Why u so mad?

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the open letter that was written by my co-bloggers and posted here the other day (which I signed, by the way). There are lots of people out there who dislike Stephen Harper, but who dislike the kind of people who dislike Stephen Harper even more. And I’m sure even now Rex Murphy is penning a diatribe, about how the 587 signatures are a consequence of the tyranny of “political correctness” and “groupthink” in our universities. Others will dismiss it as mere partisanship, the ravings of the “Laurentian elites,” etc.

The “mere partisanship” argument fails to reflect the fact that not every issue attracts this sort of attention, or upsets people quite so much. I’m sure there are many items in the Conservative Party platform that are also broadly opposed by Canadian academics. Boutique tax credits, for instance, are opposed by pretty much every economist in the country. And yet you don’t see them writing big open letters. In other words, it’s not just partisanship and politics as usual. There is something about whipping up hostility towards a minority group, as a campaign tactic, that is especially offensive, or that is, as I put it, “beyond the pale.” That is why so many people are upset.

Again, there will be many Conservative apologists who will offer all sorts of exotic theories about why people are so upset with Harper – suggesting that we require the services of psychiatrists in order to decode this bizarre form of behaviour. There is, however, a much more obvious explanation. In fact, a single picture is enough to explain it all:


These are my results from the CBC Vote Compass questionnaire. You can see, in the major issue space, the four political parties, and where I wound up – based on my answers to a series of questions about my political views. (By the way, if anyone is surprised by where I wound up in this space, I was too.) Anyhow, the interesting part of all this is not where I wound up, but where the political parties are. What you can see is three political parties essentially competing for the same votes, and the Conservative Party all alone out there in right field.

The frustration that we are seeing right now is due to the fact that almost 70% of the electorate is parking their vote in that upper left quadrant. Given the current positioning of the Conservative Party, this election would be a cake-walk for a single, unified, centre-left party. But of course, if there were a single, unified, centre-left party, then the Conservative Party would not be positioned where it is.

What’s particularly frustrating to more intellectual types is that, if the election were focused on policy issues, then it would not be so difficult to overcome the vote-split – both NDP and Liberal voters would be more pragmatic, and support the candidate with the best chance of winning against the Conservative in their riding. Because when it comes to policy — looking at the big picture — there simply is not that much difference between the parties. The reason the split is hard to overcome is because of other factors, like partisanship, political identity, personal qualities of the leaders, not liking someone’s dead father, etc. etc.

In any case, you don’t need any exotic theories to figure out why academics are unhappy — the “elites” in this case, are not out of touch with ordinary Canadians, on the contrary, their position is pretty close to that of the median voter.

Speaking of vote-splitting, I would like to draw attention to the excellent work done recently by Ali Kashani, on swing ridings in the election, where the NDP/Liberal vote-split is projected to result in a Conservative being elected. In particular, he identifies 16 ridings where a Conservative is currently leading, where the combined NDP-Liberal vote is enough to defeat that Conservative, and where either the NDP or the Liberal candidate significantly trails the other. (To make it even, he identifies 8 ridings where Liberals should vote NDP, and 8 ridings where NDP voters should support the Liberal.)


I encourage you to read and pass along the entire article.


Why u so mad? — 15 Comments

  1. At times like this, I like to remind myself of this great pie chart:


    More to the point (and conceding that my own rhetoric can be wildly overheated on this point), I actually think that a totally legitimate case can be made for Heath’s basic premise here (the niqab issue is different, and worth getting upset about) – and I’ve seen people that I respect make that kind of case. And I even liked Heath’s original post on the subject (though I disagree with it).

