Artistic Integrity and Diversity

Jason and Jasmine sit on the couch at Jasmine’s house on Friday to have a couple of drinks.

Jason: So, have you had a chance to read my story?

Jasmine: Yes, I have. It is quite good.

Jason: That is great to hear, and thanks for reading it. Any other feedback you would like to provide?

Jasmine: I quite enjoyed it. It avoids many of the tropes of classic science fiction and fantasy, but I still find it a bit problematic.

Jason: What do you find problematic about it? Is the characterization or plot flawed? Is my dialogue awkward? I always find it very difficult to create convincing dialogue.

Jasmine: Calm down Jason. There is nothing wrong with the plot structure or any purely technical aspect of the writing. In fact you have really improved in this area. But, I noticed that all of the lead characters are white, and most are male. It seems like there could be a lot more diversity.

Jason: There certainly could be more diversity, but part of the structure of the world of the story is that it is a military tale, and the military is predominantly male, and the nation of which it is a part is mainly white. So, while it may lack diversity, this is not meant as a suggestion of anything; the story just happens to have a set of characters that are predominantly white and male.

Kelly enters and sits down on a chair adjacent to the couch.

Kelly
: How are you two today?

Jasmine: We were just in the middle of talking about Jason’s short story.

Kelly: Oh. That’s interesting. Don’t mind me then. Continue your discussion. I have read Jason’s story, but would like to hear what you two are discussing before I put in my two cents.

Jasmine: Jason, given that this is a fantasy world that you have created that does not correspond to any actual existing nation on Earth, why should it be a predominantly white nation, with a predominantly male military? Surely, you could have told the story with more diversity without losing anything important?

Jason:
I might have been able to do that, but that would have unbecoming and excessively calculative. The difference between an author who is an artist and one who is merely a salesman, is that the artist does not worry about making sure that his art meets certain requirements that will allow it to sell, or to have critical acclaim, but just expresses what flows out of him.

When I created the world of my story I did not intentionally think this world should be predominantly white and male, and I did not base it on any existing models. I just began writing and as if I were possessed the world came to be, and it happened to be predominantly white and male. It would be crass to change this world just because it is deemed by public opinion that stories with more diversity are better than ones with less. That would just be servile, and then I would be no different from Dan Brown or a corrupt politician.

An artist, unlike a mere craftsmen does not simply create something based on existing accepted models, but expresses something that is uniquely new and that has not been done before.

Jasmine: Spare me your Eurocentric defense of artistry.

You are a white male and you are in a position of privilege. So you do not even consider the fact that while art is the authentic creation of a person, it is also something that becomes a part of the world we share, and can serve to reiterate existing stereotypes, images and a racist, sexist culture. If you cared about the world at all you would see that it is better to avoid reiterating these stereotypes and challenge them, but instead your work perpetuates them and thus reinforces existing narratives that render women and people of colour invisible and perpetuates their oppression.

Also, it is laughable that you think that your work is not based on existing models, because while it differs in many ways from other science fiction and fantasy worlds it still has ethnic and sexual characteristics that do not differ from most other works in these genres. It is just another military story whose characters are predominantly white and male. Your model clearly did not just come from the deepest riches of your soul, but from the existing forms of fiction within these genres that have preceded it.

Jason:
Why is it always about race, sex and justice with you? I am not trying to solve the world’s problems. I am just trying to write a good story.

I am sorry it does not meet the politically correct standards of good art that it does not meet. I guess my work would be better if I had a disabled black lesbian in the lead? That would surely make my story more interesting and better.

Jasmine: Please. I cannot deal with the righteous indignation of the privileged.

You’re awfully quiet Kelly. What do you think?

Kelly: I am afraid I don’t know how to articulate what I think, as it seems to me that both of you are wrong and right.

Jasmine: Come on Kelly. At least make your position clear. Don’t just try to avoid having an opinion on something because you are afraid of offending someone.

Kelly: Well, Jason is surely right that part of what makes art valuable and distinct from mere salesmanship is that when we create art we do not think about what will be popular, sell well or get critical acclaim and then try to create it. Instead we try to create something that is great whether or not it well sell well, or get critical acclaim by meeting existing standards of what good art is.

Jason: So you agree with me and think that it would be ludicrous for me to add diversity to my story just because that is something that a segment of public opinion deems necessary?

Kelly: Not exactly. While I agree that artistic integrity is important, I think part of the process of artistic creation involves the revising of the work and recognizing that the work will be shared with others and have certain effects. If the work of art’s integrity can be maintained while ensuring that it has the more salutary effect of challenging existing stereotypes then, all other things being equal, the work should be changed.

