Canadian cynicism

Canadian cynicism


Howard Adelman

I slept in until 7:15 a.m. Friday morning. Writing a blog after 9:00 a.m., I have decided, is, for me, cruel and unusual punishment. I ought to never again inflict it upon myself. The phone calls, the interruptions, the need to attend to service men and my insurance agent – let alone my lovely wife. It drives you crazy. So why was I so cruel to myself Friday morning? I started the blog and never got even one-third through. This blog may explain why.

On the occasion of Shira Herzog’s tribute evening on Thursday evening, a reader of my blog greeted me and asked me to “lighten up already. War, war and more war – it’s depressing.” So today I will try – at least a little – to lighten up. A warning first. When I wrote my final exams in high school, the English composition exam assigned a piece of creative writing for half the marks. I wrote what I thought was a very funny story. I received a mark of sixty overall. My answers to grammar questions were worth half the mark. Though I do not speak with correct grammar and often do not write according to the rules, I do know the rules and usually received perfect, or close to perfect, marks in grammar tests. As a result, I figured I only received ten out of a possible fifty marks on the creative portion of the exam. Someone clearly did not like my sense of humour. Hence the warning! Also the promise – I will refer to comedians but I will not try to be one. And a second warning. Be cynical. Don’t believe me. I am as incapable as Stephen Harper of lightening up.

Many comedians, and perhaps most of the very famous ones, are contemporary cynics. They look at the follies in the world and, by satirizing behaviour, believe they play a role in correcting much of the nonsense they observe so acutely. Therefore, cynics do not have to be absolutely wedded to a pessimistic view of the world. Perhaps they are only pessimistic about those who seek and achieve power. They still may believe in their own powers of amelioration even when they deliberately choose to be outsiders to the power system. Cynicism is central to great satire, but mindblindness may also be at the core of satire, for irony and satire only work if the satirist is unaware of the contradiction between his belief in the effectiveness of his or her comic talents to question and reveal what is wrong with the world and his usually accompanying belief that any assumption of power corrupts.

Much of contemporary comedy, however, is not merely cynical; it is often cruel. Joan Rivers, who recently died, was a partisan not only of the comedy of vulgarity and put-downs, but the comedy of cruelty at its core. In a performance in March of 2011 in Wisconsin, she was on stage and said, “I hate children. The only child I would have ever loved was Helen Keller. She didn’t talk.” A heckler, who had a deaf son, interrupted her, and, in evident protection of civility and sensitivity, as well as his own feelings about what was appropriate to joke about concerning his own child – but, using heckling to make his point, in contradiction to his own position — yelled out: “That’s not funny.” Joan immediately responded with a combination of a string of invectives – “Stupid”, “Idiot,” “Stupid son-on-of-a-bitch,” “Asshole,” and referenced her mother’s deafness and her husband’s loss of his leg about which she had a whole comic routine. She then immediately slipped into a sketch asking, “How do you find Osama bin Laden.” Her answer: “There is only one plug in all of Afghanistan. Follow the cord…” as she re-enacted with her body the quest. She, of course, brought the house down.

The introduction to the sketch above, as a response to a roast evening of herself, was an observation about another comic whom Joan described as a self-pitying woman on the Howard Stern show, “shrying” that, “My father molested me. My father molested me.” Joan Rivers responded: “Take a look at yourself, honey. You should be happy he paid any attention to you at all.” Joan continued: “I saw you backstage naked. You looked like a fucking mudslide.” She told one of the other comics, “You took a shit last week and Rock Hudson came out.” To a Jewish comic she claimed he had debased himself by defiling the evening with vulgarity. “You made me a Jew-hater. You know what I am going to do now? I am going to Malibu and give Mel Gibson a blow job.”

