Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Finding New Strategies for Progressives in Canada

A few weeks back, Andrew Coyne wrote an excruciatingly epideictic column for The National Post on the virtues of free trade in general, stressing in the process how virtuous CETA (the Canada-European Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) is likely to be for Canada.  It was such an egregiously neoliberal column just hanging out there in public discourse on the threshold of the CETA negotiations moving towards their end that I suggested to a well-placed progressive activist whose file was in fact free trade and the CETA agreement that he - because he has some stature and authority to speak on the issue - respond publicly in some fashion to the column.  My take was not that the column would actually carry any weight in and of itself but that such a paean to neoliberalism at this particular moment was a useful opportunity to score some points on the problems with CETA with an audience that might not have even heard the term before. Alas, his answer was, to my surprise,  a - albeit mild - trash-talking dismissal of both the column and the National Post as in effect not worthy of his attention, claiming “no one” reads such a right-wing publication and that few would pay attention to Coyne's remarks - a position, I might add, supported by some other progressives on Twitter. 

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing it’s a symptom of a larger attitudinal drift that might be undermining the possibility of effecting real transformative system change - presumably the goal of all progressives everywhere. Why not engage with those who do not share your perspective on their ground where you might actually have a shot at changing a few minds, be they influential or not? Why simply dismiss them as unworthy of your attention because they don’t share your values?  Your goal, if you really want change, is to shift their values, not wallow comfortably in yours. What’s the point of spinning well-known progressive talking points in a vacuum to other progressives - the overwhelming tendency of progressives on Twitterverse, in the blogsphere, and in meetings of progressive organizations across the land? There’s no earth moving in such a progressive bubble. Take a shot at the Other.

We need the presence of progressive voices in mainstream media, then, whenever and in whatever ways possible. Since we have so few of those voices at the moment, that means developing strategies for finding ways to scale those walls instead of cynically standing outside muttering it’s hopeless over and over again, allowing ourselves to feel powerless and thus to be victims of neoliberalism’s moral Darwinism that, as Pierre Bourdieu has always reminded us, wishes to inculcate cynicism as the norm of all behaviour and action.  "They've won. What's the point? They'll never listen. Why bother? Why waste my time?"

We also need to find ways to begin developing some serious sophisticated alternative media outlets both to complement and to reinforce any gains that may be made in mainstream media - something way beyond  Rabble, Ipolitics, or Huffington Post, something beyond feedback yapping on the main media's websites. (Democracy Now, The Real News Network, RT, and Alternet come to mind immediately as potential models.) For in the Canada of 2012 it is only in the realm of public discourse that change can actually happen, not in party politics and their policies and not in Parliament - at least not yet. Developing strategies that might gain a bit of power in the realm of public discourse, in other words, is important because it isn’t just or even politicians whose minds need to be changed - that may never happen under the Harper Regime - but those of our fellow citizens. This is the place to grow a counter-power.

A corollary to understanding the need to pentrate the mainstream arena of public discourse is recognizing that the conventional rhetoric of protest and demonstration in 2012 has its limits. There are times when it's required, yes, and times when it's very effective - bringing many different progressives groups together for a greater show of strength in numbers, for example - but there are also times when it simply doesn't work.  Progressives nevertheless go ahead and do it anyway because, well, we've always done it. "Get the placards out of the closet, Fibber, we've got another rally to go to." What's the goal of such demonstrations? Awarness?  A particular message?  If so, what do you hope to accomplish through this particular method of generating awareness?  Does the sheer existence of, say, a large crowd in and of itself really convey a meaningful message when it's a strategy that's been used so often?  The method matters every bit as much and maybe more so than the message. Not to sound too McLuhanesque, maybe it is the method that is the message. Some rethinking about demonstrations and their purpose would seem in order.  Otherwise, “it’s just another one of those demonstration thingies, Molly, nothing new. Go back to sleep.” 


  1. i think if you're young you just love protest and demonstrations... with drums and all. And we let them and sometimes join them; but to respond to that version of «VIRTUOUS CETA FOR CANADA» boy you are right; most people don't even know what it is!!! there is no dialogue or info from this government and so we will continue to exchange among us as citizens, and cause change, but it will be so slow if we do not participate with opposition in gov.

  2. Chris Hedges, in his many remarks about the occupy movement, argues that progressives on the internet - in blogsphere, twitterverse, progressive aggregators, etc. - have retreated into ideological or intellectual ghettoes. I couldn't agree more. He also argues that it it vital for the occupy movement to remain transparent in both its politics and tactics. Again, I agree.