And the Winner Is . . .

Thomas Mulcair

Well, I guess I won’t be turning in my laptop to make my living as a fortune teller. Contrary to my deliberately unconventional prediction, it was Thomas Mulcair who won the NDP leadership race yesterday.

Congratulations, Mr. Mulcair. I wish you the best, and hope that your positive attributes (i.e. charisma and environmental consciousness) rather than your negative attributes (i.e. temper and centrism) shine through.


On Ezra Levant’s Victimhood

I have been blogging for nearly four months now, and am embarrassed to admit that — contrary to firmly established best blogging practices — I have yet to engage in the art of personal attack. Today, I intend to correct this error and make the anonymous overlords of the blogarchy proud. The target of my wrath? None other than the king of personal attacks himself, the Canadian pundit and convicted libelist who never fails to find himself on the wrong side of every issue — from tobacco to Israel-Palestine to climate change — Mr. Ezra Levant.

But first, a little about me. I am Jewish. Secular, to be sure, and about as assimilated as they come. Nevertheless, my Jewish identity has always been important to me, and it is as a Jew that I take offence at Levant’s self-serving habit of screaming “anti-Semitism” every time someone disagrees with him.

The latest example came after former CTV reporter Kai Nagata made a parody rap video for The Tyee featuring a puppet Levant:

Levant fired back more than once on his TV show, The Source — painting The Tyee as an unprincipled receptacle of foreign funds and propaganda. But in the following clip, barely thirty seconds into his segment, he inexplicably seeks to place his Judaism at the heart of Nagata’s attack:

“I mean, I’m quite sure that a far left-wing magazine like The Tyee didn’t mean anything by stuffing an uppity Jew’s mouth with money,” he explains sarcastically, referring to a part of the video that frankly had nothing to do with his religious or cultural identity. Nagata was poking fun at Levant’s tendency to argue on behalf of such wealthy interests as oil and tobacco companies, a practice which — and here’s the shocker! — is neither universal among Jews nor exclusive to Jews.

A similar thing happened a year ago when The Mark published an article by Donald Gutstein about the shape of right-wing media in Canada — including such personalities as Levant — and their impact on environmental politics. Levant replied in the comments as charmingly as ever:

Some good connecting of the dots here. By [sic] why avoid the obvious? I’m a Jew; so is my book publisher Doug Pepper; so is Chapters boss Heather Reisman; so is Sun TV’s Kory Teneycke; and so is Laureen Harper. The oilsands are clearly part of a neo-con project to undermine OPEC.

Yet another instance, far more dramatic than the others, came at a tar sands debate (which I saw in person) between Levant and Ben West of the Wilderness Committee. An Indigenous activist by the name of Gitz Crazyboy (who had earlier been heckling Levant from the audience) was invited onstage by West to offer his perspective, and Levant absolutely flipped out:

Crazyboy used the word “holocaust” to describe the environmental impact of the tar sands, and it is understandable why Levant might have taken offence. But after Levant made his displeasure known, Crazyboy tried to put his word choice in the context of his people’s traditional belief in the inherent moral value of the Earth as a whole. Then he apologized to Levant, who steadfastly refused the olive branch.

In a blog post following the debate, Levant made no mention of Crazyboy’s explanation or apology. Nor did he give him the benefit of the doubt and attribute his regrettable word choice to a lack of linguistic sensitivity which, while hurtful, was unintended. Instead, the young activist was proclaimed an anti-Semite and “professional Jew-baiter,” plain and simple. Take as evidence his apparent participation in — the horror! — Palestinian solidarity events.

I don’t know if Levant actually believes the accusations he dishes out, or simply uses them for political advantage. If the former, this is the sign of a delusionally conspiratorial mindset. Anti-Semitism in Canada is almost a throwback — certainly nowhere near as common as Islamophobia or bigotry against First Nations. For Levant to toss a serious charge like this around so casually is to diminish those rare instances of Canadian anti-Semitism that still do occur (attacks on Jewish institutions in Montreal, for example), as well as the far more common acts of hatred against Jews elsewhere in the world.

So please, Ezra, disagree with me politically — disagree with whomever you like — but remember this: it does our people no favours to cry wolf with racism.

The Alternative Norquist Pledge

Citizens United Carpet Bombing Democracy - Cartoon

It has been over two years since the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling struck down government restrictions on political spending by corporations and unions. A crafty syllogism lies at the heart of the decision’s rationale:

  • Corporations = people.
  • Money = speech.
  • Therefore, campaign finance reform = violation of the First Amendment.

