Notes on the Occupation 7: Knowledge and the New Class War

A very, very good column from Andrew Coyne in the Globe and Mail this morning, in which he argues that the true dividing line revealed by the Ottawa Occupation involves competing claims over knowledge itself:

Previous generations of class warriors wanted to smash capital, first physical then financial. But in an age in which capital resides in knowledge, the objective must be to smash knowledge itself, together with its repositories – the universities, the courts, the media. All are not merely fallible but hostile, enemies of the people, filled with lies – which is to say, with facts they refuse to believe.

In their place, the new class warriors must attempt to make sense of the world unaided. They are “doing their own research,” via the internet, and sharing their findings with each other, via social media. They are, in short, defenceless, vulnerable to any number of bad actors looking to manipulate them.

Coyne here uses the language of marks and grifters when bemoaning (correctly) how susceptible so many people are to straight-up nonsense, and paints a picture of an assault on the concept of knowledge itself.

What he’s describing, though, is not a war on knowledge by anti-knowledge, but a contest over what we consider to be knowledge. It’s a contest between contending views on what is reality.

At issue is what IPE scholar Susan Strange called the power to determine what knowledge is legitimate knowledge. It’s about who is considered to be an authority worth listening to, and how their authority is legitimized.

It doesn’t happen often, but sources of authority do change over the long course of history, and when they do literally everything changes with it. Strange argues that the last big change in this form of power, at least in Europe, occurred when scientific knowledge replaced religious knowledge as the most legitimate form of knowledge, and scientists replaced priests as the holders of legitimate knowledge.

Even though religion has persisted, science dominates, to the extent that even the most religious feel the need to justify their beliefs in scientific terms. Think about the Creation Museum, which is devoted to proving the biblical creation myth: What is a museum but a temple to science?

Changes in what Strange called the “knowledge structure” lead to changes in what people believe counts as evidence. Coyne attacks those who are “spreading falsehoods, validating lunacy, crossing lines previously considered uncrossable,” but these charges only hold weight within our (still-dominant, though under siege) scientific-based knowledge structure. Outside it, they hold no weight at all.

Writing in the 1980s, way before the commercial internet, Strange correctly recognized that the most likely challenger to the scientific knowledge structure would be New Age thinking. Think homeopathy, anti-vaccines, the healing power of crystals. New Age thinking rejects science and, by necessity, the authority of those who embrace science and rationality as a standard of knowledge. That it’s all nonsense and anti-science matters a lot to me because I’m a very big fan of science, liberalism and rational thought. But for someone who doesn’t believe in science, these arguments are unlikely to be convincing.

If anything, thinking of our current moment as people being deluded by snake-oil-selling charlatans underplays the very deep dynamics at play. We are witnessing a schism in the knowledge structure potentially on the scale of what ended the dominance of the Catholic Church in Europe.

This is a very, very big deal.

A contest of legitimacy

This knowledge crisis is not, or at least not completely, a demand-driven phenomenon. Individuals and groups are attempting to claim for themselves the right to determine what counts as legitimate knowledge. These charlatans and cranks (or fearless truth-tellers, if you will) are the ones supplying mis- and dis-information to people who reject science.

There is also a structural component to all this. New Age woo-wooism predates the internet, but the internet and social media as it is currently constituted has acted as an accelerant for this anti-scientific worldview. It has also been helped along by fundamentalist interpretations of the US First Amendment, which has treated Fox News, an anti-science, anti-democracy propaganda outfit, as a legitimate journalism outfit. New media, bad regulation and anti-science worldviews are an explosive combination.

Not all knowledge structures are created equal

In highlighting how religious, scientific and New Age perspectives don’t really overlap, I’m not claiming that one is as good as the other. I ride for Team Science, not because it’s the knowledge of the elites, but because vaccines save lives. I support it because it embodies what the poet and cultural commentator Clive James called a liberalism of doubt, where knowledge is contingent, ideological certainty is to be avoided, and we should work to verify our beliefs. I support it because it’s also the most friendly to liberal-democratic government, and I’m a big fan of self-determination.

In contrast, there is little to recommend New Age thinking. Most obviously, it fails to support life itself (see: homeopathy). But it also is remarkably open to con artists who spin a good, emotional story, and leaves its adherents with few ways to extricate themselves from its grasp. At the extreme, as we’ve seen with Donald (“I alone can fix it”) Trump and the anti-democratic Ottawa Occupation, it breeds dictatorship.

