Monday, April 18, 2011

To Change a Mind Is Immensely Difficult

Last week, a website that was brilliant in its simplicity made the rounds of a ton of my facebook friends, Shit Harper Did. Next to a coal sketch of Stephen Harper smiling creepily while cradling a freaked out kitten, is a generator of summaries of news articles describing the destructive, polarizing, alienating, and anti-democratic activities of the Harper Government™. Among the terrible things that appear is Harper sabotaging international talks on carbon emission reductions and climate change, cutting funding for scientific research while muzzling the ability of government-employed scientists to speak to the media about their work independently of party-controlled public relations officials. He has also doubled annual spending on prisons in a country with falling crime rates. His handling of the G8 and G20 meetings in summer 2010 was needlessly provocative, grossly expensive in direct spending and lost revenue, and ridiculously handled.

I was glad that after I posted this site, the number of reposts among my friends skyrocketed. To see the popularity of anti-Harper propaganda like this at first made me hopeful that he would be out of power within a few weeks. Then I thought about who my friends were.

That phrase is usually trotted out to disparage a group of people, but I mean it in a more literal sense. My friends were already against Stephen Harper. They never voted Conservative in the first place, and they certainly weren’t about to now. Apart from a few exceptions, my social circles tend to involve people who are already left-leaning. We’re academics in the humanities, artists, journalists, activists for unions and marijuana legalization, young people in the technology industries. We’re people who live in the centre of cities, many of us don’t own cars unless we have to for work purposes, and few of my friends have work that requires cars. Even most of the lawyers I know are most interested in labour, criminal, entertainment, and contract, or else they went to law school and decided never to be a lawyer. We are not the demographic that votes Stephen Harper.

This idea first started making sense to me when Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto. All my friends were amazed that Ford won with the massive share of the vote that he did. But when I looked at the district-by-district breakdown, it was plain what had happened: the centre of the city, split among several diverse and dynamic candidates, went in their various directions indicated by their diverse and dynamic personalities. All the suburbs went Ford. None of my friends knew anyone in the suburbs. Neither do I, apart from some of my students, who commute to school from their suburban homes. We ask ourselves questions like "How could anyone vote for Stephen Harper?" and expect to hear only confused rage and disgust, because we only ask it around our friends who never consider voting for Stephen Harper. The most productive way to ask this question is with genuine curiosity and respect towards someone who enthusiastically votes for Stephen Harper.

There’s no way our venting anger on the alleys of facebook or in Toronto’s gay district is ever going to change a single Conservative vote. And that’s a shame, because voicing rage against the stupid and bigoted activities of the Harper Government™ and receiving adulation and praise in return feels so wonderful. What will be utterly painful and wretched is to go out to ridings that are in close contests and campaign against the Conservative party in places like Ajax, Orleans in Ottawa, or Mississauga. You’ll have doors slammed in your face, Conservative party activists hurl abuse at you, and go home feeling demoralized and dejected every day. But if you want to change minds and actually achieve political goals, a requirement is talking articulately with people who don’t already agree with you.

I, meanwhile, will just write this blog post that I’ll link on facebook and entertain my friends who hate Stephen Harper and like to complain about him.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Conference Diary: My Free Dinners with Marxists*

For the first time last week, I visited York University, an enormous modernist compound in the middle of industrial parks north of Toronto, adjacent to a distant, isolated slum. It was for a conference their department of Social and Political Thought organizes every year, and because my friend who attends Osgoode law school lives on campus there (thanks again for use of the couch, Kyle!), I decided I would go. I presented a paper that took some of my ideas about the contingency of existence and a Nietzschean political philosophy into the context of postcolonialism. Normally, my writing wouldn’t be quite so reaching, but going to a department that’s outside philosophy proper, I gave myself some liberty with composition.

I did see some very interesting presentations, including some people who knew a whole hell of a lot about Theodor Adorno, and a lot of Marxists. It’s rare that someone from a philosophy department comes across such a concentration of academics who genuinely seem to believe in political revolution of the global working class. It was refreshing, and I think more traditional philosophy departments could learn something from interacting more regularly with these differently oriented departments and groups.

McMaster University has a lot of guest speakers come to its department to give talks; we have a weekly Friday series during the Fall and Winter semesters just for that reason. For the most part, the guests are people from other universities around southern Ontario – some just commute in for the afternoon – but some come from far flung locations like southern Illinois and North Carolina. In the past year, we’ve hosted a conference on the anniversary of Russell & Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica that drew logic and history of philosophy scholars from all over the world. Our upcoming philosophy of law conference will have delegates with a similar diversity of origin. But going to a place like the Social and Political Thought conference made me realize that despite the diversity of people who visit McMaster, they’re all also kind of the same.

