In 2008 there was a global financial crisis comparable to the storied Wall Street Crash of 1929: some of the biggest investment banks in the world, followed by the American automobile industry, tottered on the brink of collapse. If these had gone, the entire global financial system and the heart of American industry would have gone with them. The consequences of the two crashes were, however, quite different. The 1929 crash was followed by a global depression, with catastrophic consequences in mass unemployment, poverty and social dislocation. In the United States, the New Deal brought a progressive coalition to Washington with innovative social and economic programs.

Europe witnessed the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of fascism. Japanese militarism swept over Asia. The world slid into war on a scale never witnessed before or since. Only that war and its aftermath resulted in the end of economic stagnation and a new golden era of postwar prosperity. The crash of 2008 had ugly consequences, especially in unemployment which was ratcheted up to historically high post-1930s levels in North America, with only moderate relief three years later. But unlike the earlier crisis, panic on Wall Street did not automatically translate into worldwide economic Political scientist Reg Whitaker writes a political column for Inroads and is a member of its editorial board. collapse.

Emergent economies, notably China and Brazil, felt scarcely a ripple. Australia sailed through unscathed. Canada experienced far less negative impact than did the United States. By 2011 even badly affected economies, with a few exceptions, seemed to be limping back toward a semblance of recovery. For Western capitalist states, the narrow escape from a rerun of the “Dirty Thirties” rests largely on lessons learned the first time around. In addition to the huge state bailout of the banks and the North American auto industry (all “too big to fail”), a Keynesian response to the market crash was promptly instituted across the board with massive economic stimulus measures – precisely the appropriate medicine that was not followed after 1929 when governments were still prisoners to classical economic nostrums. Social safety net provisions, largely set in place after the ravages of the Great Depression, prevented the worst human costs of unemployment and economic dislocation. In other words, the Keynesian countercyclical prescriptions for saving unregulated capitalism from its own excesses – objects of bitter political contestation in the 1930s and 1940s – were shown to work relatively effectively in 2008 and after. Only days before the crash of ’29, the eminent economist Irving Fisher declared that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Fisher not only lost most of his personal savings in the crash, but spent the rest of his career trying to repair the damage to his neoclassical general equilibrium theories caused by the brute facts of market failure. And yet, by 2008, mainstream economists had largely rejected Keynesian economics, and so-called “efficient market” theories that pronounced the definitive end of boom-bust cycles in the free market had reemerged. There were a host of Fishers in all the leading departments of economics, and even more importantly in the treasury departments and central banks of all Western countries. Keynes had long since been put in the shadow by Milton Friedman’s conservative monetarism, and at the U.S. Federal Reserve Board free-market guru Alan Greenspan had told the world not to worry unduly about asset bubbles in the market caused by what he lightheartedly referred to as “irrational exuberance.”

For Western capitalist states, the narrow escape from a rerun of the “Dirty Thirties” rests largely on lessons learned the first time around. By the time irrational exuberance nearly brought down the pillars of the global economy, some serious rethinking might have been expected. There were some efforts to bring Keynes back into the academy, and even some vague references here and there to Marx’s much more radical critique of capital. But three years on, the extent to which everything has returned to business as usual in economics and finance is quite astonishing. While academic economists may have made some minor adjustments in thinking, in the world of policy advice and business journalism it seems that the crash of 2008 never happened, nor was there ever a global financial crisis.
How else can we explain the persistence of strident assertions that only the unregulated free market can effectively allocate resources, and that governments can only make things worse by any kind of intervention? The Australian economist John Quiggin has addressed this irrational behaviour in a recent book strikingly entitled Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us. The self-satisfied reasoning of the zombie economists contains a remarkable intellectual sleight of hand. Massive state intervention in the market actually worked so well to avert another depression that the state’s role in retrospect is simply whisked away, out of sight, out of mind, replaced by shameless reiteration of the free-market shibboleths that helped precipitate the crash and financial crisis in the first instance. Take the rescue of the auto industry. GM and Chrysler had screwed up so badly that the very core of American industry was threatened with massive meltdown, with incalculable consequences for the wider economy. The Obama administration took a controlling interest in the two corporations (critics sarcastically renamed GM “Government Motors”).

Despite right-wing alarms about government incompetence, Washington’s direction proved not only benign but also effective: the industry was put back on track with a sensible restructuring plan, government stepped out of direct management as quickly as possible, and in the end almost all the bailout funds will likely be recouped. Has this kind of successful state intervention led to any rethinking of Fraser Institute−style demands for yet more privatization and downsizing of the state? Not for a moment. In fact, launching huge cutback projects is now the rage among Western governments. The coalition government in Britain has placed cutbacks to the state sector at the very top of its policy agenda. In the United States, the Obama administration is hastily trying to cover its fiscal backside by offering to slash on a scale slightly more moderate than the Texas chainsaw massacre demanded by the Republicans. And small states in Europe badly caught out by the credit crisis face enforced cutbacks so severe that, in the case of Greece, they have already called forth widespread social unrest. This is one of the more puzzling aspects of the Great Recession. A crisis in the capitalist economy has led not to a crisis of conservatism in politics, but rather to a crisis of social democratic and left parties. Throughout the Western world, it has been parties of the centre-left that have been in retreat and disarray since 2008, while parties that profess worship of the very market that has just faltered so badly have experienced almost uniform electoral success. We should never assume, of course, that a crisis in capitalism automatically benefits the left. Credit with the public has to be earned, not scooped like a windfall. Left and centre-left parties have obviously not done enough to win the trust of voters. But this failure does not explain the vehement rejection that many centre-left parties have experienced, the “shellacking” that Barack Obama spoke about after the Tea Party onslaught in the 2010 congressional election. Like the Keynesian response to the crash whose very success caused it to disappear from view, social democratic contributions to the stability of capitalism (the welfare state; managed and regulated markets) have undermined social democratic political support. Originally dedicated to advancing the democratic citizenship of the working class and the poor, social democracy has been victimized by its own relative success. When workers are integrated into the consumer society, they become consumers as well as citizens.

Capitalism and its favoured political instruments successfully appeal to consumers, while left parties flail about trying to find a handle on their former constituencies. Right-wing parties, especially in their contemporary populist guise, have framed a simple, perhaps simplistic, narrative that seems to work better than the confused and often contradictory stories on the left. Still, ideology has its limits. The very real pain experienced by those on the sharp edge of the Great Recession is surely leading to questions about the system that has so hurt them. According to a global poll (GlobeScan), 80 per cent of Americans in 2002 agreed that the free market was the best system; by 2010, that support had fallen to 59 per cent. There is room for centre-left parties to capture this discontent. The spectacular rise of the NDP to official opposition status in the 2011 Canadian election might seem a hopeful sign. But this came at the cost of splitting the opposition vote and handing the Conservatives a majority government based on 40 per cent of the popular vote. To displace the right, centre-left parties will have to come up with their own framing narrative that is more compelling than that so successfully devised by the defenders of the indefensible.

Michael Ignatieff,
True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada.
Toronto: Viking Canada, 2009.

Shortly after he fell into the leadership of the Liberal Party – by a curious acclamation in the midst of what was supposed to be a leadership contest – Michael Ignatieff disappeared for a time from public view. He was, his spokespersons indicated, completing a book, about himself and his Canadian family roots.

This news was greeted with snorts of derision from the boys and girls of the Ottawa press corps and the party hacks and flacks. “Iggy,” it seemed, was another inept intellectual like his predecessor, Stéphane Dion. Real politicians don’t write books; they should be out slapping backs, kissing babies and rousing the rank and file. The Conservatives swung into action with their negative ads: Ignatieff, the effete, elitist, espresso-drinking snob adored by the international jet set and the New York media, was “just in it for himself.” He was “just visiting” – an alien in Tim Horton’s Canada.

The picture of Ignatieff that emerges in True Patriot Love is far from the Tory caricature, but it is a bit fuzzy and unfocused in its presentation of self. While Ignatieff is not what his partisan enemies paint him as, we remain uncertain about what he is. Coming from a newly crowned leader of the opposition and potential prime minister, the book is an unusual production. Other political leaders have attracted campaign biographies written by journalists of varying degrees of sympathy and servitude toward their subject. But this is Ignatieff’s book, Ignatieff’s words, unfiltered except by whatever inner censor may now reside in the mind of the intellectual-turned-politician. The last PM with serious writing on his CV was Pierre Trudeau, but his independent writing was already behind him by the time he won the Liberal leadership. In becoming a practising politician, Ignatieff does not want to give up his academic credentials and his intellectual aura, even if it scores few points at the local Tim’s. The Toronto Liberals who engineered his rise to the top of the party must believe that the spirit of Trudeau can still move Canadians.

But True Patriot Love is also a hybrid product, falling short of the intellectual substance of earlier books like Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism (1994); The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in the Age of Terror (2004); The Rights Revolution (2000); or – going way back to the 1970s – the scholarly A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850. It is also an attempt to project himself to wider audiences than those that have attended to his earlier books and articles, to humanize (and politicize?) his image. In this he is at least partially successful.

It is not his first foray into first-person-plural autobiography. His earlier book of family recollections, The Russian Album (1987), looked at his paternal ancestors through his father George Ignatieff, a distinguished Canadian diplomat. The Ignatieffs were Czarist Russian émigrés, and The Russian Album examined Michael’s non-WASP roots in that other vast, snowy – but much more tortured and psychologically murky – northern country. The Russian Album won the Governor General’s Award. True Patriot Love will not win any literary awards, although it is not altogether lacking in literary merit. Ignatieff wrote about his Russian roots as an independent writer with literary licence. When he turns to his Canadian roots, it is as leader of the Liberal Party and contender for the prime ministerial throne. His “Canadian Album” is not just a family scrapbook; it is also a campaign kickoff. Hence the pointedly political, if not self-promoting, title.

Many will see this as a campaign pamphlet for the next election, and depending on the reader’s political perspective, quite different views have already appeared. Michael Valpy in the Globe and Mail has offered a panegyric, but Valpy is an embedded journalist in the Ignatieff inner circle. On the other hand, a brutally hostile review by Ron Graham, wittily entitled “Intellectual Sleight of Hand,” has appeared in the Literary Review of Canada.

I admit that I approached this book with scepticism. I have had my doubts about Ignatieff”s views on a range of issues. He was not my personal choice for Liberal leader. True Patriot Love has its faults, to be sure, but I was surprised to find it a worthwhile, even enjoyable, read.

As a public-intellectual-turned-politician, Ignatieff is poised somewhat awkwardly between conveying a serious message and conveying the kind of partisan platitudes and woolly conventional wisdom characteristic of campaign-speak. There is some of the wool here, but in quantities that are modest enough that only the most dedicated Ignatieff-haters are likely to be put off by it. And even where the wool is present, the links between it and the intellectual base are quite interesting. Ignatieff is now a full-blown pol, on the verge perhaps of attaining the highest political office in the country, but like Trudeau he brings with him a great deal of intellectual baggage which may help to illuminate the political postures that he has and will take. So what can we learn from this admittedly quickie book?1

One objection, egotism, can be set aside as irrelevant. To be sure, Ignatieff always starts with an “I.” This is very much a narcissistic, egotistical exercise, in which our man of the hour looks back to his bloodlines and extols his Family. The Family extends its Canadian roots back into the 19th century and has performed great public and intellectual service to the country. Now Michael Ignatieff, the fourth generation, is stepping forward to take his rightful place at the top. If that seems a bit grating, so what? All political leaders are, in only moderately varying degrees, egotists. If they were not, they would never make it to the upper ranks. The Tory attack ad that ends with “Ignatieff: just in it for himself has to be one of the most nakedly hypocritical political slogans ever offered the public. Something about pots and kettles?

Is the use of family lineage as support for ambition any more objectionable than, say, the smarmy invocation of the “People” as justification for posturing populists grabbing the prize? Is it undemocratic? The great democratic republic to the south has been through dynasties of Roosevelts, Kennedys, Clintons and Bushes, so I am prepared to examine the Ignatieff family credentials with an open mind.

Another objection is to Ignatieff the “elitist.” Ignatieff has a rejoinder to this, and to the charge of egotism, which is rather disarming:

What sustained illusion of self-importance propelled us to believe, generation after generation, that Canadians would care what we thought, would listen to what we had to say? Our Canada, after all, was not the Canada of the French, the Aboriginals or the new immigrants. It was white Anglo-Saxon Canada, and we made a myth of it and passed it off as if we had the right to speak for the whole country. I can see how vain and distorted our family myth-making could be, but for all that, I cannot disavow it. It is part of me.

So Ignatieff is very much the modern, contemporary New Age sensitive liberal aware of racism, sexism and the other sins of the patriarchal fathers. But – and this is what I find interesting, and even admirable – he does not duck familial or national history, even those aspects of it that might seem embarrassing to contemporary fashion, but instead admits that history is a part of him.

The lineage is indeed impressive: great-grandfather George Monro Grant, exponent of Imperial Federation and author of a first-hand account of crossing British North America coast to coast when it took canoes and horses, not airplanes or automobiles, to do it; followed by grandfather W.L. Grant, Principal of Upper Canada College and exponent of Canadian autonomy within the British Empire and Commonwealth. Ignatieff’s accounts of his 19th- and early-20th-century ancestors are affectionate and engaging, and informative for a present generation of Canadians with little sense or knowledge of our past. Ignatieff, among his other talents, is also a novelist, and his depiction of the romance between W.L. Grant and Ignatieff’s grandmother Maude comes with a novelist’s intuitive touch.