No thanks to all that.

What to do

It’s tempting to think of these battles as amorphous cultural contests with no solutions beyond weak exhortations for “more education!” or “more media literacy!” Thankfully, we can do more than that to defend the scientific worldview.

Strange wrongly argued that power in the knowledge structure is “unquantifiable.” But knowledge, as Coyne remarks, is a social process. It is spread by people and through communication systems. Knowledge has a very material, corporeal component.

Coyne’s identification of the problem is a good and necessary start. Actually doing something about it is possible, but more difficult. Dealing with this attack on science, rationality and democracy itself will require, among other things, bringing social media regulation into line with the standards of truth that we expect from our other communications media.

It will require enforcing anti-hate laws in Canada. In the United States, it will require (deep breath) adjusting their First Amendment thinking along the lines suggested by legal scholar Mary Anne Franks, so that Fox News is no longer treated as a legitimate news outlet.

All this is doubtlessly a heavy lift, but it has the virtue of addressing our current moment with the seriousness it deserves. If knowledge is social, then our actions will decide whether or not science will prevail.

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Notes on the Occupation 6: As best as I can figure

Working out what to think about … all this … in real time.

  • The Ottawa Police Service proved itself either incapable or unwilling of stopping the protest.
  • Ottawa City Council and its police oversight proved itself utterly incapable of exercising legitimate direction and oversight over its police force.
  • The most effective actors in addressing the blockade have been private citizens with no support from government: to get an injunction against the incessant honking; to mount a class-action lawsuit against the protesters; and to block the arrival of more protesters into the city.
  • The Province of Ontario only declared a state of emergency two weeks into the Siege of Ottawa, following the blockade of Canada’s most important trade corridor, the Windsor-Detroit crossing.
  • The province moved incredibly slowly to address the collapse of the rule of law in Canada’s capital.
  • The federal government was slow to address both the siege of Ottawa and of its vital trade links with the United States.
  • The federal government invoked the Emergencies Act after the Windsor blockade was cleared out.
  • The federal government invoked the Emergencies Act while the Province of Ontario and the City of Ottawa remained paralyzed or very slow-moving to address the ongoing Occupation of Ottawa.

All of which leads me to conclude, provisionally…

  • All levels of government have failed in mind-bogglingly spectacular and previously unimaginable ways:
    • Ottawa should never have allowed these protesters the time to set up camp. Once it was set up, Ottawa police should have immediately moved to dismantle it and expel them from the city.
    • Ontario should have taken the siege of Ottawa at least as seriously as it did the threat to Canada-US trade. And even there it took them almost an entire week to get their act together.
    • The federal government should have immediately acted when protesters blocked the Detroit-Windsor bridge, treating it as a threat to the economic and political security to the country.
    • Somebody should have recognized that it is intolerable to hand over a city, let alone the nation’s capital, to a bunch of lawless thugs who don’t seem to have seen a movie since 1995.
  • Any one of these (in)actions would normally be grounds for those involved to be chased from office in disgrace.
    • Especially Jim Watson. Negotiating with people who occupied his city, want to overthrow the government and have no coherent demands (vaccine mandates are a provincial responsibility; even if Canada got rid of the mandate for truckers, the US mandate would keep them out), and then to turn city council into a street brawl at the time of the city’s greatest need: what a pathetic end to three decades of public service.

The empty comfort of “it never should have come to this”

  • Those who say, regarding the invocation of the Emergencies Act, that it never should have come to this, are correct.
  • But here we are. And being where we are, instead of in a fantasyland where time can move backward, we have to deal with where we are.
  • When governments, in the face of an occupation, over several weeks, have failed to act to remove protesters, it’s absurd to argue that governments already have the tools to address the protesters.
    • The important and unavoidable fact is that, in the face of an intolerable situation, governments and police refused to use the tools and laws at their disposal.
    • The Emergencies Act, to my eye, broke this impasse, effectively federalizing a situation that the province and city were either unwilling or unable to confront.
  • Trudeau’s inaction in the face of a clear and present danger to Canada’s economic and political stability (the Windsor border blockade) made it essential to act decisively via the Emergencies Act, to signal to the United States that Canada is serious about maintaining its economic ties to the US and its territorial integrity.
    • That it never should have come to this doesn’t negate the absolutely inescapable need to signal to our most important trading partner and the world’s superpower that we’re a responsible country.
    • Canada’s job in North America vis a vis the US is to provide security to the United States at its northern border. This is a non-negotiable fact of the relationship, if we want to maintain our status as an independent country (see: 9/11).
    • (Yes, it’s that serious.)
    • That it never should have come to this is a strike against Trudeau, not against the use of the Emergencies Act, which is appropriate given the circumstances.
  • To reiterate, it’s hard to prove a counterfactual, but I would argue that it’s taken the federal invocation of the Emergencies Act to get everyone to smarten up and start retaking downtown Ottawa.

