"No? Just me? This guy knows what I'm talking about."

The House of Commons™: Now 10 Years Svend Free!

I didn’t grow up at a time that was particularly conducive to a young, West Coast left-winger’s becoming enamoured with the NDP: when I was 11 years old, BC elected Mike Harcourt premier (“Mike” being a diminutive for the man’s Christian name, “Milquetoast”); when I was 15, our nominally left-wing provincial government sent police and military to siege Sundancers at Gustafsen Lake, reminding us all that colonialism also comes in orange (a lesson that the dipshits in the New Brunswick NDP seem keen on driving home). At the federal level, the party was pounded into near oblivion throughout my grunge-scored puberty, despite a deficit-hawk Liberal majority that were governing as Conservatives avant la lettre (Hipster Paul Martin was gutting the CBC before it was cool, man.) During the last federal election before I was allowed to vote, the local candidates did an afternoon debate in my high school gym, and I, full of delusional young Trotskyist confidence, stepped to the microphone to denounce the capitalist parties. But the NDP candidate — Svend Robinson, a man for whom I had a reformist soft spot, even at the height of my revolutionary zeal — gently but sternly called my bluster-bluff, pointing out how his party’s platform contained pretty much each of the policies whose absences I was lamenting. After the debate, among the crowd of students gathered around him, I sheepishly apologized. I even sent a letter to the local newspaper, the Burnaby Now, refuting one sent by a Reform Party supporter angrily and unfairly complaining about something Svend had supposedly said during the debate. After reading my letter, and characteristic of his now-legendary constituency work, Svend phoned to thank me. Me: a teenaged Trot, not yet of voting age. In true 17-year-old fashion, when the phone rang, I had been in the midst of masturbating to Married With Children.

So if there was anybody who could foster some hint of warm-feeling in me for the NDP, it was Svend Robinson — which is, retrospectively, ironic, given his well-documented history of not-always-creative tension with the party’s leadership and caucus. But Svend was something of a secular saint in my household growing up: the MP who had helped my parents navigate the Byzantine bureaucracy keeping my dying mother from receiving her disability payments. I never got the details of the story from my dad, but the gist of it was always relayed to me with great admiration for the man: “We called him on Friday, the cheque was in the mail on Monday.” I didn’t know, at the time, that my father was also gay, and so would have had a whole slough of reasons for admiring our MP, the first out elected official in the country. I can only hazily remember casting my first vote in a federal election — i just know that it was in the room adjacent to my junior high cafeteria, and that I voted for Svend.

A little while ago, New Star Books — for my money, one of the best publishers in the country — put out a biography of the renegade MP, author Graeme Truelove’s ‘Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics‘; the almost-entirely sympathetic account of the man is, to my heavily-biased mind, absolutely terrific. Having moved beyond Married With Children onanism and into actual, reproductive sex, I now have a little baby to look after, so I’m making my way through the work pretty slowly — but according to my ereader, I’m 80% finished, and anyway I’m past the point of what Svend calls the “Vancouver Centre kamikaze mission,” his failed comeback race in 2005/06, in which I played my own small part, on the campaign team and as one of the people who encouraged him to run again. Reading the account last night was illuminating; I got a better sense of Jack Layton’s aloofness to his longtime friend and ally Svend through that whole episode — a stand-offish, hands-offishness that makes sense in Truelove’s account, but at the time, to me, seemed like the very worst betrayal (back then I took it out by defacing a cardboard cutout of Layton in the back room of the campaign headquarters).

But it was also in reading, last night, that I realized that this week marks ten years since the best MP in the country stepped down after stealing a diamond ring in the midst of what appears to have been a manic episode. A great big decade, as it turned out, in NDP history.

I imagine that those in the party who never liked working with Svend, or those who resented the far-left stake that he’d claimed in Canadian politics, are not only pretty happy to have him gone, but might even point to the party’s electoral successes as being at least indirectly related to his absence. On the other hand, those of us for whom Svend was pretty much the only reason to hang around the NDP in the first place can barely muster the energy to change our Facebook profile pictures to party colours at election time, searching desperately, and always a little bit more hopelessly, for signs of the next Svend; someone chafing against the most conservative, concentrated leadership that the party has ever had (a centrist drift and concentration of power carried out in no small part, it must be said, during Jack Layton’s tenure as leader).