Given this heritage, and given the ease with which Ignatieff drops famous names (future Governor General Vincent Massey and future Prime Minister Mike Pearson pop up from time to time as family friends), Ignatieff has a powerful answer to the cheap Harperite ads about “Just Visiting.” Ignatieff as potential PM has a more impressive pure laine Canadian elite lineage than any previous PM. This in no way constitutes an argument for voting for him, of course, but it puts paid to this particular canard.

I have left for last the strangest and most puzzling of Ignatieff’s family legacies. After his great-grandparents and grandparents pass by the reader, “Uncle George,” the conservative Christian philosopher George Parkin Grant, of Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, Technology and Empire, Philosophy in a Mass Age, etc. fame, suddenly pops out of Ignatieff’s Liberal closet like some weird Tory drag queen.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, I used to teach a university course on “Canadian political thought.” The Grants, all three of them, but most especially the Lament for a Nation Grant, featured prominently in the course. All were, if anything, cast on the conservative side of the spectrum, nostalgic imperialists who understood Canada in the frame of empire, first British, then American. George Grant’s deeply pessimistic conservative nationalism (“the impossibility of conservatism in our era is the impossibility of Canada”) made the greatest impression on the students, and indeed on contemporary Canadian thought. Ironically, Grant helped inspire the left nationalism that flared in the Canada of the 1960s and 1970s, even though the new left radicals of that era were far removed from his Neoplatonic and Christian views, as they were from his defence of the John Diefenbaker Conservatives as the last hope, such as it was, of Canadian nationhood.

A yet greater irony was that the Liberals, whom George Grant cast as the arch-villains of continentalism, would emerge in 1988 as the political opponents of continental free trade, now championed by a Conservative Party that had become fully committed to a free-market liberalism antithetical to Grant’s worldview. Perhaps it had always been foolish of Grant to invest political parties – mere vote-hunting chameleons – with enduring philosophical identities. Grant’s intellectual legacy to Canadian politics was thus one of paradox and confusion.

Into which steps Nephew Michael, now transformed from an Uncle George–like stance as public intellectual to the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. What are we to make of the Liberal Ignatieff’s family and intellectual relationship with the archconservative Canadian philosopher? To answer that, we must first see what Michael himself makes of George.

A key event in the emergence of the new left nationalist movement was an anti–Vietnam War teach-in at the University of Toronto in 1965, where Grant, who had published Lament for a Nation the same year, addressed the large student audience and urged them to rage against the dying of the Canadian light in the gathering gloom of American imperial hegemony. His deep pessimism had led him to despair: “Hope in the future has been and is the chief opiate of modern life.” But this was lost on his audience, who rallied to what they took to be a call to renew Canadian nationhood.

Grant had been invited by a young student radical, his nephew Michael (who shared billing as U of T activist star with Bob Rae). With mingled admiration and bemusement, Ignatieff remembers “the impression made by this gigantic figure, who appeared like a bearded patriarch” – certainly an Old Testament prophet.

But Grant’s prophecies of doom brought unanticipated consequences, as Ignatieff explains. Grant was wrong to believe that what made Canada distinctive was only its fading Britishness: our myths of origin, writes the Russian Ignatieff, are “plural, not singular.” Grant “gave up on his country at exactly the moment when it roused itself to action.” Here Ignatieff refers to a litany of Liberal innovations under his old family friend, Mike Pearson, and later Pierre Trudeau: bilingualism; the flag; the modern welfare state, including universal health insurance that distinguished Canada sharply from the United States; the Charter of Rights; and an immigration policy that opened Canada to the world as never before. He also mentions the Quiet Revolution and the affirmation of a distinctive Quebec identity, and goes on to suggest that “the remarkable feature of modernity is not the erosion of local, national attachments, but, on the contrary, the reassertion of ethnicity, language and race as markers of national identity.”

So Uncle George was “wrong. Wrong. Wrong again.” The irony is that even as he was wrong, he helped inspire the changes in attitude that made his pessimism less relevant. So like the rest of us, Ignatieff can’t quite get the crazy old patriarch out of his hair. He goes back over George’s troubled youth, especially his time in England during the war when as a conscientious objector he drifted from attending small left-wing cells to a religious epiphany while walking his bicycle through a gate. Ignatieff tries to understand what was going on inside the head of this shambling, distracted figure, but can never quite manage.

There is a note here as well of a certain family disapproval, including that of his mother and sister. George’s sudden public religiosity seems to have been perceived as a bit vulgar, out of line with the reserved, self-contained Grant family tradition. His disdain for the obligations of public service that the rest of the family respected also created a distance. Ironically, although Michael’s father came from a very different, Russian, background, with his spirit of public service and dedication to the service of Canadian diplomacy he may have exemplified the Grant ethos better than Uncle George.

However critical Michael might be of his uncle’s ideas, there is a curious parallel in his own career. After completing his postgraduate education, young Michael made a daring decision not to seek a tenured academic position, but instead moved to the U.K. to pursue a risky career as a freelance public intellectual – in other words to eschew security to work with ideas. Uncle George would have approved, even if he did not approve of the ideas. But then, after many years, Michael moved into the university, and then into public service in Canadian politics: full circle back into the traditions of the Grant and Ignatieff families.

There is a touching account of a last meeting between nephew and uncle in 1983. By now George and his wife Sheila had become vociferous opponents of abortion, a source of some embarrassment for the liberal Michael: “So as we had done all our lives, the conservative uncle and his liberal nephew skated around the chasm that had opened up between our sides of the family.” Then Michael recalled a memory of childhood intimacy with his grandmother, George’s mother, “the last in which I had a direct connection with the traditions described in this book.” The old man suddenly “crumpled” at this memory of his mother, exclaiming “in a voice of pain and pure longing, ‘Oh, God, I wish that had happened to me!’” Taken aback, Michael learned something he says he needed to know, that “family traditions are more than arguments with the dead … A tradition is also a channel of memory through which fierce and unrequited longings surge, longings that define and shape a whole life.”

We can leave it there, in all its irresolution. To his credit, Ignatieff does not reach for the simplistic, sentimental moral lesson that might have been drawn by a less reflective politician with an eye for the voter. Appropriately for a philosophical liberal, a certain ambiguity remains, and a choice of futures.

Each of Ignatieff’s forebears shares one salient feature with Michael: they all spent time in the U.K. but came back to Canada with a renewed commitment to this country that was deepened by having lived abroad. Ignatieff points to the evolution over time of successive generations conceiving Canada in ever broader terms, from Imperial Federation to Commonwealth autonomy to autonomy from the American empire to – well, whatever Ignatieff makes of his opportunities if he gets them.

Here he throws out some campaign planks, like an east-west energy grid. He also champions a new activist Canadian-driven international role that would come out from under the American shadow. George Grant was wrong about the inevitable hegemony of America, Ignatieff states; instead we are at the end of the American empire, and we Canadians “owe it to ourselves to find other partners to build the kind of international order we need.” Somewhat alarmingly, he even suggests that we should form our own “coalitions of the willing.” This reference comes from the former Harvard professor who notoriously, in the New York Times, offered an intellectual rationale for Bush’s catastrophically foolish Iraq invasion, and then apologized for his error in the same paper after going into Canadian politics.

Uncle George may have been wrong about the inevitable absorption of Canada, his little clump of outdated Tory tradition, by the irresistible rise of the universal homogenous state to the south. But Nephew Michael may be just as mistaken in propounding a muscular liberalism with a “Responsibility to Protect” that justifies “Empire Lite,” in which the West intervenes around the world with only the purest of humane liberal intentions to stop bad guys and replace tyrannical, genocidal regimes with “democracy.” We have seen some of the early returns from this campaign, and they are less than encouraging. Canadians need to know just what Ignatieff plans for a Canada forming coalitions of the willing. The international order we need, he writes, would have “effective international law, responsible international development assistance and a fair world trading system.” Of course, no one would call for ineffective law, irresponsible development and unfair trade. But how do we get from here to there? Will the face of Ignatieff’s Canada abroad be Dr. Norman Bethune or Gen. Rick Hillier?

It is difficult to make up one’s mind finally about True Patriot Love. There is a bit too much platitudinous padding and self-advertisement, which I have tended to skate by in this review. After nearly 200 pages, I am still not sure what kind of PM this guy will really make. Even as a campaign pamphlet, though, this is reasonably likeable. I like it much better than his book on political ethics in the age of terror, where I find a great deal to disagree with, sometimes strongly. Still, his arguments in that book are worthy of serious contestation, which is more than I could say about the smug homilies of Bush and Harper on the same subject. And the book’s title does offer a cute slogan for the next campaign: “Vote Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil.”

Continue reading “A Likeable Campaign Pamphlet – and a Bit More”

It is very rare these days to find a political leader whose words can become forces in the real world with the capacity to make people think anew and perhaps even to move them to act. In the age of spin, leaders’ words are like processed McNuggets, occasionally achieving an Award for Eloquence with a slogan punchy enough to momentarily penetrate the consciousness of voters, who are judged to have roughly the attention span of a gerbil. Every word is market-researched by polls and focus groups. Desperation would grip any contemporary spin doctor faced with a draft of one of Winston Churchill’s great wartime speeches: “What? You promise them ‘blood, sweat and tears’! Winnie, are you, like, totally nuts? You want to get voted off the island?”

Once there were American presidents whose words mattered: Adams, Jefferson, Wilson, Roosevelt and, above all, Lincoln. Lincoln’s words still resonate powerfully, not just because of his eloquence but because of the clarity and imagination with which he grappled with great questions, some of which are with us yet. Mere eloquence detached from compelling logic and argument is not enough. Ronald Reagan was an actor who read his glib lines with conviction, but the lines merit no more than the odd late-night rerun on the Turner Classic Movies channel. Words can sing, but if they are to soar they must have substance.

Barack Obama came to office armed with formidable eloquence, drawing in part on the remarkable oral tradition of African-American religion. But Obama’s words convey more than unerring cadence and rhythm. He is also saying things that bear serious attention, and saying them in ways that will endure long past his presidency. We should listen carefully and consider his message, which is one of subtle subversion of long-held tyrannies of habit, prejudice and ideology.

It is ironic that the very people he particularly seeks to touch with his words – conservative fundamentalists from darkest America to darkest Islam – are now frantically attempting to shout him down, to drown out his message of conciliation, compromise and cooperation. They have no choice if they wish to remain true to their unreflective certitudes. Obama’s message is in his method, and his method is to engage his enemies on their terms, in their language, and to ask them to reconsider their positions in relation to their values. What could be more subversive, literally, than that?

This strategy of subversion is also radical in the context of the deep and corrosive polarization that the American Right has imposed on public space. Under Bush, the Republican right wing maintained a partisan death grip on the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The media were largely under ideological occupation by the neocons and evangelicals whose influence shifted the centre of discussion far to the right. Anyone caught on the “left” (a loose term in America) was marginalized and trivialized, if not silenced altogether.

Nor was this ideological war limited to the domestic scene. When Bush declared after 9/11 that “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” he drew a line at least as sharp as the East-West divide in the Cold War, and one with particular implications for the Muslim world.

Facing this ferocity of partisanship in his run for the nomination, and with his own baggage of “otherness” in his innate liberalism and, more nastily, in the colour of his skin, Obama chose a risky stance, summed up in his famous campaign phrase about not being interested in red states or blue states but in the United States. He clearly understood, as some liberal idealists do not, that to adopt an all-out attack mode against a Right so hegemonic in the society and its political institutions would be suicidal. He instead focused on the glaring deficiencies of the Republican project in terms of the real, practical situations of ordinary Americans. After eight years of neocon ideology posing as public policy, and especially after the dramatic collapse of Bush’s casino capitalism in late 2008, his practical critiques found growing resonance.

Beyond this, he was also running a very different kind of campaign, in which he targeted moderate Republicans and independents (not to speak of conservative Democrats) who had been swayed by the conservative social and cultural themes of the Right. Look, he was saying, I see the world through your eyes; I share your Christian values; I worry about the same things that you worry are threatening the American way of life. But the Republican prescription for these ills has simply not worked. Hatred, suspicion and division are not the way forward. Let’s call off the culture wars that have so corroded the fabric of civility and trust. There is a new American consensus out there, just waiting for the politicians to recognize it and move on to a more constructive agenda.

A number of Obama’s speeches make this strategy clear.

His “race” speech during the campaign for the nomination became a classic of American oratory the moment it was delivered. Obama took on the issue of race in America from the perspective of his own African-American identity and history, but he was also careful to speak across the racial divide. He asked white Americans to see the world through black eyes and black Americans to see the world through white eyes. Since the late 1960s, the Republicans had been successfully playing the race card against the Democrats. Obama took that card away.

His Cairo speech to the Muslim world in June 2009 spoke to Muslims in the words of the Qur’an, judiciously chosen not to lecture Muslims patronizingly as Bush had done, but to engage them constructively across the divide of faith while at the same time honestly facing up to the past errors of the West. It marked a shift from the “hard power” failures of his predecessors to a “soft power” approach. The aim is to isolate further the zealot core of violent Islamist fundamentalists from the Muslim mainstream – not to speak of isolating the fundamentalists in Israel equally committed to ceaseless conflict with the Palestinians.

