Category Archives: Politics as War

From ‘Class war to Civil war’: The metaphor… (Part 2)

In Part 2, here, I take up the Conservatives’ dominant metaphor in their political thinking and why even non-union, non-worker Canadians should be worried.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is using its position as a majority government to threaten and pass back-to-work legislation for workers, even when they are locked out by the employer.

When a PM is so ready to use Parliament to pass laws that enable corporations to avoid engaging in meaningful negotiations, you have to ask whether the PM is acting on behalf of special interests of one tiny group of people and/or an ideology that drives him to do what he does?

For example, the Harper government has actually imposed a settlement that is worse than what the crown corporation, Canada Post, was at least publicly willing to offer. Harper, who has a very tight grip over the Conservative Party of Canada and over what MPs and staff can do or say, has made it clear that there is only one viewpoint that prevails. Harper has worked for organisations that promote an extreme, singular, ideological viewpoint, such as the National Citizens’ Coalition (NCC), which was set up by a rich insurance executive when the Canadian federal government set-up the single-payer, universal healthcare system, pioneered by the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the province of Saskatchewan.

So, it’s no surprise that he does not see workers, and especially unionised workers, as a legitimate group within society. Perhaps, like Margaret Thatcher he thinks that there are only individuals and families.

But, do these views necessarily mean that he is someone who is intent on pursuing a ‘class war’ on the poor and the working and middle classes?

First of all, it’s not a ‘class war’ in Harper’s eyes.

If Harper has learned well from his teacher, intellectual mentor and adviser, Tom Flanagan, then he probably sees politics as ‘civil war’.

So, we need to recognise that Harper and his closest advisers are those that have learned from and/or have taken advice from Republican spin-meisters and strategists (e.g. Frank Luntz). He knows that it is important to use ‘wedge’ issues to drive a stake between different groups of Canadians (and a stake through traditional Canadian values – too social-democratic!). He and his party are banking on the resentments of private sector workers who have lost out on pensions because previous Conservative and Liberal governments have permitted corporations to loot pension funds and undermine decent pay and salary settlements (e.g. back-to-work legislation means that there is no reason for corporations to even bother negotiating). Thus, the Conservatives are able to exploit the resentments of the working and middle classes and play on people’s own (and very real) fears of poverty (since a majority of Canadians are only one or two pay-cheques away from being unable to pay the mortgage or rent).

Harper has made it clear that he will only take one side in labour disputes and that he will use the State to support CEOs in their ‘bargaining’ over any employee groups. This ‘civil war’ is one which will greatly enhance the incredible power and influence that corporations already yield over the Conservative Party and various sectors of the economy.

Harper’s ‘back-to-work’ legislation can be seen as part of Conservative intent to use ‘wedge’ issues to drive clear and potentially volatile divisions between Canadians, but not necessarily overtly socio-economic (i.e. class) divisions (since it is likely that many millions more Canadians would end up on the opposing side, although he does have the advantage of corporate media chains!). He is attempting to repeat Republican success in the USA by adopting their tactics for his ‘war’ on Canadian traditions, values, beliefs and attitudes: to push Canada – or to remake it – in Conservative ideology. It is not just that he seeks to undermine or abuse democratic processes of Parliament (a Commons committee had found him in contempt of Parliament but an election was called and therefore it went no further; also see below for just a few of the tactics adopted by him and his party).

Sure, this notion of thinking of politics or political campaigning as ‘civil war’ is something which explains the viciousness of US politics, especially by the Republican Party.

However, you say, it is only a ‘metaphor’. Yet, if it is only a ‘metaphor’, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have consequences in the ‘real world’. Is it that Harper takes the metaphor too literally?

Do metaphors influence how people see things?

First, ‘metaphors’ are tropes or ‘figures of speech’ and therefore, as language, they do not cause actual ‘harm’ – physical – do they?

According to a number of researchers, they do have real consequences. They may or may not understand the metaphors as a ‘figure of speech’, but that doesn’t make them any less ‘real’. And, that doesn’t mean they don’t have real consequences in the ‘real’ world. For example, Metaphors We Live By, a book by George Lakoff (before his fame in the last decade) and Mark Johnson, published in 1980, pointed out that:

‘Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities.

