Monthly Archives: September 2011

“Harperland: The Politics of Control”

From the conclusion to Lawrence Martin’s new book:

It was no small wonder that Canadians feared what Harper might do with a majority government. With that kind of power he could establish a hegemony the likes of which Canadians could not imagine.

It’s no secret what’s coming: the construction of new prisons despite our steadily declining crime rate, a prospect that distresses even Conrad Black, as well as the introduction of a surveillance state with a “crime bill” that will allow the police to access our email and internet traffic without warrants.


Harper seems to have no sense of our history, our political traditions, or our expectations as a society. During his rise to power, he dismissed Canada as “a second-rate socialist country.”

Who?  What?

Sixty-one percent of Canadian voters cast their ballots to the left of the Harper Conservatives last May. That’s 61%. George Bush was at least required to have the appearance of more or less 50% of the vote in order to run amok on American ideals, laws, and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

Harper doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of support, will never have anywhere near that kind of support, and, worse yet, knows he will never need it. Knowing that in fact appears to be his m.o.

He apparently intends to make over this country to fit his own cramped, angry and unforgiving worldview on the basis of just the 39% who voted Conservative in the last election. With our first-past-the-post electoral system, the needs and expectations of the remaining very large majority don’t much matter, as Harper has made clear enough. His unrelentingly vicious disdain for his political opponents (see Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff) appears to extend to the people who vote for them. The most effective solution, unfortunately, is also the most elusive, which is to consolidate the massive majority on the left, as Harper did on the right when he helped to engineer the destruction of the Progressive Conservative party, and then lashed the wreckage to Alberta’s particular brand of resentment politics that evolved by way of the Reform Party, then the Canadian Alliance, and eventually Harper’s own custom-tailored Conservative Party.

Until there is an effective political realignment on the majority left, however, there is still consolation, not least in the work that needs to be done to revitalize our politics and priorities. Whenever the Harper government burdens us with policies and laws that have nothing to do with us and everything to do with him and his remarkably small core-constituency, we should remind ourselves of our strength of numbers and resolve to use it by all the means democracy allows, beginning with free speech and the right to call to account the public servants who serve only at our will.

It’s telling that Harper’s policy of “law and order” — law, as Frye points out, not being the same thing as justice — involves imprisonment and the denial of privacy where there is no need for either. These are the key elements, as Frye again points out, of dystopia. While Harper may behave as though the social contract subordinates us to him, Frye regularly reminds us that it actually puts all of us, including the political class, in the service of a vision of society that is a source of our salvation:

It seems to me that there are two very powerful myths in political life: the myth of origin, which is a version of the social contract, and the myth of ending, or telos, which is going to be some form of Utopia. It doesn’t matter whether you say you believe in a social contract or Utopia–belief has nothing to do with it–the thing is that these are maintained in your mind as the frames by which you do your thinking about society. (CW 24, 514)

Harper likes to end his speeches with “God bless Canada,” which is just one of a number of his unpleasant American imports into our much more civil political process. It may also represent a rare glimpse into his own harsh Day-of-Judgement Christian belief as a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. But Canada is not just a secular nation, it is the only multicultural nation in the world as a matter of statutory and constitutional law. So if a deity must be invoked, why must it be Stephen Harper’s? Why not “Allah bless Canada,” or “Yaweh bless Canada,” or “Jehovah bless Canada,” or “Krishna bless Canada,” or “All the gods of all the world’s polytheistic religions bless Canada”? And what about the large number of those who do not believe in gods of any sort, as it is their constitutional right to do? Does the prime minister not represent these people too? This is why God has no place in our shared public sphere, of which the prime minister is a most conspicuous representative.

A Utopian society is inclusive. A dsytopian one is exclusive. It runs on fear and resentment. It builds prisons where none are needed, and it subjects its citizens to unwarranted surveillance as an ongoing exercise in intimidation. Freedom is not a boon to be granted by those who possess power. Our freedoms are expressed by the guaranteed rights of all citizens, whatever their status, whether they are homeless people living on the street, or a couple of Conservative senators and other party functionaries charged with the jailable offence of breaking federal election law: they are all equal before the law, and are not advantaged or disadvantaged depending upon who they know or who they don’t.