    But the letter is a different story, and I think that in this follow-up post Heath defends it in a more questionable way. Let’s start with this: the notion that the 70% of voters supporting LPC/NDP/BQ/Green form a left-wing monolith, and that conservative policies only get traction due to unfortunate vote-splitting, is totally misguided. Canadian politics has never worked that way (brokerage politics, not ideological politics, blah blah blah). And the niqab issue is a perfect illustration of this: the BQ is a far left party on many things, but to the right of the Tories on this issue; more importantly, at least according to public opinion polls, a (bare) majority of Liberal supporters are in line with the Tories on this issue also; even MORE NDP voters support the Conservative position. So on THIS issue the electorate is not divided in the way that Heath suggests at all. (Heath is simply factually incorrect when he writes: “the ‘elites’ in this case, are not out of touch with ordinary Canadians, on the contrary, their position is pretty close to that of the median voter”. This is true with respect to some OTHER conservative policies – but NOT the niqab issue.)

    It might still be the case that the Tory position is a uniquely reprehensible one, an attack on basic liberal democratic values, etc. So maybe this issue IS worth taking a stand for those reasons, as Heath suggests. And maybe that’s what the letter writers are trying to do. Fine. That’s a coherent, principled position. There are even people who I believe signed the letter for that reason, and although I disagree with them, I think their views should be treated seriously and with respect.

    BUT…the way in which the letter is written is another matter. First of all, it is, much like Heath’s post here, an attempt to set issue up as a “evil conservatives versus the rest of us decent Canadians” issue, which is simply at odds with the facts. Moreover, I think it is quite arguably hypocritical. The PQ proposed far more extreme policies in the last Quebec election, and although some of the signatories expressed their objections to those policies, they did so is a way that was far more measured. They went out of their way to show that they respected the PQ and its supporters as democratically legitimate actors, not simply “haters”. By contrast, this letter is basically a stream of invective that is meant to rule the Conservatives out of the public arena altogether (“ugly and dangerous”, “cynical”, “betray”, “disreputable”, “fanning fears”, “pretext”, “inflammatory”, “crossed the line”, “conjuring up”, “phantom”, “vicious propaganda”, “create fear and anxiety”, “odious”, “demonize”, “hate mongering”, “has no place in Canadian democracy”, “contempt”, “brings shame”, “politics of hate”, and so on and so forth).

    It is very obnoxious for anyone to claim the mantle of a “politics of mutual respect” when what they are trying to do is rule out of court those who express political views that they happen to disagree with.

    The insincerity which at the heart of the letter is conveyed especially clearly by the laughable first line, which claims: “We are a diverse group of academics with different political views and different political allegiances”. So far as I can tell, there are no actual conservatively-inclined signatories at all. By “diversity” what the authors of the letter clearly mean is standard-issue academic diversity: opinion is only allowed to range from left-to-far-left. Weinstock drove the point home in a comment he made to a journalist about the issue, where he made a predictable comment about how lamentably far the awful Conservatives were from the “Joe Clark tradition”. Well, yes. That’s because Joe Clark wasn’t conservative in any way shape or form, which makes him an ideal candidate for Weinstock’s model of “diversity”. (Basically, Weinstock is saying: “I can’t bear the thought of speaking with a conservative to such an extent that I wish I could speak to someone who was on the left like me, but was also conservative-in-name-only, so that my rank intolerance and myopia would be less glaringly obvious.”)

    This gets to the broader issue raised by the letter: when a certain kind of liberal academic talks about “a politics of mutual respect”, and puffs themself up grandly with pronouncements about how “Canadian legal and political theory is at the forefront of exploring… pluralism”, are the people making these statements even remotely interested in actually engaging people who do not share their premises? And if they have no genuine interest in persuasion, then why do they insist on so disingenuously presenting themselves as engaged in an exercise of it? I know that they are capable of better. I know this because I’ve seen them do it with the PQ. Because the PQ are a notionally “leftist” party, so they deserve to be engaged with respect, even when they are espousing more extreme policies. So the source of the letter writers’ ire CANNOT logically be attributed simply to the policies that the Conservatives are espousing re: the niqab. It’s the fact that they’re a party that this “on the right” that really infuriates the authors. The niqab issue is just a pretext for stating their premise: conservatives as such are democratically illegitimate actors. We will carry out our “politics of mutual respect” and “diversity” only with those on the left, thank you very much!