A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor.

This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent.

In this sense, metaphors can be self-fulfilling.’

Now, look through Lakoff and Johnson’s sentences and think about the influence of the metaphor of ‘civil war’ in the thinking of Harper, Flanagan and the new Conservatives (not Tories in the traditional sense, but more ‘Reform-a-Tories’ with the emphasis on the former) and the rest of those that have been influenced by this kind of approach.

Harper’s approach to political campaigning is based upon the metaphor of ‘civil war’. This was explained by Tom Flanagan, Harper’s teacher and mentor at the ‘Calgary School’ (which appears to be one of the corporate elite’s ‘astroturf’ organisations), as well as one of Harper’s campaign advisors and strategists. He stated that:

‘Political campaigning is a civilized form of civil war. The point is to win the war, not to complain that people are fighting’. [(2009) Harper’s Team, 2nd edition, p.286]

You may remember Mr Flanagan as the commentator who called for Julian Assange’s assassination on TV, although three days later he claimed he was only joking. (Or was he waiting to see if US President Barack Obama took his advice? At least in Canada, if you are a right-wing academic or an advisor to a right-wing Prime Minister, you get the benefit of the doubt, so you can make demands for people to be assassinated on national TV; but don’t you dare call for pulling down a fence because then you could be in real trouble! I believe that is the charge to which Jaggi Singh pleaded guilty.) (And people think that the Canadian judiciary lacks a sense of perspective or humour!)

Don’t the Conservatives use tactics similar in style and ‘maliciousness’ to those of US Republicans, from evading scrutiny and accountability in Parliament, to preventing the House of Commons from accomplishing work that won’t benefit the Conservative Party (regardless of the potential benefits for Canadians).

A series of news reports since Conservatives took office in 2006 highlight four (4) of a number of tactics, such as:

(1) a 200-page ‘secret Tory handbook on obstructing and manipulating Commons committees’ (Canadian Press, 2007a);

(2) the use of Conservative Party logos and slogans on over-sized ‘prop cheques’ in publicity photo-ops when handing out of public funds and, contrary to the ‘non-partisan’ nature of government disbursements of public funds, sometimes unelected Conservative Party candidates were included while the actual MPs were excluded if they were not Conservatives (Delacourt, 2009);

(3) claiming that opposition MPs were ‘Taliban sympathizers’ or that they put the interests of the Taliban before Canadian soldiers, by raising questions about the Canadian Government’s handling of Afghan detainees. This is as close as you come to calling other Canadians ‘traitors’ or claiming that their actions are ‘treasonous’.

(What I don’t understand is why aren’t the motives of the government challenged? Clearly, if they are using patriotism as a motive to get Canadians to support them, but don’t want anyone questioning what they are doing [it is supposed to be a democracy after all!], then you have to challenge them, especially if they are trying to claim that those who call into question a dubious military expedition to support a government of warlords and corrupt politicians masquerading as ‘democratic’ representatives are ‘traitors’.

As Ambrose Bierce put it in his ‘Devil’s Dictionary’: ‘…. In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.’);

(4) and the use of taxpayer-funded political leaflets, known as ‘ten-percenters’, to propagandize against Liberal leader Stephan Dion and in favour of Harper’s government (Campion-Smith, 2009).

These were just some of the tactics that were used by the Conservative Party of Canada. (So, the Conservatives are certainly professionals in undermining Canadian parliamentary traditions, eh?) Now, just because Flanagan moves from metaphor to advocating the assassination of civilians engaged in free speech does not necessarily indicate intolerance (or any other kind of authoritarian attitude, does it?).

But, does it indicate a worldview that is ‘intolerant’ of those who ‘deviate’ away from that worldview? And does that ‘intolerance’ come out of or get manifested in ways which work against democratic governance (people need to remember that democracy is a process not a fixed state or ‘product’, that can be introduced at the barrel of a gun – or maintained by the truncheon or taser either).

