The 19th century lives

One of the things most striking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which was ratified 67 years ago today – is how dramatically it differs from the rights discourse that prevails today.

Consider Article 22, which states:

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Or Article 23:

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.


The incorporation of economic and material provisions into a legal rights framework might be treated as somewhat archaic by the contemporary liberal constitutionalist. In the early postwar period, however, it was essentially the norm – at least aspirationally.

Consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proposed Economic Bill of Rights – intended as a supplement to the existing Bill of Rights and encompassing employment, food, clothing, leisure, housing, freedom from monopolies, medical care, social security, and education. In a 1944 presidential address, Roosevelt said the following:

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. 

They were our rights to life and liberty. As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.


Second Bill of Rights, proposed by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his State of the Union Address on January 11, 1944.

Across the ocean in Britain the Labour Party, which had worked alongside Winston Churchill in his wartime coalition, made similar noises in its 1945 election campaign. After winning a surprise victory over the popular Conservative Prime Minister, Labour embraced the Beveridge Report – a foundational welfarist document which radically overturned the political logic of the 1930s. Beveridge made three principle recommendations:

  1. Proposals for the future should not be limited by sectional interests in learning from experience and that a “revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for “patching”.
  2. Social insurance is only one part of a comprehensive policy of social progress. The five social evils on the road to reconstruction were Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.
  3. Policies of social security must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual, with the state securing the service and contributions. The state “should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.



Clement Atlee celebrates Labour’s election victory in 1945.

A key addendum to the third recommendation was that Beveridge opposed means-testing. Earlier conceptions of social security had regarded it as merely a “safety net” designed to catch individuals who “fell through the cracks”. In the new, socialist Britain social security was to be the birthright of every person – a basic collective minimum that effectively decommodified huge sections of the social and material economy. That five “social evils” were to be overcome was no mere rhetorical flourish. Rather, it reflected a new paradigm of thinking wherein social afflictions like poverty and unemployment were to be seen as forces endemic to prewar capitalism rather than as byproducts of individual human inadequacy. Freedom was no longer entirely to be concerned with license (put simply, freedom to) but would henceforth be synonymous with solidarity and equality (put simply, freedom from).

It would be an understatement to say that the contours of dominant rights thinking had shifted considerably several decades later. By the 1980s a thoroughly new discourse was prevailing – one that synthesized the individualist ethos of the 1960s with a resurgent bourgeois ethic that emphasized consumption and acquisitiveness as ends in themselves and sought to reconstruct the state more or less from top to bottom. Aspirations of universality gave way to means-testing when it came to social programs. Keynesianism gave way to monetarism. The “five social evils” Beveridge had identified were increasingly seen as synonymous with individual and cultural pathologies rather than market irrationality.

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Thatcher and Reagan.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher actively demonized welfare recipients and the subsequent Clinton and Blair administrations followed suit by transforming welfare programs into workfare (here in Ontario, Mike Harris’s hard right administration did the same).

Simultaneously – and proceeding hand in hand with the new epistemology of “individualism” – the unemployed and working poor were increasingly subjected to a new, Victorian-style social authoritarianism that represented their low class position as the product of inferior culture and ethics. Social conservatives, alongside many liberals who were not much less complicit, identified poverty as the result of moral, rather than market, failing: the disintegration of the “traditional marriage”, drug use, the lack of a sufficiently aspirational “ethic” came to be the new ontologies of poverty and social depravation.  (During the 1970s one of Margaret Thatcher’s senior ministers Keith Joseph blew his chances at becoming Conservative Leader by giving a speech that essentially identified excessive breeding among the British working class as the source of the country’s social ills. Had he run a decade later, he might have been more successful…)

The seductive rhetoric of emancipatory “self-sufficiency” supplied a populist garnish to an ideological program that dramatically increased poverty and inequality, while simultaneously ensuring that the fruits of progress and economic growth accrued disproportionately to an increasingly narrow cadre of economic and financial elites.

Even some more benign liberal efforts reflected this shift. In Canada, the administration of Pierre Elliot Trudeau adopted a new constitutional framework that guaranteed political and civil rights while substantively excluding economic rights. Again, the state was to ensure an ostensibly just framework for individual citizens to pursue their private goals (within reason) and little else.