Similarly, it is ludicrous to think that the artist just creates something out of the depths of their soul, and does not adjust it in light of the effects they want it to have it on their audience. As long as the artist is trying to get a point across they have to consider what the audience will think of their art. So Jasmine, is right in recognizing this social element of art, and that art cannot be merely understood as the authentic expression of the artist, apart from its presentation to an audience.

Jasmine: So, are you saying that Jason ought to add more diversity to his work?

Kelly: I wouldn’t go that far, although I would say that his work would be better if it had more diversity.

Jasmine: So, what are you saying? If his work would be better with more diversity why wouldn’t you say that Jason ought to add this diversity?

Kelly:
It is hard to put into words. Jason, do you think your story is able to speak to everyone, and that it matters that the cast of the story is relatively homogenous?

Jason:
No, it is meant to be a universal story that can speak to anyone. The fact that the characters are mainly white males does not prevent it from its ability to speak to people, and does not reiterate any stereotypes or images that truly negatively impact someone. I am not saying that white men are better than others; they are just the subject of the work.

Kelly: This is precisely the difference between you two. I agree with Jasmine and think that the story does perpetuate harmful images, but this claim is contestable. Furthermore, for those who reject this claim it would be inauthentic, calculative and show a lack of artistic integrity to just include diversity as a mode of placating others.

Jason: But you are still saying that my story would be better if it included more diversity?

Kelly: Yes, I am.

Jason: But then you are suggesting that the best art can only be created by people who share your views?

Kelly: Not those who share my views necessarily. What I am saying is that the best art must necessarily be created by those with a proper understanding of not only how to create something that is beautiful to them, but who understand how their art will be received and how to create something that will enrich society.

I may be wrong about art’s role in society, but I don’t see how an artist can be great if he does not understood how his art will be received, and try to say something important through it, that will have a positive effect on the souls that confront it. One positive effect art can have is to combat images that perpetuate injustice and oppression

Jason:
Doesn’t this enslave art to society?

Kelly: I wouldn’t say so. Art is by its nature a social thing, as art is not created for an artist to appreciate, but as something to be shared and appear in the world. Thus any construction of art must be evaluated, in part, based on the effects that it has on society, and its role in social life.

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The Canadian Senate: Abolition or Reform?

The Senate, in Canada, is very different powers than it is in the USA. The Canadian Senate has the power to block legislation that is passed in the House of Commons, but they do not have the power to amend or create legislation that appropriates public funds or imposes taxes. Based on this rationale the Senate is supposed to provide “sober second thought” as their model of debate is more flexible and allows them to examine legislation in greater detail and ensure that the House of Commons has not passed any problematic legislation. Furthermore, Senators are appointed from the party faithful behind closed doors, without any significant public scrutiny, and their term lasts until they are 75 years old.

However, in the last 25 years, the Senate has not exercise this power often and has tended to simply rubberstamp nearly all legislation that has been passed by the House of Commons. This has lead a large portion of Canadians, including Thomas Mulcair and the New Democratic Party, to call for the abolition of the Senate. For many, the Senate is just a wasteful, useless institution that we would be better off without.

Furthermore, in light of a very public Senate scandal involving the misuse of funds by current Senators such as Mike Duffy, the current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who, earlier in his life had supported a Triple E Senate (Elected, Effective, Equal), has now suggested that he will not appoint new senators and that the provinces need to come up a solution to the Senate whether it be through comprehensive reform or outright abolition. The only major party to explicitly propose reform of the senate, as opposed to abolition have been the Canadian Liberals, who at this point in the run up to the October 19th election look to be a distant third behind the NDP and the Conservative Party of Canada.

Now, the likelihood of abolition of the Senate is slim as this would require an amendment to the constitution which requires negotiation with the provinces and tends to be an extremely arduous process which is politically dangerous because of the time and effort required, and the difficulty of achieving success. Abolishing the Senate is not something that the House of Commons and the existing Senate could pass by legislative fiat at the Federal level. But nonetheless it shows the popularity of the notion of the abolition of the Senate that one of the major parties is explicitly speaking out in favour of abolition, while another major party seems to be suggesting that abolition is a legitimate option if reform proves impossible.

All of these issues around the Senate raise the question of whether reform of some kind is preferable to abolition. While, I support many elements of the NDP`s platform, I think that even if the Federal government could easily abolish the Senate without having to pursue constitutional amendment this would be a misguided choice. This would be misguided as Canada`s House of Commons by its very nature requires a check on its authority and making the notion of sober second thought effective through the Senate would provide this check. Furthermore, there are no strong reasons, in principle, why we could not make the idea of sober second thought effective through reforming the Senate.