His Notre Dame speech in May addressed the hot button issue of abortion. Obama asked his Catholic audience, “As citizens … how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?” He asked his listeners to remember that the “ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt … It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us.” This doubt “should humble us … and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness.” He appealed to the Catholic social conscience to work to undermine the social and economic conditions that made abortion a necessary option.

His speech on health care reform to Congress in September was addressed to politicians as well as voters. But the strategy was the same: gear down the divisive rhetoric and focus on what is held in common as a basis for action. Unfortunately, this speech followed an incendiary summer in which the Right on the airwaves and in the streets, and Republicans in office across the land, orchestrated a recklessly irresponsible campaign of lies about health care reform (“death panels”! Canadian horrors!). Obama’s mild defence of a “public option” in the face of hysterical charges of communism appeared fainthearted to liberals, but he was still trying for common ground – especially with the more conservative members of his own party in Congress.

There is a common thread that runs through all of his words. Obama strives to synthesize the best of both sides in the ideological divide, to build a liberal conservatism and a conservative liberalism. Put baldly, this may sound like no more than the old “pragmatism” blarney that politicians fall back on to cover their own lack of convictions or ideas. But I think if we consider Obama’s words carefully, it is much more than that. There is a recognition that in democratic societies there are always deep divisions, and the freer the society the more passionately differences are held. If we want to move forward and confront the big issues that demand solutions, using the values of one group as a whip against others will be counterproductive. This was the catastrophic failure of the American Right, even when armed with all the weapons of hegemonic domination of American life.

If the narrow ideological zealotry of the Republican minority and the hysterical fearmongering of the Rush Limbaugh rabid Right has a rational design, it must be to force Obama off his message and to truly polarize political debate. If relentless negative rejection of all desperately needed reform eventually forces Obama into actually playing the militant culture warrior role that right-wing caricatures have falsely portrayed, then the Right will have won.

What a hollow, mean victory that will be.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party has now been in office for more than four years. This is the normal lifespan for a majority government, but Harper’s government has been a minority throughout this period.

There is a previous model for such a record: Lester Pearson led the Liberals into office with a minority in 1963, followed, like Harper, by a second minority in an election he called two years later. The analogy, however, ends with the superficial resemblance. Both Harper and Pearson had to manage rancorous minority parliaments, but they did so in very different styles.

Pearson employed his skills as a diplomat and conciliator to achieve major policy innovations out of parliamentary chaos: Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan and the Canadian flag are among his accomplishments. Harper will be remembered not for diplomacy but for his belligerent insistence on acting as if he wields an unchallenged majority. Twice he has simply shut down Parliament, first to avoid facing a vote of confidence he was certain to lose, and again to put off a censure of his government by a parliamentary majority. Yet apart from damaging the fabric of parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister has precious little to point to in the way of legislative accomplishments.

His government passed an Accountability Act that is a joke set against the government’s own record of obfuscation and opacity. He bowed to his populist Reform wing by passing a fixed-date election law, and then immediately broke it by forcing an election in 2008. His government has – just as violent crime rates are falling steadily – loudly proclaimed a set of tough-on-crime initiatives. But it has systematically undermined its own agenda by constantly dissolving or proroguing Parliament and setting the legislative clock back to zero, and then encouraged the scrapping of a long-gun registry that is strongly supported by the RCMP and big-city police chiefs.

To make matters downright odd, the achievement the Harper government has claimed most frequently to its credit is a straight steal from its centre-left opponents: a Keynesian-inspired, government-led, debt-financed economic stimulus plan to combat the Great Recession. So leftish has “Canada’s Economic Action Plan” seemed to right-thinking supporters that the Fraser Institute has denounced it as undermining private-sector recovery. Harper, for his part, has had to attack this virtual Conservative Party think tank (starring luminaries such as Preston Manning and Mike Harris) as “completely wrong.”

The ironies run deeper yet. Officials from other countries and the world financial media have rightly heaped encomiums on Canada since the onset of the Great Recession: Canada alone got it right; Canada’s is the economy that works. Harper and his Finance Minister have understandably basked in this praise and tried to turn it into domestic political gold. But there is a problem. All the things that Canada got right (budget surpluses and debt retirement; putting the Canada Pension Plan on a sustainable basis into the mid-21st century; more exacting financial regulation and restraint on bank mergers; responsible mortgage and housing policies that prevented a housing bubble) can be traced to the Liberal governments of the 1990s.

So what do we make of a Prime Minister who comes in as the most hard-nosed ideological conservative ever to hold the office, and after four years emerges as a born-again Keynesian whose proudest policy accomplishment is to have stolen the clothes of the despised Liberals? Playing the political transvestite has cost Harper surprisingly little in the alienation of his own base. But there are other, less savoury, dimensions to his conduct of office that the big policy picture obscures. There is a pattern in this government of advancing conservatism by stealth, rather than by open policy confrontation.

The stealth strategy involves working away in the shadows, in all those areas that tend to lie out of camera range. Thus, the government appoints conservatives to replace liberals and progressives on boards, commissions, advisory panels and the like. Conservative views and values are spread where more moderate and liberal views previously prevailed – especially where social conservatives, shut out of open policy influence by nervous Tory eyes on the polls, can instead work at changing the terms of debate, for example on reproductive technologies while Harper has shut the door on reopening the abortion law debate.

At the same time, progressive voices within and on the margins of government are silenced. This is done by imposing gag orders on public servants (especially on climate change), closing down programs that fund progressive causes and mobilizing “Tim Horton’s” public opinion to attack those progressive voices that do assert themselves. The strategy is a kind of right-wing Gramscianism: aim for ideological hegemony, and the rest will fall into place.

When the strategy hits resistance, it is not a pretty picture. We can start with public servants who offend. Linda Keen was sacked from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and publicly smeared, simply for doing her job. The Chief Electoral Officer has clashed with the Tories and been publicly maligned. The activist Chair of the RCMP Complaints Commission was not renewed. The Chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission who had initiated investigation of the Afghan detainee torture issue was neither extended nor replaced. Highly respected senior public servants have been forced out: the Clerk of the Privy Council and the deputy ministers of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Transport have all retired unexpectedly, without explanation. It is widely believed that they all made the mistake of crossing the Tories, and had to fall on their swords.

Nowhere has a harsher light been cast on stealth machinations than in the sordid story of Rights and Democracy, the supposedly independent human rights advocacy group set up by the Mulroney government and initially headed by Ed Broadbent. Carefully selected Harper appointees set out on a witch hunt against funding any groups even mildly critical of Israel, and succeeded in bitterly dividing the institute. Early in 2010, its President died suddenly of a heart attack at age 66 after vicious internal strife had boiled over at a meeting. His widow points an angry finger at the Harper appointees. Staff have been fired, and the offices burgled and files stolen. The Tories have responded by appointing as new President a Quebec Tory who has warned about the threat posed by Muslim immigrants to Quebec culture.

This thuggish behaviour is in keeping with the Harperites’ self-image as outsiders defending an embattled beachhead in a hostile Liberal Ottawa. The Prime Minister’s Office is the control centre of the most hierarchically disciplined administration ever. Harper is a notorious control freak, but the extraordinary degree of centralization reflects a Tory need to fight a military-tyle campaign around every issue. It is reminiscent of the presidency of that other pathological outsider, Richard Nixon, whose no-holds-barred war on opponents ended, we might remember, rather badly.

The merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties has been a limited but significant electoral success, securing successive Tory minorities. The dominant Reform/Alliance wing out of which Harper emerged has all but submerged the old PC wing, but not in the way that many anticipated. Radical economic and social conservatism has not, for the most part, made its way into law. Nor has populist reform of the political process. The Alberta-based Harperites have instead revivified another, less admirable, prairie populist tradition: “plebiscitary democracy.” In Alberta, the old Social Credit regime, followed after 1971 by the PCs, established a direct link between leader and voters, cutting out or marginalizing mediating institutions and processes. Unchallenged majorities in the legislature were matched by party control over all aspects of governance. Elections became simply “yes/no” plebiscites on continuing one-party rule.

In their contempt for Parliament as an institution, and in their systematic attacks on independence from politics in the public service, the Harperites are striving to achieve this kind of direct control over all aspects of government. It is exactly what one would expect from a party that sees enemies everywhere, in the legislative and judicial branches of government, in the bureaucracy, in the media. Steal your enemy’s policies, if it serves your electoral advantage, but cut them off at the knees so they can’t pursue you.

The phony crime agenda provides a model of this style of governance. The puny legislative output is the Tories’ own fault, but Harper blames the Senate (which is simply doing its job by looking over the government’s legislation before passing it) for holding it back – and then throws in the Reform-style promise of an elected Senate as the antidote to “Liberal” obstruction in the upper house. In reality, he has used his years in office to pack the Senate with a majority of Tory appointees, all the while denouncing patronage appointments as a discredited antidemocratic Liberal practice.

He knows full well that he can never reform the Senate without the constitutional agreement of the provinces, which will be difficult to achieve. But it is highly doubtful that he even wants to fulfill this promise. Elected senators with a popular mandate of their own, whatever their party stripe, would not be beholden to the Prime Minister. Making patronage appointments in the name of democracy, he has achieved exactly what he wants: an upper chamber at his command, even without a majority in the Commons. It’s a good bet that it will stay that way as long as Harper remains in office.

The good news for Canadians is that authoritarian tendencies in the plebiscitary democratic model come most readily to the fore when the leader commands an unchallenged majority in the elected chamber, and Harper has yet to achieve this. That is why the constitutional confrontation between Parliament and Prime Minister over the release of documents in the Afghan detainee torture issue is of crucial importance. If Parliament wins this test of wills, parliamentary democracy can survive. If Harper wins, parliamentary democracy will be on life-support, at best. The stakes are high indeed.

“A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.”

—H.L. Mencken

North Americans voted this fall.

Both American and Canadian elections featured conservative regimes fighting to maintain their hold on office even as the consequences of conservative policies made a mockery of conservative beliefs. Both elections were overshadowed by the rising tsunami of a compounded global crisis: looming environmental catastrophe matched by the collapse of huge financial institutions.

The elections were like games played on the deck of vessels that are being sucked inexorably toward a whirlpool. And the players, especially those in office, but not excluding their opponents, seemed worse than witless in the face of impending disasters. If anything, they seemed bent on outright perversity. Decision time in North America was a major test of democratic institutions. The prognosis is not encouraging.

Americans were facing the most serious decision of the postwar era. The full Bush catastrophe has hit the global fan. A vast empire of debt has been built on deepening federal government deficits ballooning into a multitrillion-dollar national debt (much of it owed to the Chinese and Arab oil sheikhs), not to speak of a gigantic imbalance with the rest of the world.

A world built on borrowed money does not stop with government. Growing income inequality (75 per cent of the economic gains made during the Bush presidency have accrued to the top 1 per cent of superrich income earners) was masked for years by easy consumer credit, much of that leveraged on housing assets (consumer debt is between $2 and $3 trillion). The housing bubble, itself grossly inflated by unsustainable subprime mortgage lending, burst. Ordinary folks could no longer keep their heads above the rising tide of red ink. A deregulated financial sector that had built castles in the air out of securitized debt on the basis of the inane assumption that everything would continue to expand indefinitely imploded, sucking much of the globalized financial sector down with it. In the usual manner of Wall Street intelligence, greed turned to fear, and fear turned to a panicky worldwide stampede of the capitalist herd. Collateral damage to the innocents cannot even begin to be measured.

The first answer of the Bush White House was massive bailouts: socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. Then, as the crisis spun toward the abyss, relief, temporary at least, was provided by a new plan instigated by the Labour Prime Minister of Britain, and copied dutifully by Washington, to take government equity positions in failing banks (nationalization by any other name). Under extreme duress, Bush was repudiating Reaganism, his party’s cherished ruling ideology of deregulation and letting “free markets” run unchecked, and turning to – Roosevelt and the spirit of the New Deal.

Since it was the Republicans who were squarely responsible for the mess in the first place, in an election year they should have been run out of Washington by an enraged public, and counted themselves lucky not to find their heads fixed on pikes.

Yet John McCain, whose idea of getting out of the hole his own party has dug is to dig even deeper and faster (more, bigger tax cuts for the rich!), was not entirely thrown out of the race with Barack Obama. Understanding that elections are not rational mechanisms, the Republicans (who held the executive, legislative and judicial branches in a death grip for eight years) came up with the brazen strategy of running against Washington! With the moose-huntin’ hockey mom Sarah Palin on the ticket to fling charges that Obama was “palling around with terrorists,” the Republicans posed as populist mavericks riding in to right the very wrongs that they themselves had brought down on the nation.

Neither candidate was willing to acknowledge that his ambitious promises might have to be curtailed in the face of the gravest crisis since the Great Depression. Neither would even recognize the massive debt problem that weighs down the body politic. Global climate and energy crisis? No problem: it’s “drill, baby, drill!” Even ultra-right-wing Texan oil magnate T. Boone Pickens deems offshore drilling as an answer to the energy crisis “pure moonshine.” No matter: polls shot up for McCain from the first mention of more drilling, and Democrats fell obediently into line.