In our present, post-2008 moment, we are arguably seeing a resurgence of something resembling the postwar economic rights discourse in the Atlantic liberal democracies – as evidenced by the nascent rises of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in the United States and Great Britain – though the rhetorical and ideological strength of the neoliberal/neoclassical paradigm that has prevailed since the 1980s still feels basically impregnable.

What’s a stake is quite considerable: Are poverty and inequality essentially the result of individual moral inadequacy or does liberal capitalism contain fundamental contradictions which only the guarantee of economic and social rights by the state will remedy? By any measure, including its own, the neoliberal/neoclassical paradigm has failed to deliver inclusive material prosperity, let alone economic stability. While it never intended to, of course, its now transparent failure to even meet its own standards creates new opportunities to assert a superior paradigm for thinking about individual rights, freedom, and equality.

Whereas the New Right of the 1970s – which continues to rule even in death – mined from the conceptual repertoires of Hayek (neoclassical) and Adam Smith (classical liberal) to construct its New Jerusalem, its contemporary opponents should rediscover the language and thinking of postwar economic rights discourse to confront its corrosive legacy.

The product of decades of popular organization and mobilization, it still offers the decisive alternative to the barbarism and depravation thrown up by the 19th century – and unfortunately still embraced more than a decade into the 21st.



Bread and roses

The labour movement has always been about winning gains for workers at the bargaining table and on the picket lines. But it’s also about securing for working people the kind of freedom presently enjoyed by only a tiny minority – the freedom to realize their own self-directed ends and to live life to its fullest and richest.

As Chris Maisano writes:

The one-sided focus of most Marxists and socialists on distributional questions has obscured the fact that the animating principle of the Left is not so much equality, but rather freedom—freedom from alienating work and freedom to use our time and creativity for our own self-directed ends. Socialism does not equal the roughly equal distribution of stuff; the martyrs of the labour movement didn’t give up their lives so that everyone could have the right to buy an iPhone or a plasma screen TV, or to waste their lives working at crap jobs.

So, yes, we fight for bread. But we fight for roses too.


An anniversary

It feels like a very long time ago that I started this blog, though it’s only been a year. Now that I have it, it’s hard to believe I went for so long without one.

Launched in the dog days of summer following the 2014 Ontario general election (in which I was a campaign staffer and, later, a parliamentary candidate) I was looking for a way to refocus after an exhausting campaign and a year in the intellectual wilderness following the completion of my Masters degree.

To commemorate the one year anniversary of this blog, I’ve compiled a few of my favourite posts. Here they are, in order of publication, with short summaries attached:

Liberalism and the Politics of Equality, Part I – Mania: The inaugural post was intended to be the first in a three part series about political liberalism in Canada. Though I haven’t (yet!) finished to other two parts, the first one certainly does much of the work. An historically-minded look at the much celebrated phenomenon of “Trudeaumania” – and its fundamentally conservative nature.

Scotland’s Democratic Horizons: As a Canadian with UK heritage and family connections, it was hard to know what to think of the union’s near death experience. Ambivalent but sympathetic to the sentiments underlying the Yes side, I wrote after the referendum’s conclusion that it had more or less been a vote on the UK establishment as a whole. The subsequent UK general election and developments in the Labour leadership race seem to have affirmed that assessment somewhat. Also published in Jacobin Magazine.

The Morning After and the Three Torontos: Rob Ford was no longer the mayor of Toronto, so why weren’t we celebrating? Despite the chaotic and destructive reign of Canada’s most infamous Chief Magistrate, he did render bare something fundamental and oft overlooked: our city and its politics are deeply divided along class lines and many of our elites aren’t interested in doing anything about it, preferring to astroturf the problem with the empty rhetoric of “consensus”. This, too, I argue, is connected to class.

Social Conservatism and Public DaycareWhen opposing universal social programs, conservatives often invoke the rhetoric of “choice”. That was certainly true of the Conservative Party response to the NDP’s proposed universal daycare scheme. But is “fiscal conservatism” really the source of this opposition?

Caricatures and ContradictionsThe right invokes two basic caricatures about the left, and they directly contradict one another.

Nationalism on the Frontiers: The late Christopher Hitchens used to say that nationalism is strongest at the periphery. The final decade or so of the socialist Brit-turned American nationalist affirmed this very point.

Has Stephen Harper Made Canada More Conservative?: Psychological explanations of Stephen Harper’s Canada and its authoritarian politics are all too common. Here I offer something of a contrary view. What if Canadian conservatism’s attachment to populist democracy during the 1990s was tactical rather than philosophical?