Has the party’s post-Svend decade been a good one? That’s the sort of question that can’t really be answered in a value-neutral way. If you’re a seat-count hack? Shit yeah, the years have been tremendous. We’re #2! But there’s something pathetic about the federal party today, with more MPs and less ability to effect social democracy than ever in its history. As the old joke goes, “it’s not the size of your caucus, it’s how you use it.” Not only did Svend embody something different from the usual electioneering pabulum — a genuine belief in the righteousness and effectiveness of indigenous, environmentalist, and social movement direct action, for starters — but, as Truelove’s wonderful and readable and extremely well-researched book shows, he also showed how gadflies could still exercise real power and affect people’s lives. The episode in which Svend leads the successful campaign to keep “the right to enjoy property” from being enshrined in the Charter (Robinson worried that if it were, things like minimum wage laws and environmental legislation could be imperiled) is indicative; a recurring theme throughout the book is how a third party MP, sometimes even a backbencher, could make real and lasting legislative change. In the end, that might be what was scariest to conventional NDPers about Svend: not only that his radical politics and irreverence endangered the party’s ability to win enough votes to become official opposition or even government, but the fact that his own example showed that if they were smart enough, worked hard enough, and were willing to participate in and draw on social movements, they didn’t necessarily have to, if all they wanted to do was effect change (as opposed to winning). In a world of horse-race politics, where everyone’s killing themselves trying to get to the inside lane, Svend was off in the stables unionizing the jockeys and pointing out that the track was built on stolen land.

A decade after Svend stepped down, there are still good and decent NDP MPs, doing some good work. All of them are better “team players” than Svend ever was — as a result, they are far less likely to make history like he did. The party has officially removed “socialism” from its preamble and unofficially added “go along to get along” to its ethos. Svend got manhandled by Chinese police and IDF soldiers, arrested at Clayoquot, fought legally-enshrined homophobia; today’s NDP fights ATM fees and promises not to tax the rich. It’s been a long ten years.

Anyhow, read Truelove’s book. You’ll probably finish it before I do. I’m busy trying to raise the next Svend Robinson over here.



James Moore and the Beanstalk (now with hungry kids!)

If by some miracle you’ve managed to escape my weeks-long deluge of social media self-promotion — for which I apologize, but we’re a week away from the due date & if this girl’s going to university, daddy needs royalties — a play that I wrote is running at the newly renovated and refurbished York Theatre, on Commercial Drive. The show is Jack & the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto and, as you may expect, politically speaking it’s something like what you might have seen put on by kids at Soviet summer camp. Poverty-stricken Jack, raised by a single mom, condemned by lack of funds to a diet of dust-bunny sashimi and sunlight (if he eats by the window), swindled out of his cow by a shady realtor with magic Vancouver beans that can never go down in value, steals a golden-egg-laying chicken from the gentrifying Giant in his condo in the sky. It’s very subtle stuff.

If I had any embarrassment about the show’s caricatural politics, it was assuaged today as news broke that federal cabinet minister James Moore had made a Victorian utterance worthy of a villain in any good agitprop: “Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.” In answering a question about BC’s obscene levels of child poverty (highest in the country, helping make the case for that gruel pipeline everyone’s been talking about), Moore insisted that “We’ve never been wealthier as a country than we are right now. Never been wealthier.”

Children go hungry as the country is richer than it’s ever been; in other times and places, that’s the kind of revelation that’s turned people into communists, or, at the very least, really sweet, give-y nuns and priests. But for Moore the free marketeer, the ideological rot is set in so deeply that he presented the information, as someone on Twitter pointed out, “As if that were a defense of his position,” rather than an indictment.

I don’t know what Moore thinks is happening — are dumb kids forgetting to eat? Are their indolent parents refusing the riches of our new petro-state despite the rumblings from their little ones’ bellies? Or is all the money coming into the house being spent on drugs and patchouli, leaving nothing for food?

It’s a real riddle: the country has never been richer, and yet some kids aren’t eating. It’s almost — ALMOST — like a problem of wealth distribution. Like, as a society, we’ve fucked up somewhere along the line. Almost.

In researching Jack & the Beanstalk, I discovered that there are dozens of different versions of the story, some completely bowdlerized to make Jack into an innocent; in these tellings, the Giant killed Jack’s father, and stole his castle, his golden-egg-laying goose, etc., thereby justifying Jack’s reappropriation. It was important to me that our version stick to the original — that Jack steal from the villain upstairs, to the cheers of the audience. Because if a kid and his mom are starving downstairs while a goose is dropping gold in the clouds, the real obscenity isn’t a pilfered bird.

