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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Notes on the Occupation 2: Canada’s luck begins to run out

Writing these to help figure out my thinking on what is clearly becoming something that will go down in the history books, for good or ill.

Canadians are both very fortunate, and very unfortunate, that Justin Trudeau has been our prime minister since 2015.

On the fortunate side of the ledger: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Trudeau owes his prime ministership and political career to his almost instinctive understanding of the current social and political climate. By which I mean the general tendency in Canadian society toward inclusiveness. We saw this talent on display in the rebuke to the Ottawa protesters that drew the ire of the myopic Globe and Mail editorialists.

We shouldn’t underestimate either the political importance of being able to articulate widely held sentiments or the importance of these sentiments themselves. Trudeau’s innate grasp of common decency and the importance of inclusiveness helped the country survive the Trump presidency because it took as a given that Trump’s approach to politics is wrong and poisonous. As a result, we were able to keep Trumpism at bay, until now. That’s no small accomplishment.

A continued Stephen Harper prime ministership, on the other hand, would likely have been disastrous for the country. Right-wing populism is the poison of the moment, and it’s transmitted to the body politic through right-leaning parties. We’re seeing that play out now, but having a conservative party in charge during the Trump presidency likely would have accelerated it, providing a vehicle for extremists in the Conservative Party, like Pierre Poilievre, to sow chaos from inside the House. That Stephen Harper, post-prime ministership, has been cozying up to Hungarian authoritarian leader Viktor Orban, among others, only highlights further the bullet we’ve dodged until now.

And just imagine the chaos that we would’ve seen if these protests had taken place against the background of a second Trump term.

So, words matter. But so do actions.

Unfortunately, the other thing that’s characterized the Trudeau years is a consistent inability to rise to the occasion, to match words with deeds.

A few years into Trudeau’s government, in a livestreamed talk, Carleton University history professor and my MA supervisor Norman Hillmer gave Trudeau’s foreign policy to that date a B-, for exactly these reasons. That grade sounds about right.

And not just in foreign policy. Whether it’s climate change, or data policy, or platform governance, the Trudeau government’s policy responses have all been pointed in the right direction, but have been inadequate or unimaginative. He, and the government, have been saying the right things, but with little or insufficient follow-through.

About the only file on which this has not been true was the Canada-US relationship during the Trump years. It was blindingly obvious that Trump posed an existential threat to Canada’s economic survival, and the government reacted accordingly. The federal government has also done quite well in responding to the pandemic – not perfect, but reasonably imperfect.

But on anything else, where the short-term stakes seem lower and the existential crisis less immediate, there’s often little but words.

Most importantly, the government has failed to reinvest in the capacity needed to run a modern government to address modern problems. Another way of putting this is, we have leadership in words, but not actions.

To be fair, this is a widespread problem. We’ve seen the same embrace of communication strategies over policy responses from the provincial and municipal governments as well.

That Ottawa police have hired a “crisis management firm” to help with their messaging is the perfect confluence of the two dominant currents in what passes for politics in Canada these days: a focus on messaging instead of the work (in this case, of enforcing the law of the land), and outsourcing basic government competencies.

As I suggested in a previous post, the most shocking and consequential aspect of the #FluTruxKlan protests hasn’t been the protesters’ actions. They represent a tiny minority of Canadians, and every family, community, city and country has their fair share of straight-up jackasses and racists.

Rather, it’s been the across-the-board complete failure of the Ottawa, Ontario and federal governments to deal with what was always clearly an extremist movement, both before they got to Ottawa and once they arrived.

(Also to be fair, other cities and provinces have handled the protesters much better, but when the federal government, Canada’s largest province and the city’s capital continue to be MIA after over a week of ongoing lawlessness, that’s a huge problem.)

Once, and however, the occupiers are removed from Ottawa, politicians, police, and Canada’s security community must be put under the microscope. It won’t be enough to simply vote the bums out of office.

What is government good for?

In a sense, this is a crisis 40 years in the making. Since the 1980s and the Mulroney government, the conventional wisdom has been that the less government, the better. As a result, we’ve ended up in a vicious circle. Based on the belief that big government is bad government, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have eviscerated governmental capacity, which makes it ever-harder for government to do its job. Which justifies further cuts and outsourcing.

When you’re trapped in this cycle, leadership becomes little more than saying the right things, and government becomes a pantomime.