John Baird and His LegacyWhen Canada’s Foreign Minister suddenly resigned, the political class couldn’t clamour fast enough to celebrate one of their own and extol his virtues and decency. The only problem is that Canada’s (now ex-) Foreign Minister was also one of the most destructive political figures of modern times.

TAs, Public Goods, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Public Sector Strikes: Teaching assistants at my alma matter went on strike over a pay package that kept them below the poverty line, denigrated their work, and treated them as commodities to be managed by backroom administers focused on a soulless bottom line. The official response from the university revealed a lot about what’s really at stake during a strike at a public institution.

Social Media and the End of NuanceIn this post I synergized all the major innovations of social media and perfectly summed up what none of the haters can understand. I also wrote about how internet language is dumbing down and depoliticizing our discourse in two, paradoxically, countervailing ways.

How to Win at TwitterTwitter is a war, and your enemy’s city must be reduced to a cinder by your onslaught.

The Myth of the Muslim TideIn November of 2014 I published one of my most successful pieces of writing to date (provided success can be measured by mentions from influencers and a large volume of hate mail, both of which “New Atheism, Old Empire” engendered). While the piece dealt with the ultimately right wing nature of the “New Atheist” phenomenon and its relationship to geopolitics, a major component of this was its treatment of Muslims and Islam in general. Journalist Doug Saunders’ book proved to be a veritable arsenal of facts when it came to responding to the racist bile of many New Atheists and Islamophobes. Ultimately, those who seek to portray Muslims as a reactionary minority at odds with something called “Western values” are not only insidious and illiberal – they’re overlooking history, demographics, facts and, well, pretty much everything.

Why Our Politics is Brechtian: How social media and the 24-hour news cycle have broken the fourth wall of politics – and rendered elections largely an empty performance explicitly unmoored from the substance of issues.

COMING SOON: The sixth and final part of my blog series about the political history of modern Quebec and the politics of identity, Fragments of a Revolution. Parts I-V, which cover the British conquest, prewar Quebec, the Quiet Revolution, Pierre Trudeau, and Rene Levesque, can be read here (scroll to the bottom of the post).

Here’s to another year of blogging fun. Thanks for reading!


Short story in d minor

One morning when Luke Savage awoke from fevered dreams, he had a great idea for a tweet. This tweet would be simultaneously unassuming and profound, bringing with it a torrent of traffic from influencers and putting a smile on the face of all who saw it.

He began to write, certain that new worlds of untold happiness and copious notifications were but 140 characters away. But, as his cursor made the perilous journey from left to right, dropping abruptly with the line break, his brow furrowed. Only 30 characters remained, and the tweet was yet to reach its climax, let alone its critical denouement.

Undaunted, his fingers continued to type even as the rain and sleet battered his face and hair. He had gone where few had dared venture before: beyond the character limit – a risky frontier to which, his courage failing, he hastily tried to retreat. What could be done to salvage the sublime object that was to have been a tweet?

Hark, oh turbulent priest! Hark, oh wretched night! From whence cometh the tortured suffering of man!

The austere revisions began slowly, first by the conversion of “ands” into “&s”. “That actually looks better!”, he lied to himself, as all men do when they are studied by evil.

Still over the character limit, far beyond the precipice of the world, he retreated further. “People” became “ppl”. “Because” was mutilated into “b/c”. Numbers that could be dropped in as shorthand to salvage precious characters were conscripted to do so, and a foul chorus of 2s and 4s took their places amidst the once glistening prose on either side. And yet, against the character limit he still transgressed. His soul tearing itself to pieces he started to excise the punctuation, throwing his once-beloved commas and colons overboard with a demonic zeal in his eye.

The tweet’s steady rhythm was no more, supplanted by a frenzied staccato such as afflicts the jaundiced brain of a mad man. Where once the voices of angels had met in a single, awesome harmony, he now heard only the dissonant shrieks of damned souls – as if a thousand discordant grand pianos had been hit by a meteor sent from the icy beyond.

Then, suddenly, his soul returned to confront him, rising like a phoenix from the ashes. This tweet was a failure, not even fit for the purgatory of the “drafts” folder. His Promethean ambition thwarted by the Janus-faced temptress of fate and the 140 character limit, he hastily eradicated all evidence of its existence.

He then closed his laptop, having crept a few minutes closer to the autumn of his life in this world.

The universe’s manichaean ballet wore on.


