Monday, September 1, 2014

Don't Blame Stephen Harper, Blame Edmund Burke

"If a sociology professor applies a day before a medical doctor, the professor's application gets processed first ... I mean, we don't really need a sociology professor. ".  Jason Kenney

Stephen Harper's recent refusal to call a public inquiry into missing and exploited Aboriginal women, should not come as a surprise to Canadians, given his background and the ideology of the Conservative Movement.

Modern Conservatives do not believe in sociological phenomenons, viewing them as too grey an area, in a world that is black and white, right and wrong, left and right.  Everything in between is simply minutiae, and therefore, not worthy of attention.

Jakeet Singh,  an assistant professor in the Department of Politics & Government at Illinois State University; addressed this issue in an excellent op-ed piece, published in the Toronto Star:  The ideological roots of Stephen Harper’s vendetta against sociology

Singh suggests that the roots of this belief system can be traced to Margaret Thatcher, and quotes her now infamous line "there is no such thing as society".

However, we have to go back a little further than that.

Conservative author and journalist, Yuval Levin, outlines the origins of this thought in his new book:  The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

The inspiration for many modern political struggles, can be traced to the philosophies of Burke (1729-1797) and Paine (1737- 1809) and their views on revolutions.

The American Revolution may not have taken place, had it not been for Thomas Paine.  Initially, most colonists  viewed the anger over taxation without representation, as an issue for the wealthy elites, who simply didn't want to pay their share.

However, Paine's pamphlet Common Sense, stirred up a passion for liberty.
The pamphlet begins by establishing some principles for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate rule: that government exists to secure the freedom and security of its equal citizens and that any government that fails to do so is not worthy of the name, regardless of its pedigree. (Levin p. 35)
It's rather ironic that the GOP and the new U.S. Tea Party, see themselves as a direct lineage of the founding fathers, when in fact, America was built on liberalism, in direct opposition to conservatism.

Edmund Burke did support the American Revolution, however,  but only because he was constantly seeking a balance, to avoid tyranny.  He saw the King's refusal to address the legitimate concerns of the colonists, as tyrannical, and suggested that if he continued in his stance, than they certainly had the right to self governance.

He did not, however, see this as a basic "human right", as Paine did, but simply as a solution to a problem.  Burke never dealt with metaphysical distinctions and had no time for anyone who did.

Because of that, he opposed the French Revolution and its philosophical Rights of Man.  An elitist, he believed that the masses were ill equipped to decide who should govern them, but that that task should be left to a chosen few.  Otherwise, decisions would be based on what citizens wanted or thought they wanted, and not on what they needed.
" What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics." — Edlund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
In other words, "...  we don't really need a sociology professor. ".

I watched a documentary on Ronald Reagan, and his son told the interviewer that his dad could never really grasp the idea of abstract notions , like "the poor".  Harper is no different.
"These proposals included cries for billions of new money for social assistance in the name of “child poverty” and for more business subsidies in the name of “cultural identity. In both cases I was sought out as a rare public figure to oppose such projects.”  Stephen Harper,  The Bulldog, National Citizens Coalition, February 1997
There is no such thing as "child poverty", but if you see a child who looks hungry, simply feed it. There is no epidemic of murdered and missing aboriginal women, but if you know of someone who murdered them, call the cops. Again, simple solutions to complex problems.

The Starting Point- 1789
In a radio broadcast on April 1, 1933, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, proclaimed it clearly : with the Nazi revolution "the year 1789 has been expunged from the records of history."  It was obvious to all why Goebbels compared 1933 to 1789.  Any contemporary, whether schooled in history or not, instinctively knew that the French Revolution was the measure of things in the modern world. "We want to eradicate the ideology of liberalism and replace it with a new sense of community"  (Foundational Pasts: The Holocaust as Historical Understanding, By Alon Confino, Cambridge University Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-52173-632-9, p. 6)
The National Socialist Party of Germany, in 1933, saw a classic struggle between right and left.  They had a visceral hatred of communism and the liberalism that allowed communism to flourish.

And in the Edmund Burke tradition,  believed that only they knew what was good for the German people, and so dealt with those who tried to convince them otherwise.  This meant the expulsion of not only Jews (who they suggested were part of a communist plot to take over the world), but everyone with liberal ideas and "mystical" views of human rights.

They would create a new kind of socialism, in direct contrast to the Marxist or Paine idea of socialism; for the people, but not by the people, and certainly not for all the people.

The French Revolution has been seen as a defining moment in democracy, despite the fact that it failed, only giving power to the Bourgeoisie, and the eventual dictatorship of Napoleon; but it has inspired many revolutionary changes around the world.

The late 18th century public debates between two great thinkers, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, live on in the conflicting ideologies of today's conservatives and liberals.

The question is, what side of this new revolution do we want to be on?

The one where basic human rights are simply philosophical or one where those rights are achievable and necessary?

One where "poverty" is merely an "idea" or one where the visual, and yes sociological studies, are proof that "the poor" do exist, and society has an obligation to help them?

One where government should only address the needs of the top 1%, or one that addresses the needs of all citizens?

Edmund Burke or Thomas Paine?

Stephen Harper or anyone with a heart and soul?

Conservatives like to quote Edmund Burke:  "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” .  The only problem is that Burke never said that.  If you pick through things he actually said, you could perhaps create the sentiment, but not find the direct quote.

The closest researchers have come to citing the remark, might be to John Stuart Mills, who in an 1867 inaugural address at the University of St. Andrews, said:

"Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing."

Mills was a liberal.

However, you can quote me on this ""The only thing necessary for Stephen Harper to continue his ruthless revolution, is for good Canadians to do nothing.”

As good Canadians we can all do something.  Vote him out.


  1. Stephen Harper needs to go but not as part of an historical fight against conservatism. The existence of conservatism or liberalism is not the problem. The irrational belief that only one can be the correct answer is the problem.

  2. Unless we change issues regarding Tax Fairness, put people to work, find as you elude to the complex solutions to complex problems child poverty, poverty in general as well as violence against woman will continue. The issues are all interrelated. You can't end prostitution by a simple law change we also need cultural and societal changes. We need a society that supports Human Rights. We cannot afford to have the gap continue to widen between the haves and have-nots.