Most people are mostly good most of the time. When things are going well, governments can coast without their lack of capacity causing too many problems. The true cost of this performative approach to government only becomes clear in a crisis. Like this one.

At the very least, we need to get back in the habit of seeing governments and the collective action they enable as valued and important, so that our leaders focus less on comms strategies and more on the hard work of governing. At most, we need a full overhaul of how we conduct the business of government.

Because as bad as this occupation is, Canada is only going to face more destabilizing crises in the future, from an increasingly unstable United States and an increasingly hostile international geopolitical arena, to climate change-induced natural disasters. Responding to these challenges will take more than words provided by a hotshot consultancy.

As the Kids in the Hall knew, you can coast pretty far on charm. But at some point, you have to actually govern.

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Notes on the Occupation 1: Trying to get some perspective

Writing these to help figure out my thinking on what is clearly becoming something that will go down in the history books, for good or ill.

As bad as the #FluTruxKlan is on its own terms – incessant noise being literally a form of terror inflicted on thousands of people, to take only one example – it becomes even worse when you try to place it in a historical context. It also becomes almost impossible to conclude anything other than it truly is an unprecedented, and unprecedentedly dangerous, event in the history of the country. Matt Gurney has an excellent Twitter thread along these lines.

I’ve been trying to think of events in my lifetime that compare to the occupation in terms of its duration, disruption of the lives of residents, and the literal calls for the overthrow of the current government. I’ve come up short.

The only things that come to mind don’t really fit:

When I was a reporter with the Catholic New Times, I worked with nuns and social activists who were involved in the peace movement, and it was understood that the RCMP/CSIS had files on them from their participation in the camp.

Which may be part of today’s problem. When Canadian security services think of threats to national security, historically they’re more likely to picture a 50-year-old nun or an undergraduate environmentalist than a swastika-sporting Nazi.

It’s also worth noting that, as the Gazette reported, the event was hailed by some at the time as “a new form of political party.” Stephen Gill, talking about an earlier clash in Seattle wondered if these type of events heralded “a post-modern transnational political party” that “seeks to combine diversity with new forms of collective identity and solidarity.”

At the time, police clearly viewed those protesters, most of whom were peaceful and none of whom were given the run of the city to violate the law with impunity, as a threat to the state. Which raises the (naive) question of why the 2001 protesters were seen as a threat, but a protest that began by parading Nazi symbols and stealing food from the homeless, is still not being treated as such. As the 2001 events demonstrate, police are more than happy to crack some heads when they want to, or feel the need.

  • In terms of tensions – and here I want to make crystal clear that I’m not making any kind of moral or substantive equivalence at all between the fight for the recognition of Indigenous land rights and the fascists currently terrorizing my hometown – the only similar event that springs to mind is the 1990 Oka crisis. That escalated into a military confrontation.
  • Finally, it was slightly before my time, but in terms of scale and the open challenge to the rule of law and the established political order, the only thing in recent history that springs to mind as being similar is the 1970 October Crisis.

After that, what? The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike? The On to Ottawa Trek (put down violently in Regina before it got to Ottawa)? The Fenian raids? The 1837-38 Upper and Lower Canada rebellions?

The further you have to go back to find something comparable, the bigger a deal this seems.

To be clear, I’m trying to puzzle this out. I’d be more than happy to be told that I’m way off base.

But, never before have we seen a group of lawless brigands seize control of a major Canadian city for an entire week (and counting), while literally attacking and torturing thousands of Canadians, with no substantive reply from the authorities at any level. Never before have we seen an extreme right-wing protest lead to the resignation of a leader of one of our two main political parties, in part for not being sufficiently welcoming to fascists.

History can sneak up on you, and we all have a tendency to place events into familiar categories: the resignation of a weak leader, a rowdy protest against a government policy. But when history repeatedly punches you in the face for a week, you have to recognize the moment for what it is, and respond accordingly.

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It’s about ethics in vaccine mandates: Welcome to Gamergate North, but with trucks!

Even as the trucker occupation of Ottawa ends its fifth day, the high-stakes game of interpreting what it all means has already begun. Today’s entry, from the Globe and Mail editorial page, goes with “mid-sized inconvenience.”

The editorialists are comforted that it didn’t become “a CanCon take on the Jan. 6 storming of the US Capitol,” and argues that we shouldn’t vilify the protestors, who were mostly there to protest vaccine mandates.