A Margin of Hope

In the midst of the largest spontaneous democratic movement Britain has seen for decades, one of the great disappointments has been watching the newspapers of record read by the liberal and left-liberal intelligentsia lining up with the forces of reaction and conservatism.

Jeremy Corbyn – a modest and plain-spoken Labour MP from north London – has drawn literally hundreds of thousands of people to rallies, with many of them joining the Labour Party for the first time (the Labour membership hasn’t been this high since the early 1950s). And yet outlets like the New Statesman and The Guardian, disappointingly, continue to insist he represents a kind of faddish radicalism, enabled by Labour’s recent election defeat and, perhaps more so, by uninformed youthful naivety and idealism.

While conservative outlets outright dismiss Corbyn as a dangerous red, many writers at The Guardian, New Statesman, and others have opted for a much more patronizing tone – “We all love our fun, but let’s get real kids”, etc. I think all observers of democratic politics should take note here: When establishment politicians, writers, and journalists say they want to build big and inclusive political parties, they usually don’t mean it. What they want is a membership docile enough to swallow the party triangulation du jour and active enough to be conscripted into canvassing and giving money at election time.

I was born in 1989, and I’ve only ever experienced a socialist politics filtered through the lens of history. Studying it has largely been an act of retrieval, especially in Britain where the traditions of working class solidarity and social democracy were quite actively suppressed by the Thatcherite duopoly of New Labour and the Tories. Despite a few decent manifesto planks and some soft egalitarian gestures, the Labour Party largely campaigned in the recent general election within a framework created by the Conservatives – committing itself to austerity and spending cuts, embracing nativist rhetoric around immigration, and trying to outflank the Tories on welfare policy by promising to get “tough” on claimants.

In the weeks following the vote, the Labour frontbench even moved to support a Conservative motion to cap welfare benefits for families with children, apparently as an incentive to stop the poor from breeding any further. Of the four candidates in Labour’s leadership race, only one opposed the measure.

v218-Jeremy-Corbyn-Get-v2Jeremy Corbyn is the first Labour politician in a generation who appears serious about trying to build an egalitarian Britain. The support and enthusiasm he’s generated, particularly from the young, isn’t about naiveté – it’s about hope, something in chronic short supply for people born in the past three decades.

Rather than trying to embrace, understand, or even seriously engage with this impulse, the self-appointed cultural guardians of equality and social justice in the metropolitan media have opted, overwhelmingly, to downplay and delegitimize his support and declare a Corbyn-led Labour Party to be “unelectable”.

This is nonsense. That the anti-Corbyn forces can’t even settle on a single candidate betrays their ideological incoherence and panic. That they can only greet this spontaneous outburst of democratic energy with shrill insouciance only proves that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters are right – and that a Corbyn-led Labour Party is sorely and desperately needed.


Why our politics is Brechtian

I’m never quite prepared for how much I dislike the dominant mode of commentary on Canadian elections.

Just one day into the campaign and we’ve already been served the full menu of facile idioms familiar to anyone who’s ever worked on, reported on, or run in a Canadian election in the past two decades: the obsessive focus on horserace polling; the hyperbolic extrapolation of grand narrative from trivial detail; the absurd characterization of every speech as a “performance”; the excessive, almost hourly, hot takes on how the various leaders and campaigns are being perceived.

The common thread here? Because (in the social media age especially) everything about an election campaign is so heavily scripted, tabulated, and regimented – the leaders’ tours, the messaging, the reporting, and the punditry which is supposed to keep all of it in check – the whole affair takes on a peculiar performative quality, as if the Real Election never quite happens because we’re all too busy debating what it might mean.

Consider a few of the most common words/phrases we’re going to be hearing and reading for the next 11 weeks: “Brand”, “performance”, “perception”, “leader’s image”…you catch my drift. What all of these idioms have in common is a kind of meta quality: a fundamental abstractness from reality and existence on a plane that is all about how things may be perceived.

Thus, instead of talking about or seriously evaluating what each leader said at the various campaign launches yesterday, we get a deluge of commentary on how comfortable they “looked” at the podium or how “convincing” they “sounded” – as if the truth or falsehood of what was said is somehow a minor detail next to how it might be perceived or interpreted by an audience. We get polls that tell us the public ranks X or Y as more important than Z, but little analysis as to whether X, Y, or Z is actually the most important issue at hand. And you can bet we’ll have plenty of voters who will forego their first preference because a poll says other people are supporting someone else.

