Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Fear and the Government

My dear and beloved wife turned me onto a minor pleasure this year, Kathy Reichs. For those of you who don't know about her, she is a forensic anthropologist who works in Montreal for the police, teaches anthropology in the US, and writes a series of wildly popular crime novels. Also, she is the inspiration for, and one of the producers of, a long-running television show by the name of Bones

Kathy Reichs
(I suspect that part of the reason why both Misha and I like her novels is because many of them are set in Montreal. We spent our honey moon there, and we both have very fond memories of that trip.)

They are quite formulaic and sometimes creaky, but they do have a few good features. First, the science is all "bang on". Secondly, the main protagonist, Temperance Brennan, is an intelligent, spunky, strong woman. She isn't a saint, but she represents an ideal that I think a lot of men and women should try to emulate. (Incidentally, the television show, which I am also a fan of, keeps this element. The "Tempe" of the show is quirky, strong, brilliant, much, much larger than life---but contains elements of some scientists and academics I have known. It is also worth watching, IMHO.)

I just finished reading Reichs' book Devil Bones when the following passage jumped out and bit me on the nose.

"Americans have become a nation afraid."
"A shooter on a rampage in a school cafeteria. A hijacked plane toppling a high-rise building. A bomb in a train or rental van. A postal delivery carrying anthrax. The power to kill is out there for anyone willing to use it. All it takes is access to the Internet or a friendly gun shop."
Ryan let me go on. [Ryan is Brennan's Canadian lover.]
"We fear terrorists, snipers, hurricanes, epidemics. And the worst part is we've lost faith in the government's ability to protect us. We feel powerless and that causes constant anxiety, makes us fear things we don't understand."

 Reichs is an anthropologist. Her work centres on the scientific study of bones, but she must have still spent a lot of time studying cultures and how they work. I also suspect that her experience of living and working half of her life in Francophone Quebec has given her a feel for Canadian sensibilities in a way that is beyond that of most Americans. This passage, I believe, comes straight from her heart. And, I agree whole-heartedly.


Canada recently had what I believe will turn out to have been an absolutely pivotal election. The previous government of Stephen Harper had attempted to recreate Canada into a carbon-copy of "red state" America. He had had remarkable success in using tactics imported from the USA (he actually hired consultants from the Republican party) to win power through electoral "skull duggery" for nine years. But the last election changed all that. The Liberals under Justin Trudeau managed to win a majority government through promising "real change" and by working with what he calls the "politics of sunshine".

Canada's New Prime Minister

Just some of the things that Trudeau promised were:
  • to legalize marihuana
  • reform the voting system
  • deal with climate change
  • create a cabinet with 50% women
  • bring in 25 thousand Syrian refugees
He also ran on a campaign promising to run a deficit in order to invest in things like public transit, cut taxes on the middle class, raise taxes on the "1%", and so on. It looks like he really means to do all the things he promised, too. 

What happened in the election was that the same people who voted Conservative voted for them again. But the Millennials and the First Nations voted en masse---for the first time. This pushed voter turnout to an astounding 70%! And, they all voted for the "politics of sunshine".


I'm not trying to brag about Canadian politics. But I feel somewhat like I've been liberated from a prison camp. The last nine years of Conservative government have been a total horror for me (and many others) as I have seen my government work to sabotage international agreements to limit CO2 emissions, whip up a frenzy of hatred and fear towards immigrants, muzzle scientists, ramp up the idiotic "war on drugs", and subvert democracy in order to retain power.

And after this new government was elected I can see a huge change in our society as our collective "better nature" has been freed up. Just to give you an idea. In the USA Obama has pledged to take just 10,000 Syrian refugees and more than half of the state governors have opposed it. (Texas has even gone to the point of threatening the removal of government funds if any charity works to help refugees settle in their state.) In Canada, the provincial governments each pledged to take so many refugees---the sum of which was much more than 25,000. In my town a local business man has pledged to personally sponsor 50 families---that is take on personal financial responsibility for 50 entire families for several years in order to make sure that they do not become a burden on the state. (Just to put things into perspective, the Canadian pledge is the same per capita as if USA were accepting a quarter million refugees.)

What is behind this change?

Well, it is very important to "drill down" to what happened in the last election. As I said before, polling shows that the same people who voted Conservative in the past did so again. The difference is that a great number of people voted in 2015 that haven't voted in the past.

 (The Wikipedia page hasn't been updated yet, so I added that amateurish-looking last green line and black dot to show the last election. The trend is obvious.)

This is something that really needs to be emphasized, because the vast majority of people simply do not "get it". A small change in voter turnout can have a huge impact on the shape and direction of the government. And governments have a HUGE influence in the way our societies operate. A five percent change in the vote can make the difference between a majority government and opposition---especially when there is vote splitting because there are more than two parties. The Conservatives never had a majority of Canadians supporting them, but the people that did voted for them through thick and thin. In a situation where only 60% of the voters bothered to cast a ballot, and the opposition is split into three parties---NDP, Liberal and Green---Harper was able to form a majority government with the support of 37% of 62% of the voting public. This comes out to forming a government with the support of only 23% of the public.