The partisans of abolition will typically say that there are a couple of factors which lead to the necessity of abolition. The first of these is that the current incarnation of the Senate does not add much value as it generally just rubberstamps legislation and thus it is a waste of taxpayer money to support this body. This critique is valid of the current Senate, but it mistakenly assumes that reform could not render the Senate more useful, so on its own it does not establish that Senate abolition is necessary.

Similarly, one other reason proponents of Senate abolition put forward is that the body is unnecessary, as the only kind of bodies that have a legitimate claim to rule, are ones that are democratically elected and the Senate is not. Furthermore, these partisans of abolition would say even if the Senate were elected, this would just create unnecessary duplication between the two chambers, and that a single elected house can provide sufficient popular control through electoral politics to ensure that legislation that is passed reflects the will of the people. Consequently, even an elected Senate would not be particularly valuable, as it would just duplicate the function of the House of Commons.

Now, defenders of an elected Senate have legitimate responses to these criticisms, but for the sake of brevity I will not get into these. I think if we properly understand the role the Senate is supposed to play today, we will see that the direction of reform lies not towards an elected Senate, but to reforming the Senate along democratic lines that avoid the demagoguery and partisanship inherent in electoral party politics. I have already explicitly responded to the first argument in favour of Senate abolition, but in order to respond to the second we need more deeply understand the nature of Canada`s governing system and what democratic function the House of Commons actually plays.

As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, the Canadian political system while democratic, tends to put a lot of power in the hands of the Executive and of the Parties. Due to the strength of party discipline in Canada, when voting on bills that involve appropriation of public funds or taxes all MPs that belong to parties are forced to vote with their party, rather than in the interests of their constituents. If MPs refuse to follow the party line when they vote they are expelled from the party and must sit as independents in the House of Commons.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister who fulfills the Executive function of the Federal government has a great deal of power. He has the power to select the Cabinet, who are then responsible for drafting most bills and largely control the legislative agenda, and while the Governor General formally selects Senators he or she does so on the basis of the guidance of the Prime Minister. Thus, in the context of a majority government, the Prime Minister is more like a constitutional monarch than anything else, as the only thing that blocks his will are existing laws and the courts. His party does not have power over him or her, and he largely drives the form that the Senate and Cabinet takes and consequently controls the direction of legislation.

Also, given that Canada adopts a first-past-the-post voting system Members of Parliament do not need to get a majority of votes to win a seat, but merely a plurality of votes to get their seat. In aggregate this tends to mean that the ruling party may only have received 40% of the vote or less and yet have a majority of the seats, because they were able to get the plurality of votes in enough ridings. However, the NDP, the main proponents of Senate abolition, have also come out in favour of electoral reform to move to a more representative and fair form of voting. So while the presence of the first-past-the-post system currently does impact the way that the House of Commons operates I will avoid including this element of the current landscape and assume that Senate abolition, or Senate reform, will go along with a change to fairer form of democratic representation in the House of Commons.

Given the strength of the Executive in Canada, and the situation of party discipline a unicameral parliament, even one that was very representative of the people`s party preferences, would still be deeply problematic and require a check by a less partisan body. In a situation with strong party discipline what dominates a legislative body is not a conversation between citizens elected to represent their constituents. Instead what is dominant is a battle between factions represented by the party apparatus, which tend to be dominated by elites of all kinds. What decides how a representative should vote is not his or her own judgment, but the ideological commodity that the party is trying to sell to the people, and this does not capture the spirit or essence of democratic governance as it is a form of elite rule.

Now, there are certainly merits to a system with strong party discipline as it is quite expedient and avoids the tendency in systems with weaker party discipline for people to be bought off through amendments to a bill as people must follow the party. But the House of Commons fails to exemplify the spirit of citizens coming together to deliberate about what is in the best interest of the people; this characteristic seems to me to be essential to democracy and any system that lacks it will be the worse for it. For what makes democracy the best form of government is not that 51% rule over 49%, but that under the best conditions it can represent a form of rule which is based on persuasion in which we come together to figure out the best way of doing things that serves the public interest. In this form of rule politics is not a war by other means, but a form of cooperation towards our common ends. A form of rule constituted by dialogue and cooperation seems far more reconcilable with individual freedom, than one in which the largest subset of the population rules, as the rule of an arbitrary majority is not necessarily that different from the rule of a tyrant. No doubt, my notion of dialogue and cooperation aimed at the common good is quite vague, but I think it captures some of our fundamental intuitions about democracy, and thus any form of democratic governance that fails to deal with those intuitions should be found wanting.