Waiting for a truly authentic moment in the context of a postmodern election campaign is like Waiting for Godot. The best you’ll ever get is an Authentic Moment™ because authenticity, like virtually everything else, has become just another brand component, and brands are fundamentally about perception rather than reality.

But Samuel Beckett doesn’t exemplify the sheer weirdness of our condition. For that we have to turn to another playwright: Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht’s favoured technique of breaking the “fourth wall” (i.e. the imaginary wall separating the theatrical diagesis from its audience) was about demonstrating the artificial nature of every dramatic performance. (Jean-Luc Godard later adapted this technique for his film Tout Va Bien, which deliberately reveals its own set to be an artifice).

That is, precisely, what most of our political commentary achieves: the fourth wall of politics is now permanently broken, and the whole thing is rendered a performance. Staffers and strategists have this in mind when they write speeches or stage events (“stage”), as do the journalists and reporters who comment on them, along with much of the voting public.

We’ve become so used to doing politics like this that the occasional arrival of an authentic moment (in which, say, a politician goes off “script”) somehow feels less real than the carefully orchestrated ethos we usually dwell inside.

Consider, for example, a 2010 incident surrounding then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in which he unknowingly called a voter who had made bigoted statements a bigot into a microphone. The story was partly news because Brown had violated the spirit of democratic deference politicians are supposed to have when speaking to, or about, ordinary voters. But the real issue was that the human Gordon Brown has briefly appeared in place of Gordon Brown™. The momentary reminder that a politician was actually a human being arguably made people more uncomfortable than the fact that he had been privately truculent towards a voter.

In other words, the truth is now stranger than fiction.

It would be wrong to blame the press for this predicament. No one is exactly to blame, because the whole process feeds into and replicates itself: political parties carefully orchestrate things, because the modern media environment demands it; the modern media environment speaks about campaigns in abstract terms because that’s the terrain upon which they’re ultimately fought; we, the voting public, witness this whole spectacle and consume polls and commentary that tell us what we’re thinking and how we’re feeling before we’ve thought or felt ourselves.

But if there was one thing the press might do to alleviate this condition, it would be to focus less attention on some abstract narrative of the campaign and more on the actual issues at stake. Parties are not “brands”: They’re groups of likeminded citizens competing for political power; politicians are not characters, and voters are not commodities or markets to be encroached upon, purchased, or harvested. Campaigns are actually occurring events, not stories.

It’s true we can’t escape the panoptic gaze of social media or the constraints of the 24-hour news cycle.

But more emphasis on policies – i.e. the basic reason we have elections in the first place – would definitely soften the madness.


Why this election matters

This election matters because…

  • Aboriginal Canadians earn 30% less than others, and women earn 20% less than men
  • Around 1 million Canadians are relying on food banks every month and 200,000 Canadians are homeless each year while around 30,000 sleep on the street every night
  • We have an historic opportunity to reform our electoral system to better reflect the voice of every citizen, regardless of where they live
  • Canada’s top CEOs earn more than the average worker earns in a year before noon on January 2
  • More than 1 million Canadian children are living in poverty
  • We have a government which is actively trying to ensure that fewer people are able to vote
  • The CBC is on life support
  • Corporate tax rates have been steadily slashed since 2006, with no discernable benefit to the employment rate, the creation of new jobs, or investment
  • The unelected, Conservative-dominated Senate gutted a bill passed by the House of Commons which guaranteed basic rights to trans people
  • Corporate Canada has $200 billion stashed in tax havens 
  • Eligibility for EI has fallen below 40%
  • Our economy increasingly consists of poorly paid and precarious jobs
  • Thousands of Canadian parents can’t afford or can’t find a daycare space for their children and the cost of childcare ranges from $800-$1500/month in most Canadian cities
  • The Conservatives want to cut federal contributions to healthcare by $36 billion
  • Canada’s environmental policy is more than a decade behind the rest of the world, which is more than two decades behind where it needs to be
  • We have the government which uses the military as a political instrument then closes veterans’ support offices and spends nearly $1 million fighting them in court
  • The top 20% of income earners owns nearly 70% of Canada’s wealth
  • Parliamentary democracy as we know it may not survive another Conservative mandate, and because Stephen Harper and his party debase and degrade the entire democratic ethos

This election matters.


The Myth of the Muslim Tide

In the months since I wrote critically about New Atheism for Jacobin Magazine, I have been on the receiving end of dozens of emails and thousands of tweets from the angry acolytes of my targets: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.