The comedy of cruelty has no boundaries. You may be powerful. You may be absolutely unfortunate. There is no proportionality and no laws of discrimination. Everyone can be and must be a butt of a joke. As great Irish (as well as Newfie) comedy reveals, the misfortunate have often been the best masters of the comedy of cruelty as their appalling stories told with a straight face reveal that laughing at the misfortunes of others allows misfortune to become a common bond. One need only watch Martin McDonagh’s comedy, The Cripple of Inishman or John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

The Torah even has one of the great satires of all time, at once a tall fish tale and a satire at God’s enormous power and at His expense. The greatest part of the satire is that it is included as a sacred text. Further, Jonah is read on the most solemn holiday of the year, Yom Kippur. And, to think, the vast majority of Jews with their great, and often cynical, sense of humour, most often aimed at themselves, take the book of Jonah so seriously they do not get the joke.

All cultures have their satirical streams. Early English literature is certainly replete with satire. One only has to read Chaucer to savour its scatological richness and its ability to scoff at platitudes, unveil hidden presumptions and motivations, and point out the bizarre and contradictory, if sometimes unintended, consequences of our actions. But this is not the comedy of cruelty as we have experienced it since the end of WWI.

For the essence of contemporary comedy is cruelty. The comedy of cruelty is no longer a humorous dissection of illogic and contradiction, but is, as Joan Rivers exemplified, a form of discourse that eschews argument in favour of invective, that tolerates NO argument and no half-measures in its search for the more extreme and the more shocking. The comedy of cruelty is the North American successor to pre-WWII surrealism and its negation without limitation where dream and reality become one and boundaries are dissolved. There just is no independent reality in this worship of subjectivity.

The comedy of cruelty is not subtle and despises gradualism, wit that builds a case by minor step-by-step shifts. That is, as Joan Rivers clearly stated, because the comedy of cruelty requires keeping control of your audience. That comedy is, at its essence, an exhibition of control. Comedy is Spiderman with the broad smile of Batman’s The Joker with the real power of a tarantula who works by stinging and paralyzing his victim after weaving a web of entrapment. The comedy of cruelty is not intended just to satirize power and those in power, but is egalitarian, for it regards all humans as power seekers who need to be ridiculed and laughed at. Contemporary inhumane cynicism stands in stark contrast to the altruism and humane Cynics of the classical world who valued “the natural” and “the natural” that became the ethical.

What does all this have to do with Stephen Harper’s Canada and with Stephen Harper himself? He is not exactly a laugh-a-minute guy. It is because the comedy of cruelty is the mirror reflection of those contemporaries who strive for and achieve power, but the corners of the mouths of those who have real power are turned down while the corners of the mouths of our comics are turned up to hide and disguise their core of cruelty. “Say it like it is” and “Say whatever you like without any inhibitions” is supposedly the highest expression of human freedom standing in total opposition to those in power who want to limit and control discourse. But that is only the appearance. The comedy of cruelty is the inverse mirror of a politics that insists upon controlling the message and expressing politics as control. In the politics of control, all political activity is reduced to an individual materialist striving, awarding those who maximize profits the highest pinnacle of reverence in order to deliver power to the few who ostensibly recognize and esteem this ideal when their own vision is not the acquisition of wealth ad infinitum but the acquisition and retention of power.

In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, there was a story on a former Finance Minister from Nova Scotia, Graham Steele, who had just written a new book, What I Learned About Politics. Steele was a Rhodes scholar who chose to go into politics with a view to changing the world for the better. He did it as a member of the NDP, which may explain why The Globe saw it as worthy of a front section news story instead of a review in the more specialist and less widely read Arts section. He resigned office when Darrell Dexter, the premier of the province at the time when he was Finance Minister, made a deal with health workers without consulting either him or the caucus. His view of politics, according to the story (I have not read the book), is that public policy gets twisted and distorted and eventually you get taken over by the desire to win, to be re-elected. Further, he contended that there was no real difference whether you sat on one side of the house or the other since no legislator deals with the real issues. For him, the contemporary political culture of cynicism is deep, tenacious and pervasive.