Unlike the House of Commons, if reformed the Senate could be a governmental body that involves citizens coming together to cooperatively provide sober second thought for legislation passed by the more partisan House of Commons. Of course much reform would be required in this area for this to occur as currently Senators tend to be elites and representatives of parties, rather than ordinary citizens, and are selected for exceedingly long terms. One way to develop a senate that captures the spirit of citizens coming together to examine legislation judiciously to provide oversight to the House of Commons is the notion of using random selection, or what is commonly referred to as sortition or allotment to select Senators. We tend to see democracy as lying in electing people largely because our consciousness has become so commodified that we see our most fundamental trait as that of choosing a product, or a candidate, but arguably a more democratic approach is to have positions of authority occupied based on the principle of drawing lots. This is the approach that Athens widely used, and we find a modified form of it sufficient for jury selection. This approach ensure that not only the charismatic, wealthy and best speakers rule, but all segment of the populace participate in rule, rather than merely participating in elections. Therefore, a principle of allotment could be setup to ensure that the Senate was representative in terms of gender, ethnicity and class, and not directly connected to party politics. Furthermore, Senators could be selected to participate over short terms, with new Senators being selected thereafter. This form of selection ensures Senators do not have to worry about re-election or loyalty to a party; they need only exercise their best judgment and work with their fellow senators, rather than trying to score point for their party or themselves, and thus they are truly able to provide sober second thought. This proposal, is very much influenced and based on the proposal that Claudia Chwalisz wrote about in the Globe and Mail, earlier this year in her article entitled “Replace this archaic institution with a citizen`s senate,“ and would serve as an important non-partisan democratic counterweight to the legislation put forth by the partisan and politically motivated House of Commons.

The proposal put forward by myself here, and Chwalisz in her article, speaks to the fact that the problem with our Senate is not that we have no need for a body to provide sober second thought on legislation, but that the current incarnation of the Senate because of its institutional foundations cannot play the role of providing oversight and sober second thought. Hence a reformed Senate need not simply duplicate the role played by the House of Commons, and thus we have further options between abolishing the Senate, making it elected or leaving it as it is now.

Works Cited
Geddes, John. “Senate reform? There`s just the teensy problem of the Constitution.” MacLeans. 31 July 2015: Web. http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/senate-reform-theres-just-the-teensy-problem-of-the-constitution/
Chwalisz, Claudia. “Replace this archaic institution with a citizen`s senate.” The Globe and Mail. 15 June 2015: Web. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/replace-this-archaic-institution-with-a-citizens-senate/article24945037/
Milewski, Terry. “Abolition or attrition? Mulcair and Harper offer different paths to Senate end game.“ CBC News. 25 July 2015. Web. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/abolition-or-attrition-mulcair-and-harper-offer-different-paths-to-senate-end-game-1.3167577
Bryden, Joan. “Trudeau’s Senate Plan Lauded, Harper Dissed By Western Think Tank.“ Huffington Post. 31 January 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/01/31/trudeau-senate-harper-think-tank_n_4700454.html

Negative Theology and the “True Self”

It is a commonplace of modern culture to refer to the notion of the “true self.” We often claim that we must be true to ourselves and that we need to work to express our true inner self, rather than trying to repress it. But while we talk in this way often, if we look at the notion of having a true self, it seems odd and quite implausible as the notion of the “true self” seems to suggest that there is a fundamental unified essence waiting to be fully expressed within each human being, and this seems to very out of step with the conception of what a human being is that we get from an understanding of modern biology. Modern biology tells us that humans are not true selves trying to express themselves through a bodily vessel, but beings whose core identity can be identified in the arrangement of matter that constitutes them; or put more simply our true nature is that we are bodies made up of constituent parts like brains, lungs and bones. So, there seems to be an incompatibility between the way we talk about ourselves and how we must live authentic lives, and the way we understand our identity as physical biological beings. I think we can explain this tension between our vision of the “true self” and a biological conception of humanity if we stop thinking of the self as a static object of empirical enquiry and instead think of it as Negative Theology thinks of God, and I will explain why in the argument that follows.

If I look deep within, it is hard for me to seriously suggest that I see a clear being, a “true self” waiting to be expressed. But what I can see is that I would like to develop this quality, and that quality, and that I do not want to develop other qualities. However, none of these qualities I long to have, taken independently, or in combination with the others, seems to exhaust the nature of my “true self”. My “true self” somehow seems to be indescribable in the categories of ordinary speech. In this sense, we might say that our approach should be analogous to the approach to God known as Negative Theology. Negative Theology posits awe towards God, but refuses to claim that God has specific qualities like benovelence. According to this approach we can understand what God is not, but not what God is. God can be seen to transcend any categories that can be applied to him.