This is a spectacle so loony that one has to go back to that mordant critic of democracy, H.L. Mencken, who confessed that he enjoyed democracy immensely: “It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.” Given that the stakes are higher than in Mencken’s day, it is harder to be amused.

Turning to Canada, our neocons have only been in for less than three years. But Stephen Harper, who believes in letting market forces play unimpeded, has done much through tax cuts and giveaways to the provinces to run federal government surpluses close to deficit, thus crippling the capacity of the government to respond to economic crisis. In the face of the economic storm that struck in the midst of the election campaign, the PM came up with Marie Antoinette advice to fearful Canadians: let them buy stocks!

The opposition was no better: Stéphane Dion had a “Plan” – to call a meeting. Jack Layton threatened to soak the big corporations, knowing he would never have to follow through. The political cupboard was bare of ideas.

Midway through the campaign, Harper tried to set off an American-style culture war by sneering at “rich” artists who should be cut off the public purse and threatening to throw 14-year-old offenders into adult prisons. Instead of winning the Tim Horton’s vote, he only succeeded in shooting himself in the foot in Quebec where the Conservatives proved to have a tin ear. On the issue of climate change, Harper, who once declared global warming a socialist plot, proved more successful in advancing his real interest, which seems to be shielding the environmental catastrophe of the Alberta oil sands from interference.

The Liberals came up with a climate plan so rational that it terrified the public into the arms of the Conservatives. The Green Shift would use the tax system to make the market reflect the cost of pollution, and offset carbon taxes with income tax breaks geared to those who need relief the most. A range of independent experts, from conservative economists to environmental activists, praised the plan as a sane first step toward meeting the challenge.

It would be nice to live in a country that would welcome a calm, reasoned debate on such a serious idea. But alas, this is Canada.

The Conservatives, who spent the past year running demeaning attack ads framing Dion as an incompetent wimp, shifted to framing him as a dangerous crank. The Green Shift, said Harper (who never takes the high road if a low road is available), was an “insane” plan to “tax everything”, “screw everybody”, plunge the country into ruin, and even destroy national unity (I’m not making this up).

For all that Canadians have professed in recent years to be deeply concerned about the environment and prepared to sacrifice to do something about it, it seems that as soon as a carbon tax is raised their brains freeze up. The British Columbia Liberal government has pioneered a modest carbon tax, with offsets. The B.C. NDP has tossed away all its alleged green credentials and taken up a right-wing-style “axe the tax” campaign. The result: the NDP has surpassed the Liberals in the polls. This lesson was not lost on Jack Layton, who foolishly played into the hands of Stephen Harper by joining in the hysteria against the Green Shift. The results became clear on election night, especially in the anti-Liberal backlash in B.C. and suburban Ontario. The lesson is even clearer: a carbon tax is politically toxic, and thus there is no possibility in the near future of a rational debate on dealing with climate change.

Harper asked the Canadian electorate a silly question (give me a majority since I have made sure that minority government can’t work) and got back a silly answer (another minority in which all parties were to some degree losers). The most telling observation was that a record low number of electors (58 per cent) even bothered to cast ballots.

Conservatism was once a disposition that stressed prudence as the primary political virtue and looked to wise leadership that would rise above popular delusions. Today it is conservatives who recklessly promote divisiveness as an electoral strategy, a resentful populism that labels anyone who opposes them “elitists.” Above all, they play on fear – of terrorists, of crime, of taxes.

The last word goes to Mencken: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Conservatives have usually played this game well; their opponents have been at best evasive, and at worst incompetent. The result is a degraded democratic process.

The contrast could not be greater.

Shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush declared, in apocalyptic tones, a “Global War on Terror” (GWOT). The GWOT, successor to the Cold War as the grand strategic doctrine of global conflict, prevailed for eight years. Then, shortly after Barack Obama took office in 2009, his White House sent out a directive specifying that “this administration prefers to avoid using the term . Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.’”

That this signals much more than a mere change in bureaucratic nomenclature was starkly evident only two days into the new administration when the President swept away key components of Bush’s GWOT: the infamous prison camp at Guantánamo was to be closed, and the CIA network of secret prisons abroad was to be terminated. Moreover, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations (justifying torture and other human rights abuses and the limitless expansion of executive powers) issued by lawyers in the Bush Administration after 9/11.

Obama had campaigned on a message of “hope.”While this might be dismissed as political rhetoric, the marker of hope was in fact a philosophical challenge to the foundation of Bush’s global crusade. For everything advanced in the name of fighting terrorism under Bush had been premised on fear. “Terrorists” (Muslim/Arab) replaced “Communists” (Russian/Chinese) as the fearful Other that threatened the Free World both externally and internally. Evil was at the door and under the bed, and its armies were immensely resourceful and cunning. The very essence of freedom, democracy and Our Way of Life was in imminent peril.

So dire was the threat that the most extreme countermeasures were required. As the real architect of the GWOT, Vice President Dick Cheney, argued, America would have to “go over to the Dark Side” to beat the terrorists. Moreover, as with the Cold War, there could be no neutrality. As Bush memorably declared, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” As America’s increasingly disconcerted allies learned, “with us” meant “under us.”

Just as the Cold War had been sponsored by a military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about, the GWOT was backed by a security-industrial complex of companies selling technological fixes for security threats that they themselves were warning against, or gaining contracts for private security services for the U.S. government’s antiterrorist operations and military interventions abroad, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

All this machinery ran on the fuel of fear. To be sure, the terrorist bogey was not conjured out of nothing. The 9/11 attacks did happen and almost 3,000 innocent people lost their lives, with more to follow in attacks on Madrid, London and other locations around the world. Democratic states were bound to respond strongly to such a violent challenge to their very raison d’être, the security of their citizens. Terrorism thus remains a very serious law enforcement and security problem for governments everywhere. But a law enforcement and security problem does not add up to a global war that would define an entire era. In declaring and conducting the GWOT, the Bush Administration overreached itself catastrophically. Its successor is left to clear the rubble.

Were Cheney and the neocons who ran the Bush Administration sincere in their apocalyptic prognosis? Perhaps. There must have been a great deal of self-delusion in a worldview that could bring about such calamitous results on all fronts. But there was a great deal of self-interest involved as well: the economic interests of the security-industrial complex and, most clearly, the political interests of the Republican Party, which was able to parlay 9/11 into Bush’s 2004 reelection and a continued Republican lock on all three branches of government. The GWOT paid off handsomely for Bush and company – until its final collapse. But the fear on which it ran still remains, some of it justified, some of it deliberately kept alive by those who have benefited from it.

In the immediate frightened aftermath of 9/11, Western publics were anxious for reassuringly resolute words and actions by their leaders, and thus a ready market for Bush in his momentary Churchillian guise. But the GWOT doctrine was from its outset an incoherent set of ideas, phony nostrums with pernicious consequences.

First, consider the sheer inanity of the term itself: a war on terror/terrorism. You can’t declare war on an abstract noun. States declare and make war on other states. Terrorism is a technique, not an enemy. If Franklin Roosevelt had followed Bush’s formula after Pearl Harbor in 1941, he would have declared war not on Japan, but on air power!

Roosevelt did declare war on Japan. This war had an end point in Japan’s surrender and the occupation of Japan by the American armed forces. There can be no such end point in the GWOT because the terrorists, as nonstate actors, hold no territory to surrender to occupation, nor any basis for negotiating a peace treaty that would conditionally retain their nonexistent sovereignty over their nonexistent homeland. A war with no end point, and thus no exit, served the Bushites well. It promised an unlimited supply of blank cheques from Congress and the American public for whatever the administration wished to get away with in the name of prosecuting the “war,” and for riding roughshod over the Constitution in the name of “wartime” emergency.

How do you conduct a “war” against an enemy who has no home address? Bush answered that difficulty by striking out at targets that did have addresses. First was Afghanistan, for which there was some rationale inasmuch as the terrorists who had struck the United States were being offered shelter and support by the Taliban regime. However, after the Taliban were removed, U.S. attention waned. Eight years later, Osama bin Laden is still at large, still conducting a global terrorist network, still without an address (although perhaps with an area code for the caves of Waziristan). On top of this, the Taliban are back, big time – as 117 dead Canadian soldiers (at the time of writing) can sadly testify.

Attention to Afghanistan waned because the Bush-Cheney neocons decided in their wisdom to invade Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, whose address they did know, and who they said was behind 9/11 (false) and was hiding WMDs (nonexistent). These follies were justified under the claim that we were fighting them “over there” to prevent having to fight them “over here.” As a strategic doctrine, this was nonsense, with serious consequences for neglect of security at home, evident in the incompetent handling of Hurricane Katrina.

The Bush Administration also neglected the hard task of marshalling multilateral cooperation in combating the real terrorist networks, all the while adding fuel to Muslim rage at Western policy and adding recruits to the terrorist cause, both in the Muslim world and in Muslim communities in the West. The GWOT mentality gravely damaged American foreign policy in the Muslim world, especially around the crucial Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Labelling opponents of the Israeli occupation, including those like Hamas and Hezbollah who were democratically elected, “terrorists” with whom you must never talk may please Israel but is an impenetrable barrier to progress toward peace in the region.

Perhaps the worst result of this era is the poisonous legacy of Cheney’s “Dark Side”: Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, extraordinary rendition, torture and human rights abuses form a dark stain on the reputation of a nation that likes to think of itself as the shining beacon of freedom.

Barack Obama is busy trying to erase as much of Bush’s mess as he can in an orderly and reasonable time frame. It remains to be seen how successful he will be in turning eight years of folly around. Getting out of Iraq and extending the hand of friendship to the Muslim world are a good start.

But even as the spectre of the GWOT begins to recede in the land that spawned it, it lingers on in Canada. Under former management, Canada had the good sense to stay out of the Iraq folly. Under Stephen Harper, Canada clings to the Bush legacy. Conservatives insist, with no reasonable supporting case, on the need to reintroduce the controversial preventive arrest and investigative hearing powers in the Anti-terrorism Act that had been allowed by Parliament to lapse. Although Harper’s government did vindicate and compensate Maher Arar, Canadian victim of American extraordinary rendition (while blaming the Liberals), it has failed to respond to the Arar Commission’s recommendations for the much needed overhauling of the accountability process for national security.

Shamefully, Harper has stonewalled the entire opposition, the Canadian Bar Association, civil liberties groups and leading newspapers by refusing to bring home child soldier Omar Khadr from the horror of Guantánamo. His government has kept another Canadian rendition victim, Abousfian Abdelrazik, in Kafkaesque limbo in the Canadian embassy in Sudan on utterly specious, derisory grounds. And Immigration Minister Jason Kenney made Canada an international laughingstock by banning British MP George Galloway, who had freely visited Bush’s America. In all these cases, the object appears to be to pander to the Tory right-wing base at the expense of civil liberties and basic decency.

The politically bankrupt and morally squalid GWOT is being buried in Obama’s America, but it is being kept on life support in Harper’s Canada.

Who would have thought that the new millennium would begin with jihads, holy wars, fatwas, inquisitions and slaughter of the innocents in the name of God?

Almost four centuries since the Catholic Church condemned Galileo for heresy; a century and a half after Darwin’s Origin of Species, the new millennium ushers in religious disputation that rivals that of the darkest of ages past – yet in a new and strange language in which ancient shibboleths come clothed in the guise of threatening modernity.

The iconic moment that has defined our era was the destruction of the symbols of contemporary global economic and military power by Islamic jihadists chanting centuries-old incantations. Yet these jihadists were university graduates with the technical skills to pilot hijacked jetliners as precisely targeted weapons of mass destruction. In the United States, born-again evangelicals spread an atavistic antiscientific gospel through the most sophisticated modern techniques of mass communication.

It is easy to grow too apocalyptic. The 9/11 terrorists’ dream of a medieval caliphate from Spain to Indonesia has not progressed one inch toward realization since 2001. 
A Republican candidate for president who insisted that the constitution be made compliant with Holy Scripture has lost, and the successful candidate echoes none of his evangelical ravings.

In the West, at least among those who read books other than the Bible, a ferocious intellectual counterattack has been launched against the new religiosity. Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great are among a wave of attacks on religion from a forthrightly atheist perspective. As a lifelong atheist, I should be enthusiastically joining the insurgency. Challenge religion not with another faith, but with no faith.

The atheist soldiers have my good wishes. But something is missing in their manifestos. Dawkins the scientist demolishes the arguments for the “God Hypothesis.” His logic is compelling – to those who already think like him. I doubt that he has convinced a single believer (assuming any believers actually read Dawkins, as opposed to denouncing him). Arguments from within reason cannot touch faith, unless faith is already shaky.

The reductionist attack on belief misses most of what religion sets out to answer. Its purpose never was to find the most plausible scientific hypothesis to explain existence, but rather to answer other questions that are prescientific and yet survive the age of science. Dawkins has been savagely attacked not only by believers but also by Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, who scorns his incomprehension of the cultural richness of religious meaning. Dawkins, he argues, simply misses the point.