In his section on “Rules of the Game,” the first and number one rule is do what you have to do to get re-elected. Since there are no electors in the legislature, spend as little time there as possible; for policy debates are for losers. A second rule, of which Stephen Harper is a past master and Rob Ford was but a buffoonish imitation, is “Keep it simple”. The electorate is too preoccupied and distracted, so communicate with them with slogans, scandals, personalities, pictures and images. “Find whatever works, then repeat it endlessly.” There is no necessity for any slogan to have even the slightest truth value.  Another rule is seek to get credit and seek even harder to avoid blame. Politics is the art of covering your ass. And the final of his ten rules is deny that any of the above are the rules of the game.

I have not read a better summation of contemporary cynicism. It could be and should be funny if it were not so destructive. I was in Ottawa this past week meeting with top governmental officials about implementing a new humanitarian policy, a policy proposal a few of us had written and that the officials had read, absorbed and even reconfigured. In a lunch beforehand of the three authors of the proposal, we asked each other what was the best we could expect. “That they would say that they would implement the proposal.”

They did more than did that. They were much more ambitious. They thought the proposal should be expanded. Further, they had taken its core of business/NGO partnerships in the local community and converted it from a grass roots into a business elite proposal in a program that highlighted “badges of honour” and “branding of businesses” as exemplifications of humanitarianism to enable those businesses to maximize their profits while undertaking a humanitarian mission. What is even more astounding is that we walked away enormously pleased with ourselves because: a) they heard and listened to our criticism of the differences; b) and we were overjoyed at our success.  For all of this is to be done by a government that has squeezed the independent information and knowledge foundation out of our mandarins by closing its libraries and department think tanks, a political regime that has not permitted mandarins to make independent decisions of any significance, and forced them to avoid areas that are politically sensitive. Whereas a decade ago, mandarins were entitled to make policy decisions that were not overarching, today ALL policies, big and small, all budget changes, big and small, have to be processed at the highest political level. The real rationale is to inculcate into the mandarin culture that they are merely the servants of the political class in power and serve that power and not the people of Canada.

We should have cried rather than congratulated ourselves when we left the offices where we had our two meetings. Public servants have been reduced to political servants. How humiliating for such a talented groups of people to have to spend time figuring out how to be devious in order to be innovative. Machiavellianism in its worst sense now permeates the civil service. How impoverishing! How immobilizing to decision-making! The government in power has put a stopper on innovation in the public sector to prove its own mantra that innovation is a virtue of the private sector. So creativity grounds to a stop in the micromanagement of the delivery of public goods and services. It should be no surprise, as an Environics poll showed in June, that trust in the federal government to do a good job has declined by 13% since 2002, from almost half the population to 36%, much lower than the decline in faith in the abilities of either provincial or municipal governments.

Do not get me wrong. I favour business-humanitarian partnerships. But I do not favour confusing and even identifying the two as one and the same. Further, I definitely object to the evisceration of the mandarin class in Ottawa and resent even more the hoops and twists that intellectuals have to go through who work with and try to influence the mandarins and politicians, with excisions and modifications of proposals just to converse with those in power and, worst of all, then congratulate ourselves that our public servants have listened to us at all after we have taken out all the parts that might elicit a negative response.

The Harper government is not like Preston Manning’s vision of a smaller government sensitive and responsive to the words, feelings and thoughts of its citizens. It is a government with a vision of controlling those words, feelings and thoughts, not primarily by draconian measures, but by its deafness. As in Joan River’s comedy, they have made deafness both the butt of the joke and the exemplification of its most essential characteristic. And it is done straight-faced without cracking a smile.

The long form census that is needed to produce the knowledge on which policy could be based was eliminated. So the government has deliberately blinded itself without the excuse of Oedipus that he had unknowingly had sex with his own mother. Decisions which should take two days, take two months. And decisions which should take two months, take six months and a year if they are ever made at all. It is a government in control of discourse that cannot control action and implementation. On its core platform and supposed strength, its strong belief that the primary purpose of the state is to protect its citizens from external threats, the government has been exemplary in its rhetoric and totally porous in its incapacity to deliver.

