Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Politicizing (Free) Speech; Politicizing Hate (Part II)

In my last blog entry, I tried to explain what Hate Crimes were, in Canada at least, and why it would break new ground if the federal government were to attempt to criminalize expressions of opposition to the government of other states (in general) and Israel (in particular). I tried to argue that hate crimes were a specific aspect of liberal conceptions of the law, were consistent with the idea of (and limits to) rights in society, and were designed to protect individuals from the violence that is often associated with racism, sexism, homophobia, or other forms of prejudice. It was not a political weapon that could be mobilized against civil society to force diverse groups within it to "tow the party line." It appears that the current government has decided it agrees with me ... well ... not me, per se, but with the broad scope of the argument I was re-articulating (since my views on this matter are hardly unique). You can read about the government's position here.

I generally don't comment on current affairs as they unfold because there is too much of a chance I will get things wrong. A bit of time and consideration, I think, can go a long way toward finding logical and reasonable compromises. Some people feed of the heightened emotion of immediate political controversy and some people even want it. Considered analysis, I think, requires something different and so I tend to try to get at least a bit of distance between a subject in the news and my thinking on it.

In this case, however, I think that immediate comment was needed for a couple of reasons and I will pick up on what I was saying last time to continue the argument I was making. I think it was needed because there are people who do equate opposition to the current Israeli government with antisemitism. It is not and to make that equation -- as, it appears, a minister of the crown did -- is politicizing prejudice. It is an attempt to manipulate racism to attain personal or partisan political goals. In this case, Canadians are fairly skeptical about the policies of the current Israeli government and fair enough. A great number of Israelis -- perhaps the majority -- are skeptical about their own government. To equate opposition to a policy (occupation of Palestinian territories, housing expansion, and the like) with antisemitism is not understand what antisemitism is.

Let's follow up this argument by looking at trajectories of current politics and their results.

Redefining Policy:

Yet, for reasons that are confusing -- if important -- the Canadian government has moved in exactly the opposite direction. And, this is the other reason to draw attention to the issue. Not only is it important to distinguish a hate crime from political opposition; it is also important to look at what this kind of argument -- opposition to the policies of the current government of Israel are the same as antisemitism -- tells us about the state of Canadian public life and the changing dynamics of Canada.  This is what I want to address in this blog.

The reason people believed that the federal government was considering redefining hate to equate it with any opposition to current Israeli policy is that it made sense. The federal government, under the Conservatives, has been very slowly redefining all matter of things. This is not surprising and should not surprise us. After all, that is what we would expect conservatives to do and that is why they are conservatives. I've blogged on this before but let me say clearly that that is the goal of politics. It is not just about policy but about the philosophy of nation ... how the country operates and what it takes as its values. Conservatives are conservatives because they do not share liberal or socialist or environmentalist values. Hence, there is always something more at stake in public life beyond the immediate policies being discussed.

Over their time in power, the Conservatives have changed the Citizenship Test (moving it away form the development of the welfare state and commitments to equality and toward war as the defining mark of Canada), Status of Women (removing its commitment to equality between men and women and defining it only in terms of research), Stats Canada (removing its ability to collect detailed information about Canadians), Elections Canada (no longer allowed to promote voting among Canadians), internationalization (limiting access from Mexico and Czech Republic), heritage (militarization), Middle East policy (shift to unconditional support for Israel from neutral "honest broker" position), income tax (find ways of benefitting "traditional" families so that woman at home families don't pay as much tax), etc. There are, I am sure, other things as well.

What has happened -- and I'm just describing it; not passing judgement on it -- is that we have a series of subtle shifts without overthrowing traditional laws and policies.  There has been an extended redefinition of the role of federal agencies, ideas, values, etc. that, taken together, reposition Canada and reposition what it means to be Canadian, at least in the eyes of the federal government. Status of women continues to exist, but the federal government is no longer committed to gender equity. Stats Canada still exists, but the federal state is no longer interested in detailed demographic studies that might or might not provide evidence of changes to or continuities in Canadian society. Canada is still active in the Middle East but it is no longer trying to contribute to peaceful solution to regional conflicts with which all parties can live. People believed that this type of shift was underway because it was not new. Instead, it seemed like an extreme version of shifts we have already seen.

Law, Policy, the Constitution:

One of the changes that has occurred is that the federal government finds itself more and more in opposition to court rulings. I've lost the news story (and so if someone has it, please send it to me) but I recently read a news story scorecard of Harper/Supreme Court conflicts. The Harper government has lost repeatedly when its policies have been challenged as unconstitutional (or, even just not good law). When this happens, the government usually complains about the courts impinging on policy in areas that are rightly its (the government's) prerogative.

