Harper’s hubris

September 26, 2010

Following his party’s defeat in the House of Commons this week, the certainty with which Stephen Harper vowed to hunt down and destroy the Long Gun Registry put me in mind of a quote from Bertrand Russell I saw once on a tractor site: “The problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

In the ongoing soap opera on Parliament Hill, no one could accuse Stephen Harper of a comic role. He’s the stuff of tragedy: larger than life, towering above his peers, neither predominantly good nor evil, imbued with a personal vision quite apart from the conventional moral code. It is of this vision I wish to speak.

Over the last year Stephen Harper and his government have declared war on statistics and the more rational forms of record-keeping. Lump sum payments to wounded soldiers suddenly took the place of a rational system of disability pensions for life. So much for supporting our troops, up until then the mantra of the Harper Government, but the system was simple.

The census is the bastion of all rational public administration in Canada. This summer it had its foundation cracked on the laughable premise that no one should go to jail for the failure to fill out a form. No one has ever gone to jail for not filling out a census form. But without believable, objective data, one can only govern by one’s beliefs and impulses, and that seems just fine for Harper and his inner circle.

And the latest battle to destroy the Long Gun Registry took on the context of a rebellion against an oppressive law which criminalized honest gun owners. What madness is this? The strength of the LGR is the set of rules for the possession and storage of firearms it carries with it. Every time I handle ammunition I remember the rule which requires that the shells be locked up in a separate room. This legislated requirement for the careful storage of firearms and ammunition in Canada undoubtedly saves lives because it makes Canadians careful.

Even Jim Flaherty caught the mania. To the annoyance of his audience at the Canadian Club, last week Flaherty read a rip-roaring speech accusing the opposition parties of a lust for power so that they can destroy Canada. It ended with an extended pirate metaphor so corny that it would have had my grade nine students of a decade ago jamming fingers down their necks in protest.  This is hardly fit behaviour for a Minister of Finance of a G8 country, but like Tony Clement, Flaherty does what his boss tells him to do.

So what’s going on in Stephen Harper’s head?

Remember two years ago when Harper and Flaherty devoutly promised Canadians that there would be no recession in Canada? Harper even denied the stock market crash, suggesting it would be a good time to pick up some bargains. Yet these same two plan to run on their economic record and expect a good number of Canadians to believe them.

Stockwell Day disregarded statistics which show Canada’s crime rate steadily declining over the last two decades, and justified billions of dollars in prison expenditures with his claim of “unreported crimes.” How do you know there have been crimes if they’re not reported? I guess Stock just believes there must be some, so we need more prisons.

“This madness erects therefore its own foundation, owing nothing to reason. While holding itself high above reason, it makes itself reason’s counterpart. It is through this madness that subjectivity becomes absolutely sovereign, and the ultimate truth of folly is revealed.” Marina Van Zuylen, Monomania: the flight from everyday life in literature and art. Ch. 5

This mania for the subjective over objective evidence is the downfall of Harper and his government. Certainly a world closed in around a few strongly-held beliefs is more comfortable than one where the viewer is exposed to all of the banal, often hopeless confusion which makes up the normal world with its lack of a coherent narrative. If one can subscribe strongly enough to one’s mania, the world can be a comfortable, rewarding place. One can create meaning within the fantasy world, and appear frighteningly confident to an outside observer. But faced with the statistics of a nature “Which is but an inert mass that does not depend in the least upon one’s creative powers when all it does is remind us of our limits, of our fallen condition, of our imminent return to dust,” the fantasy crumbles and the created ego shatters (Van Zuylen).

Look at the sudden departure of former Harper spokesman Kory Teneycke from Sun Media two weeks ago. In combat with author Margaret Atwood, he pushed the delusion to a point beyond which the fantasy could not go, and he cracked.

I can accept a certain fragility in Canada’s prime minister and his or her government, but not at the cost of ignoring the real issues for which we need a parliament to provide leadership.  Columnist David Olive offered the following list of critical issues in October of 2008.  Have we made any progress?

  • healthcare
  • the Canadian mission in Afghanistan
  • foreign policy generally (Do we have one? What should it be?)
  • squalid conditions in Native Canadian communities
  • education reform
  • immigration reform
  • conventional pollution, specifically the proliferating toxic lakes in the Athabasca tar sands, and the continuing disgrace of the Sydney tar ponds
  • the infrastructure deficit
  • the widening gap between rich and poor
  • the flat-lining of middle-class incomes
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