In July 2007, over seven years ago, based on Conservative policies first unveiled in 2005 in the Conservative Party’s Canada First Plan for Arctic Defence, the Harper government released its defence policy. The government planned to procure six to eight Arctic patrol ships to demonstrate as a state that Canada controls its Arctic waters and the government’s supposed belief in sovereign enforcement. What has the government done? It is engaged in symbolism and indulging Harper’s misuse of and sentimental view of history. The government has found one of the ships from the nineteenth century Franklin expedition. The Harper government has demonstrated it can find sunken ships while, symbolically, it reveals it has a mindset more appropriate to the nineteenth than the twenty-first century, but its citizens still cannot get a glimpse of those six to eight Arctic patrol boats that were promised so many years ago to be operational by 2010, a date revised and then re-revised promising delivery this year, but which we may not see in 2016 or 2018. And when they appear out of the mists of promises and re-promises, as a report critical of the procurement demonstrated, the ships will lack the speed, strength, stamina or scale to cover the territory assigned and will be unable to deliver any effective defence.

What about the deep-water docking facilities on Baffin Island in Nunavut for these ships that have been lost in the Arctic fog? These have not sunken without a trace, but the existing wharf in Iqaluit in Nunavut, which could allow the new ghost ships to dock, has already sunk two meters since it was built and the government has been unable to find a way to stop the sinking without sinking more funds in the effort to have an Arctic defence port.

Why does the Harper government not form an expedition to locate deep–water docking facilities and the ships to dock at them? And what about the proposed “Arctic National Sensor System”?  One can go on and on – about our attempt to acquire fighter aircraft to replace our aging F-18s, an effort the Harper government muffed even more than the Liberals, but which, ironically, may be of some benefit as drone warfare gradually displaces the role of fighter aircraft except in close air support to ground troops, except that the government persists and has re-launched an effort once again to procure the aircraft.

The defence budget for 2014-15 is only $18.2 billion dollars, down in absolute dollars 15% from 2009-10 and 30% in constant dollars. In the face of increasing threats in the Middle East, on the eastern borders of the Ukraine, Harper can be a loudmouth, as Joan Rivers was, on defence policy, but in reducing defence spending to only 1% of GDP instead of a targeted 2% and the 1.3% we spent in 2009, the government continually displays its incapacity to put its boots on the ground where its mouth is. It is a government of words, not of action.

None of this takes into account what the government takes back on the exit side. For, according to a 2013 study by the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Department of National Defence, the Harper government since 2006 has returned $9.6 billion dollars it has been unable to spend because this is a government incapable of making timely and expeditious decisions. The reality today – Canada is unable to mount a sustained deployment of troops and all it can do in Iraq is send a few advisers so no one need worry that we will have significant troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria to combat ISIS.

I am not talking about cuts to the Arts, Culture and Research programs at universities or within government. I am not talking about the excision of the Rights and Democracy Institute in Montreal or to Kairos as a humanitarian agency. I am writing about programs supposedly at the core of the Tory agenda, The reality is, and exactly contrary to its discourse, Harper’s government is not a conservative government; it is a demolition government.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s ninety-fifties self-indulgent roman-à-clef, The Mandarins, she depicts the role that she and Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and Jean Genet played in trying to forge the intellectual foundations of post-war post-Vichy France in the shadow of Hegel’s great misinterpreter, Alexandre Kojève. The latter gave that French intellectual generation its theoretical foundation by displacing Jean Wahl’s focus on the unhappy consciousness in Hegel, the point of view of the comic of cruelty as pure negativity, a vanishing particular who will fight to the very end to celebrate finite and transitory existence without meaning in a world in which God has forsaken humanity altogether. In Jean Wahl, the unhappy consciousness was viewed as the highest achievement of persons who have no sense of historical development. When man truly recognizes his nothingness, he can be raised up to the higher levels of deformed Reason and reformed Spirit as the core of The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Kojève insisted instead that the political structures had to be totally rebuilt. With his shift to and emphasis on Lordship and Bondage as the core turning point of Hegel’s great classic, he propounded his misbegotten version that the section was primarily about Masters and Slaves, about those who wielded external power and control over others. The French thinkers à la Marx began to view the structure of society as reflected in individual thought rather than the quest for spiritual freedom in individual thought itself as the source of the problem with the structure of society.