Finally

  • Yes, this is a real goddamn emergency.* Even if you ignore the border blockades, the occupation of Ottawa – the freakin’ capital – represents a threat to the territorial integrity of the country.
  • No, this is not a legitimate protest that just happened to attract some unsavoury elements, including Nazis. It’s a far-right, extremist operation that’s free-riding on anti-vax sentiments.
  • The protests were not “mostly peaceful.” The lawless occupation of a downtown is an act of violence. And the constant harassment and interruption of sleep with incessant honking are literal acts of violence.
  • Right-wing extremism is likely to be an ongoing threat. Once the pandemic has come to an end, these right-wing extremists will attempt to continue their attempted insurrection by glomming onto something else. Because vaccine mandates were never the point of these protests, something that has been clear from the beginning.
  • This is the kind of thing you want to take care of before it metastasizes into a movement that, say, takes over a major political party.
  • Using the Emergencies Act also acts as a signal about where we draw the line in Canada when it comes to the difference between legitimate debate and unacceptable, anti-democratic behaviour. The United States failed to do this with Trump and they will continue to reap the consequences for years, if not decades.
    • The invocation of the Emergencies Act, by identifying extremism for what it is, gives us a chance to avoid the United States’ mistake of assuming that fascists are good-faith actors.

* Gratuitious Shellac reference. Enjoy The End of Radio.

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Notes on the Occupation 5: Border blockades and survival instincts

Working out what to think about … all this … in real time.

We’re into Week Three of the Ottawa Occupation, which has now metastasized into protests blocking border crossings across the country. These blockades include, most importantly, the Windsor-Detroit crossing, which carries 25% of the value of all Canada-US trade.

The Ottawa Occupation has been shocking and dismaying. I never thought I’d see Canadian security forces and government officials cede control of a major Canadian city’s downtown – the capital, my hometown – to anyone, let alone far-right thugs, with no end in sight.

As bad as the Ottawa Occupation is, the federal and provincial governments’ leisurely reaction to the border blockades has somehow managed to be even more worrying for what it says about the capacity of Canada, at any level, to deal with any crisis.

Here, I’m talking about a matter of degree. Federal and provincial officials are treating the Windsor blockade much more seriously than the Ottawa Occupation. There’s a reason why Ontario Premier Doug Ford didn’t declare a state of emergency until Windsor happened, two full weeks into what he’s described as a “siege” in Ottawa.

Here’s the thing, though: a declaration of emergency might sound like a serious reaction to a serious problem. But I’m most struck by the slowness of it all, first the declaration (five days into the blockade) and then the enforcement (which only now, Sunday the 13th, seems to be coming to a head).

A blockade of Canada’s border crossings, especially at Windsor, represents a direct threat to the economic and political survival of Canada as a country. The Canadian economy is tightly integrated into the US economy. In 2019, the last full year of the Before Times, 74% of Canada’s total trade in goods was with the United States. That $443 billion represents about 22% of the entire Canadian economy, as measured by the Gross Domestic Product. Blockading the border, and especially Windsor, kneecaps the entire Canadian economy.

These blockades do not just put Canada’s economic survival at stake, because trade is a two-way street. We’re used to thinking of the Canada-US relation in terms of our dependence on, and vulnerability to, our giant southern neighbour. But as the political economist and lifelong student of Canada-US relations Stephen Clarkson noted in his final book, the United States depends on Canada to provide it with border security. From the US perspective, it’s our job to take care of things on our side of our shared border.

Taking care of things includes not only addressing real and perceived security threats, but also keeping our side of the continental economy running. If we fail to do this, it’s reasonable to expect that the United States would begin to put increasing, coercive pressure on our governments to do something in the short term, while working in the longer term to reduce American vulnerability to a feckless Canadian state, or to increase its influence over Canada, all in its own self-defence.