Most people don't understand how incredibly important this sort of math is democratic elections, but just because your eyes glaze over when you try to think about it, doesn't mean that it won't have a huge impact on your life. This is one of the reasons why Trudeau vows that this last election will be the last one using the antiquated "First Past the Post" system---it simply wastes far too many  people's votes and creates fake majorities with only a small fraction of voter's support.


Beyond the issues involving voting systems, there is another problem in our body politic that our societies have to work through. There is this thing called "the neo-liberal consensus", which was a reaction against many of the ideas that were current in my childhood. It is a belief that we should give up on any attempt to create a better world through politics and instead fall back on the free market, traditional authority, and, dramatically limit our hopes for a more egalitarian future. Many neo-liberals could be said to be people who looked at Utopian experiments like the Hippie movement, Communism, the welfare state and so forth---and decided that these "cures" for social ills was worse than the disease. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Stephen Harper were all leaders who thought that the world had "gone to Hell in a hand-basket" and wanted to go back to the "good old days" before the "loonie Left" with their "nanny state" screwed everything up.

(At this point a digression may be in order for my American friends. Prime Minister Trudeau is head of the "Liberal" party, which is meant in the American common understanding of being in favour of fairness, equality and being nice to people through government action. The "liberalism" of "neo-liberalism" refers to the old, 19th century meaning of being in favour of free trade and unfettered Free Market capitalism. At that time "Conservative" meant being in favour of preserving old communitarian traditions that in many cases helped the poor, or, "Noblesse Oblige". This is why many progressive measures to help the poor and lower classes were actually promoted by the Conservatives in "days of yore" whereas the policies that forced people into William Blake's "Satanic Mills" were supported by Liberals.  Confusing? I won't bother trying to explain weirdness like "Red Tories" or why the colours associated with political parties in the USA is the opposite of everywhere else in the world---.)

Of course, the problem was that most of the things the "loony Left" did were attempts to deal with significant issues that the neo-conservatives simply didn't want to admit existed. So Stephen Harper called "so-called climate change a Socialist plot to take away your money", and completely ignored it. Margaret Thatcher said that "there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families", and stripped away many of the social security programs in Great Britain. Others said similar things and took the same actions. The problem is, however, that climate change is real and needs to be dealt with. And not every person in our complex, competitive society has the tools for dealing with it, and, not every family has the wherewithal to help its members that have these problems. Indeed, some people have no families and others have significant problems because of what their families did to them in their childhood.

H. L. Mencken

     "For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."  H. L. Mencken

The problem with the neo-liberal consensus is that it is one of those "clear, simple, and wrong" answers that Mencken was talking about.

Unfortunately, an entire generation of politicians and voters have grown up in this way of looking at things and it has become "common sense" and it's assumptions as ubiquitous and invisible as water is to fish and air is to us. Moreover, since social programs tend to work better for some people than others, there are a lot of people in this world who see neo-liberalism as something that works very well. If you are someone who has been able to get a good job or have a prosperous business, then the free market is usually a very good thing and taxes and regulation are at best a nuisance and at worst downright evil.


Societies and democracies operate on the basis of a consensus. That is, there is a general way of looking at the world that almost everyone takes for granted and just describes as "common sense".  In my own case, I am one of those odd exceptions who has never actually embraced the "common sense" worldview. I take no pride in this as it is something that has made my life difficult and it wasn't anything that I freely chose. Indeed, at risk of a digression, I think it might be interesting to point out an actual event in my teenage years that show how little of our worldview comes from free choice.

I grew up in a profoundly conservative part of rural Canada. One day I was helping my brother and our drover load some hogs onto a truck to take to slaughter. After the work was done and the paperwork was being filled out, my brother and the drover got into a conversation about how great the free enterprise system is. I was sitting on a bale of straw listening to this when one of them mentioned the "invisible hand". At that point, I heard a voice say---as clear as if someone was standing next to me speaking---"the invisible hand is rapped around their testicles and it is squeezing hard!"

I suppose many religious people might think that this was the voice of God speaking to me. (At least if they could get over the idea that God might be a Marxist.)  But in my case I just thought "what the---", and left it in the big ???? that was filled with similarly strange experiences. But add these sorts of experiences together, and it has always been pretty hard for me to embrace the viewpoint that most of my fellow human beings have. I simply do not seem to live in the same world that they do.


I raised the example from my childhood because it is important to avoid the pitfall of blaming people for the consensus that they espouse. Bye-and-large, they really have no control or responsibility for the idiotic ideas that they hold. Ideas flow through society like they have a life of their own. There are individuals who seem to use their wealth and power to spread certain ideas---like the Koch brothers. But it is very difficult to tell how much they are agents of a specific worldview, or simply two particularly powerful individuals who have become tools of that worldview---just like my brother and the drover all those years ago.