Among these, the most vitriolic and voluminous have been from Sam Harris fans – an intellectual hodgepodge of the secular right and the ideologically confused left. Interestingly, the majority of these self-described “atheists” have shown little concern for the final section of my piece (which attacked the interpretative logic of New Atheism). Instead, the vast number of them have reacted most angrily to my criticisms of Harris for his rhetoric about Muslims (I’m now even on a list of “Islamic apologists” presumably maintained by some lunatic or other…).

I won’t restate the arguments I made (a link to the actual piece is above), but suffice it to say that Harris and co. made things devilishly easy by being so explicit and unequivocal in their deeply sinister politics; a politics that depends heavily on the demonization and othering of Muslims both inside and outside of the West and identifies them as an alien bloc living in our midsts that poses a demographic threat to civilization in good ole’ “Christian” Europe and North America.

There are a number of fairly intuitive responses to this narrative. We might point out, for example, the fact that Muslims have been living in Europe for a very, very long time. Or that the Muslim populations of Europe and North America have many countries and cultures of origin and can hardly be treated as some kind of monolithic bloc harbouring a unified political or cultural agenda. Or that the kind of rhetoric bandied about by Sam Harris and his compatriots on the right has some extremely sinister parallels in history.

The most effective response, however, may well be just a statistical one.

In an effort to better understand my angriest interlocutors, I have devoted some time over the last few months to a more detailed investigation of the claims made by Harris and others around Muslims and Muslim immigration to Western countries. An incredible find has been Doug Saunders’ book The Myth of the Muslim Tide, which deals systematically with a now popular and somewhat culturally acceptable narrative about Muslims and the West.

The story of the “Muslim Tide”, as you all probably know, runs something like this: Muslims, who are immigrating to Europe and North America in increasingly larger numbers and have higher birth rates, overwhelmingly hold values that are hostile to all that is secular and “Western”: pluralism, toleration, gender and sexual equality; hostile to liberalism itself. These populations are often ghettoized by choice and many within them hope to transform the surrounding societies institutionally, morally, and politically.

This narrative usually sets itself in opposition to what it takes to be a weak-kneed liberal position that is at best naive and, at worst, in active collaboration with the barbarian hordes. In doing so, it manages a superficially seductive kind of ideological triangulation attractive to both conservative nationalists and some who regard themselves left wing “internationalists”. Something resembling Carl Schmitt’s Friend/Enemy distinction becomes the primary ontology for both international relations and domestic “cultural policy”, polarizing every political choice and legitimizing the use of manifestly illiberal means in the defence of “Western Civilization”.

This narrative, or elements of it, is found throughout the writings of New Atheists like Harris and Hitchens and enjoys a sizeable constituency on the neoconservative right thanks to figures like Mark Steyn. In more self-consciously liberal circles it finds articulation in the work of authors like Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, whose books are likely prominently displayed at your local Chapters/Indigo.

Saunders shows remarkable dispassion in engaging with the Muslim Tide thesis. Indeed, many among us (*raises hand*) would probably not be able to exercise such restraint. As such, the book reads like a collection of factoids with each component claim systematically rebutted in turn. Even for a bonafide “Muslim Tide”-skeptic such as myself, some of Saunders’ findings were surprising.

Here are just a few statistics and factoids drawn from the book, arranged in no particular order:

  • No reputable studies in existence suggest that Muslims will become a majority population in Europe during the 21st century. Statistics from the Pew Research Centre suggest that, by 2030, Muslims will comprise about 7% of Europe’s total population (up from 4.5% in 2010). Moreover, countries like Russia, Albania, and Bosnia – which historically have large Muslim populations – greatly increase this total. Incorporation of Russian statistics alone nearly doubles the continental total. As such, the notion of a “demographic threat” posed by Muslims is manifestly absurd.
  • Muslim populations in Europe have high rates of identification with their countries of residence. According to a 2009 Gallup study, for example, 77% of British Muslims identified “very strongly” or “extremely strongly” with their country and its democratic institutions. The figure for Britons in general was 50%.
  • A study conducted by the behaviour unit at Britain’s MI5 of “several hundred individuals known to be involved in, or closely associated with, violent extremist activity” (that is, would-be Jihadis or suicide bombers) drew several conclusions which directly contradict one of the key elements of the “Muslim Tide” thesis. Significantly, even the most radical Islamic clerics play little to know role in the indoctrination or recruitment of Jihadis. “Far from being Islamist fundamentalists”, the report concludes, “most [Jihadists] are religious novices” and very few have been raised in religious households…There is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization“. Many recruits are involved in drugs and have visited brothels – as such, they are hardly the puritanical religious conservatives often depicted.
  • Saunders writes: “Religious devotion simply does not correlate with violent radicalism”. Another Gallup study examined the 7% of Muslims worldwide who condoned the 9/11 attacks and view the USA unfavourably and found that they were “no more religious than the general population of Muslims”.