When I call these blockades a threat to Canada’s literal economic and political survival, I’m not exaggerating for effect. It’s hard to come up with a clearer threat to core Canadian national interests than these blockades.

So when I see, post-emergency announcement, that it’s taken an entire week for the Ambassador Bridge to be reopened (it’s not at the moment, but hopefully soon), it raises very, very serious questions about the basic competence of our political leaders and the ability of our political and security system to respond to the equivalent of a gun to the head of the Canadian state.

When I see that it took an injunction sought by Canadian automakers – who understand more than anyone what’s at stake – and the City of Windsor to get Windsor police to break up what was already illegal activity – I can only conclude that our provincial and federal governments are either unaware of exactly how serious this current crisis is, or are unable or unwilling to respond commensurately.

Neither alternative is encouraging.

(It’s also telling that we seem to be delegating responsibility for critical national infrastructure to municipalities.)

On effectiveness, as Charlie Angus has remarked on Twitter, we need to begin immediately a serious, Canada-wide conversation about our police forces.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader as to why police have taken such a light approach to an illegal occupation and a direct threat to national security. But for me the most shocking thing is that they are failing to respond in a rapid manner to direct threats to the state. The most famous definition of a state is that it is a human community with a monopoly over the use of legitimate force in a given territory. When police refuse to act in defence of the state, as in the case of the Ottawa police, it’s fair to ask, who’s in control?

It’s going to take months to catalogue all of the failures of the past three weeks. It’s going to take years to understand and deal with them.

But it’s impossible to overstate just how badly our leaders are blowing all this. As offensive as the protesters are, every society has their share of dead-enders. What matters is how governments and police forces – the state – deals with them.

I’ve been working and researching on Canada-US relations for my entire professional life, over two decades at this point. As an economist on Parliament Hill I worked on Canada-US trade issues. My Masters research project focused on the 2001 Smart Border Declaration. My dissertation explored the issue of autonomy in Canada-US-Mexican relations.

Previous governments instinctively understood that Canada-US trade, and Canada-US relations stood almost beyond politics, something that had to be treated with care. I thought the Trudeau government’s full-court press in the Trump-driven NAFTA renegotiations showed they understood that.

Then last week’s slow-roll blockade response happened. And now I’m left wondering, what the hell our governments are doing, and how we’re going to deal with the fallout.

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Notes on the Occupation 4: Thinking about Freedom

Working out what to think about … all this … in real time.

Gary Mason has a good column in the Globe and Mail today arguing that the alt-right has co-opted the language of freedom in a way that undermines our democracy. I think that’s mostly correct, as far as it goes. But I think there’s also a bit more to it that goes beyond competing visions of what constitutes “freedom.”

A lot of people tend to think of freedom – individual freedom – as either the foundational value in society, from which all others flow. While freedom is definitely important and a hallmark of a liberal-democratic society, it’s not the only, or even the most important, ingredient that goes into making a society. (Please read a few more paragraphs before accusing me of hating freedom.)

I discussed this point in a column last month for CIGI in the context of internet governance, but it’s relevant for politics in general, and especially for our current moment.

As Susan Strange – and others, but I like Strange’s candid take on it – argues in the beginning of her book States and Markets, all societies have to provide four things in order to function:

  • Individual freedom, that is, self-determination;
  • Justice, or equity, the sense that we and others in a community are being treated justly;
  • Wealth, the material things we need to both survive and enjoy life; and
  • Security, which is probably self-explanatory.

Strange argues that people and societies differ on how to rank these values. This ranking is the soul of politics, and it involves real trade-offs. In internet governance, when we’re talking about online harms, the main tradeoff is between freedom and justice (though wealth and especially security are in the mix as well). Those who argue for internet (individual) freedom are prioritizing freedom over justice. Meanwhile, those who argue that we need to address online harms, are generally saying that we should be more concerned with justice than with individual freedom. If we were talking cybercrime, the tradeoff would be between freedom and security.

Fortunately, these rankings don’t necessarily imply that we can only have one and not the other. As Strange also notes, societies must provide some of each. In other words, freedom is important, but you also need the other three. No single value is foundational; all are. But it’s up to us to decide how to prioritize and fulfill them.

The political question is how to balance these values: relatively more freedom and less justice (the current internet status quo), or more justice and less freedom? As heated as internet governance debates can get, they still, for the most part, exist within these parameters, and within normal politics, which is all about compromise.