Likewise we might say that the “true self” within us is not a physical object or even a collection of qualities and desires that we can point to and describe, but rather something that is beyond all linguistic description. This seems to be plausible as the notion of a “true self” is always aspirational in that when we speak of our “true self” we do not refer to an accurate description of the current state of our identity, but a sense of something admirable that we can develop into. Furthermore, this admirable thing we can develop into that is somehow “inside of us” is not something that can be grasped as a collection of properties or a single unifying property. Whenever, we develop our “true self” and think we have fully developed our self we realize that there is something that is missed in our development and our description of that development. I may have developed my capacity for courage, but something about the mode of action, is not simply courage or any other category, but something beyond, unspeakable, that I am drawn towards. We do not stand at the ready with a perfect image and description of our “true self” ready to replicate that self in life as if we were a craftsmen building a replica of an existing model. Rather the “true self” calls us to express it while at the same time all of our categories fail to fully account for what this “true self” is.

Consequently, while there seems to be cognitive dissonance between the image of ourselves as at our core biological creatures with the notion of the “true self”, a Negative Theology of the self, like the one I have loosely sketched above tends to show that this tension is not so irreconcilable. There is a sense in which human beings are physical beings with particular biological characteristics, but what applying the model of Negative Theology to the self, shows us is that any categorization of humanity, whether it is biological like that of science or normative like the categories that I have pointed to in my discussion of the self, fails to fully capture what we mean when we talk about the “true self”. In this sense the “true self” like the God of Negative Theology is something that cannot be fully grasped at once through a set of categories. Furthermore, the “true self”, in particular, is something that comes from within us and demands expression, but eludes full understanding.

I am not sure if Negative Theology is the right approach to thinking about the self, and while I am attracted to certain elements of it, I also am drawn towards the notion that a system of categories can exhaust and fully disclose the reality of something. I find a part of me whispers if we can never fully capture reality through language in some meaningful sense what is the point of thought? But one thing that is certain is that a mode of thought modeled on Negative Theology provides us with an interesting way of thinking about the self that gets at the intuition that while it may be true in some sense to say human beings are matter in motion or social, amicable being, or whatever description we find compelling, none of these descriptions fully uncovers what we are. Further, this mode of though helps us capture how at ease we are at accepting two seemingly contradictory descriptions of humanity, because if all description fail to fully describe the “true self” then there is no reason why two seemingly contradictory modes of thought could not both reveal an aspect of the truth. If this is the case we have no reason to be uneasy that two descriptions of humanity we adhere to seem incompatible or opposed.

Music and Truth

ausomeawestin posted a really interesting entry on his blog last week that made me think about the nature of music and whether it can be understood as something that discloses truths. This is a question that I have struggled with for a long time, but I would like to give a preliminary sketch of how I think music reveals truths about the world and what we are. While my approach differs from ausomeawestin’s I would strongly recommend that anybody interested in this subject read his entry; as he makes a very interesting argument that is quite plausible.

As ausomeawstin points out music is not something that represents concrete objects in the world.  It is hard to think of what a musical equivalent of a man sitting at a desk writing a blog would be. Simply put, music does not present us with a concrete picture of the world. But if this is the case is music able to disclose any truth?

To describe how music might disclose truths we must first distinguish different ways of listening to music. Typically when we listen to music we either have it on as background music, and pay little attention to it or find ourselves completely engrossed and absorbed in the music, such that it is the only thing we are conscious of. In the former case we are failing to pay attention to the music and so it cannot disclose or reveal anything to us, while the latter affords this opportunity because we are fully caught up in the music.

In addition, we might listen to music as a biologist dissects a fetal pig. In this approach to listening we listen to the music but not as an active participant absorbed in the music, but as an analyst who is breaking down the piece and trying to understand its constituent parts.  Let us call this “analytical listening,” and call the the approach to listening that involves being absorbed in the music “engaged listening.”Analytical listening can help us understand the nature of order and disorder and the place of these concepts in the world. On the other hand engaged listening can help to disclose a more fundamental fact about the nature of the self and so better help us understand our relation to independent objects in general.

When we listen to music analytically we are able to parse out and analyse the individual elements of music such as melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics. While all of these elements of music can reveal order and disorder, for the sake of this entry I will focus on harmony.