It’s not that every one who visits McMaster has the same answers to philosophical questions. I’ve seen some epic arguments on a variety of topics. But there’s a remarkable amount of common ground on what questions to argue about. In a way, I think this is just about the habits of people anyway. An area of philosophical inquiry is a region of thought that a person – professor, graduate student, general thinker – is comofortable moving in. But beyond simply the comfort of familiarity, a philosophical inquiry is a set of open questions that require continued exploration, literally a lifelong and life-defining project. If you’re interested in developing such a project, you’ll be drawn to people talking about the same types of problems, compatriots with whom you can work to develop the ideas that have come to define your professional existence.

There are no Marxists, critical theorists, Frankfurt School specialists, anti-capitalist revolutionaries, or postcolonialists at our department. So those problems aren’t going to be on their professional radar, and the types of questions they ask won’t come up. In the same way, a lot of the intriguing questions that are asked at McMaster Philosophy will never come up in York Social and Political Thought. I stuck out like a spotlight over there talking about Richard Rorty. If you’re the type of thinker who does good work through focus along developing a specific path, then it won’t matter to you whether other groups of people are interested in other problems. But I find myself thinking that an inquiry can be revitalized, or at least given a healthy shock, by exposure to ways of thinking that diverge from the habits you might be used to. It’s what draws me to interdisciplinary conferences, or gatherings of different sorts of people. Some folks would find that diversity confusing, while I find it challenging. At the same time, I find the inquiry style of a specializer to be boring, and in danger of insularity, while other folks do their best work in that context.

People are built differently, and are better and worse at different tasks.

* Ever since the “My Dinner with André” episode of Community a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been incorporating references to that movie into different conversations I’ve had. I like to think this isn’t sad.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Wake Diary: Tangents of Philosophical Wisdom

When I would tell my friends and concerned loved ones that I was reading Finnegans Wake, they worried for my general sanity. After they realized that I had gone long enough without general sanity that I never really needed it in the first place, they were still concerned that I would waste months of my life reading a book that made no sense. This post isn’t about following the plot or symbolism of Finnegans Wake: there’s too little of one, and too much of the other for that. This is about a phrase I found a couple of weeks ago, but am only getting around to writing about now, that actually sums up rather well what I think about problems of individual knowledge in philosophy.

"What can't be coded can be decorded if an ear aye sieze what an eye ere grieved for."

You might think that strange. And it is. But this actually made quite a lot of sense to me as an expression of my attitude towards how knowledge problems are manufactured and solved. Go through the phrase bit by bit.

“What can’t be coded”
We fail to have knowledge of something in two general ways. We may have no way to access it because it might be too far away, too large, or too small, and we haven’t figured out the right technology to observe it yet. We had no knowledge of Jupiter’s moons until we developed telescopes to see them. They were always there, but couldn’t be seen. But this phrase responds to the second, more problematic kind of unknown: that which might be part of our everyday world, but which we don’t know how to understand. It’s the problem of the unknown unknown, an object or a situation which we don’t even know we’re oblivious to, because we can’t even conceive of it existing. We can’t search for it, because we wouldn’t even know how to search for such a thing.

“can be decorded”
I like the wordplay, combining the senses of the terms ‘decoded’ and ‘untangled,’ as if we were trapped in a mesh of ropes that we had to figure out how to disentangle ourselves. And the ropes in which we’re stuck are metaphors for our perceptual habits, the ways of thinking that we’ve become used to and don’t bother to question. But all ways of thinking are limited, leaving parts of the world unknown to us, and that we don’t even understand how to search for or conceive of. But we can discover unknown unknowns by decoding the patterns in language that we don’t understand, taking that pattern apart and reverse-engineering it.

How do we do that?

“if an ear aye sieze what an eye ere grieved for.”
I wish I could remember where I heard this joke, but someone once told a joke about being stuck on an airplane where a blind man was laughing at a video of Mr Bean. The joke is funny because someone with no visual perceptual ability can understand comedy that’s entirely visual performance. His ears should “grieve for” visual humour because they’re incapable of perceiving it. Our ability to think abstractly lets us experiment with concepts so we can develop new powers of thinking, which allow us to figure out the patterns by which some unknown unknown exists in the world, and we can learn to search for it. Once you learn how to search for something, you’re able to find it, and systematize your discovery about the world into the framework by which you understand the world. Conceptually speaking, we can grow an ear where before we may only have had eyes. That’s how you solve the most interesting problems of knowledge, by figuring out how to perceive the world differently than you ever had before.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Wars and Dictators and Elections and Eyebrows

A Political Note on Libya

A few posts ago, I was exasperated with Barack Obama’s waffling on support for the Libyan revolutionaries to the point where I was giving up on him. Having seen a vigorous no-fly zone manned by efficient Americans and angry Frenchmen, I am no longer giving up on him (the poster still hangs on the wall by my kitchen). Like he said in his books, he believes in the democratic institutions of his country and the world, even when they move with an aching slowness.