It is an elusive point to those outside the faith. From the first childhood moments when I began to think for myself, I rejected the inherited notion of God. I have known many people who have grown out of their inherited religion, or have thrown it over later in life. Sometimes they become particularly zealous atheists who show no mercy to their former faith, like the ex-Communists in the book The God that Failed. But they at least have more than an inkling of what it was to have believed in a God. For me the very concept has always been a mystery. Like Dawkins and other atheist writers, I have no idea what it is like at the emotional, visceral level to live in a world infused with the certainty of an omnipresent, omniscient intelligence that was, and is, and will always be.

One inner voice tells me that this is an intellectual strength: I am too smart to fall for the superstitions of the many. Another, less arrogant, voice suggests that it is a weakness, disabling me from any empathetic sense of thoughts and feelings that have been characteristic in one form or another of every society in human history.

That atheism will always be a minority persuasion is a hard reality which we atheists must face. In the 20th century there were attempts by Communist regimes to establish atheism as official state doctrine. They failed abysmally. Instead of contesting religion as an external threat to liberal democracy, we must live with it as a necessary part of the foundation of any society.

But official theocracies are every bit as nightmarish as Communist police states. Even short of theocracy, religion-ridden societies are steeped in social and personal repression. The Roman Catholic Church with its 2,000-year weight of hierarchy and dogma has been among the worst offenders. It is surely no accident that three Western societies where Catholic influence was once most pervasive – Ireland, Spain and Quebec – are the sites of vigorous social liberal reaction to clerical domination.

Yet countries long characterized by the separation of church and state now contend with resurgent religious interference in politics. There are two very worrying trends in the contemporary accommodation of religion in Western societies. One is the “multicultural” response to the rise of militant Islam. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently set off a firestorm when he tentatively suggested the possibility of incorporating Islamic shari‘a law into British practice for consenting Muslim citizens. In Ontario, this issue surfaced a few years ago when Premier Dalton McGuinty shot down an attempt to establish shari‘a – and at the same time evenhandedly reversed an earlier Ontario decision to permit Orthodox Jewish codes to apply in disputes within families in that community.

One law for all, applied equally and without discrimination, is surely the only sound basis for a liberal multicultural society. A liberalism that would permit multiple privileged religious enclaves, in which unaccountable spiritual leaders apply laws that may run contrary to universal rights and freedoms, is liberalism seemingly intent on its own evisceration.

Another challenge comes from the opposite direction. Conservative hostility toward militant Islam and reactions to multicultural and multiethnic “threats” have helped engender a new born-again Christian militancy, the confident insistence that self-appointed Christian arbiters of right and wrong should set the rules for everyone else. “We” need to protect “our” culture and way of life from the threatening influx of the Other, and Christianity is front and centre in the definition of who “we” are. Instead of the many Goods nurtured by the multicultural ecumenists, there should be only the one privileged Good raised above all others. If the former constitutes undermining liberalism from within, the latter is a frontal assault.

Obviously many Christians, hopefully still the majority, are not intolerant zealots but respect the boundary between church and state and fully accept common citizenship with nonbelievers and followers of other faiths. But one does not need to push too hard to discern vulnerability and intellectual laxity in the liberal ecumenical strain of Christianity, which shrinks from contact with more aggressive forms of Christianity and wavers uncertainly before the challenge of Islamic certitudes. Can competing Truths really be coequal?

This is less of a problem for religion as such than for the monotheistic, totalizing faiths that rule most of the world today. Despite millennia of relentless propagandizing against the “pagans” who preceded the victory of monotheism, it is intriguing to revisit the wisdom of the ancients before they were banished by the warriors of the Jewish, Christian and later Muslim faiths.

The Roman Empire has always had a very bad press in both Jewish and Christian camps, but there is much to be said for its polytheism. The ancient gods were in a sense humanist: they reflected humanity in all its strengths and weaknesses. They could be petty, jealous, quarrelsome and vindictive as well as Olympian. When they took sides in human disputes, their interventions were arbitrary and often unjust – just as human fate is arbitrary and often unjust.

The Roman gods were tolerant and pluralistic. Their roster was always being expanded. When the Romans conquered, they brought their gods along with their centurions, and they expected subject peoples to acknowledge them in public as symbols of imperial rule. But they were always willing to include new gods and new religious practices of the subject peoples within an expansive tolerant pantheon.

The Jews rebelled because their austere monotheism would not permit them to acknowledge the heathen gods of Rome even pro forma. They suffered defeat and dispersal for their zealotry. The Christians were more devious. As Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Eventually, of course, they succeeded in burrowing from within and took over Rome. On assuming power, those who had once been persecuted for being Christian enthusiastically took to persecuting people for not being Christian. Within a couple of centuries, another prophet of monotheism, Muhammad, arose in the desert and Islamic jihad spread a new faith by the sword across the continents. The triumph of exclusivist and exclusionary faiths was complete, and woe to the infidel and heretic.

We can no more bring back the ancient gods than establish a godless republic. But today’s pallid liberal ecumenism fails to recapture the easy tolerance of the pagan world because the very faiths liberals are trying to be ecumenical about are at root exclusivist claims to Truth. And each brings expectations to the public realm to see its Truth reflected in the state.

The Bouchard-Taylor Commission in Quebec (see Inroads, Winter/Spring 2008) is engaging this conundrum under the guise of “reasonable accommodation.” Ethnicity can be accommodated, but can religion? Charles Taylor grapples at great length with this in his recent book A Secular Age, but his personal affirmation of his Christian, Catholic faith sits uneasily with the notion of intercultural pluralism that his commission would like to foster.

Religion cannot be banished into the private sphere, but in the public space it must be contained within strict limits or it will overwhelm the liberal foundations of free societies. In the end, we have to fall back on secularism as a muscular doctrine that will face down all the proponents of public religiosity. The liberal democratic public sphere cannot be atheist, but it can, should and must be agnostic.

Stephen Harper became Prime Minister of Canada in early 2006. Canada’s “new government,” as Harper insists on calling it, is no longer new but increasingly familiar. Yet there is a real sense that Harper remains an enigma to Canadians. We don’t really know him. There is behind Harper’s now familiar TV face a curious blank. Not the blank that George Bush registers: the sign that says “Nobody home.” The enigma of Stephen Harper is quite the opposite: hidden depths, concealed agendas, complex contradictions. There are any number of Harpers that flash by, and they simply do not add up.

Harper the neocon ideologue v. Harper the liberal pragmatist: The first Harper to appear was the young Reform Party founder and intellectual star; the MP who left the Reform caucus because he found Preston Manning’s populism too flaccid, who then headed the right-wing National Citizens Coalition, who has been associated with the University of Calgary school of polemical conservative thinkers, who sneered that Canada was a hopeless Scandinavian-style welfare case, who publicly scorned global warming as junk science and a socialist plot to steal from the rich countries and who in office has effectively scrapped the Kyoto Accord.

Another face first appeared in the 2006 election campaign when he ran on a platform of five fairly moderate priorities. In office, the new pragmatic Harper has presided over a shift to a “green” agenda and a budget in 2007 that follows a classic Liberal “goodies for everyone” formula, agreed to tax income trusts (a directly broken promise that alienated Bay Street and the oil patch) and displayed an unexpected affection for multiculturalism.

Harper the “equality of the provinces” federalist v. Harper the “Québécois nation” special-status federalist: The old (“Firewall around Alberta”) Harper was a hard-line Western “Plan B” get-tough-with-Quebec sort of guy, who denounced the Mulroney government for awarding the F-18 maintenance contract to Montreal rather than Winnipeg. Harper in office dropped the “Québécois are a nation” bombshell on a discombobulated Parliament, and has worked as assiduously as his Liberal predecessors at favouring Quebec in government spending (the old Harper would have called this “pandering to Quebec”). He even found a few billions to dispense to Jean Charest to repair the “fiscal imbalance” in the midst of a Quebec election, Charest promptly turning the windfall into promised tax breaks for Quebec voters.

Harper the pro-American v. Harper the Canadian nationalist: The old Harper appeared on Fox TV and in the Wall Street Journal to denounce Canada for not joining Bush in the Iraq war. Harper in office has pushed hard on Canada’s military role in Afghanistan, despite mounting casualties, and has attacked critics in much the same manner as Bush attacked critics of the Iraq war. Yet he has done nothing to reverse the Liberal decision to stay out of Ballistic Missile Defence, which Bush had hounded Canada to join. The new Harper boasts a nationalist strategy in the Arctic in competition with the United States and takes every opportunity to highlight differences with the Bush administration.

Harper the social conservative v. Harper the social liberal: In opposition, he was a passionate, even demagogic, opponent of same-sex marriage, suggesting against all expert advice that he could and would reverse the law without regard to the court rulings that had precipitated the legislative change. He regularly attends an evangelical church, and born-again enthusiasts help finance the well-oiled Tory war chest with a regular flow of many small donations. Harper’s unqualified backing of Israel in its 2006 invasion of Lebanon not only won support from traditional Liberal Jewish voters, but seems to reflect the unqualified pro-Israeli position of the “theocons” across North America.

Yet once in office, Harper called an early vote in Parliament on same-sex marriage that he knew he would lose, and then promptly dumped the whole issue like a child abandoning a broken toy. Talk of a “defence of religions” act has been buried. As for raising a reversal of abortion rights, you could search with a bloodhound in vain for any trace of an issue that animated Stockwell Day and his followers when he led the Canadian Alliance before Harper.

Harper the prime ministerial insider v. Harper the insecure outsider: This is one of the weirder contradictions. Since themoment he assumed office, Harper has very successfully donned the mantle of the decisive, directed, in-command, professionally competent Prime Minister. The contrast with his “Mr. Dithers” predecessor helps, but is not the whole story: Harper looks very much at ease with himself in the position. This is an important part of his reelection image: the guy in charge who knows how to get things done.

There is however, a very different Harper: the Alberta conservative outsider with deep suspicions and resentments against the Liberal/liberal Eastern Establishment he sees entrenched in the Ottawa bureaucracy, the Liberal-appointed courts and the “left-wing” national media. There have been battles with baffled bureaucrats over a range of issues; the result has often been a standoff in which senior public servants are told not to provide policy options and not to offer warnings of possible pitfalls in Conservative plans, but simply to do what they are told. The relatively critical national media are regularly excluded from access, while the less informed and more credulous local media are cultivated by Harper’s rigorously on-message communications team.

The insecure outsider complex may help explain one remarkable feature of the Harper government, a degree of command-and-control centralization of all activity in the Prime Minister’s Office that is unparalleled in our history – Pierre Trudeau’s alleged presidentialization of the office and Jean Chrétien’s “friendly dictatorship” look collegial in comparison. Perhaps Harper the control freak must keep his grip on everyone and everything because he fears the ubiquitous Establishment will snatch his power away. There is a whiff here of a Richard Nixon complex. During his presidency, the Nixon team set themselves up like the beachhead of an army of occupation in a Washington that was deemed irremediably hostile. Were Harper to falter and lose office, one could well imagine a bitter “you won’t have Nixon to kick around any more” envoi.

Harper the captain v. Harper the enforcer: The Prime Minister is a hockey fan and is reputedly writing a book on the history of the national sport. Yet in his own job performance he breaks an unwritten hockey rule: captains (like Gretzky or Crosby) should be above the battle, commanding respect; dirty work should be left to enforcers (like Domi or Brashear) who command fear. Harper likes to be both. Linking a Sikh Liberal MP to the Air India bombing by association with his father-in-law to smear the Liberals as soft on terrorism was an ugly piece of McCarthyite tactics, made even worse by the fact that it was the Prime Minister himself who delivered the Bertuzzi-style sucker punch. How prime ministerial can he be when he is seen personally directing elbows to the faces of opponents? Captains are about hockey as the rink of dreams; enforcers are about exercising power.

You get the idea. I could quote Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” But is there a key to unlocking the enigma? Perhaps it’s a bit early in the game for finding magic keys, but let me make a suggestion.

Stephen Harper stands at the cusp of far-reaching changes in the Canadian body politic. Economically supercharged Alberta is moving to the forefront of the federation, while in Quebec the old sovereignty-federalism polarization seems to be declining (and with it one of the bases of the Liberals as the “government party”). As an Albertan PM who has engineered the thin edge of what could turn into a major Conservative breakthrough in Quebec, Harper is well positioned to steer his government and party into a historic Alberta-Quebec alliance to govern Canada.

But this is a very tricky operation. The Alberta political culture that Harper reflects is often on the edge of the mainstream of Canadian values, and is particularly alien in Quebec. Pushing too far to the right can cause him problems in Quebec, while going too far to placate Quebec can certainly cause problems for him not only in Alberta but in English Canada more widely. There are the big liberal and cosmopolitan cities to contend with, none of which (save Calgary and Edmonton) have shown much warmth for Harper’s conservatism or his candidates. At the same time, his hard-core right-wing base has to be tossed occasional bits of raw meat to keep them from turning ugly.

Can Harper successfully play the über-centrist Mackenzie King, of whom Frank Scott memorably wrote, “He blunted us”? Harper is not naturally a master of ambiguity, but rather of cool, rational precision – not the qualities required for sustaining a coalition of opposites. Perhaps the succession of multiple personalities is a way of coping with the stresses of coalition-building in the tower of Babel.

