What we think they should want

TH_Alienation Effect_Brecht glasses

I am informed by a colleague that in 1963, Arthur Laing, then Canada’s minister responsible for Indian policy, asserted that, “The prime condition in the progress of the Indian people … must be the development by themselves of a desire for the goals which we think they should want.”

Which we think they should want.

This is of course awful, an expression of the sentiment that makes it fair to describe the policy of the Canadian state as “cultural genocide.” I am reminded of Brecht’s poem, “The Solution”:

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Also awful, however, is how much pleasure I take in this quote. Not because I agree with it at all, no. Rather, one of the virtues (if it can be called a virtue) that I have cultivated as I gradually come to identify myself as an academic, is this affection for pieces of evidence that provide the perfect example of some process or dynamic or force, even if that process is the name of what is going wrong with the world. Such pristine, self-contained cases. It is hard not to be drawn in by the sense of the universal in the particular (especially when, as here, it is about universalizing one kind of particular, and annihilating another).

how I spent my weekend

This weekend’s balmy Montréal weather provided me ample indoor time to consider the question of what’s wrong with political discourse these days. I’ve been sussing out a research project with a doctoral candidate in Communications Studies [ footnote: the more you learn about the important issues in modern politics, the more you realize that political scientists are the least likely to be studying those issues]. I’m interested in whether there is a problem with the way that politicians communicate to the Canadian public, how they are abetted by a (corporatized) press, and how one can do something about the register of political discourse without directly trying to regulate politicians or the press directly.

What’s the issue? The nature of the problem may strike a chord of ‘obvious,’ but I found clearly articulating the relevant shortcomings to be an incredibly difficult task. I think it’s best illustrated through the example I’ve had in mind while working through these issues, which concerns the uses and abuses of the ‘tough on crime’ discourse.

There is good evidence that being ‘tough on crime’, if what one cares about is reduced criminality and improved public safety, is very different from being ‘tough on criminals’, which focuses on the application of ‘appropriate’ punishment. Within limits, the Harper government’s gamut of strategies – higher incarceration rates, longer sentences, mandatory minimums, reduced bail opportunities – has little impact on crime rates. One could just as (or more) easily use ‘tough on crime’ language to refer to strategies effective in reducing criminality and recidivism, and thereby improving community safety: e.g. reducing poverty rates, focusing on community reintegration, promoting social inclusion.

Like ‘tough on stains’, a ‘tough on crime’ discourse conflates intimations of brusque treatment and an intention to rub out the underlying phenomena. There is nothing a priori inaccurate about using the phrase to refer only to retroactive condemnation of criminality; yet no washing liquid, no matter how caustic, could claim to be ‘tough on stains’ unless it effectively reduced the sign of such stains.

In saying they are ‘tough on crime’, the Harper government attempts to cover the field. The language they use implies both approbation and activism, painting the opposition as indolent and inattentive. The Canadian press in turn does a poor job of challenging those using ‘tough on crime’ language, or of critiquing its use by placing it in the context of either criminology research and discussion of criminal justice ethics. The result is occlusion of a debate about whether we should value criminal policy which gives victims justice by appropriately punishing perpetrators or social policy likely to reduce the number of victims.

Shouldn’t politicians interested in good policy want to speak with nuance, depth and complexity about their proposals, their likely outcomes and the values represented in those choices? They might but, when one faces a press without the time, effort or energy to report on those nuances, the politician likely to grab the headline is the one who speaks in headlines. In part, Harper’s government speaks in ‘tough on crime’ language because the press is willing to report it that way.

My thinking is that we need ways of having the real debates which sidesteps the evasions perpetrated by the political class and facilitated by the press. Here’s the conclusion from the first draft of the proposal, which gives a sense of my intuition:

…the promotion of public knowledge is the most, if not the only, effective method of intervening in the toxic relationship which currently exists between politicians and the press. Without public knowledge and support for it, the idea of democracy becomes a perversion, where the public is forced, essentially, to guess about whether their representatives have done a good job. At the extreme, the absence of public knowledge turns representative democracy into a farce. The goal is not to get politicians to speak in full sentences and explain everything they do to the public. The goal is to give the public meaningful access to the diversity of questions that can be asked, the answers that might be given and the impact of making those choices, when they are making political contributions to the design of public life. Worrying about politicians puts the cart before the horse.

, no matter how caustic,