In which I annoy Margaret Wente

It is true that the other day I referred to Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a “warmonger” in the pages of the Ottawa Citizen. I did follow up this claim with the slight disclaimer that “I don’t mean that in a bad way.” Some people, however, have been having difficulty seeing how you can call someone a warmonger and “not mean it in a bad way.” So I thought I might explain myself a bit.

Margaret Wente, however, took things a bit further in today’s Globe and Mail, imputing some things to me that I didn’t actually say. Here she is:

Is Stephen Harper a warmonger? Some highly intelligent people seem to think so.

Joseph Heath, a leading philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, is one of them. In a piece published in the Ottawa Citizen last week, he wrote that the Prime Minister “is pro-war. He thinks that war is something worth doing. He thinks that war has numerous redeeming qualities. … There is some level at which Harper clearly likes war, and would very much like to see Canada get involved in more of them.”

So it stands to reason that Mr. Harper would want to extend Canada’s mission against the Islamic State. He likes war!

In case you haven’t noticed, Harper Derangement Syndrome runs rampant in Canada’s media/academic class. If Mr. Harper is for something, it must be bad. That is why our rather modest engagement against the Islamic State in Iraq, undertaken in concert with an international coalition, is known in certain quarters as “Harper’s war.”

The first two paragraphs there are fine (although it is, I suppose worth noting that she edits out the “I don’t mean that in a bad way” part — presumably on the grounds that it would generate too much cognitive dissonance). The next two paragraphs, however, go a bit off the rails — assuming, of course, that this line of thinking is being imputed to me. In the Ottawa Citizen piece, I didn’t actually say anything for or against the extension of Canada’s military engagement against ISIS. All I said was that no one should be surprised by the decision, which, I assume, no one was surprised by. Is there even one single person in the country who didn’t regard it as a foregone conclusion?

In any case, I certainly didn’t say that the extension, or the engagement, were bad. (Incidentally the op-ed was a shortened version of a blog post I published here a while back. There is not much mention of ISIS in the original post, because the piece doesn’t have anything to do really with ISIS. The lede was just tacked on to the op-ed to make it seem more topical.)

As for Harper Derangement Syndrome, I know what she’s talking about, but I would like to point out that I belong to a slightly different camp. For the most part I find the Harper Government simply baffling — as in, I really don’t understand what they are trying to accomplish — and Harper himself very mysterious. Andrew Coyne wrote a nice column on this theme a while back, which unfortunately got overshadowed by events in Ottawa last October. He starts by pointing out that while Harper’s more vituperative left-wing critics disagree about what exactly the government is up to (is it an evangelical plot? a neoliberal conspiracy, etc.?), the one conviction they all share is that there is some unifying purpose or objective to what the government does. Coyne’s response is that, if there is such an objective, he is having a great deal of difficulty seeing it. As far as the Harper Government is concerned:

The one thing it has not been is radical or transformative. If the nastiness of its politics is the dominant impression of this government, it is in part for lack of anything else to identify it. It seems so pointless, all this poisonous effort for so little actual accomplishment, until you realize that is the point: the partisanship is in place of the policy, not in pursuit of it. The end is only power, and power is, with few exceptions, the only thing of consequence this government has achieved.

That is what makes these left critiques so puzzling. It would be one thing if the government really had pursued a “neo-liberal” agenda: if it had cut spending instead of increasing it; reduced the debt instead of adding to it; curbed its regulatory ambitions instead of inventing new ones; ended corporate welfare instead of bragging daily of each new grant or subsidy it has added to the hundreds of thousands already on the public books. But as things are it is difficult to see what all the fuss is about.

It is the belief in this government’s consequentiality that, oddly, unites its critics and its friends. Much of that, I think, is bound up in the prime minister’s persona. Foes see a ruthless revolutionary; fans, a sober-sided, get ’er done chief executive, capable of making, as a Globe story put it recently, the “tough decisions.” He seems a formidable character, for good or ill: it is hard to believe that all that intelligence and self-discipline could not be in the service of some larger purpose, or at least some grander strategic design. Even dispassionate observers like Maclean’s magazine’s Paul Wells, in The Longer I’m Prime Minister, attribute to him a vast, if incremental, efficacy: so incremental it eludes the naked eye.