The Koch Bros, master manipulators? Or tools of a faulty meme?

What I am talking about is the idea of memes. In his book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposed that with the creation of human society evolution had moved beyond biology and began to work within human culture. And using an analogy with biology, he proposed that just as genes are the basic building blocks of plants and animals, so what he called "memes" were the basic building blocks of culture. In the context of this essay, the idea of "neo-liberalism" is a collection of memes that have managed to out-compete other collections---such as Communism or Absolute Monarchy---and developed a consensus in our society.

What I am suggesting in this essay, therefore, is that the neo-liberal consensus is failing, and the election of Justin Trudeau is evidence of that new consensus. One of the more memorable pieces of evidence for this idea is the way he responded to questions about why it was that he made the effort to create a cabinet with 50% women:  "Because it's 2015". The point isn't that this is a good idea, or that it fits into Liberal values, but rather that women's equality is simply part of the Canadian consensus and it's long overdue that our government reflect this part of Canadian society. 


OK, this has been a long walk away from Kathy Reichs and her quote about fear. The point I want to make is that the amount of fear that our society feels is just like any other meme. It isn't something that we rationally choose. Instead, it is part of the general consensus we feel about the world around us. And it has often surprised me how fearful people have been about terrorism and indifferent they are about climate change. Moreover, if you read any history or government statistics, it is obvious that the odds of getting killed in a terrorist attack are infinitesimally small compared to other dangers---such as auto accidents. The difference, as near as I can tell, comes down to two things.

First, of all, the neo-liberal consensus has isolated people. Remember that quote from Margaret Thatcher about there not being such a thing as "society"? Well, if there isn't, then we are all on our own. Imagine if the people of Great Britain had felt that they were all isolated individuals when their country stood alone against Nazi Germany? How would they have felt when a bomb fell out of the sky and destroyed their home? They would have been paralysed with fear. Even the sight of seeing one land on someone else's home would have had the same effect. But instead of telling people that they had to "suck it up" and figure things out for themselves, people like Winston Churchill let them know that everyone in society---from the King to the street sweeper---were in it together. And this wasn't just a propaganda line. For example, the daughters of the King trained and worked as volunteers in the services. Our present Queen trained as an auto mechanic and worked in a motor pool! Does anyone in the "neo-liberal consensus" believe that everyone pitches in and does their share today in a similar way?

Here's a picture of Princess Elizabeth---future Queen---changing a truck tire.

Secondly, the neo-liberal consensus reduces all human interaction to the level of financial transactions. I often hear people who seem to think that the only possible reason why anyone would do anything is because they are after money. For example, how often have you met someone who says that "all politicians care about is money"? Actually, I'd suggest that very few are involved in politics for money. There are certainly a lot more lucrative things a person can do.  Most elected officials could actually make larger salaries if they had stayed in the private sector. It is certainly true that because it costs so much money to run an election, politicians often spend far too much time fundraising. But the money isn't for them, it's for their campaigns. Instead, most politicians run for election to promote a world-view (or consensus) that they believe in. It might be dangerous nonsense---such as the tripe the Koch brothers spew---but it is still something that they believe in whole-heartedly. 

If people feel isolated and lack the ability to understand why it is that people do what they do, then they are going to feel confused and scared whenever something unexpected happens. And if their leaders are similarly confused and scared, they are not going to be able to help the average voter get over that fear and do something constructive. That is why I find it so important that our new Prime Minister emphasizes the "sunny ways" that he talked about during the election. He is building a new consensus, one that will lead us out of the neo-liberal morass and help us unify and mobilize to deal with the real problems that our present society faces.


Herbal Panda said...

I am very happy that your country has managed to shake off the neoliberal stranglehold of the Harper administration; unfortunately, in my country (your Southern neighbor) it seems that fear is the order of the day in our elections.

I get the sense that, broadly speaking, my generation (Gen Y or the Millennial) heartily rejects the neoliberal consensus, but I worry that it is too little, too late (and we are still addicted to our high energy petroleum powered lifestyle).

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

To a large extent, I think that there isn't a lot of difference between our two countries but there are some institutional road-blocks that make it harder to do real change in the USA than Canada. Gerrymandering, for example, is effectively impossible in Canada. If Bernie Saunders is able to get the Democratic nomination, for example, I think he could get elected president, and in the process sweep Congress with Democrats---something that I don't think Hillary Clinton could do. People have an innate bias to think that the world moves in a predictable, straight-line way of doing things---but my experience is that many things instead seem immobile for a long period of time then rapidly change. IMHO, Daoists should expect the unexpected!

Good to hear from you.

I bow to a fellow traveler on the Way!