We clearly do not need a suddenly-urgent policy of “law and order” included in our list of our national priorities. We already have law and order in this country to which Stephen Harper has done nothing to contribute. The most that is expected of him is that he not vandalize what he has been entrusted with. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Quote of the Day: “Sadistic and Malicious”

Here is a notoriously well-known public figure speaking out against the Harper government’s corrections policy:

Not only is it emphasizing severity on sentences, not only squandering money for prisons that don’t need to be built on this basis of build-and-they-will-come, not only is it going to end up housing an inordinate number of native people who should be treated altogether differently, but these programs that are foreseen to reduce the effort made to help people to overcome their problems and therefore become more likely candidates for successful reintegration into society, and even more appalling to me, these plans to crack down on contact between prisoners and their visitors is just a terrible and barbarous thing.

Can you guess who that is? No, it’s not a liberal. It’s the congenitally conservative Conrad Black: Lord Black speaking as Citizen Black.

Here’s more from a story in the Toronto Star:

Black says he is in “violent disagreement” with the Conservatives’ “so-called roadmap” — a blueprint  document that sets out the Harper government’s corrections policy.

He told The Globe and Mail the Harper government approach is “sadistic and malicious.” He told the CBC it is “barbarous.”

Saturday Night Documentary: “Capitalism: A Love Story”

We can’t post the whole thing, but this extended interview with Elizabeth Warren is worth seeing on its own. Warren is running for a Senate seat in Massachusetts in ’12. If she gets the seat, it will make her one of the very few grownups in that chamber.

An earlier post on Warren’s lecture, “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class,” here.


“Spence’s Republic”

The NFB has always displayed a typically self-deprecating Canadian sense of humor. American history is world-shaping stuff and is to be rendered chin up. Canadian history, not so much. This is one of a handful of historical vignettes that sardonically reminds us that, for all our good fortune, we didn’t have to work all that hard for it and we’d be wrong to romantisize it too much.

Marx the Prophet


BBC Radio 4 panel discussion on Marx

It seems to be a discernible trend: since the collapse of the financial market three years ago, Karl Marx is increasingly being cited once again as the prophet of capitalism’s self-destruction. From the BBC:

As a side-effect of the financial crisis, more and more people are starting to think Karl Marx was right. The great 19th Century German philosopher, economist and revolutionary believed that capitalism was radically unstable.

It had a built-in tendency to produce ever larger booms and busts, and over the longer term it was bound to destroy itself.

Marx welcomed capitalism’s self-destruction. He was confident that a popular revolution would occur and bring a communist system into being that would be more productive and far more humane.

Marx was wrong about communism. Where he was prophetically right was in his grasp of the revolution of capitalism. It’s not just capitalism’s endemic instability that he understood, though in this regard he was far more perceptive than most economists in his day and ours.

More profoundly, Marx understood how capitalism destroys its own social base – the middle-class way of life. The Marxist terminology of bourgeois and proletarian has an archaic ring.

But when he argued that capitalism would plunge the middle classes into something like the precarious existence of the hard-pressed workers of his time, Marx anticipated a change in the way we live that we’re only now struggling to cope with.

The whole article here.

Previous posts on Frye on Marx here, here, here, and here.

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Chart of the Day: Rich, Richer / Poor, Poorer

If Greece defaults, if the euro collapses, if the world spins into a second deep recession in just three years, these kinds of charts ought to be kept in mind.

We have posted others here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The poor and the middle class have been screwed to an almost unimaginable degree. Virtually every penny of profit across thirty years of increased productivity has gone to the top 10%, most especially the top 1%. These include the people who oversaw the crash of the financial market three years ago, destroying tens of millions of jobs and wiping out tens of trillions dollars of wealth. They then required a few trillion more in taxpayer-funded bailouts to keep the world’s financial system viable. Having secured that, they were very quickly once again giving themselves billions of dollars in bonuses and making record profits.