In his recent book Harper’s Team, Tom Flanagan, a longtime alter ego to Harper, lays down the “ten commandments of Conservative campaigning.” The second commandment reads: “Canada is not yet a conservative or Conservative country.” The fourth commandment identifies “incremental” conservatism as the only way to make progress. Flanagan once described himself to me as a “right-wing ideologue,” and there has been considerable comment on his (and Harper’s?) transmutation into a compromising incrementalist. But read Flanagan carefully, note the crucial yet in the second commandment, and note that incrementalism proceeds toward a goal. “Sweeping visions have a place in intellectual discussion, but they are toxic in practical politics,” Flanagan writes. The Promised Land is still there, but it can only be reached by small, incremental steps. Revealing the destination (the sweeping vision) too soon will be toxic.

Does this not sound a little like the “hidden agenda” that dogged Reform and the Alliance, and even now lingers over the new Conservative Party? Perhaps it helps explain why the Conservatives seem to have hit a glass ceiling with the support of about one in three voters – not enough for a majority – and why so many people simply do not trust Harper. Is it credible that this cerebral and articulate conservative has gone on a long march through four parties (destroying one, and replacing two others) only to end as a Red Tory/Blue Grit wallowing in the mushy centre, holding onto power without principle? Not likely.

Carefully scan the many faces of Stephen Harper. The real one is there, just obscured for marketing purposes. There may be something after all in the partisan crack that Harper “loves power, but hates government.” This is, after all, a fundamental conservative paradox.

A merger with the NDP may be the only option

For much of Canadian history, the Liberals have been the dominant party in federal politics. The period from 1896, when Wilfrid Laurier first won office as Prime Minister, to 2006 might be called Canada’s long Liberal century. During these 110 years, the Liberals were in office over 70 per cent of the time. Thirty-two general elections saw twice as many Liberal as Conservative victories. The Liberals were truly the “Government Party.”

In 2004, following an unprecedented internal power struggle and the regicide of a successful Liberal Prime Minister, the Liberals lost the majority they had held for three straight elections, and then in 2006 they lost government altogether. Leaderless in Parliament, incompetent in opposition, buffeted this way and that on crucial policy issues, they faced a Conservative Prime Minister who looked confident, focused and decisive, with a clear vision and a plan for how to get where he wanted to go. Worst of all for the battered Liberals, the Conservatives had against all odds made inroads into one of the Liberals’ traditional bastions, federalist voters in Quebec, just as the Liberals seemed in free fall in Quebec after the sponsorship scandal and the Gomery Inquiry. Was it possible that the long Liberal century was at last coming to an end?

This is indeed is a possibility. Of course, the Liberals have lost before, and sometimes it looked as if it might be terminal. In 1958, John Diefenbaker swept to a mighty landslide, nearly crushing the Liberals. In 1984, Brian Mulroney fashioned a Government Party–style victory for the Tories. But however dispirited and disorganized the Liberals seemed in the face of these adversities, Diefenbaker was gone in six chaotic years, and Mulroney’s finely crafted edifice crumbled so completely that after nine years in power his party was reduced to a derisory two MPs in 1993. It is possible that the Conservatives will once more self-destruct and the Liberals, with a new leader in place by December, will yet again inherit their accustomed seats of power.

Possible, but times and circumstances have changed in the early 21st century, and some of these changes have been dramatic. Even if the Liberals with a new and effective leader do return to power in the near future – by no means a sure thing – it will be as quite a different animal from the old Government Party.

Harper’s Quebec gamble

When the Diefenbaker and Mulroney Conservative governments self-destructed and the Liberals rebounded, there was a historical logic at work. In both cases, Quebec was at the root of both the Tories’ misfortune and the Liberals’ resilience. Both Diefenbaker and Mulroney initially fashioned majority governments by stealing the Quebec monolith that the Liberals had held, with the odd stutter, since the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885 and the conscription crisis during World War I. In each case, however, they did so via a different route than the Liberals had used. The Tories made alliances with Quebec nationalists, the bitter opponents of the Liberals. By Mulroney’s day, negotiations were with “soft” nationalists who later revealed themselves to be indépendantistes. Mulroney’s prized Quebec lieutenant, Lucien Bouchard, defected along with a number of other prominent Quebec Tories to form the Bloc Québécois, thus precipitating the Conservatives’ Canada-wide collapse.

The Liberals, on the other hand, never courted “soft” or any other kind of nationalist/sovereigntists, and when the Conservatives failed to hold their prize, the Liberals were there to inherit the steadier support of remaining Quebec federalists. However, there were already worrying signs in the 1990s that this historical pattern was weakening. Jean Chrétien was never able to reestablish the old hegemony; instead the BQ held most of the seats in Quebec during each of Chrétien’s three majority governments. Only a new Liberal monolith in Ontario (magnified by the electoral system) offset this loss.

Chrétien and his close Quebec coterie fought back, publicly with ideas (Stéphane Dion’s Clarity Act), which might have worked, but also secretly, and fatally, with millions of sponsorship dollars to bolster the federalist image. This turned into the sponsorship scandal, with corrupt connections to Quebec Liberal Party finances, and the public humiliation of the Gomery Inquiry. But worse than this was the perceived insult to Quebecers implicit in the very nature of the sponsorship program – buying support for federalism by sticking maple leaf logos on events, treating Quebecers as if they were children to be bribed with candy. In the aftermath of this fiasco, the federal Liberal Party’s prospects in francophone Quebec have shrunk to even lower levels.

Against all the conventional wisdom of the Quebec political class, Stephen Harper was the biggest winner in Quebec in the 2006 election. That an anglophone from Calgary with an announced aversion to opening up the constitution should win ten Quebec seats and become the next new thing in Quebec was surprising to say the least. Even more surprising, and much more challenging to the Liberals, was the way he did this. This time there was no Mulroney-like trap of appealing to sovereigntists in faux federalist clothing. Harper asked only for the votes of federalists, the Liberals’ traditional constituency. The BQ’s Gilles Duceppe began the campaign with dreams of sweeping every francophone seat in Quebec and making the Liberals “disappear.” In the event, the Liberals were reduced to a rump of anglophone- and allophone-dominated ridings in Montreal. But what Duceppe neglected was that there were francophone Québécois who wanted a non-Liberal federalist alternative to the sovereigntists, and found it in Harper’s Conservatives. Harper took the wind out of both the Liberal and the BQ sails.

Conservative viability in Quebec has yet to be proven. Harper faces major difficulties in building on his 2006 breakthrough. His party policies, and his own ideological convictions, are quite evidently offside with mainstream Quebec opinion. The increasingly bloody Canadian engagement in Afghanistan, the knee-jerk pro-Israeli position over the Lebanese fiasco, the pro-Bush foreign policy stance, the repudiation of Kyoto, the reopening of the same-sex marriage debate, hints about a “defence of religions” act; and finally the Conservative determination to scrap the gun registry in the face of the Dawson College shooting rampage in September 2006 – all these positions, while doubtless representing genuine conservative convictions, are at odds with the socially liberal, anti-imperialist and ecologically conscious Quebec mainstream. The longer Harper remains in office and the longer the Conservative policy record, the more Quebecers seem to conclude that this party is not one with which they can remain comfortable for long. By the fall of 2006, Conservative poll numbers in Quebec had begun to drop.

There is also the longer-term problem of the quid pro quo expected for Quebec federalist support of the Harper government. That there is a fiscal imbalance between Quebec and Ottawa is an article of faith among Quebecers of all political persuasions. That Harper must deliver the goods on restoring a fiscal balance (which means billions of dollars from the federal treasury moving to Quebec) is the bottom line on his party’s future fortunes. The BQ demands transfers to Quebec of $3.9 billion annually from the federal treasury as the price of keeping the Conservative minority in office. This cannot be done bilaterally or Harper will face a Meech Lake–like backlash from his own base in the West, not to speak of Ontario. But the other provinces agree neither on the definition of the fiscal imbalance, nor on the prescription to reverse it. The first ministers’ meeting on this subject scheduled for the fall of 2006 has been cancelled. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has hinted broadly that fiscal rebalancing means giving the provinces more tax room to raise more revenues from their own taxpayers – not at all what Quebec has in mind.

Another potential problem for Harper is his sweetheart deal with Quebec Premier Jean Charest. To Harper, a close alliance with the first unequivocally pro-federalist Quebec premier in generations is a win-win. If successful at both ends, it would certainly serve the cause of Canadian federalism. But Charest is an unpopular premier, and the PQ under its new leader André Boisclair stands a good chance of winning back power in an election that must be called within a year and a half. If Charest goes down, so may Harper’s party, which would lose its interlocuteur in Quebec.

This discussion of Conservative fortunes in Quebec might seem like a diversion from the Liberals. In fact, it is crucial to the Liberals’ future. If Harper’s Quebec gamble succeeds, he could establish the Conservatives as the new Government Party, uniting Quebec and Alberta as well as Ontario in a formidable pan-Canadian alliance – and consigning the Liberals to the wilderness of opposition that was the homeland of the old Progressive Conservative Party for so many decades. If Harper’s gamble fails, it will not likely pay off in immediate Liberal gains in Quebec: the party is too deep in the sponsorship merde for that. However, it opens the door to a renascent BQ taking back its lost seats, leading to a weakened Harper minority or even a Liberal return to power in Ottawa. After all, the Liberals did not finish all that far behind Harper in 2006 even with the manifest disabilities of the Chrétien-Martin regime clinging to them, and the Conservatives have so far failed to make gains in English Canada, apart from consolidating their Alberta/prairie base.

Quebec is a persistent worry for the Liberals. The best they can likely hope for is a negative result: a renewed dynamic on the sovereigntist side breaking the Conservative momentum in francophone Quebec. But that is also a prescription for trouble the moment the Liberals resume office in Ottawa.

The Liberal chameleon

Federalist Quebec was not the only pillar of the old Government Party. Another important source of past Liberal hegemony was the party’s chameleon-like ability to pre-empt the ideological dynamic in Canadian society. This goes back as far as Mackenzie King in the 1920s, and has sometimes been mistaken for a special Liberal capacity to pre-empt and co-opt the left. From King through Lester Pearson to Pierre Trudeau, they indeed showed a remarkable ability to head off potential challenges from the left by a kind of absorption, and the results were evident in the chronic inability of the CCF/NDP to establish a viable social democratic alternative on the national stage. But impressive as this record was, the impression of the Liberals as an exclusively centre-left grouping is misleading. In fact, the Liberals have been equally adept at pre-empting and co-opting the right whenever the prevailing winds were blowing from that direction.

When Jean Chrétien came to office in 1993, his razor-sharp political instincts told him that the new dynamic in Canadian politics was coming from Preston Manning’s Reform Party, which had just eradicated the Progressive Conservatives in the west. Soon he and Finance Minister Paul Martin were herding Reform MPs as human shields in front of them as they slew the deficit and restored fiscal soundness through, among other things, massive cutbacks to provincial health and education transfers. Three successive Liberal majorities and a stalled Reform/Canadian Alliance were the result. Yet at the same time, the Liberals were advancing certain socially liberal policies (gun control, same-sex marriage) that distinguished them from the right whenever such a distinction was electorally advantageous. The chameleon, it should be recalled, has no discernible colour of its own.

In the current context, this is a significant Conservative vulnerability and an opportunity for the Liberals. Stephen Harper’s Achilles heel may well be the obverse of one of his strengths – his intellectual conviction. Despite his government’s moderate platform and five priorities, there is ample evidence that he is the most ideological of all our prime ministers. Nor is this surprising, considering that the Conservative Party is dominated by its Reform/Alliance wing and by the political culture of southern Alberta that has nurtured a vibrant neoconservative movement. Everyone is aware of Harper’s intelligence, but it is intelligence in many ways shaped and directed by ideological conviction. There are two obvious downsides to this. It contributes to an impression of aloof arrogance (“my way or the highway”). More importantly, the ideological positions of the Harper Conservatives are out of tune with mainstream Canadian opinion, at least outside their core support base. This gap is most pronounced in Quebec, but it exists elsewhere in the country as well, southern Alberta aside. And on no issue is the Harper government more vulnerable on ideological grounds than on foreign and defence policy.

In the past, foreign policy scarcely caused a ripple in Canadian elections. But globalization has now come home with a vengeance. The Afghan war, with mounting casualties and no good end in sight, is a nasty undertow pulling against the Harper government’s popular support numbers. Most damaging of all is the widespread perception that Harper is keeping Canada in this quagmire only to please the dreaded George W. Bush. Actually, this is probably unfair. Harper’s hard conservatism and his sense of doing the right thing have no doubt led him independently to the Bush position. But perception is all in politics, and in 2006 the perception of doing the bidding of the most unpopular U.S. president in Canadian history could well be fatal.

For the Liberals, the government’s right turn offers a clear and unequivocal prescription for response. It would be disastrous for the chameleon this time to take on Tory blue colours. If Liberals try to compete with Stephen Harper on the battlefield of the right, they cannot win – and, more to the point, they will at the same time be outflanked on their left by Jack Layton’s NDP.