Dissonance and consonance are the fundamental basis of harmony. To explain the concepts of consonance and dissonance in a perhaps overly simple way consonant harmonies sound stable, at peace and pleasant, while dissonant harmonies sound unstable, ill at ease and primal. While a particular chord may not convey a particular emotion, the sound of the chord will typically either embody order or disorder. When I play C major chord on my guitar there is no sense from the sound that anything is out of order. Everything appears to be constant and is in its right place. On the contrary when I play a Cmin6 or better yet a C diminished chord it embodies disorder, and when I hear the sound of such chords it is as if the universe is breaking up while at once longing for reintegration. Consequently, through its use of dissonance and consonance music embodies order and disorder.

Consequently, analytically listening to music allows us to better understand order and disorder  as when we hear dissonance and consonance this further reinforces our understanding of order and disorder outside of music. For example, when we hear a minor chord calling out for resolution we  see the way in which reality is built between an interplay between disordered forces calling out for resolution, and ordered forces that tend to stabilize this disorder. Furthermore, as the listener begins to ponder order and disorder as fundamental constituents of reality they will see that just as the disordered diminished chord reaches out to resolve itself, so too do the disordered elements of the self reach out to find a form of unity or integration. My conflicting desires embody the reality of the dissonant harmony, as both conflict with one another, but yet somehow call for resolution.  As a result when we listen to music we gain a deeper understanding of order, and disorder and can better see how this conceptual distinction relates to the world and ourselves. Music thus illuminates and further enhances our understanding of order and disorder.

To move on to engaged listening, in some cases with this form of listening we transcend our sense of self, and so achieve a kind of union with the rest of reality. When I listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mingus’ Black Saint and the Sinner Lady or Agalloch’s The Mantle, I am not a listener detached from the music observing it as a science observes the processes of nature. Instead I am so caught up in the music that I am listening to that I lose track of my sense of self. In this state I am not a differentiated subject who stands apart from the rest of reality, but an unconscious, or perhaps pre-conscious participant in the unfolding of reality; in this context I am reunified with everything outside of myself.

When we analyse this experience of engaged listening it may seem that all we have here is a visceral experience of release or escape, but at the same time this experience shows us something important about ourselves and our relation to reality. What it shows us is that while we typically experience ourselves as independent subjects who stand over and opposed objects, that in another sense seeing ourselves as independent subjects does not tell the whole story. Instead this experience shows us that while from a certain perspective we may appear as purely independent subject we are also not wholly distinct parts of a singular reality in which every seemingly independent thing is integrated with everything else.  Consequently, through engaged listening we are able to see a different aspect of our relation to reality.

My analysis has only begun to scratch the surface of what music discloses and my thoughts may be entirely confused, but hopefully I have

The Canadian Political System: Expedience, Efficiency and Democratic Legitimacy

Canada has a democratic parliamentary system which concentrates power in the Prime Minister, and his Cabinet. While the Canadian system of government is deeply imperfect much of the dysfunction does not originate within the system itself, but with a failure to understand what is required to make this system operate in a fair and judicious manner.  Canada has pursued a combination of policies including party discipline and single member plurality voting which exacerbate the lack of limitations that are placed on the Prime Minister and the governing party, and this has led to laws being created that reflect the interest of the ruling party rather than the public good. In order to ensure that proper democratic governance occurs in Canada it is necessary to remove either party discipline or replace single member plurality voting with proportional representation and ensure that our citizenry and politicians are more public spirited and willing to cooperate.

Canada has a Parliamentary system in which the leader of the parties that wins the most seats in the House of Commons at the Federal level becomes Prime Minister. Although there are rare  exceptions to this where the leader of a party that merely wins the plurality, as opposed to the majority, of seats within the House of Commons does not end up being Prime Minister as the Governor General has allowed a collection of other parties to form a coalition government and choose a Prime Minister to lead that government.

Canada does have a Senate, but it is appointed and its role is mostly symbolic and while it can force the House of Commons to review legislation, and provide “sober second thought” this power has rarely been exercised.  The Senate is broadly viewed as a useless institution in its current form, and there is a mix of proposals to either abolish it, or reform it to make it an elected, representative body.

The Prime Minister is the center of executive and legislative authority within the Canadian state. He or she holds a large degree of executive authority like the President in the USA, but the Prime Minister also selects the Cabinet, usually from the pool of elected Members of Parliament (MP), and has traditionally been allowed to control the Cabinet, which holds a large degree of legislative authority. Consequently, there is no strict separation of executive and legislative authority. This means that a Prime Minister in Canada can not only determine which people are predominantly responsible for deciding which laws are proposed, but also can determine the nature of the law being created.  Bills created by the cabinet do of course have to achieve a majority vote within the House of Commons, and be approved by the Senate, but still we can see how much power lies in the hands of the Prime Minister.