    Moreover, in this specific case the hypocrisy of the letter writers goes deeper in my view, since the try to paint the issues at hand as simply a problem with the “Conservatives”. But public opinion polls do not support that notion, nor does the position of the BQ. Of course public opinion may be wrong – and perhaps terribly, unconscionably wrong. But if such misguided views are widely held, then “a politics of mutual respect” truly IS needed. Tirades against the evil Conservative campaign machine are simply an attempt to create a boogeyman: a mirror-image of the strategy that the letter writers are attributing to the Conservatives!

    To be honest, I’ve found *some* of the Conservative use of these issues to be ill-advised. I’m open to a measured, RESPECTFUL critique of it. But I’m not open to having it exploited in the way the letter writers are attempting. That is pure bad faith, and deserves to be responded to in kind.

    • There is, even aside from this particular issue, no point in attempting a politics of mutual respect with the Conservatives. They ruled that out long ago. They made clear that as far as they’re concerned, anyone who disagrees with them is a terrorist, a child pornographer, a disaster for Canada, a godless Communist et cetera, and whenever possible is not someone to have political debates with but to have investigated by CSIS. Basically, they have acted throughout like people only restrained from a fascist putsch by the simple fact that they don’t have sufficient control over the military.
      So you want the rest of us should be bringing flowers to a gunfight? Yeah, to hell with that.

      • “There is, even aside from this particular issue, no point in attempting a politics of mutual respect with the Conservatives.”

        Yes, this is exactly the point that the letter from the academics is trying to make. I just think they go about it in a way that is rather disingenuous, whereas you state the basic premise up-front.

        I don’t agree with the premise, but better to have it stated plainly than gussied up with high-minded chatter about “diversity”, “pluralism”, “a politics of mutual respect”, and so forth.

    • I just wish to point out to you, John Forrest, that the word Niqab does not actually appear in the letter. It is you that has associated this issue with “the politics of mutual respect” – if the cap fits … In fact, the only Conservative policy specifically mentioned is the ‘barbaric cultural practices’ hot line.

  2. One final thought on why economists might not write these sorts of letters: true, they all think that boutique tax credits are b.s. But they’re also used to rolling their eyes at political b.s. of all sorts.

    Professors of philosophy are somewhat unique in that they have developed whole theoretical structures which they believe entitle to them to exclude on principle from democratic debate anyone with whom they disagree.

    So economists are used to saying “your political ideas are nonsense”. But the authors of the letter are used to saying “your political ideas are nonsense, and therefore I can reasonably expect that you will cease to exist as a political or social entity”.

    Sadly, this is not an “exotic theory”. It actually explains the difference between professors of economics and (some) professors of philosophy.

    • Or could it be that, as you say, academics of all stripes are used to rolling their eyes at boutique tax credits, but are not used to rolling their eyes at the government singling out specific minority groups for vigilant community surveillance? Surely that explanation is worth considering, especially when you note the actual disciplines of the signatories to the letter.

      • If you’ll read my original comment, you’ll see that I grant that one might plausibly want to distinguish between these sets of issues along the lines that you suggest. However, I also note that when some of the academics had to address more extreme policies emanating from the PQ, they went about it in a very different way. So I don’t think that the policy issue is demonstrably a red herring for at least some of the individuals involved (by no means all, some of whom I believe are operating in good faith).

        That observation just led me to wonder why, in general, people in philosophy departments are so much more likely than economists to try and make declarations about who ought to be excluded from democratic politics based on their policy preferences. I think that raises issues that are distinct to liberal political theory. It has long been charged that the purported democratic “formalism” of Rawlsians or Habermasians is just a ruse to sneak in more substantive political commitments. If we take some of the democratic theorists who have signed this letter, and compare their publicly-stated reactions to the PQ versus the Conservatives, I think we can find some evidence for that charge. But I accept the principled distinction that you are drawing in any case.