But where are the new jobs? There are none because they evidently aren’t needed anymore, not in North America, and not at a decent working wage. The jobs at much lower wages have gone to places like India and China.

Frye on Drinking

Photo from Macallan Scotch

Here’s a followup on Clayton’s earlier post on Victoria University’s Northrop Frye Gold Medal wines. One of Frye’s diary entries from 1950 recounts drinking at a dinner party with James Thurber that did not go well. On most days through a long working career, however, he liked to drink according to the accepted social standards of the time. Here are some of his observations on and accounts of drinking. (An earlier posting of his Canadian Forum editorial in support of the repeal of Sabbath drinking laws here.)

I knew an old man once who settled for drinking straight Scotch, and he said, “I find it agrees with me.” I find the same thing. (“Chatelaine’s Celebrity I.D.,” Chatelaine 55, no. 11 (November 1982), 43.

Claude Bissell had a few drinks ready for us afterwards before Clawson’s dinner. Very typical of Clawson that his dinner should come on a day when congratulations were being showered on Blissett & me.  I drank Scotch very hard & fast & was quite high until I had my dinner.  (Diaries, 11 April 1950)

There’s getting to be too damn much God in my life.  After lunch I went over to hear Crane’s paper on the history of ideas, but instead of staying for the discussion after tea I went off and had three Martinis—Carpenter doesn’t drink and I decided against giving him the handicap of a slug of Scotch, so it was the first drink I’d had in three days.  (Diaries, 23 February 1952)

We had dinner at Jean’s hotel and I went along with the two girls to the theatre: they had tickets to Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra but I couldn’t get one, as it was the last performance.  I waited until the man said it was a waste of time to wait longer, then went home and had a couple of Scotches & went to bed early. (12 April 1952)

Felt very sleepy after Woodhouse’s whisky & didn’t make much out of Vaughan or Traherne.  The kids didn’t cooperate either: the final Huxley lecture was brilliant—Freudian slip again—I meant to write wasn’t brilliant.  (Diaries, 15 March 1950)

So I sneaked off to collect Helen from some women’s meeting at Wymilwood, and we went down to the Oxford Press to a cocktail, or rather a whisky, party, given for Geoffrey Cumberlege.  I couldn’t get much charge out of Cumberlege, but enjoyed the party.  (Diaries, 17 May 1950)

In the evening the Macleans had a supper party for the Cranes, and a very good party it was.  (Very good of Ken too, as Crane wrote one of his typically slaughterous reviews of Ken’s book). The Grants, the Loves, the Ropers, and Ronald Williams (I suppose because of the Chicago connection) were there (I suppose Mrs. Williams is pregnant again).  Martinis to begin with, and whisky afterward, so what with a very late dinner I got sick again afterward.  My own damn fault.  I was well into my fifth drink before I realized that I’d had practically no lunch.  The party did a men-women split, unusual for the Macleans [MacLeans], and we gossiped about jobs and they about curtains.  We were, as I faintly remember, beginning to get slightly maudlin about Eliot and Auden just at the end.  Douglas Grant of course talked very well, and remained sober enough to drive us home.  I suppose a car, to say nothing of children and sitters and things, does make one very temperate.  Crane is a very charming man, but remains a most elusive one. (Diaries, 22 March 1952)


It is not hard to ridicule the fallacy of the distinctive essence, and to show that it is really a matter of looking for some trade mark in the content.  A satirical revue in Toronto some years ago known as Spring Thaw depicted a hero going in quest of a Canadian identity and emerging with a mounted policeman and a bottle of rye.  If he had been Australian, one realizes, he would have emerged with a kangaroo and a boomerang.  One needs to go deeper than ridicule, however, if one is to understand the subtlety of the self-deceptions involved. (“Criticism and Environment”)