The other side of the coin is that it is, in fact, not the courts that are challenging the Harper government. The courts, of course, don't initiate legal action. If you don't know that and have been complaining about the courts overstepping their jurisdiction ... you likely should learn how the courts in Canada operate. Judges don't sit around and say "gee, I think I will take on Harper today." They can act only if a case is brought to them.  It is, as I have said before, a right of  citizens to take matters to the courts and it is a good way of solving problems and conflicts. At the least, it is consistent with the rule of law. The courts, then, rule on issues and they cannot rule on matters from a political perspective. Nor, would we want them to. They rule from a legal and constitutional perspective. We don't want judges saying "I"m a Conservative/Liberal/Socialist, etc., so I will rule this way." We want them ruling on the law.  I know that there are political implications to legal rulings but this is something different from allowing political considerations to determine and rationale rulings.

What happens, then, is that citizens take the government to court and the government loses because it is violating the constitution. In a society that is based on the rule of law, the government cannot be exempt from the law. If it is, the society is no longer based on the rule of law but instead the arbitrary attributes of government. What the government (any government) is, therefore, asking for when it says that the courts should not rule on its policies because it is the government is to be exempt from the rule of law. In other words, they are not simply saying "the courts should not rule on X or Y" but saying "this government's policy should not be subject to the law and constitution and the courts should deny citizens the ability and right to take matters before them." In other words, they are saying that the rights of citizenship should be contracted.  My view is that many people like this idea when the courts rule in a way they don't like but ... that people would very quickly come to dislike the precedent it set because it would subvert the rule of law.

Conclusions:

Why mention any of this? For a number of reasons:

1. The courts are serving as a break on the Harper government because its efforts to redefine policy and law are violating the constitution. This does not make the courts bad. They are simply doing their job. For me, it raises a question: why would a government consistently try to violate the constitution?  I don't have an easy answer to this question but I think it relates to conservative skepticism about individual rights.

2. That if the current government tried to redefine hate crimes, this would be challenged and the courts would uphold that challenge. A hate crime, the courts would almost certainly rule, is something different form opposition to policy X or Y being carried out by the a foreign government.

3. That the government has, however, thought about equating opposition to Israeli policy with a hate crime tells us something about this governments, its perception of Israel, and its perception of the relationship between citizens and the state. In effect, it says that the current government seems to feel that any opposition to Israel (which is, ipso facto, opposition to Canadian foreign policy) can be defined as a hate crime. Think about that.

4. This also tells us something about propaganda. We live through a time where propaganda from the state is becoming more overt. I'll make up an example to illustrate my point. A budget bill that cuts benefits to poor people is called "The Prosperity Law" even though it will make people poorer. There has always been a politics of manipulation but it seems to be ramped up in recent years. We used to laugh at American legislature for the type of manipulative naming and now we find Canadian legislature doing the same thing.

5. This rise in propaganda is often justified by the line "this is our view" which is, of course, no justification at all. I said in my last blog entry, the fact that you believe something does not make it true and its remarkably arrogant to believe that it does.  Yet, there is -- connected to this rise in propaganda -- and odd rise in the believe that "well, I believe" is a good answer.

6. I think that this has an effect on political alienation because ordinary people seen politicians manipulating language to serve their own ends. If a minister of the crown says "It is OK to equate opposition to the Israeli government with hate," the boundary between hate and opposition becomes blurred and confused. If we call cutting benefits "prosperity" and ignoring the past "heritage" ... why would anyone believe anything? Why would they participate in politics?  There is, in other words, a negative consequence to this type of politics of naming.

What I am trying to say is this: whether or not the current government defines opposition to its Israeli policy as hate is important but it is also only one part of a broader change that has gone on in Canadian society and Canadian politics. The government might not do it. Good. It was a bad idea that would have been thrown out by the courts and hence a waste of time and money. But, we can use it to illustrate the changes that have gone on in Canada and what living in a conservative Canada actually means.

A Final Final Word

I might note that almost none -- I counted one person of principle on my twitter feed -- of the defenders of "free speech" opposed the idea of calling opposition to the current Israeli government "hate." This is telling. Over the last few years, we've seen a number of politically right-wing commentators and semi-organizations defend free speech, which they claim is menaced by leftists. I've tended to argue against this and tried to show they the arguments made by these  self-appointed defenders of free speech are spurious. But, we should note that none of them came out in opposition to the idea I've been discussing.  Does this show the politics of their perspective. They are all for free speech for some people but not others? I don't know, but it does make it more difficult for me to take them seriously.
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