to others. I'm pretty sure that I would have benefited greatly if someone had tried to explain a few of these things to me early on. Indeed, I was desperate for some information when I started out, yet I never really did meet anyone who understood and could articulate some key points that I only learned from long, hard experience. Think of what follows as my first attempt at a "Politics 101".

Politics is Personal

I was always amazed at how petty most people can be. That is, it is a very rare person indeed who can differentiate between their personal feeling about a person and the program that they are supporting. I found in politics that a person can be totally in favour of a specific project, it can even be useful for their future career, but if they dislike the person who is promoting it, they will usually move Heaven and Earth to sabotage it. This always flabbergasted me, as I am so committed to saving the planet that I don't usually care who I'm working with as long as they are helping me work towards the same goal. Most people aren't like that, though. If you piss them off about something, they will usually hold onto that slight like a dog with a bone and if it is necessary in order to punish you, will destroy the organization they support and all the ideals that they hold dear to do so.

As a result, when you get involved in politics always consider the person you are dealing with. If you possibly can, try to be their friend. If they are a total dick (and don't kid yourself, many people are), then ask yourself very seriously "how much damage can this person cause me years later if I cross him and he ends up hating me for all of eternity?" If he can cause you problems (and almost everyone can), then try to figure out some way of hopefully avoiding him, or at worst neutralizing him in a way that he never thinks to blame you.

People Will Play Dirty Tricks

I was often surprised at how incredibly underhanded a lot of people who mouth the most beautiful sounding ideals can be. I've always believed that being "forthright" was a virtue, so I tend to tell people to their face what I think about them instead of trying to manipulate them from behind. The way I believe democracy should operate is that people should articulate different points of view in a very honest, open manner and allow the membership to decide which course to follow through a free vote. What I found instead was that many people in the party would use process rules in order to drastically limit the ability of the membership to make decisions.

Often this involved keeping the membership from being able to vote on the issue at hand. One classic method was to set up the agenda at meetings so the item that the organizing committee didn't want to see passed was put at the absolute end of the agenda. That way people opposed to it could waste time through various methods in order to "wait the clock out" with the result that it never got discussed. Since meetings where these sorts of agendas only occur once a year, this usually meant that no matter how popular a resolution might be, it could be postponed almost forever.

In general elections there are any number of dirty tricks that can be used to massage a vote. In the last Canadian federal election, for example, fake "robo calls" (originating in the USA where they could hide from prosecution) informing voters that the place where they vote had been changed. These targeted polls that traditionally voted one particular way.

Politics Is a Team Sport

Because people managing the organization of any sort of political institution will take advantage of their authority to manipulate the process---no matter what the constitution may say---it is imperative to avoid trying to play the role of "lone wolf". Playing by the rules is no guarantee whatsoever that you will be given a fair say if the referees are all members of the other team. Instead, you have to be willing to form a team of your own and make sure that you get control of some of the referees yourself. If you don't do this, no matter how popular you may be with voters you will always lose due to the other side cheating.

"Nice" People Aren't Fair People

It's important to remember that most people are more concerned about people being "polite" than they are about people being "fair" or "honest". What this boils down to in politics is that no one gains any support from the populace for pointing out when the other side is cheating. The reason for this is that they do not have the interest to try and figure out the truth of what you are saying. Instead, what they hear is someone "squabbling about politics", which at best will turn them off the entire process or at worst decide to not support you because you are "paranoid" or a "whiner". This allows the people who control the referees pretty much a free reign when it comes to manipulating or even totally ignoring the process set out in the constitutional structure. Ultimately, voters are like parents who's response to complaints by children that one of them is cheating is to throw over the board----which always gives cheaters at worst a draw.

(This rule was shown in the last Canadian election where the Liberals tried to show how badly the Conservatives had subverted our Parliamentary rules---they were destroyed as a party. It also may be why John Kerry in the USA never really tried to fight against the voter fraud that appears to have given George Bush his second term of office.)