It is not just that Harper exercises a monopoly over right-wing thinking. Structurally, the new Conservative Party has united the right, ending the period of civil strife that doomed both the Reform/Alliance and the PCs to the wilderness for a decade. At the same time, the Liberals now have to compete in a divided centre-left, including not just the NDP but also the BQ, which holds most progressive Quebec support. Liberals are not suicidal. They fully understand that they must go hunting where the ducks are, and today that is clearly only on the centre-left. The only leadership candidate who visibly aligned himself on the right, Toronto MP Maurizio Bevilacqua, was the first to drop out – and throw his personal support to Bob Rae, the former NDP premier of Ontario. None of the other candidates – not even ex-Tory Scott Brison – have tried to sell themselves as anything other than progressive Liberals. Their pitch is first to Liberal Party members, but looking beyond the Liberal convention, their claim is to be the best positioned to reach out to moderates, liberals, progressives and above all to the NDP’s voting base, actual and potential. (As for the centre-left BQ supporters in Quebec, realistically that may have to wait for another day.)

The virtual party

As they look to their leadership convention at the end of November, the Liberals are poised on a knife edge, the mirror image of the knife edge on which the Harper government rests uneasily. In the next election, the Conservatives could possibly transform their present minority into a hegemonic majority that could significantly change the Canadian political culture for years to come. Yet a quick turnaround sending the Liberals back to Ottawa is also a possibility – but that depends in the first instance on whom the Liberals will choose as leader. Even with the right (which is to say, centre-left) policies, the party will still require a saleable face at the top. Of course, an effective leader has always been important, but in 2006 choosing a leader is perhaps more important than it ever has been, for reasons that have to do with the changing nature of politics.

Given the circumstances of the Liberals’ less than glorious removal from office, there were many voices within the party calling for a period of reflection and serious reform preceding the choice of a new leader. Ideally, a policy and constitutional convention should have come first, with a renewed party then ready to choose an appropriate person to lead it. Unfortunately, Paul Martin’s quick exit on election night and the fact of a Harper minority precluded the longer time frame that dual process would have required. The Liberals need party renewal and a new leader, both ready for a snap election at any time. Inevitably, however, the leadership race overshadows the less sexy, media-resistant process of restructuring and renewing the party grassroots.

There was a flurry of activity during the spring and summer with a “Red Ribbon Task Force” reporting in August. Its report, A Party Built for Everyone, a Party Built to Win, recommended a more compact, less cumbersome governance structure for the party, along with various other reforms.

Notably, the task force recommended “inserting the policy development function at the heart of the structures of the Party.” Noting that “the vigour and creativity of policy development … is the lifeblood our Party,” the task force looked to new grassroots participation in policymaking. This is hardly a new idea: policy “participation” emerged with the Pearson and Trudeau Liberal parties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, only to wither away in subsequent years. Political scientists studying the steady decline of parties in the attention and affections of citizens, especially younger citizens, have observed time and again that people participate in parties most often because they wish to have a hand in policy, but are almost always frustrated and disillusioned by the lack of real opportunity to do so as party members.

The task force had no more innovative idea of how to encourage policy participation than to create a “Permanent Standing Committee of the Party dedicated to ongoing Policy and Platform Development.” Significantly, this bureaucratic structure would be carefully constructed to ensure that the party leader could dominate proceedings with his or her appointees. Indeed, to make absolutely certain that the “Leader has an ultimate (and appropriate) veto over the policies that he/she is asked to carry into an election and defend,” a “policy approval subcommittee” of senior party worthies would be “consulted” before the leader rejected any policies approved by the party membership.

It is no accident that policy as grassroots participation flares up only to reappear as just another weapon in the leader’s arsenal. The idea of renovating and democratizing the party is really only a nostalgic nod in the direction of a bygone era when political parties were, or tried to be, mass organizations. The Chrétien years, however electorally successful, witnessed a hollowing out of the old party structure and its transformation into a new, more contemporary, but less distinctive, form: the “virtual party” for the media age, in which a particular entourage or marketing team that gathers round and promotes a successful leadership candidate (spin doctors, advertising gurus, PR and media specialists, speechwriters, fundraisers, event planners, even the occasional policy wonk) then colonizes the central party apparatus, and finally the Prime Minister’s or Premier’s office when an election is won. This entourage forms the virtual party, which in some ways shares little more than a name with the original party. The party name is in effect a franchise with an existing market (brand loyalty) and a distribution chain. It is the franchise holder – the party leader – and the team assembled around the leader who control and shape the message that is delivered to the electorate and the policies that are implemented when in power.

This structure is not at all unique to the Liberals. The Mike Harris Conservatives in Ontario were the fullest expression yet of the virtual party in Canada, and their Common Sense Revolution was the product delivered by the Ontario Tory franchise – until the hapless Ernie Eves, succeeding Harris, squandered the brand. Rebranding an old franchise is sometimes an advantageous strategy for a new leader facing negative baggage from the party’s past: Tony Blair created “New Labour” and parlayed a Thatcherite social and economic agenda dressed up in “New” clothes into three successive majorities. Now he has been forced to step away by the emergence of a rival from within, Gordon Brown, who will, if successful, no doubt rebrand the old party yet again.

In the case of the Liberals, a most unusual two-headed virtual party characterized the first two Chrétien governments, with Finance Minister Martin providing the virtual second head. It worked for a time, but it was destined to fail. The third term turned into the ugly civil war that brought about the sacking of Martin and finally the unprecedented spectacle of the Martinites unseating a successful three-term Prime Minister and propelling Martin into control of the Liberal franchise. This was accomplished as much more than a simple takeover. It was a new, rebranded party, the Paul Martin party, and the virtual party team of Martinites swept out the Chrétienites in much the way that an incoming government sweeps out the old. This discontinuity was sharpened even further when the sponsorship scandal drove Martin to his ill-fated and ill-conceived strategy of playing the cleanup guy and targeting his predecessor as the enemy. This strategy backfired doubly, failing to convince the public while driving a fatal wedge into the Liberal Party. Martin himself proved a huge disappointment in office, and the Martinites quickly demonstrated incompetence as a virtual party. Thus the Liberal franchise crashed and burned.

The new faces

This is a roundabout way of explaining why the choice of a new leader is in fact all-important for the Liberal Party. The new leader will in effect be the party. Luckily for the Liberals, none of the big “stars” from the past like John Manley, Frank McKenna or Brian Tobin was willing to enter the contest. If they had, all the baggage of the civil war would have been on display. Instead a new generation of potential leaders came forward: Michael Ignatieff had been outside the country for the last few years; Bob Rae and Scott Brison came from other parties; Gerard Kennedy came from the Ontario Liberal Party; and Stéphane Dion and Ken Dryden had served as ministers but managed to stay aloof from the internecine struggles of the past. Partisans of both camps in the civil war have reemerged behind leading candidates, but not along the old lines. Whoever is chosen as the new leader will have the manifest advantage of being a new face disconnected from the past. When the Chrétien backroom boy Eddie Goldenberg produced a book attacking the Martinites on the eve of the Liberal leadership vote in the constituencies at the end of September, it landed not as a bomb but merely as a voice from a past that sensible Liberals would prefer to forget.

Of course, the candidates all bring their own baggage. Ignatieff, clearly the chosen golden boy of what remains of the party establishment, especially that part centred in Toronto, has a sparkling reputation as an international intellectual (a 21st-century Trudeau?), but carries the dreadful burden of having been a public apologist for George Bush’s fiasco in Iraq. And on the question of Canada’s own military role abroad in Afghanistan, which may prove to be the defining issue of the next few years, Ignatieff has lined up with Stephen Harper and against all the other Liberal candidates save ex-Tory Brison. Although Ignatieff describes himself as a left-of-centre Liberal, and no doubt is on social and economic issues, his candidacy poses the question whether the Liberals or the country need a liberal apologist for Bush’s imperial adventures to oppose a conservative apologist for Bush’s imperial adventures in Harper. Then in early October, Ignatieff stumbled badly with his statement about an Israeli “war crime” in the bombing of Lebanese civilians in Qana. This statement was meant to redress a callous earlier remark about “not losing any sleep” over Lebanese civilian deaths, but instead it once again stirred up the Israeli lobby hornets’ nest that had earlier led to Jewish Liberal defections to the Conservatives over the Lebanon invasion. It also raised questions about the academic’s capacity to adjust his thoughts to the mine-infested field of politics, where an idea once uttered may become a devastating political gaffe.

In the “super weekend” balloting across the 308 Liberal constituency associations, which set the levels of support on the first ballot, Ignatieff clearly emerged at the head of the pack with just under 30 per cent. But polls indicate a weakness in second-ballot preferences. In other words, Ignatieff is a polarizing candidate and potentially vulnerable to an alternative “anybody but Iggy” candidate, were one to emerge.

Bob Rae, with over 20 per cent, will be number two going into the convention, although well behind his old university buddy Ignatieff. Rae has considerable strengths: intelligence, experience, maturity, excellent French and, above all, a background in the NDP where the Liberal Party must go hunting for votes. He is relatively strong in second preferences. Rae’s baggage is his one term as Ontario Premier, which has been unfairly characterized by right-wing critics as a disaster. Actually, given the disastrous economic situation he inherited with the NDP’s unexpected victory in 1990, and given the limitations of the vehicle he led – a party with no experience, little idea of what do with power and a union constituency with unrealistic expectations – he had little chance. It was Rae’s own disillusion with his left wing that led him to the Liberals, but at the same time he brings a sharp critical perspective to bear on Harper’s neo-cons.

Stéphane Dion has been the surprise of the contest. Dion had made himself a hated figure among the Quebec nationalist and sovereigntist intelligentsia with his forthright, and sometimes abrasive, defence of federalism. Yet he has emerged as someone who can mobilize passionate support for his environmental convictions, and has attracted support from green and social movements. The question weighing down the Dion candidacy is whether the Liberals can afford yet one more Quebec leader in a party dominated by Quebecers for most of the past four decades.

Gerard Kennedy brings youth and enthusiasm, and strong support from younger MPs and party activists. His negatives include very poor French and no appeal in Quebec, and a sense that his pretensions outrun his achievements. He ran for the Ontario Liberal leadership before he was even elected to the legislature, and now wants to start at the top of the federal party. Kennedy might, however, be influential at the convention and an important minister in a future Liberal government.

As a negative surprise, Ken Dryden presents the oddest combination of potential and disability. A Canadian hockey hero, Dryden had already established a reputation as a writer and thoughtful commentator before running for Parliament, and then enhanced his stature with the remarkable achievement of pulling off a national child care agreement with all ten provinces – before Stephen Harper pulled the plug. Dryden can bring any Liberal audience to rapt attention with his passionate and deeply sincere articulation of what it means to be a liberal and why Harper’s pinched, mean-spirited conservatism must be defeated. But Dryden seems to have confused his desire for a new way of doing politics with neglecting the old-fashioned means needed to win the leadership: organization and funds. He has little of either and although his voice is respected, it has not got through. Ironically, Dryden is quite possibly the Liberal with the strongest potential support in the country at large. Yet with no virtual party around him he looks like a driver with no vehicle.

With these candidates, the Liberals can count a rather remarkable collection of intelligent, thoughtful and articulate potential prime ministers. The prospect of a competitive convention – something not seen for years – and a large potential audience for this showcase of new and attractive Liberal personalities is one to make Liberal backroom hearts beat hopefully. Unfortunately, the disgraceful old politics of Joe Volpe (kiddie donors, dead bodies signed up as supporters) brought back to public attention all the worst elements of the old Big Red Machine that Liberals would like voters to forget. And then Volpe blamed his bad press (and a $20,000 party fine and rebuke) on discrimination against an Italian-Canadian. Nonetheless, he managed to poll almost as many delegate preferences as Dryden, and more than Brison. He will likely be there at the convention with his small but loyal bloc, dogging the Liberals’ pretensions to be a new and different kind of party.

Once the choice is made, the Liberals should be reasonably well poised to take on the Harper government in an election next spring. The new leader will, however, have some tough slogging to get the party’s finances in order. A new financial reality for the Liberals is an ironic consequence of Jean Chrétien’s democratic legacy, his act banning corporate and union contributions and limiting individual donations to $5,000. It turns out that the Conservatives, backed by the enthusiastic “theo-con” religious right, have been superb at raising many small contributions from a large base of donors, while the Liberals have been poor at shaking their old corporate fat-cat financing habits and adjusting to the new reality. In a piece of sheer opportunism, the Conservatives now plan on further lowering the limit on individual donations to $1,000 – even though Harper had bitterly opposed the entire Chrétien law when it was before the House. This move is, as the Red Ribbon Commission acknowledges, a strike at the jugular of the Liberal Party. The new leader must quickly launch the party on a new course as a mass fundraiser – perhaps not an easy task for a party lacking the ideological clarity and attraction to zealous (and lucrative) moral movements that characterizes the Harper Conservatives.

The next election will be one of unusual significance. If Harper succeeds at gaining a majority, he will have both the numbers and the strategic vision to reshape the country along the lines of the neo-con and theo-con agendas. If Jack Layton “succeeds” – which can mean no more than electing more New Democrats by defeating mainly Liberal opponents – he will have helped hand Canada over to the mortal enemies of the very progressives his party claims to represent. For all those who wish to save Canada from the Bushites (Canada) Ltd., the choice ought to be clear: elect the Liberals under a new leader with left-of-centre policies. If that fails, and Harper sails on, the next step on the agenda for progressive Canadians will have to be a “unite-the-left” movement to merge the Liberal Party with the NDP.