As it happens, both this line of reasoning and the whole trucker protest have a clear parallel in recent US history, but it’s not January 6, and there’s absolutely nothing reassuring about it.

Canada may be a few years behind the United States, but, judging from the Globe’s woefully off-base editorial, we might finally – finally! – have gotten our very own Gamergate. Only with trucks and vaccines instead of video games.

For the blissfully ignorant, who might just include the editorial staff at the Globe and Mail, I’ll let Vox’s Aja Romano bring us up to speed on what Gamergate was, and is:

In the fall of 2014, under the premise that they were angry at “unethical” games journalists — a lie that persists today — thousands of people in the games community began to systematically harass, heckle, threaten, and dox several outspoken feminist women in their midst, few of whom were journalists. The harassment occurred under the social media hashtag “Gamergate,” which is still a hotbed of debate and anti-feminist resentment today.

Gamergate began as a campaign of harassment against one, and then many women, under the guise that the harassers were actually just interested in “ethics in journalism.” As Romano notes,“The hate campaign, we would later learn, was the moment when our ability to repress toxic communities and write them off as just ‘trolls’ began to crumble. Gamergate ultimately gave way to something deeper, more violent, and more uncontrollable.”

The “something deeper, more violent, and more uncontrollable” being Trump, the rise of Trumpism and, eventually, the January 6, 2001, attack on the US Capitol.

The disingenuous argument that this hate campaign was merely a legitimate questioning of journalistic ethics made it difficult for people to fully realize that the hate was the point.

Unwittingly or not, this morning’s Globe and Mail’s editorial, titled “The ‘Freedom Convoy’ was hauling a load of bad ideas – but the people on board are not the enemy,” is very much in the “it’s about ethics in journalism” vein.

Welcome to Gamergate North: The Arctic Edition.

It’s about ethics in vaccine mandates

The editorial tries to make a distinction between (some of) the arguments made by the “Freedom Convoy” (or FluTruxKlan, if you will) and (some of) the people involved in the protest. Tellingly, it can only do so by assuming that its headline argument – “the misnamed Freedom Convoy and those who gathered around it want an end to vaccine mandates” – is both the only and legitimate (if wrong-headed) argument protesters are trying to make.

As I noted in a previous post, there are numerous tells that these protesters are not really interested in a rational debate over vaccine mandates. Health care is a provincial responsibility. The United States has its own vaccine mandate keeping unvaccinated truckers out of their country. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal government are powerless to change this reality.

Don’t believe me that these “truckers” aren’t really interested in vaccines and how mandates affect truckers? Would you believe the Canadian Trucking Alliance? From CTV News:

In a statement, the Canadian Trucking Alliance said a number of protesters appear to have “no connection” to the trucking industry and are pushing a “separate agenda beyond a disagreement over cross border vaccine requirements.”

Oh, and then there’s the matter of a leader from the protest openly discussing how they want to overthrow the government. Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason:

A Kitchener, Ont., radio show this week interviewed Jason LaFace, said to be the convoy’s main Ontario organizer. The protest “is no longer about the [vaccine] mandate,” he said – it’s about people’s “rights” and how the government has been “manipulating the population and oppressing us all the time.”

Mr. LaFace said the protest organizers are employing “constitutional lawyers” to draft a document that “compel[s] the government to dissolve government.” For good measure, he added: “[Justin] Trudeau is a criminal in this country, he needs to go.”

Ignoring the haters and the hate

Pretending that Gamergate was about “ethics in journalism” distracted from the reality that the people driving Gamergate were engaged in a “hate campaign.” This campaign was designed to harass and bully vulnerable groups – women, racialized individuals, the usual (non-White, non-male) people. But when you focus on the ethics in journalism canard, these problems disappear.

Or they’re reduced to “a mid-sized inconvenience,” as the Globe describes the chaos inflicted by these freedom-loving citizens, who were enjoying “a street-party atmosphere, as participants basked in the affirmation of the like-minded.” Tell that to the people of Ottawa, who are still being harassed and whose downtown core remains largely closed five days after the protest began.

Sure, some bad things happened, but #notallprotesters, amirite?:

And yes, some idiots climbed on the National War Memorial; some decided to demand a free lunch at a homeless shelter, some marched through a shopping mall without masks, and among the thousands of Canadian flags, a few had swastikas drawn on them. But the truth is that the protesters were, on the whole, mostly peaceful.