We’ve never been richer, and kids are going to school hungry. I say it’s our responsibility to make sure they get something to eat. Otherwise, all you giants are going to get your geese cooked.

I’ll do something here soon, I promise

Sorry. Spent the past three days in a prenatal crash course, plus fits of nesting and much work. A play I wrote opens this week. A baby I helped make is born some time this month. Blogging is not only on the backburner, but both the back burners have fallen off the stove.

Plus Rob Ford hasn’t done anything interesting.

How Rory Scovel summed up my feelings about Rob Ford before any of this even went down

I did a show once with the very kind and hilarious Rory Scovel where there was a fistfight in the audience during the middle of his set. It lasted for about 5 minutes, & everyone had that sick feeling in their stomachs that one has when there’s violence. Once it was over, & the brawlers were outside, & the crowd turned back to Rory, he brought down the house with the line “Did that last, like, WAY longer than y’all thought it would?”

Anyways, that’s exactly how I feel about this whole Rob Ford thing.

“I can’t operate on him — he’s my son!”

There’s an old riddle that both hinges on, and is meant to expose, sexist prejudice. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard it, but it goes something like: ‘A man and his son are driving in their car when it is struck violently by another vehicle. The father is killed upon impact, and the boy is rushed to hospital by paramedics. In need of an emergency life-saving operation, he is wheeled into the operating theatre only to have the surgeon exclaim desperately “I can’t operate on this boy — he’s my son!”‘ (The answer to the riddle is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother; it doesn’t really work on anyone born after Mad Men times.)

But the same logic seems to be at play in the cultural reactions to Rob and Doug Ford, and their family. It goes like this: some folks have noticed that the Fords are trashy boors — they wear football jerseys and brag about how much pussy they eat; they wear old novelty ties and chains around their necks (full disclosure: I wear a small, I-think-tasteful gold chain with a small fleur-de-lis on it); they’re Philistines who may or may not know who Margaret Atwood is; they drink heroic amounts of booze, stagger around publicly drunk and they (at least Rob) do drugs.

Then: some of the folks who have pointed out this boorishness have been accused of dog whistle class prejudice and even racism. Some of these critics have offered thoughtful analyses of what’s problematic about obsessing on the mayor’s crack use. And it’s true that some of the criticism against the Fords’s gaudiness has been couched in snobbish terms.

But there’s also something weird about calling out “elitism” and “racism” in the denunciation of a pair of rich, white men. This should be obvious, but: noting & condemning the Ford family’s trashy exploits doesn’t make one “anti-working class.” It means trashiness isn’t a working class thing. Pointing out that Rob Ford smokes crack isn’t racist — it means that crack isn’t a black thing.

Here’s where I think we get into “I can’t operate on him — he’s my son” territory. In the riddle, the force of a particular (in this case sexist) prejudice is so strong that it is taken a priori as fact, so the rest of the facts need to be lined up with the reality that the prejudice projects. Similarly, it seems that certain racial and class prejudices are so strong — that only blue collar people act like dumb, tasteless bozos and yahoos; that particular drugs are “ghetto” drugs — that even those purporting to be in solidarity with, or at least sympathetic to, working class people and communities of colour can’t see the forest for the trees. The problem isn’t that the Fords are “acting like” hard-done-by people; the problem is that you think that’s how hard-done-by people act.

Some thoughts in defense of “Schadenford”

We on the Left are pretty good at finding both good and bad reasons to make a point of standing apart from what the crowd seems to be feeling. The response to Russell Brand, for instance, was split among those who wanted to cheer a mainstream comedian raising the spectre of “Revolution” to apparently massive public interest on the one hand, and, on the other, those who wanted to focus on the very real political problems with Brand himself. Incidentally, I thought this piece in New Statesmen did a pretty good job of walking the line.