As fallout, we are now witness to the proliferation of super PACs — those well-financed, secretive, unaccountable organizations that can raise unlimited amounts of cash to help or hinder politicians of their choosing. This growing confluence of money and politics has brought the tone of political debate to a new low, and undermined what little pretense remains of popular control over the democratic process.

So what are progressives to do?

Fantastic work is being done by communities in Vermont, as well as by politicians such as Senator Bernie Sanders, to push for a constitutional amendment abolishing corporate personhood. But amending the US Constitution is an almost prohibitively difficult thing to accomplish. There must be a backup plan.

It is here that progressives can learn a thing or two from Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and architect of the euphemistically named Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Hundreds of American politicians at all levels of government have taken this pledge to never under any circumstances raise taxes — not because it makes their job of governing easier, but because it represents something that, for better or for worse, many voters want.

Norquist and his ideological brethren have successfully achieved for their anti-tax zealotry a cultural hegemony that ought to be the envy of the Left. This hegemony, in all its principled rigidity and uncompromising absolutism, is precisely what needs to be replicated for the cause of campaign finance reform.

Thus I propose (in comparably euphemistic language) the Democracy Protection Pledge, or, informally, the Alternative Norquist Pledge. (In my research for this post, I discovered that a similar — though not identical — proposal was made within Occupy Springfield, Il.) All politicians who wish to brandish this progressive seal of approval must, in writing, forswear all super PAC cooperation, refuse all super PAC assistance, and promise to support a constitutional amendment abolishing corporate personhood.

Progressives could try to use this pledge to apply just as much pressure on politicians as Norquist has succeeded in doing with his pledge, and to make compliance just as politically advantageous. Will it be an uphill battle? Of course. When has it ever been otherwise for the Left? But what hangs in the balance is the integrity of one of the world’s oldest democracies.

So I encourage you, American lefties, indulge your Norquist envy!

Nuclear Weapons, Iran, and War

Stop Sign in Iran

With an all-too-familiar rhythm, the drums of war are sounding. The target? An authoritarian Middle Eastern regime set on acquiring exceptionally destructive weapons.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

This time around the country is Iran, and the weapons allegedly being developed are nuclear. The Israeli government (although apparently not with the blessing of its people) seems to be laying the diplomatic groundwork for an attack on Iran, claiming an existential threat. Meanwhile in the US, Republicans are showing off their hyper-conservative chutzpah by forcefully condemning President Obama’s reluctance to lead or to sanction such a military adventure.

Most of the talk on this issue, from both politicians and the media, fails to consider two key points:

  1. Iran, should it develop nuclear weapons, is extremely unlikely to use them against Israel.
  2. Among belligerents in the present international war of words, the United States and Israel are the only ones who actually have nukes.

According to many analysts, including US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Iran is not currently building a nuclear weapon, but simply developing the capability to do so should it wish to exercise that option quickly at a later date — a capability which many non-nuclear states (such as Canada) already have, and which in itself does not contravene any international laws. But even if Iran does fully acquire nuclear weapons, why is it a foregone conclusion that it would use them? Countries are generally not in the business of committing suicide, and a nuclear Iran would be far more inclined just to exploit the deterrence value of its weapons than to invite nuclear retaliation from Israel and the US.

While every country individually is unlikely to launch a nuclear war, these low probabilities begin to add up as membership grows in the club of nuclear powers. We should not ignore the threat of catastrophe through theft, accident, or the inexorable illogic of a nuclear-armed game of chicken. But Iran is no more inherently dangerous in this respect than the US or Israel.

There is widespread belief in the West that the world can be neatly divided into countries that are and are not “responsible” enough for nukes, but the only objective measure for such a division is the historical record. How many countries have actually used nuclear weapons in war? One, the United States. How many additional “close calls” have there been? Two that come to mind are the Cuban Missile Crisis and the incident of the American scientific probe launched near Russia in 1995. The myth that longstanding nuclear powers are somehow more trustworthy than so-called “rogue states” is unfounded. Iran has as much reason to feel threatened by Israel’s nukes as Israel has to feel threatened by Iran’s.

Going to war will at best delay what nuclear ambitions Iran has, not destroy them. Instead of seeking to preserve the current global system of nuclear apartheid, the only realistic and non-hypocritical way to halt proliferation is to work for a just and lasting peace in a nuclear-free Middle East, and ultimately, a nuclear-free world.

Red Chamber Blues

The Senate

BC Premier Christy Clark took a break from bullying teachers yesterday to back the idea of elections to Canada’s Senate. If the private member’s bill introduced by Liberal John Les passes through the Legislature, which with the Premier’s support it almost certainly will, British Columbians could wind up voting this fall on the replacement for retiring Conservative Senator Gerry St. Germain.