It would also explain the massive over-spending on security for the G8 and G20 and the fact that dissent from a very narrow worldview would be treated as a national security threat.

How is it in a democracy that individuals can be kidnapped by men in civilian clothes in unmarked vans in broad daylight? I always thought that was something that happened under dictatorships (such as the one that my mother and her family fled)?

(The attitude of the police towards Canadians of all kinds of ages, backgrounds, dress, ethnicities and so on was quite clear. They demonstrated what they thought of people expressing free thought outside mass mediated thought by their actions. What I think is also important to know is, did they feel encouraged by superiors to behave in a brutal fashion towards people who are exercising what are meant to be ‘rights’? I used to think we lived in a democracy. But, since last June, it is less clear that we have ‘rights’ if they can so easily – and brutally – even literally – be trampled upon!)

If you think of politics as ‘civil war’, at what point does it cease to be a ‘metaphor’ and become the ‘reality’ in one’s way of thinking?

Clearly, if cognitive linguists can recognise that metaphors have real consequences, then I think we need to take the approach of the Canadian Conservative Party – or at least their top leadership – to politics/political campaigning quite seriously. It may be what explains the extreme and violent language and approach of the Republican Party towards Democrats in the USA and the particularly virulent and vitriolic rhetoric.

Think of the debate around the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona. But, what was the atmosphere in which Democrats, liberals and progressives as well as moderate Republicans have to deal with in the USA? Just look at the vitriolic language used against Democrats and progressives in the kinds of books and blogs. I certainly hope that this is not the direction in which politics in Canada is headed.

Clearly, in the first two cases of labour disputes, Harper has taken one side unequivocally. He has made it so much easier for corporations, like Air Canada and Canada Post, to ignore any serious possibility of negotiating in any seriousness. He has therefore set the stage for ‘civil war’ between different groups, primarily between the corporate elite and the unionised workers, but they will seek to play on the resentments of others who lack adequate wages and/or jobs (look at the vitriol against postal workers on numerous websites and blogs, it is very much like the right-wing attacks on progressives in the USA).

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) is one which has been in the forefront of achieving such things as maternity leave and recognition of different minority groups in the workplace. It is a union that has looked beyond narrow, sectional interests of its workplace to the broader society and fought for the greater public interest. For Harper and the Conservatives this is not a good thing: they are fighting for the narrow interests of the very rich. (If they weren’t, why are they promoting the same policies that have been used systematically for 30+ years and yet things have either stagnated or only got worse for 90% of Canadians?!)

The fuller quote from Flanagan’s book is: ‘Political campaigning is a civilized form of civil war. The point is to win the war, not to complain that people are fighting. Leave the whining to the utopians who fantasize about conflict-free societies’. [Tom Flanagan (2009) Harper’s Team, 2nd edition, p.286.]

If you think politics (and for Harper and his lot politics is political campaigning) is thought of as ‘civil war’ and those who ‘complain’ about decorum or process are merely ‘whining’, it does not indicate that there is much room for respect for one’s opponents in this kind of thinking either. This lack of respect or consideration about those who might complain about their ‘civil war’ approach to politics will only reinforce their contempt or disregard for their opponents. (Look at Senator Tkachuk’s remarks about Brigette DePape and her protest in the House of Commons: why is it okay for our elite members to equate peaceful dissent and protest with the ‘potential’ of being a ‘terrorist’? Is it not extreme. It is just as facetious and ignorant and intolerant as trying to compare Harper to Hitler. Yet, why hasn’t there been an outcry from the elite about that?)

‘Civil war’ does not begin with and end with weapons being used.

‘Civil war’ begins with a lack of respect or regard for one’s opponents and the subsequent ‘war of words’ helps to develop a contempt or de-humanization which starts to move one potentially to violence. Look at the art, literature, media and other forms of representation and debate in the lead-up to any civil war of the last 100 or more years. You will find that process of denigration and disrespect being fostered and developed through the language and images used to represent and refer to opponents.

(N.B.: I should point out that I am using short-handed references and will gladly supply the full reference for anyone who inquires about those sources drawn upon for this post.)

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