People Want to be Lied To

Very few people have the inclination to "stretch their minds" or challenge their basic assumptions about how the world operates. What this means is that any politician who can spin his message around what passes for "conventional wisdom" has a tremendous advantage over anyone who is trying to express something that is either unpleasant to consider or hard to understand. This isn't hard to understand. If a person is confronted by two equally plausible options, they will tend to be attracted to the one that doesn't require him to make any uncomfortable changes in life or to work very hard to understand.

The problem is, however, that whenever a society genuinely does face a significant problem, the political system will usually refuse to deal with it until some sort of catastrophe makes it impossible to avoid admitting that there is a real problem. America was isolationist in spirit until the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. And even though Jimmy Carter could easily see "the handwriting on the wall" with regard to dependence on foreign oil, Ronald Regan was able to cast him as a "gloomy Jimmy" who didn't understand that America could still do anything it wanted without regard for the future. This basic tendency probably means that our political culture will not do anything significant about climate change until some catastrophe (perhaps dramatic increase in sea levels) makes both the fact of change and the scope of the problems it will create impossible to ignore. (Hopefully geo-engineering will allow us to retreat from this situation.)

Politics is Universal, But Democracy is Best

People often think of politics as being something peculiar to democratic states. This is a profound misunderstanding of how societies operate. A dictatorship or absolute monarchy may not have regular elections or formal political parties, but it does have constituencies that need to be supported. Even the most ruthless dictator has to have the support of his praetorian guard or else they will kill and replace him with someone who is more able or willing to serve their interests. In authoritarian or totalitarian states, politics always comes down to the creation of cabals who then maneuver to be able to seize control of the government through assassination, coup d'etat or other violent means.

Democracy has two great advantages over other forms of government.

First, it allows for a non-violent method of changing the regime. Votes can be rigged and manipulated, the system of organizing representation can (and usually are) grotesquely unfair, and voters can be systematically misled and confused by propaganda campaigns----but no one ends up with their head on a stick at the end of the process. In and of itself, this is a big improvement on just about every other system humanity has created.

Secondly, democracies are organized around formalized institutions: Parliament, Congress, political parties, Riding Associations, etc. In contrast, non-democracies are built around "big men" that everyone looks to for leadership. This makes non-democracies very vulnerable violent turnovers in times of crisis. All that the rebels really need to do in Libya, for example, is knock out Gaddafi and the country is theirs because the government he has built around him will collapse immediately. In contrast, were someone to assassinate the Canadian Prime Minister the deputy leader would immediately take control, and were he assassinated too, the house leader would replace him, even if there was a mass slaughter of the cabinet, MPs would quickly hold a snap vote and appoint someone else. Similarly in all democracies there is a clearly defined chain of command, all of which members have significant legitimacy within their own right.

Machiavelli believed that it was very dangerous for princes to declare war on democracies (both forms of government existed amongst the Italian states of his time), as the former would almost inevitably collapse on the death or significant failure of the ruler whereas the latter could survive tremendous setbacks by bringing forth new leaders in times of crisis.

Why it is called "The Land of Dust"

It is easy to see why a Daoist would be repelled by the chicanery endemic in any form of politics. It is impossible to manifest Ziran when you find yourself having to avoid saying or doing anything that will put you at a disadvantage vis-a-vis someone else who is ruthlessly trying to push you out of the way. Indeed, the system has worn me down to the point where I've pretty much given up on politics. But as the saying goes, even if you give up on politics, it will not give up on you. In other words, just because you chose not to participate don't expect the decisions made by the process to not affect you in your daily life. As a result, I still try to follow politics, I vote and even donate money to parties when I can afford it.

But I have realized that politics is invariably for mainstream people, and I am a totally marginal person. I believe that I am right a great deal of the time, but my viewpoint makes me about as alien to the average voter as if I was from the planet Mars. Sometimes people ask me why I call myself a "hermit" even though I live in the city. It is this sense of alienation from "normal" society that gives me this label. So, like many Daoists before me, I have removed myself from the Land of Dust.

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