So Arthur Koestler (see David Caesarani’s book on Koestler The Homeless Mind) is represented in de Beauvoir’s book as a fossilized classical Cynic. Nelson Alger (Lewis Brogan in her book), the Chicago writer and love of her life – Sartre was more a matter of  idol worship than a true lover – becomes the romantic ideal that has to be bracketed and sacrificed for her career. Albert Camus, the only really likeable character in Simone de Beauvoir’s volume, is portrayed as a person, not of moral purity concerned with acute personal decision-making, but as an individual who lies about the lead actress in his play (presumably Caligula), either to save the career of the actress or to save the production, or both, we are not sure.

Controlling the message is at the heart of the book and was at the heart of Sartre’s reverence for Stalin implied in his play, Les Mouches, and de Beauvoir’s 1947 ruminations in Pour une morale de l’ambiguité on the necessity and utility of using violence presumably to achieve the freedom which that violence inherently denied. For history, as they all believed, was a slaughter bench upon which the freedom of individuals as well as the happiness of peoples are sacrificed. In de Beauvoir, as in Sartre, freedom is reduced to the proposition that, in the end, each of us is fundamentally alone and singular and there is no self integrally related to community. Perhaps that is why Simone de Beauvoir is rarely if ever seen with a smile on her face in most of her photographs.

Given her portrait of the intellectual mandarin class as the kissing cousins of the civil service and of contemporary Canadian politicians now in power, it should be no surprise that France, since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958 when Charles de Gaulle came to power, has produced such an impoverished series of leaders, especially in the last forty years since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing from the centre-right and François Mitterrand, the fascist posing as a socialist, came to power, only to be succeeded by the three stooges, each more comical than the previous one — Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and, the most hilarious of all, François Hollande.

The problem is ubiquitous. In Israel, the Netanyahu government tries to equate Hamas with ISIS, but, as Ha’aretz noted this morning, the Prime Minister of Israel comes off as a used car salesman. The impression is particularly sharpened when a long list of Israeli elite intel unit veterans this past week denounced the use of that intel to persecute innocent Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. I formerly saw Obama as one of my few heroes. It was hard to listen to his message, full of superb rhetoric, to Americans this past week. If Netanyahu (as well as Harper) is to Obama a used-car salesman, Obama increasingly comes across as a carnival barker without any real bite.

So I am not suggesting that the Stephen Harper government’s cynicism is unique or extraordinary. It is only special in its grimness for it allows none of the comic relief of the Rob Ford farcical attempt at governance. I believe the Mandarin intellectual class of France that reached such stellar heights in the post-WWII period and spread their message of post-war disillusion to their successors and to the rest of the world, has served as an intellectual Ebola virus that now permeates all governing classes and those who try to influence public policy. Unfortunately, I recognize now how infected I am. I now comprehend the meaning of a question I avoided for years, the one Iris Murdoch asked in the philosophical journal, Mind, a long time ago, “How is the Liberal (or Christian) spirit of individualism to survive a long era of ideological warfare?”

In the contemporary world, we are condemned to walk around with intellectual oxygen breathing machines. If I were truly an idealist and a visionary, I would be able to communicate how you can choose optimism over despair, faith in peace against the reality of the incompatibility of the warring or even peaceful belligerents, to love humanity as my friend Sister Jo Leddy manages to do in the face of terrorism and the inhumanity of man especially to women. Further, if I were a contemporary cynic, I would have been able to make this blog funny.

My apologies, but only after you have read my older blog on apologetics.