The point about Wells’s book is exactly right — the book is essentially an extended attempt to develop a theory of what Harper is up to. The fact that it takes 400 pages to lay out the theory shows just how unobvious it all is. It’s like the old science of “Kremlinology,” where people would pore through news releases and official publications of the Soviet state, trying to infer what’s going on in the government. Things are not quite like that in Canada, but I do think that we could use a more developed science of “Harperology,” starting with an appreciation of the essential mystery at the heart of this government, followed by a more serious effort to figure out just what the hell they are up to (without lapsing into naive cynicism).

The point of my Ottawa Citizen column was actually to make a small contribution to this emerging science of Harperology. That Harper is a “military enthusiast” is beyond dispute. The two clearest ideas to have emerged from his government, as far as national vision and identity is concerned, is that Canada should become an “energy superpower,” and should see itself as a “fighting nation” (“forged in the crucible of war”). The amount of time and energy the government has expended on the latter file — essentially trying to shift the national identity away from a focus on peacekeeping toward one of war-fighting — is considerable. But the question is, why? (For an interesting, extended reflection on the subject, see Scott Staring, “Harper’s History.”) If you had to name two things that this government is most unapologetically and wholeheartedly enthusiastic about, it would be the Alberta tar sands and the military. The Alberta thing I get, but why the military? What underlies this enthusiasm? This is what I was trying to figure out. My suggestion — that it is ultimately based on romanticism — was intended to come as a surprise, particularly to those left-wing critics of this government, who assume that because Harper has a degree in economics, that he somehow “thinks like an economist.” (I see no evidence of that latter proposition at all. Nothing this government has done makes much sense from an economic perspective.)


In which I annoy Margaret Wente — 4 Comments

  1. Congratulations, there are few callings in life higher than annoying Margaret Wente…

    In related news, I saw a tweet from Glenn Greenwald earlier today, “How did it happen that the position with the greatest job security – basically 100% life tenure – is NYT or WashPost columnist?”

  2. The Kremlinology thesis seems misplaced to me. I think that Wells’ thesis makes a lot more sense of you look at Harper in light of specifically Canadian political history. During the 20th-century the Liberal Party was the most successful political party in the democratic world, and for the longest stretch of time its leaders were Mackenzie King and Louis St Laurent. I would say that their governing philosophy was even more elusive than Harper’s. But in Canada (unlike the U.S., or the U.K., or France) that is often a key to success. And it meant that when Pearson or Trudeau wanted to take more ideological/principled steps, they could get away with it (just barely – Pearson in permanent minorities and Trudeau in-and-out of power) because they were working within a system that had been tilted in favour of Liberals (and liberals) in numerous small ways. Whereas the more agenda-driven governments of Diefenbaker and Mulroney built castles of sand.

    None of this means that everything Harper does is well thought out, or part of a master-plan. But it does mean that his “mystery” is not so much of one.

    Think of it this way: if Harper is successful over the long-term, Jason Kenney will wind up being to him as CD Howe was to King. That would be no small feat.

  3. As an additional piece of information to the puzzle, although the Conservatives certainly make all the right noises and moves about the military publicly, privately (or, by that I mean, behind the scenes), they actually have been cutting the military and indeed delaying a significant number of procurements. This can be easily seen in the last 4 budgets, or indeed, the TBS Main Estimates. Therefore, it appears, the appearance of supporting the military is more important than the actual military itself. This is interesting, since it implies that although Harper is certainly pro-military, he is not so into it that he actually wishes to pay too much for it. This is similar to the issue that both the RCMP and CSIS/CSEC, despite apparently being given more legislative power in bill C-51, will not be getting any additional resources to match. . .this makes Harper even more inscrutable, since it implies it literally is all about perception, and very little to do with reality.

  4. Harper figured out that it would be hard for the right to win Canadian elections as long as the Liberals own nationalism. It’s their flag and their constitution, and their federal bureaucracy. Harper has been trying to build up an alternative conservative-style nationalism with a more masculinist tinge: hockey, Vimy Ridge and timbits play a big role. Once you realize that politics is not about policy, but about identity, then this makes sense.