I suppose they must have a disease for lies, as they have kleptomania for stealing.  This chap had “spent years in the South Seas”: rubber plantations and trading vessels were at the top of the whisky bottle, waving palm-trees and pounding surf around the middle, and island paradises and brown-eyed mistresses near the bottom.  It bored me a bit, I must say, and after we’d finished the whisky and he started looking inscrutable over a lighted cigar butt I thought I was in for some pretty involved brooding.  (opening paragraph, “Face to Face”) [Frye’s Conrad‑imitation phase]

Marked a few essays & took Helen, who had just finished writing an article for the Star Weekly, out for a cocktail.  I had a sidecar, which, I’ve been told, works on the backfire principle: you swallow down one lemonade after another trying to get a faint alcoholic taste in your mouth, when suddenly there’s a dull boom in your stomach, a sudden ringing in the ears, crimson clouds before the eyes, & there you are as drunk as a coot.  I had only one, so I don’t know.  A businessmen’s dinner was in the dining room, and as I came out I heard the hostess say to the waiter, “How are they getting along with eleven bottles among twelve men?” (Diaries, 5 January 1949)

Ran into Ned [Pratt] & told him my woes.  He says Markowitz tells him that evening drinking is the best way to ward off heart disease.  He went to the liquor store with me & bought me a bottle of rye.  Promised him faithfully I would not have a heart attack in ten years.  (Diaries, 11 January 1949)

On the way back [from the library at Harvard] I stopped at a liquor store & asked if there were any formalities about purchasing liquor.  He said the formality consisted only in the possession of cash.  Even so I didn’t know what to buy, and Canadian rye is $5.75 a bottle—though I think a larger bottle than what we’re allowed to buy.  I got a cheaper rye for $3.75, a Corby’s.  I must investigate California wines.  We came home & had dinner in, after speculating about going out & deciding to renounce the gesture. (Diaries, 14 July 1950––Frye’s 38th birthday)

[Frye tells this story in several places]:  In the year of his retirement he [Ned Pratt] turned up unexpectedly at a meeting of the Graduate Department of English (he hated graduate teaching), and sat through three hours and a half of petitions and what not, and then, under “further business,” announced that this was undoubtedly his last meeting of the Graduate Department, and therefore–at which point he produced a bottle of rye. It was a typical gesture, but he was also reminding us of a certain sense of proportion. (“A Poet and a Legend”)

Northrop Frye Gold Medal Cabernet Merlot

My husband Mike gave a talk last week to incoming U of T students associated with Victoria University.

The frosh cheered heartily when the Frye quotation Mike used flashed on the screen.  The quotation was, “What [the university] does stand for is the challenge of full consciousness.”

He was given a bottle of Northrop Frye wine. On the back of the bottle, it says:

“From its founding, Victoria was steadfastly dry. In 1971, a motion
to apply for a liquor license was brought to the Board of Regents,
whose chairman said he would resign if it passed. Legend has it that
members sat on their hands until Northrop Frye (Vic 3T3, Emm 3T6)
raised his in support. The Board passed the motion and the rest

This wine seems to be available for purchase through Victoria University Hospitality Services.


Frye on memory from the notebooks, courtesy of Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned:

The memory selects, rejects, rearranges, condenses and displaces. In short it mythicizes our history. (LN, 1:38)

But perhaps this is what memory is for, to bring to life past moments. If so, the memory, like the sensory apparatus, is selective & exclusive. Screen memory is the only memory. Nietsczhe says that when memory says “I did that” & pride says, “I didn’t,” the memory gives way. . . But memory is the key to identity. And perhaps (as Coleridge once suggested) the key to resurrection too. (NB 11f.158)

My memory of past experiences becomes more intense all the time, yet much of it never happened, happened otherwise in a different sequence, or with a very different emotional harmonization. (It’s this last that makes the present so much less real than the past: as in art, an imaginative recreation lifts them clear of the dithering of time.) I think the real memory is the habit-energy that is, perhaps, our real selves, that is, perhaps the only thing we could take into another world. (NB 21.605)

(Photo: Rob Howard)