  3. is Canada really so badly run? ebola vaccine, hi employment, hi immigration, export-quality central banking

    • Mmmm. Is this like saying Mussolini made the trains run on time & Hitler built Autobahns? Sorry about Godwin’s Law – I just couldn’t resist.

  4. “Barbaric cultural practices” Was this phrase really just used to gain votes at the expense of turning Canadians against one another? Is it merely an expression of bigotry? I think that your blogs are missing something critically important here. I’m an academic. I’ve been a social science professor and department head. I’m also an outspoken advocate for human rights, especially for women’s equality worldwide. What are the “barbaric practices” the new Conservative legislation refers to?

    -Forced child marriage,
    -Female genital mutilation,
    -Violence against women who do not submit to the alleged authority of men,
    -Violence against women who do not dress with proper “modesty.”

    What your blogs seem to have missed is the tragic fact that all of these practices present a real threat to women across the globe. Canada has been a leading partner in efforts coordinated by the United Nations to take a stand against these activities. Laws in Canada were passed against such acts in the 2013-2014 session of Parliament, long before an election was called.

    The choice of the term “barbaric” was not introduced for the election campaign. It has been used globally for years to underscore the heinous nature of these crimes against women and girls, and to indicate that these practices are rooted in misogynistic cultures dating back millennia. These practices are not attached to any one specific “religion.” In fact, many such practices have been projected onto numerous world religions throughout history.

    The recent Conservative announcement adds a dedicated RCMP unit to address crimes of this nature that occur within Canada. Over 200 such incidents were reported last year. The 24 hour “tip line” is designed to help identify women and girls who are victims of systemic cultural violence and oppression, so that they can receive support.

    Rather than accurately perceiving the real threat posed to women by these practices, and understanding the intent of recent legislation, you have wrongly attributed nefarious motives to Canadian law-makers. Ironically, you have accused Members of Parliament of bigotry for standing up for the rights and safety of women.

    In the interest of women’s safety and equality, and in the interest of a fair democratic process, I would respectfully ask that you please reflect upon and share this perspective with your readers.

    Thank you.

  5. Meanwhile, people are voting with their face covered; apparently this is OK if you swear an oath and provide photo ID. No removal of face covering necessary – I detect a serious inconsistency in the anti-Niqab position here. If this is legal, why all of the needless, overheated commentary over a piece of fabric worn voluntarily?

  6. It amuses me what emotional issues people choose get upset about. I would not be surprised if there are more men with breast cancer than there are women who wear the Niqab in Canada. It just simply does not matter. The women who wear them come from cultures where female modesty in front of men outside the family is required. Catholic nuns, Amish women, the women in traditional garb at Upper Canada Village aren’t much different than that. My Italian immigrant mother lived in a time when women wore hats and veils to church. Why does it matter to anyone?

    After that woman takes her citizenship oath, she will go home, raise kids, cook food, shop for groceries, eventually get old and die and almost no one outside her family and circle of friends will ever hear from her again. Her kids will grow up Canadian and be indistinguishable from other Canadian kids, even old stock ones. It is a non-issue.

    It’s none of the government’s business what clothes people wear. Why is it that “conservatives”, who claim to want the government out of their lives, always seem to be in favour of the government sticking its nose in OTHER people’s lives.

  7. It strikes me that there`s a serious problem with our voting system when it produces outcomes closer to those desired by voters when they vote not for who they want to elect (based on policy, ideology, etc.) but when they vote in such as way as to make it harder for a particular candidate to win.

  8. Kashani’s piece is missing a few ridings in Quebec where strategic voting can outseat several Conservatives. I looked at this map of projections http://stephenmcmurtry.org/election_map from Stephen McMurtry (data compiled by Eric Grenier of 308), and several blue areas near Quebec City could definitely gain from liberals voting NDP.