The problem with Senate reform is that it places a veneer of legitimacy over what is a fundamentally unjust institution. Elected or appointed, the Canadian Senate will always be based on the formula of representation by region or province rather than representation by population, and thus will violate the cardinal democratic principle of one-person-one-vote. Yes, the status quo where we hand a veto over all our legislation to a body of basically lifetime patronage appointees is wrong, but that doesn’t make any and every change right. Senate elections will resurrect the chamber’s tattered image, and embolden it to challenge more bills passed by the House of Commons. Short of abolition, I would rather have an appointed but mostly ineffective unjust institution than an elected and effective one.

But isn’t a strongly bicameral legislature an important check on government power? I would say that the checker must be at least as democratic as the checkee. If, however, we as a society judge a second house of Parliament to be vital to our system of government, then perhaps we can consider other forms of a more participatory nature. Both BC and Ontario have in the recent past made use of citizens’ assemblies to examine options for electoral reform. Why not set up such a body on the federal level — not just to deal with a single issue but as a permanent feature of our democracy. Structured so as to represent Canadians proportionally by such demographic criteria as region, gender, ethnicity, class, age, and sexual orientation, a national citizens’ assembly could start out with a mostly advisory role, and then take on increasingly more power once the country becomes accustomed to its operation.

But in the meantime, what to do about the Senate election possibly coming to BC? Those of us who favour abolishing the Senate have a choice. We could boycott the election as a matter of principle, or we could just accept that the battle is lost and reluctantly add Senators to the list of people we vote for. A boycott carries the obvious risk of delivering victory to the worst of the worst (probably another Conservative). Perhaps the best possible outcome would be for some enterprising candidate to run on the pledge to try to abolish the Senate from within. I for one could scarcely resist voting for such a person — even if it means sullying myself by coming into contact with the notorious Red Chamber through the ballot box.

Reading the NDP Tea Leaves

Peggy Nash

Any good pundit (for is that not what I aspire to become?) must dispense with caution and modesty from time to time and, in godlike fashion, attempt to predict the future. It is a virtually risk-free enterprise. If my prediction turns out wrong, no one will notice or care, because the political commentariat never gets these things right anyway. If, however, my prediction is borne out, I will be showered with fame and fortune as a prophet and soothsayer, notwithstanding the laws of statistics which dictate that even the unlikeliest of occurrences is bound to be correctly guessed by some clueless schmuck somewhere.

So here goes: I hereby forecast that on March 24, Peggy Nash will become the next leader of the NDP.

“But Song of the Watermelon,” I can hear my twos of readers asking, “isn’t the smart money on Thomas Mulcair?” No, for while he may win a plurality of votes on the first ballot, he is sure to be the second choice of almost no one. Some purveyors of conventional wisdom peg Nathan Cullen supporters as Mulcair’s kingmakers on the grounds that both contenders are pragmatists (where for Mulcair, “pragmatist” is code for centrist, and for Cullen, “pragmatist” actually means pragmatist). I don’t think it’s quite so simple. Yes, they both tend to anger NDP traditionalists (for different reasons) and they both share greenish leanings, but Cullen’s heavy focus in his leadership campaign on cooperation with the Liberals and Greens makes him somewhat of a wild card. The votes of his independent-minded supporters will likely scatter about unpredictably once he inevitably (and sadly!) fails to make the cut in the final rounds of voting at the convention.

Peggy Nash and Brian Topp, and to a lesser extent Paul Dewar and perhaps even Niki Ashton, are the true kindred spirits. They are the ones left competing for the far more fertile ground of the NDP’s left wing. Ashton will probably end up with less support than Cullen. Dewar won’t get far either despite recent speculation to the contrary (caused in no small part by one of his campaign’s internal — and therefore thoroughly unreliable — polls). At the end of the day, New Democrats eager to hold onto their gains in Quebec are unlikely to choose as their leader a candidate with such poor French.

Not long ago, Topp — with his high-profile endorsements and apparatchik credentials — was considered the one to beat. In recent weeks, however, his campaign has lost momentum. The best he can do now is deliver second- and third-preference votes to the winner.

Which leaves us with Peggy Nash. (And with Martin Singh, but on what planet does he have a shot?) Nash’s campaign has been a bit vague at times, but she appears to have what it takes to please as many NDP members as possible. And as I’ve made clear in previous posts, even for a non-New Democrat like me, she is most certainly one of the better ones.

Although normally an eternal pessimist in all matters political, today I judge my crystal ball to be half full. So make way as I spike said crystal ball in celebration and make a mess with whatever it was half full of. Whereupon I dance.

Go Peggy!