Actually, what’s been exasperating lately, though to a lesser degree, is the perspectives of my leftist comrades. Robert Fisk is a brilliant journalist and author, and in an otherwise balanced (and also exasperated) column, he writes, “Yet again, it’s going to be regime change.” My friends and political columnists who lean left and America-skeptical have begun leaning against Libyan intervention, that the no-fly zone is another grab for oil, or Middle Eastern influence, or something. If it’s not always mentioned, I find it an undercurrent to some of the discourse critical of the intervention.

But Libya is not Iraq. The anti-Gaddafi rebellion didn’t need Western help to begin. These are the revolutions of the Arab world. While it’s probably going to be a mixed bag of success, continued repression, and half-measured compromise, it’s still a vibrant revolution of Arab people. Westerners didn’t manufacture this revolution, but we can still aid it as best we can. A dictator like Gaddafi isn’t talked out of power. I’m no longer willing to say that there can always be a peaceful solution to political repression.

I’m willing to accept the paradox that sometimes you have to start a war for peace. Gaddafi, Mubarak, and Ben-Ali are just three more names on the list of overthrown dictators of people who wouldn’t live under their rule anymore. They join Slobodan Milosevic, Nicolae Ceaucescu, Chun Doo-Hwan, Rafael Trujillo, Porfirio Díaz, Benito Mussolini, Napoleon Boneparte, Louis XVI, and George III.

No matter how much we may complain about the Tea Party’s racism and insanity, and no matter how justified we may be in our fight against the destruction of organized labour in the United States, it was anti-Iraq-Invasion protesters who first put a Hitler moustache on a sitting President.
A Political Note on Canada

I’m looking forward to this election, because I think Stephen Harper will finally lose some seats again. I don’t think the Conservative Party will ultimately lose the plurality in parliament, but if their numbers are reduced to the mid-130s or (if we’re lucky) mid-120s, it might be enough to cause an insurrection in the Conservative Party against Stephen Harper.

I’m registered to vote in Hamilton Centre, one of the safest NDP districts in the country. But when I hear that Harper is losing support in Quebec, and that a lot of seats in Saskatchewan are in play, I couldn’t be happier. Harper has demonstrated contempt for Canadian political institutions and for Canada’s parliament, as well as open hatred for every other political party. Holding Harper in contempt of parliament wasn’t just a political ploy: the reason he’s the only prime minister ever to be held in contempt is because of the seriousness of the charge. It carries with it a nominal restriction from running to be an MP for five years, which Harper has ignored. He treats the Canadian government as if he owned it, and there were no checks on the power of his office. He treats his own back-benchers and party activists like cogs in the Stephen Harper machine.

I posted on my facebook wall a link to an article that compared Stephen Harper’s methods of governance to that of Richard Nixon, and found them brothers in arms. Then a friend sent me another article demonstrating that Nixon’s policies on the environment, engagement with China, infrastructure and scientific investment, and even civil rights were more progressive, humanitarian, and superior to Stephen Harper’s.

I’ll be so happy to see him go.
A Political Note on Senses of Humour

A sign that I think the Liberal party might have a chance of making some serious gains in this election is that they’re giving away a particular free gift with small donations: Stick-on Ignatieff Eyebrows. I’m glad their campaign is finally loosening up and is able to make fun of Michael Ignatieff’s stick-in-the-mud pretentious image. I’m waiting for the media clip where he tries them on himself.
A Political Note on Exasperation

I know one of the excuses that have been heard for just giving the Conservatives a majority is that the increased frequency of elections in the past decade is hurting Canadian democracy. If anything, the greater means of maintaining accountability of politicians in parliament without a single majority party should keep leaders in a more moderate, compromising position which takes more concerns of Canadians into account. Harper hasn’t learned those lessons, and is just becoming more authoritarian in his party and the bureaucracy. If this is his authoritarian streak in a minority, I’d hate to see what he would do to the country with an unchecked four year mandate.