Here in Canada, there’ve been those who want to make a point of standing apart from the Rob Ford dogpile. Some of them do it out of self-righteousness — “tut-tutters,” as they’ve been nicely characterized on the Twitter feed of TV writer and producer Adam Barken. Others, though, are doing it from the Left, couching it in a prolier-than-thou language of populism and anti-elitism. This prompted me, this afternoon, to write the following Facebook status update:

For Left friends critiquing the Ford pile-on from a populist, anti-elite POV: we largely sorted out the difference between working class populist rage & middle class populist rage in the 1930s. The Fords are millionaires, & Etobicoke isn’t a hardscrabble tenement district. Your caricature of “Downtown Elites” is unsophisticated. There is nothing heroic or proletarian about the angry, resentful philistinism of the small businessman epitomized in Ford. In fact, seeing stupidity, classlessness, violence & boorishness as somehow “working class” traits is the snobbery. People in Toronto have the right to fear, mock, deride & be embarrassed by the hateful gangster running their city; this doesn’t make them bourgeois prigs. Ford’s a hateful, racist crook.

In response to this, and (I think) in agreement with what I’d said, a friend of mine — who is a smart, centrist-minded liberal, meaning that, in Facebook terms, we agree on about 50% of each other’s posts, disagree on the other half — posted:

I don’t understand this. Why is wanting a mayor who is literate, at least somewhat coherent and able to understand basic intellectual concepts “snobbish”? […] Also, forgive me, but what it so terrible about being just a titch elitist when it comes to elected officials? I’ve never understood this notion that we should want to have a beer with them. I want them to be smarter than me, better than me, more able to lead this country than I am. Mediocrity ought not to be an asset when it comes to those who seek public office.

Consistent with the ratio I laid out above (let’s call it the Facebook-Liking Ratio of Liberal/Socialist Friendship), I agree with a lot of what he said here. But I was uncomfortable enough to want to put my initial status into a bit more context; this is me again:

There’s a legitimate beef to be had (and I have it) with civic “lefts” and “centres” who have essentially limited their politics to “bike lanes for the people who can afford to stay in the city”; I also think there’s a problem when policy wonkishness becomes a new clericalism keeping people out of the business of government, which is left to technocratic experts. I part ways, though, with those who see Ford as some sort of refracted, perverted manifestation of these legitimate beefs. It’s a similar problem for those of us in Vancouver to the left of Vision Vancouver; a lot of the organized and cultural opposition to VV comes from the Sports Radio Right-wing. They don’t hate VV for handing over the keys to the city to condo developers; they hate them for bike lanes and homeless shelters and backyard chickens. There are always certain segments on the left who think that this vitriol largely exists because the left isn’t doing its job — we’re not making our case strongly enough, so all the (legitimately) angry people line up behind the Fords of the world. There’s something to be said for this idea (for instance, in the States; if the “left” just defends Obama whatever he does, and says anybody who is angry about the way things are is crazy, then people start lining up with the crazies; the Affordable Care Act, which is terrible legislation, has no articulate mainstream critics from the left — so if you don’t like it, you’ve got to go to the Tea Party). That said, I think that reality is simultaneously a lot more complicated and simpler than this (a lot of the Tea Party, maybe most of them, are just hateful racist dickheads). I’ve never been convinced by the “scratch a right-wing populist, you’ll find a leftist underneath’ school. I think it comes from a reductive, vulgar version of “class” politics. I think right-wing populists are just as often motivated by deeply and genuinely felt racism/sexism/conservatism, and in those cases I’m more inclined to make common cause with a “Latte Liberal,” albeit without giving up my criticisms of their politics.

All of which is just to say that: without losing our heads, let’s not be puritanical about “Schadenford” as a politico-cultural phenomenon. Without caving in to the worst anti-fat, snobbish, or anti-drug excesses of those pointing the finger at the Ford brothers, I think we can still safely take a bit of smug comfort in the implosion of a vile, right-wing demagogue. Without losing sight of the seriousness of what’s going on — I don’t give a shit about him smoking whatever he wants to smoke, but people have been killed and allegedly extorted and whatever Ford himself has or hasn’t done, city hall is clearly terrifyingly close to organized crime — it’s a fucking pleasure to see Ford’s until-now-allies (tough-on-crime hypocrites like Stephen Harper or Don Cherry) made to look like idiots. It’s brings a smile to my face to see the proscribed, free market view of democracy — Ford characterized his job as being to “save taxpayers’ money” — uttered by a man just as buffoonish as the idea itself.

PS I didn’t say “alleged” in my private Facebook status. But of course, presumption of innocence is more than just a nicety. So, obviously, beyond the hard facts laid out here, all crimes that haven’t been successfully prosecuted or connections that haven’t been proven are alleged.