Currently in Canada, and for the majority of our past, we have had “majority governments.” This occurs when the party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons wins a majority of the seats. While there are votes where MPs are allowed to vote according to their own conscience, these votes are a rare exception as opposed to the norm; MPs are expected, unless otherwise told, to vote the party line in any area that affects budgets. This is known as “party discipline.” If a MP does not vote the party line they may have to cross the floor and sit as an independent or join another party.  Consequently, in a majority government situation the Prime Minister is essentially able to pass any laws he wants over his term in office. Thus, in the situation of a majority government, the Prime Minister is more of an elected constitutionally limited monarch than anything else, as he can pass any law he wants and the only things that are holding him back are resistance of his own party or the courts overturning legislation on constitutional grounds.  Consequently, gridlock is rarely a problem in Canadian politics. Instead the problem is the development of extremely partisan policy that can develop because of the sheer authority of the governing party and their leader.

A further complication within the Canadian system is the use of the single member plurality system of voting or “first past the post.” In this system MPs are elected to represent geographic constituencies and the candidate with the plurality of votes within the constituency wins the race and receives the seat. This compounds the problem of party discipline because if a MP is forced to vote with their party, they are not fully able to represent their constituencies’ interests. In addition the regional popularity of political parties means that often the distribution of seats in the legislature does not reflect what people voted for. For example, the NDP may get 15% of the vote in one province, but receive no seats in this province because in no one constituency were they strong enough to get a plurality of votes.

So, in the Canadian system we see a situation in which there is substantial centralization of power in the Prime Minister. The problem with this as noted above is that there have not been many checks on his or her authority throughout Canadian history. But the failure to understand the nature of this system is indicated by the use of single member plurality voting and party discipline in conjunction with the centralization of power in the Prime Minister. In itself there is nothing wrong with a strong political leader, party discipline, or single member plurality voting, but taken together they magnify the worst flaws of the Canadian system. When you have a Prime Minister with a large degree of authority who can control what policy is proposed it only makes the problem worse when he or she can control what his party votes for and the distribution of seats within the legislature does not actually reflect what people voted for.

In this sense, Canada has two plausible options within its existing system, neither of which seems to be on the horizon, which could at least help correct the problem of the excessive authority of the Prime Minister. One approach would be to get rid of party discipline, such that policy would have to be created that would only get votes if it was in the interest of constituencies. This would limit the power of the Prime Minister by forcing him to create laws that were more reflective of the public good.  Likewise if party discipline is to be maintained it probably makes sense to go to a form of proportional representation in which the distribution of seats in the legislature actually reflects the popular vote. It is very rare for a party to get the majority of votes in Canada, but they often get the majority of seats, and so if the distribution of seats reflected the popular vote this would ensure that the Prime Minister and his party would have to cooperate with others and make policy that was in the interest of a majority of Canadians, rather than in the interest of the party and their supporters.

Some Canadians are very apprehensive about the notion of limiting the power of the Prime Minister as minority governments (governments in which the governing party holds less than half of the seats in the House of Commons) in Canada have often been ineffective and rife with gridlock.

It is certainly expedient to keep the current Canadian system as is, as the system makes it very easy to pass laws, but unless we see the point of democratic governance as expedience we might want to demand more from our politics.  In a strictly procedural sense the laws passed within the current system are legitimate as the process through which they are typically passed does not violate any rules of the system. But in another sense they seem illegitimate in that if laws do not reflect the overriding public good or at least the interests of a majority of citizens, they do not honour the spirit of democratic governance, as democratic governance is supposed to guarantee that the public good is served by ensuring policy serves the interests of the majority of citizens. This is of course a substantive as opposed a procedural conception of legitimacy, but that does not mean we should pay no heed to it.

This raises the question of what kind of democratic governance would meet the bar of this substantive conception of legitimacy in Canada. I think either of my proposals would, provided that the citizenry and MPs began to exhibit a greater degree of public spiritedness, and willingness to collaborate as this would ensure that law would be developed that took into account more than one’s party’s interests.  However, some might argue that such a system is too imperious, and that we should try to develop systems that create substantively legitimate democratic governance by only relying on people to act on their enlightened self-interest. While it is in principle possible that a system based on enlightened self-interest could generate law that meets this substantive conception of legitimacy, the history of Canada and elsewhere seems to suggest otherwise as systems based on enlightened self-interest typically create factional politics and policy. So we ought not to hang on to the desire to have a political system that can operate by only asking of its participants that they act in their long term self-interest. This means that those of us who accept the substantive conception of democratic legitimacy described above need to recognize that in order to meet this notion of legitimacy in Canada, politics will have to ask more of its participants than enlightened self-interest; instead, it will have to ask them to act as citizens.