One particularly insightful passage from the final leg of the book is worth quoting at length:

The image of the self-ghettoized Muslim living in a parallel society dissolves once you encounter the actual terrorists. When Edwin Bakkar at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism scrutinized the data on hundreds of Muslim Europeans convicted of terrorism, he found that almost all were the European-born children or grandchildren of immigrants and 213 out of the 305 suspects he identified were legal residents of a European country. Only eight had ever lived in a country outside Europe. Less than a fifth were raised in religious Muslim households; almost half had largely secular upbringings; and more than a third were converts to Islam, mainly from Christian backgrounds.

A number of major studies of the demographics and psychology of terrorist recruits have shown that adversity, including poverty and violence, is rarely a significant factor in radicalization or terrorist recruitment. If anything, it is  the opposite, as middle class, well-educated Muslims are drawn to Jihad. These individuals are more likely to *perceive* [emphasis author’s] a sense of shame or humiliation, and to have hope and aspirations that they come to believe have been thwarted by the same Western forces they believe are invading the lands of Islam – as well as a desire for self-glorification that can be accomplished through martyrdom.

[Quoting various sources] Clearly, absolute material conditions do not account for terrorism…people suffering *actual* deprivation do not have the time or inclination for terrorist organizing. Many of the most famous Jihadists including Mohamed Atta and Osama bin Laden, were university-educated technicians and engineers.

All of them, Olivier Roy says of the Western terrorists, are integrated, Westernized, and educated…The source of radicalization is the West and not Jihad or the conflicts in the Middle East. None became a radical after attending religious studies completed in a Muslim-majority country. Finally, for almost each one of them, the time between their return to religion and their transit to political radicalization has been very short, which shows they are as much, if not more so, interested in politics as in religion.”

Suffice it to say, the reality bears virtually no relation to the story offered to us by Harris and co. From this I can only draw, or perhaps repeat, the same conclusion I made a few months ago: just as “Islamic terrorism” has very little to do with religion, so too does New Atheism.

Rather than being a dispassionate or “scientific” critique of religion, its motives and objectives are primarily political – and also extremely dangerous.


Dean Del Mastro and the Harper Imperative

It may be summer, but we’ve very likely entered the autumn of Conservative rule in Canada.

Six months ago, Stephen Harper hoped to ride a balanced budget and a wave of national security anxiety into a second majority government. Today, that prospect looks very dim indeed.

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It’s appropriate, then, that yet another Harper acolyte is being aggressively disowned by the party that used and defended him until it became crystal clear a court was going to put him behind bars: in their near decade of government, the Conservatives have often functioned just inside, and occasionally just outside, of both laws and conventions. 

By now it should be perfectly clear to all but the most dogmatic Conservative partisans that Dean Del Mastro is no anomaly: he’s the direct product – the natural outcome – of a style of politics designed to harden a core constituency, demotivate and demoralize the majority of the voting public, ignore and delegitimize legal and ethical constraints, and permanently reconfigure the country’s institutions in the interests of the Conservative Party.

When I saw the now widely circulated photo of Del Mastro in shackles earlier today, I couldn’t help but think of these words from Harper’s former advisor and confidant Tom Flanagan:

There is also a dark, almost Nixonian side to the man (Harper). He believes in playing politics right up to the edge of the rules, which inevitably means some team members will step across ethical or legal lines in their desire to win for the boss.

As expected, the usual cabal of shameless Conservative talking heads is now taking to the airwaves to officially disown the disgraced Del Mastro and minimize the political damage his conviction will inflict on their party. With the Duffy trial – a prosecution of yet another Harper ally defended and then disowned – continuing later this summer, I suspect we can look forward to a few final spectacles of this degrading agitprop.

Dishonest, cold, petulant, and utterly shameless.

The Harper government will die exactly as it has lived.