Russell Brand and the vote fetish

Before I say anything about The Video, let me say this: I vote. Like a motherfucker, in fact. I can virtually guarantee that I vote more than almost anyone whipped into a superior frenzy about Brand’s anti-voting postulations. I don’t mean this in the Tammany Hall, election-rigging, “vote early, vote often” sense. I mean that in addition to voting in every federal, provincial, and municipal election since I’ve been eligible to cast a ballot, I also vote: in the leadership elections of various either hopeless or morally compromised leftish political parties; for the board of the credit union with which I do my banking; as a member of a housing, and several consumer, co-ops. I don’t vote in televised singing or dancing competitions, but only because I’m so proud of everybody. Otherwise, to borrow the slogan we used when we ran my pal Graham Clark for public office as part of a TV show we were working on, I spoil my ballot rotten.

I’ve also never had much time for the optimistic view of non-voters being a bloc that, in its non-participation, makes known any coherent displeasure with things-as-they-are. Failing to show up is, as a political action, too ambivalent and easy to spin to be effective in and of itself. I also look at the frantic efforts made by plutocrats to keep people from exercising their franchise — pursuing patently racially motivated “anti-voter fraud” legislation in the US; using robots to prank call voters into showing up at non-existent voting places up here in Canada — and think to myself: why make it any easier for them? I’ve always hated Emma Goldman’s “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal” quip — when she said it, for most people, it was. Still is, in far too many places.

That said: I think that Brand’s video has racked up more than 5 million YouTube views — and nearly twice as many Tsk-Tsks from Those Who Know Better — precisely because the core of what he was saying is so obviously and uncontroversially true.

Whenever mainline pundits aren’t waxing sacrosanct about the responsibility to vote if you want to change the world, they’re telling us to grow up and be-fucking-reasonable-for-Chrissakes and accept the paper-thin range of the politically possible. The media commentary on the Federal NDP leadership race of 2012, to take an example, was an extended exercise in shaming the Unreasonable (left) factions of the party into being Reasonable, and culminated in its duly electing its most right-leaning leader in history. Colouring (in orange) outside of the lines proscribed by what Tariq Ali has called “extreme centrism” was cast as a problem that the party would have to overcome if it wanted to sit at the grown-ups’ table of Canadian electoral politics. In Serious Politics, we all agree a priori to uphold Canada’s uniquely maple-glazed neoliberal consensus, and restrict all conflict to basically window-dressing (ATM fees, say), clashes of personality, and the occasional attack on outright wrongdoing, venality, and criminality.

This isn’t, of course, just a Canadian problem. On Pericles’s own home turf, Greek voters have confounded Those Who Know Better by repeatedly choosing to vote for the wrong stuff or for the wrong people. Stuff and people who wont see bondholders get all their shit back, for instance. And in Russell Brand’s homeland, voters have been offered up an ever-narrowing scope of political choices to make since the mid-1990s, when Margaret Thatcher’s erstwhile opponents committed themselves ideologically to carrying out Thatcherism with a human (and by ‘human,’ I mean ‘imperfect, and by ‘imperfect,’ I mean ‘Tony Blair’s’) face.

All this to say: it’s not the guy with the perfectly-manicured stubble-beard who ran our franchise through the shit; it was all the Rich, Powerful Dudes who also happen, conveniently, to embody the whole horizon of our possible politics, at least in the electoral realm. Brand himself, in his very thoughtful essay on the London Riots of 2011, suggested that the reason some young rioters acted as though they had no responsibility to society was because “[David] Cameron’s mentor Margaret Thatcher told us there’s no such thing.” Similarly, Brand might just think it’s stupid to vote because those of us who want a wider range of political and economic options at the ballot box have been repeatedly told that we’re stupid for wanting them.

Brand isn’t the one posing a menace to the democratic sensibility, threatening the imposition of Forgetting Sarah Marshall Law (sorry). As someone who broadly desires much of what Brand does (he hints at socialism with an ecological sensibility, which sounds about right to me), I’ll keep voting in every election just like my fellow Charlie keeps taking runs at that football, hoping that this time he gets to connect. But if Russell and I and millions of other people end up getting any of the change that we want, I’m afraid he’s mostly right: at the very least, the first stirrings of what brings it about won’t happen in the voting booth — or, in Canadian terms: behind a sensible piece of folded cardboard.