In contrast, an extreme version of these policy choices is at play in the Ottawa Occupation. Using Strange’s language, the protesters – I think we can call them seditionists at this point – have gone all-in on the individual freedom to do whatever they want, at the expense of all the other socially necessary values.

In terrorizing Ottawans for over a week now, they’ve demonstrated their contempt for the value of security.

In their utter lawlessness, they’ve demonstrated their total lack of interest in justice.

By effectively shutting down Ottawa’s downtown core, including the Rideau Centre, they’ve shown an complete disregard for the need for people to engage in the economic activity needed to feed and clothe themselves.

But this is what you get when the delicate balance – not between freedoms, but among these four different values – gets tilted toward one value against all the others: very bad things, as we’re seeing in Ottawa.

So it’s not just that they’ve weaponized the concept of freedom in a way that is a direct attack on our democracy; they’re treating with contempt the other values any society needs to function.

You had four jobs

Thinking about the situation in terms of these four values also highlights the almost-unprecedented failure of our three levels of government (I say almost out of academic habit, but I honestly can’t think of anything in our history that quite compares).

In failing to confront the seditionists, the Trudeau, Ford and Watson (weird way to refer to a municipal government, I know, but there you are) governments have also abdicated their responsibilities to provide the basic necessities of a functioning society: justice, wealth and (most obviously) security. And in continuing to indulge the individual freedoms of a few seditious thugs and fellow travellers, they’ve surrendered the individual freedoms of entire downtown communities.

Great job, everyone.

As Strange notes, all societies must provide some of freedom, justice, wealth and security. What happens when a government fails to provide any of these? What should happen?

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Notes on the Occupation 3: A radicalized Conservative party as chaos agent

Posting these in order to work through my thinking on what is clearly becoming something that will go down in the history books, for good or ill.

Writing in the Toronto Star, Canada’s most insightful political columnist, Chantal Hébert, warns that if the Conservatives go full Radical Right, it would likely make them unelectable, reducing them to a fringe party. Given what we know about the flavours of Canadian conservatism – Red Toryism is still alive and well in Atlantic Canada, while Ontario, Quebec and BC all have their own idiosyncrasies – Hébert’s argument is very plausible.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t matter if the Conservatives get on the Trump Train. It matters enormously, for at least two reasons.

First, even if an outright victory is unlikely, it’s not impossible. You can’t win if you’re not in the game, and control over one of Canada’s two main parties is not nothing.

Second, even a fractured Conservative party could sow chaos. Simply having such an anti-democratic, extremist party as part of the political landscape would change the tenor of Canadian political debate, and not in a good way.

The United States’ slow fracturing offers a potent reminder that liberal-democratic politics requires a shared consensus on basic values in order to survive. In Canada, we all have our differences, but the political mainstream is embedded in a shared a commitment to equality and the democratic process as a way of working out our problems.

A Conservative embrace of the extremist right would fracture that consensus.

This consensus, always essential, will become increasingly important as Canada attempts to manage its relationship with the United States in the years ahead. In an insightful article that lays out the state of the States and Canada’s relationship to it, Thomas Homer-Dixon’s main recommendation for Canada w/r/t managing American chaos is to:

immediately convene a standing, non-partisan Parliamentary committee with representatives from the five sitting parties, all with full security clearances. It should be understood that this committee will continue to operate in coming years, regardless of changes in federal government. It should receive regular intelligence analyses and briefings by Canadian experts on political and social developments in the United States and their implications for democratic failure there. And it should be charged with providing the federal government with continuing, specific guidance as to how to prepare for and respond to that failure, should it occur.

This is an eminently sensible recommendation; I recommended something similar back in 2016.

But it assumes that all parties share a basic commitment to liberal-democratic values. A radical Conservative party that has more in common with Trumpism than the Canadian mainstream, would be a chaos agent on such a committee. A US Republican government, hostile to Canadian democratic and liberal values, would likely see this party as its voice in Ottawa and act accordingly, against Canadian interests and Canadian independence.

Even now, there are concerns about foreign/American funding of the Occupation. Which raises the question of why funding platforms aren’t regulated as financial entities in Canada, but that’s an issue for another day. (Short answer: Internet exceptionalism is a hell of a drug.)

All this to say, I think Hébert is correct that the Conservative embrace of Trumpism would turn it into a fringe party. But even a fringe party can inflict a lot of damage.

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