(For the record, the Shepherds of Good Hope homeless shelter was a bit more pointed in the way they described the harassment inflicted upon their staff, volunteers and the people they’re helping. And what’s a few swastikas among freedom-loving volk?)

This is a carbon copy of the Gamergate-adjacent #notallmen argument pushing back on allegations of sexism and misogyny that grew into the #MeToo movement. Here, it’s couched in the language of, sure, there may have been a few Nazis in the crowd, but that’s no reason to discredit the rest of the crowd. Both cases attempt to redirect our sympathy, from the people actually experiencing the harassment (Ottawa residents, in this case) toward protesters (honest people who are just interested in ethics in vaccine mandates).

Protesters who really are just concerned about the vaccine mandates. Back to the editorial:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a particularly personal and divisive line of attack against the protesters who took to the streets of downtown Ottawa this past weekend.

Given that the misnamed Freedom Convoy and those who gathered around it want an end to vaccine mandates, or even an end to vaccines, the PM was of course right to reject these calls. Obviously.

However, in responding to the people honking horns in front of his office, the PM went far beyond just dismissing their demands. Instead, from Mr. Trudeau on down, ministers and MPs spoke words that seemed designed to polarize and radicalize the situation, by demonizing the protesters rather that calmly refuting their ideas.

Somehow, in a week that featured people stealing food from a homeless shelter and actual Nazi flags, Justin Trudeau ends up as the bad guy. And gets Covid. Dude can’t catch a break.

The line in the sand

And here we get to the lesson that we should have learned from Gamergate, almost a decade ago. Trudeau is not “polariz[ing] and radicaliz[ing] the situation.” The situation is already polarized and radicalized. When a protest openly parades Nazi symbols, when a protest leader openly advocates the overthrow of the duly elected government, “the situation” is already polarized. It was polarized by the protesters.

It used to be, as recently as two weeks ago in Canada, maybe 2015 in the United States, that we generally agreed that Nazis were definitively beyond the pale. Now, the Globe and Mail is downplaying the open parading of fascist symbols and asking us to separate the messenger from the message. (They’re also asking us to ignore a lot of the messenger’s message, but anyway.)

Justin Trudeau, in calling out the protesters, is attempting to draw a line in the sand: if you truck with Nazis, you lose the right to be considered a legitimate player in Canadian politics.

This should not be controversial. Trudeau’s comments recognize that, as with Gamergate, vaccine talk disguises the protest’s “deeper, more violent and uncontrollable” underside and dark potential. We’ve seen where that leads in the United States. We really don’t want Canada to go down that path.

This doesn’t mean that it’s not OK to criticize vaccines, vaccine mandates or pretty much anything else, as the Globe seems to worry, because the protest is not about ethics in vaccine mandates. Condemning the protestors for their reprehensible actions is a sign that there are some lines that can’t be crossed in a liberal-democratic society.

If you, a well-meaning protester, are standing next to someone touting Nazi symbols, that should be a sign to get the hell away from them as soon as possible. And maybe to rethink your life choices.

Writing in the National Post, Tasha Kheiriddin makes a similar point:

Everyone in that crowd, including Poilievre, Lewis, and O’Toole had the chance — nay, the obligation — to call out the intolerance. Not after the images hit Twitter, but immediately. On the spot.

If you stand shoulder to shoulder with people who display racist symbols, and don’t tell them right then and there to leave your protest or take them down, you are not standing up for freedom. You are standing with hate. If you stand with people who verbally abuse hotel clerks and inflict 24-7 mayhem on an entire city, you are not standing up for freedom. You will be tarred with their hatred and become complicit in their agenda.

To quote retired Australian Lieutenant General David Morrison, the standard you walk past, is the standard you accept. That goes for politicians and protesters. Understanding this very basic point is the key to cutting through the Gamergate knot that seems to have confounded the Globe editorialists.

Gamergate eventually metastasized into the disastrous Trump presidency. This happened in part because media outlets treated dishonest arguments and far-right, anti-democratic extremists as legitimate. With its myopic editorial The Globe and Mail is repeating the same mistake. Hopefully more media outlets will follow Kheiriddin’s lead than the Globe’s.

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