Do businesspeople make good political representatives?

In the context of liberal democratic politics, a candidate running for election often suggests that they are qualified to be a political representative because of their experience as a businessperson. This idea is problematic as the qualities required to be effective in business are distinct from those required to be an effective representative. Similarly, the fact that many people think that the qualities that ensure success in business will ensure that one is an effective political representative is problematic, as it embodies a failure to understand the differences between the purposes and practise of politics and the purposes and practises of business.

The qualities of an effective businessperson and an effective representative differ greatly. The businessperson must work with others, but their goal is singular, given and not amenable to differences of interpretation. That goal is to make the greatest profit that they possibly can for the company that they own, or work for. The goal is singular as there is only one goal. The goal is given as the goal of business is not something that is up for debate; it is inherent to the practise of business itself that its fundamental goal is profit.  The goal is not amenable to differences of interpretation as profit has a single meaning, and it would be bizarre if someone said they disagreed with another person’s interpretation of profit. Consequently, the businessperson is someone who must work to figure out the best means to maximize a goal that is singular, given and not amenable to interpretation.

Contrastingly, the activity of the representative consists in participating in self-government and what the goals of self-government are is up for debate, and the goals of self-government tend to open to differences of interpretation. That the goals of self-government are up for debate becomes clear in that, within a democratic context, different groups contest what goals the government should be promoting. Some tend to favour the promotion of economic growth, while others wish to promote social equity, and other wish to promote individual self-development. There is no obvious, unquestionable goal, or set of goals, that can be taken as the only thing that government should pursue.  Likewise, even the nature of the goals of government themselves are up for debate. Parties of the right and parties of the left in post-industrial countries tend to both see themselves as supporting the goal of ensuring equality of opportunity. But those on the right see equality of opportunity as involving ensuring that there are no legal blockages that prevent people from accessing an opportunity, whereas those on the left tend to see equality of opportunity as requiring a more substantive redistribution of wealth to ensure that the life chances of the less well-off are equivalent to the life chances of the affluent.  In this sense being a political representative requires not only speaking with others about the means to a given end, but also conversing about which particular interpretation of a particular end it makes sense for government to pursue.

It should be noted that while it is plausible to think that self-government has a single goal; it is also plausible to think that self-government has several goals. For example, we might be concerned with fostering social solidarity and community, as well as supporting economic growth. But for the purposes of this blog, I will be agnostic as to whether self-government has one goal or many.

Taking the preceding into account it seems deeply implausible to think that someone who is an effective businessperson will also necessarily be an effective political representative. The goals of business and the goals of self-government differ in quality, and thus in order to be an effective representative one must be able to work with others to make salient points in favour of ends that serve one’s consituent’s interest, and be able to work with one’s equals to come up with a fair compromises to deal with pressing problems. Unfortunately, businesspeople often have neither of these abilities as working in business often does not require one to work with one’s equals as the chain of command in business tends to negate the possibility of having to work with someone who is not one’s inferior or superior. Likewise, businesspeople are not used to articulating why a particular end should be pursued, as this requires a deeply refined understanding of goods (values) and the ability to persuade others of what ends should be pursued, and working in business does not develop these traits. A business person might be able to tell us how to most efficiently bill people for use of public transit, but they have no privilege in claiming that they have a better understanding of the degree to which public transit should be endorsed and supported, than those who are not businesspeople.

What does it say about liberal democracies that if a candidate claims to be a businessperson they are automatically viewed as more qualified to be a political representative by many? It says that the many in this case have failed to understand the difference between politics and business, and are reducing politics to economics, or that the many think that businesspeople will be more effective at getting the government to do what they want. In the former case we have a problem because if politics is reduced to economics in the popular consciousness than we fail to understand that political decisions can undermine certain goods, or give certain goods a preeminence they have never seen before, and if we lose our understanding of this than we cannot adequately take account of all that is at stake in political decision making. If we do not take account of all that is at stake in political decisions than we cannot effectively reflect upon and take responsibility for the decisions that are being made.  In the latter case, we still have a problem because if we merely see our representatives as those that can get the government to do what we want, than we have reduced politics to a war by other means, in which case the common interest could never be adequately served.