Baruch Kimmerling
Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War against the Palestinians
London: Verso, 2003
243 pages

Ariel Sharon is an embodiment of paradox. Over a half-century career in war and politics, “The Bulldozer,” as he is widely known in Israel, has sown violence everywhere in his wake, yet thrives on the very chaos he himself encourages. Sharon is a self-fulfilling prophecy: a man on horseback who continually restores order while persistently fomenting disorder. This downward spiral became positively vertiginous after Sharon won prime ministerial office in 2001. The Camp David “peace” process is a distant memory, the Bush “Roadmap to Peace” an endless detour. The reality on the ground is suicide bombers, gunship strikes from the sky, death, destruction and despair. And bobbing atop the roiling sea of hatred is Ariel Sharon, avatar of anarchy and guarantor of order. Now in 2004, Sharon has seemingly reinvented himself: advocating a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, he is bitterly attacked by hardliners in his own Likud party, while incongruously drawing support from the Israeli peace movement.

How much of the disaster of Israeli-Palestinian relations can be laid at the feet of one man is, of course, a debatable question. Baruch Kimmerling, who holds joint appointments at the University of Toronto and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is the coauthor of a distinguished history of the Palestinian people, has taken on the task of assessing the impact of Sharon on Israel and on the Palestinians. In his view, structure and agency must be kept in balance in any analysis. He sees a process at work in Israeli policy post-2000 that he calls “politicide” of the Palestinians, but argues that this process did not begin with Sharon. Rather, it is a consequence of the 1967 war when the West Bank and Gaza were brought under occupation, and even more profoundly of the “very nature and roots of the Zionist movement,” reinforced by a series of regional and global events and processes. But Sharon does play a leading role in pushing these consequences – so much so in Kimmerling’s subtitle he calls the present crisis “Ariel Sharon’s War.” It is Sharon’s own personal history, as soldier and politician, that forms the thread of Kimmerling’s analysis of the course of Israel’s descent into the abyss.

By politicide, Kimmerling means something more subtle than the facile charge of genocide sometimes flung at the Israelis. “I mean a process,” he writes, “that has, as its ultimate goal, the dissolution of the Palestinian people’s existence as a legitimate social, political, and economic entity. This process may also but not necessarily include their partial or complete ethnic cleansing from the territory known as the Land of Israel.” Kimmerling, who considers himself a critical “Israeli patriot,” argues that this program is not only a monstrous injustice against the Palestinian people, but will inevitably rot the moral foundation of the Jewish state. Indeed, this process is already well underway, as authoritarianism, the militarization of Israeli society, intolerance of dissent and the systematic dehumanization of the Palestinian Other all contribute to what Kimmerling does not shrink from calling “a drift to fascism.”

Ariel Sharon is the fullest embodiment and most effective instrument of politicide. Sharon was born in pre-independence Palestine, and first served as a noncommissioned officer in the 1948 war that followed the creation of the state of Israel. In the early 1950s he formed and commanded a secret commando force called Unit 101 that specialized in brutal reprisals against Arabs responsible for cross-border attacks on Israelis. In 1953, in reprisal for the murder of an Israeli woman and her two children, Sharon led Unit 101 on a raid against Qibiya, a Palestinian village in the then Jordanian West Bank. Forty-five houses with their inhabitants inside were blown up, and 67 men, women and children died. Sharon was accused of disregarding orders and exceeding reasonable limits, but for the same reasons, he began developing a following among bellicose young hardliners, and the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was sufficiently pleased with Sharon’s initiative that he bestowed his personal patronage on him.

The Qibiya incident encapsulates Sharon’s entire career: his disregard and resentment of authority, a predilection for employing excessive force, exacting a price on Palestinians far out of proportion to the alleged provocation and a remarkable capacity to draw personal political profit from his own rash actions. The Sharon Formula was already patented half a century ago.

During the Sinai campaign of 1956, Sharon disobeyed orders and recklessly led his men into an Egyptian trap, out of which they fought with considerable unnecessary losses. Sharon managed to turn this act of military folly into yet another PR advance for his reputation outside the military. During the 1967 war he commanded the Israeli Defence Forces in a series of victories over the Egyptians marked by a massive and unprecedented kill ratio: thousands of Egyptians were slaughtered with negligible Israeli casualties. Now confirmed as Israel’s premier soldier, Sharon surrounded himself with PR flacks and flunkies to cultivate his Caesarist political ambitions.

In 1973 Israel was caught off guard by an Egyptian-Syrian attack. In the Israeli counterattack against the Egyptian advance into Sinai, Sharon with characteristic recklessness exposed the troops under his command to unnecessary casualties. His overriding goal was personal aggrandizement – to be the first Israeli commander to cross the Suez Canal. As Kimmerling writes, “Sharon suffered a minor wound to his forehead and a photograph of the bleeding Israeli general riding on African soil and circled by admiring soldiers chanting ‘Arik, King of Israel’ was spread across the country and around the world.”

Image had triumphed over reality, and Sharon made his move into politics. Shifting in and out of the Knesset, and crossing party lines from Likud to special adviser to Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then back again with Likud as a leading minister in the governments of Menachem Begin, Sharon the politician emerged as the champion and patron of the settlers, with the master plan of creating “facts on the ground” that would guarantee perpetual Israeli hegemony over the occupied territories swallowed in 1967. Despite being strictly illegal under international law, not to speak of being morally indefensible, this settlement policy ultimately became the driving force of Israeli-Palestinian relations, souring all attempts at a solution and poisoning the wells of peace. A historical irony: in 2004, Sharon himself is being buffeted and threatened by the same settlers he has so disingenuously encouraged for three decades. He had an early taste of this in 1982 when he directed the forced withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Sinai, returned to Egypt as part of the Sadat-Begin accord. To Sharon and Begin, taking Egypt out of the game freed their hands to intensify their grip on the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza without provoking another regional conflict: like the Gaza settlers today, the Sinai settlers were pawns to be sacrificed for the bigger picture.

The other main item on Likud’s geopolitical agenda at this time was to destroy Lebanon as a Palestinian base. In 1982 Sharon as Defence Minister persuaded or manipulated Begin to launch an all-out military assault on Lebanon, eventually reaching the capital, Beirut. The war was as ugly and brutal as anything that Israel has undertaken in its history. Kimmerling refers to the savage seven-hour aerial bombardment of Muslim quarters of Beriut on Black Thursday (August 17, 1982) as akin to the firebombing destruction of Dresden by the Allies near the end of World War II.

18 tank01 adjThe worst came the following month with the horrific atrocities of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. With the full cooperation of the Israeli army under Sharon’s watch, Israel’s allies, the Phalangist Christian militias, entered the camps on the evening of September 16 and systematically began beating, raping and murdering the inhabitants, while the Israelis kept the camps sealed and incommunicado. In two days, the fascist militiamen slaughtered more than 2,000 men, women and children, making clumsy and ineffectual attempts to bulldoze the bodies. When the news struck the world’s media, outrage and indignation were universal. To their credit, this included many Israelis: 400,000 disgusted Israelis filled Tel Aviv’s central square demanding an investigation of those responsible. The fingers pointed at none other than Ariel Sharon, and the official Israeli investigation (the Kahan Commission) found in 1983 that Sharon bore personal responsibility for the events, and that he should resign or be sacked as minister.

The Lebanon adventure was senseless from the point of view of Israeli national interests. Having accomplished nothing but a public relations fiasco, the IDF was pulled back from Beirut but remained for years as a hated foreign army in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah was born as a Syrian- and Iranian-sponsored resistance movement among the Lebanese Shia community and eventually grew into such an effective force that it drove Israel out of Lebanon altogether – the only decisive military defeat ever inflicted on the IDF by an Arab force.

Meanwhile the real architect of the folly, Sharon, labelled by an official inquiry as, in effect, a war criminal, had gone into temporary political abeyance, only to enjoy yet another resurrection. When the Camp David process in 2000 teetered on the brink over, among other things, the deeply disputed status of the sacred sites of Jerusalem, the incompetent Labour Prime Minister Ehud Barak permitted a highly publicized provocation by Sharon: a visit to the Temple Mount near Al-Aqsa, the third holiest shrine in Islam. This set off a renewed burst of violent protest by the Palestinians dubbed the Second or Al-Aqsa Intifada, more brutal repression by the Israelis, and an escalating round of intercommunal bloodletting that soon drowned all faint hopes of a peaceful settlement. Once again, Sharon was playing his time-tested role of fomenting chaos and then putting himself forward as the strong man promising to restore order. In February 2001 he was elected Prime Minister in a landslide, and returned with an even bigger majority in January 2003. “Arik King of Israel” represents the ultimate triumph of the maxim that nothing succeeds like failure.

As Kimmerling shows his readers, Sharon in power has been able to clear away the obstacles to the final achievement of his lifelong objective of the politicide of the Palestinian people – and, in the process, turned Israel into something that increasingly resembles a quasi-fascist state. Kimmerling is one of the handful of Israeli dissidents deeply mortified and appalled at what has been done to his Jewish homeland. Others who contributed in the past to this critique have buckled under the pressure and now embrace Sharonism, or worse. Benny Morris, for instance, who previously published devastating historical analyses of how Israel was built in 1948 on a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing, now publicly advocates the forcible cleansing of the entire Palestinian population from the Occupied Territories, and even suggests that if all the Palestinians had been driven out in 1948, there would be no “trouble” with them today.

Sharon himself has stopped short of publicly advocating a “Final Solution” to the Palestinian question, although some of his ministers do so. Kimmerling argues that politicide does not involve genocide as such, or necessitate the complete ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Rather, it entails the destruction of the Palestinian people as a national entity. This has been Sharon’s objective, and for the sake of his broader vision he is ready to make apparent concessions in lesser matters.

Hence his plan to depart from Gaza in exchange for a free hand in the West Bank, where he is insistent on the completion of his infamous Wall (described euphemistically as a “Fence”) which slices through Palestinian lands, eventually incorporating everything to the west of it within Israel and further undermining the social and economic basis of a viable Palestinian community. At the same time as he insists on the closure of the (totally unviable) Jewish settlements in Gaza, he is massively stepping up new and expanded settlements on the West Bank. Gaza, a Hamas hellhole of poverty and overcrowding, can be effectively sealed off and left to stew in its own bitter juices, Sharon apparently reasons – much like the Warsaw Ghetto, one might add. The Palestinians on the West Bank meanwhile can be shattered, broken up into harmless reserves bisected by the Wall and by defence routes patrolled by the IDF and armed and aggressive settlers. And Sharon can confidently count on the consummate stupidity of Hamas, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other such groups to always choose the precise actions that guarantee overwhelming Israeli popular support for more repression.

The external circumstances have certainly been propitious for the achievement of Sharon’s vision. 9/11 convinced the Bush administration, already populated at the top by pro-Israeli lobbyists posing as foreign affairs experts, that Sharon’s battle against the suicide bombers is exactly the same battle as Bush’s “War on Terrorism.” After all, it is the President’s deep philosophical precept that “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” Sharon is with us, Bush reasons, and therefore he has received what effectively amounts to a blank cheque, a free hand with the Palestinians. No enormity is too great to wink at; any fussy qualm stated by Colin Powell, the administration’s diplomatic cover, can be swept away at Sharon’s word. Thus the United States expresses theoretical reservations about the Wall, but folds in practice when Sharon sticks to his plan. Sharon pushes settlements as “facts on the ground,” and then the President suddenly discovers that “realities on the ground” mean that it is “unrealistic” for the Palestinians to talk of rolling back the wave of settlers. In one of the looniest statements in the history of diplomacy, Bush even described Sharon as a “man of peace.”

Bush’s Middle Eastern policy is backed by a strange new alliance of the Christian evangelical right with the Israeli Lobby, a Christian-Zionist partnership that effectively holds Washington in its iron grip. And the Democrats have a track record of equal if not greater aversion to even the faintest ruffling of the Israeli Lobby’s feathers.

If Sharon can count on his blank cheque from Washington, the same cannot be said for his own political constituency in the Likud party and points further rightward. His crafty plans for sacrificing Gaza as a token Palestinian pseudostate in exchange for full hegemony over the West Bank are not appreciated among the Gaza settlers or the hardliners in his own party. Not given to nuance or subtlety, these people see any concession as weakness, any negotiation as betrayal. Sharon has suffered defeats in the Likud party over Gaza, and Shin Bet, the internal security service, has warned that Sharon may even be targeted for assassination by extremists like the man who murdered Yitzhak Rabin. That would indeed be a historic irony on a cosmic scale. But Sharon is nothing if not a survivor, and he may yet implement his plan, even if it requires the breakup of the Likud and some new coalition, possibly including religious parties as well as the dazed and decayed remnants of Labour (that jaded old roué Shimon Peres would like to be included once again in government).

If Kimmerling is right, Sharon’s politicide agenda is still on track, even if exigencies necessitate some zigzags and bypasses along the way. It may be a mistake, however, to view the goal as a place to come to rest. Ariel Sharon’s entire career has been premised on permanent chaos. He does not want policy solutions to problems, because he is the “solution” to the very problems he has himself stirred up. He does not want conflict resolution, because conflict is the premise of his political survival. The day the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved will be the day that Ariel Sharon is exorcised from the body politic. Unfortunately for the world, he has little to worry about.