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Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics

by Warren Kinsella
245 pages,
ISBN: 0679310851

Democratic equality: What went wrong?

by Edward Broadbent
263 pages,
ISBN: 0802083323


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Michael Taube

As most BiC readers have discovered, I am on the right of the political spectrum. In terms of political ideology, I am a fusionist, or a follower of the late National Review senior editor Frank Meyer's theory that blends elements of conservatism and libertarianism. Briefly, this means three things: I am a conservative with libertarian leanings; I tend to be more of a fiscal conservative than a social conservative; and I have more than a mild interest in classical liberal texts.

As someone who takes political philosophy seriously, I have always been troubled by the lack of interest on the part of some conservatives, liberals and socialists in reading each other's work. There is no doubt that reading material written by like-minded individuals helps keep the blood pressure under control. Health concerns aside, it is difficult to articulate a position on an issue if you don't know both sides of a particular orthodoxy. You don't have to agree with the opposing view¨reading the works of Karl Marx won't make you a communist sympathizer, for example. In most cases, you will be more convinced that your position is valid. That's a pretty good deal, if you ask me!

This month's column will examine two books by left-wing authors. The first work is edited by a former federal NDP leader, and includes material written by socialist academics. The second work is an autobiography of a controversial Liberal political consultant. Each book provides examples of what is right and wrong about the Left in Canada.

Edward Broadbent wasn't a great political success, and he would be the first to admit it. He was known as a decent leader with integrity on both sides of the House of Commons. But as noted by Alan Whitehorn in Canadian Socialism: Essays on the CCF-NDP (1992), Broadbent wasn't the apple of veteran NDP activists' eyes because he wasn't perceived as being "radicalenough, pursued wrong or questionable policiesÓor was too Tlitist in his leadership style." He was often called the most popular Canadian politician never to have been prime minister. Broadbent is now a visiting fellow at Carleton University. One of his pet peeves is the growth of neoliberalism (or neoconservatism) in contemporary society. Although most people have accepted successfully-realized concepts such as free enterprise and globalization, many socialists are worried about the lack of democratic equality in society. Social-economic movements such as the welfare state and democratic socialism need to be reinvigorated and reformed.

In his book Democratic Equality: What Went Wrong? (University of Toronto Press, 263 pages, $21.95 paper, ISBN: 0802083323), Broadbent has assembled numerous socialist activists and academics to discuss some of these issues. Contributors such as Prof. John Richards (Simon Fraser University) and Jim Stanford (economist, Canadian Auto Workers) are well known to Canadians, while Prof. Ruth Lister (Loughborough University, England) and Prof. Bo Rothstein (Goteborg University, Sweden) provide international perspectives. The diversity of themes and ideas makes this book a fascinating read. This is not a dogmatic text full of political jargon. Rather, it is a sensible project to find problems in the present system, and suggest solutions for socialist parties and thinkers. Although most of the material is, in my view, misguided in its political and economic direction, Democratic Equality provides a powerful analysis of the socialist mindset. Despite a little overlap of some of the topics covered, each chapter is quite unique. The first section is the strongest, examining philosophy, economics and sociology. Broadbent lists ten propositions of equality and democracy, claiming the links can be traced back to ancient Greece and to the philosophy of John Stuart Mill. At the same time, he believes that the link between equality and democracy has come asunder in the last couple of centuries by neoliberals and conservative governments that support globalization policies and limited government influence. Prof. G.A. Cohen of Oxford University tries to make the case for a "socialist equality of opportunity," a left-liberal position that "does not depend for its constraining power on social perceptions or on assignment of superior and inferior rights." People will not be held back by native (or genetic) disadvantages or social backgrounds, and differences of outcome will only be based on differences of taste and choice. Richards provides an intelligent look at the rise and fall of the NDP. He critiques the "fundamental contradiction" of the traditional left¨affording a "privileged status" to overbearing unions and union leaders. He also states that the NDP has become a "crude echo of ideas prevalent among the federal Liberal caucus," having lost its old pragmatism and sense of direction. Consequently, Richards feels that the party is finished, and that new political ideas such as The Third Way¨popular among moderate left-wing politicians, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President Bill Clinton¨now provide balanced government between free markets and social responsibility.

While conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals will not be won over by most of the policy positions in Democratic Equality, it is a worthwhile addition to our bookshelves. We tend to look for intellectual discussions on the political left, but often come away disappointed. This is not the case with Broadbent's book.

By contrast, there is very little to commend in Warren Kinsella's book, Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics (Random House Canada, 245 pages, $34.95 cloth, ISBN: 0679310851). Besides the fact of its crude title¨which can be forgiven, considering the author's past as a punk rocker wannabe¨it is a struggle to find anything redeeming in this work. It is badly written, poorly articulated, and incredibly boring. If you like heavy doses of pontification and self-gratification, Kinsella is your man. If not, you will regret the purchase of this book.

Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics is one man's effort to justify "going negative" in a political campaign. According to Kinsella, Canadian politicians should get down and dirty with their rivals by criticizing them, calling them racists and bigots, and by hunting down every scrap of dirt one can find on them. He provides twelve tips for combatting "unethical, unscrupulous, unprincipled political journalists", and includes the following: the press is your enemy, leave nothing off the record during an interview, politics is an act of war, and "spin is B.S." He also has the audacity to rate some political journalists and commentators, praising hacks like Toronto Star columnist Dalton Camp (A-) and criticizing certain (nameless) members, past and present, of the National Post editorial board (D). At times, this book gives one the sense of being transported into a real-life version of Woody Allen's movie, Zelig. We see Kinsella conducting an interview with "God," also known as U.S. political consultant James Carville. Occasionally he has the ear of his political idol, Prime Minister Jean Chretien. His finest political moment comes when he sends off copies of Paul Hunter's hatchet job on the CBC, a notorious documentary of former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day's thoughts on religion, to every single Liberal Party candidate by courier.

Most readers who lack familiarity with Kinsella would be impressed by the apparent power and influence of the Ottawa Citizen columnist. Here's the funny thing: Kinsella really isn't all that important in the scheme of Canadian politics. It's true that he has traveled in interesting circles and worked with some top-flight individuals. It's also true that he ran as a federal Liberal candidate in B.C. in the 1997 federal election, and lost to current Canadian Alliance MP Ted White. But does any of this suffice to justify an autobiography? Kinsella's publisher, Random House Canada, appears to believe it does. I'm not convinced. Broadbent's book is exactly what's right with the Canadian Left¨intellectual discourse about fairly misguided ideals for purposes of finding new solutions. Kinsella's book is exactly what's wrong with the Canadian Left¨the unabashed conviction that 'we' know we are better than everyone else, and we should just keep on attacking our enemies. To take a cue from the second book, I'll give Broadbent a B+ for effort, and Kinsella an F for quality and quantity. That's my conservative "kick ass" strategy for current left-wing books, thank you very much. ˛

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