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The conservative MP, rounded on a witness for suggesting terrorists like the one who murdered 51 Muslims at prayer in New Zealand, earlier this year had been influenced, not just by anti-immigrant and alt-right sites, but by 'conservative commentators'
The Commons justice committee’s hearings into the problem of online hate were thrown into chaos last week after a Conservative MP, Michael Cooper, rounded on a witness for suggesting terrorists like the one who murdered 51 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this year had been influenced, not just by anti-immigrant and alt-right sites, but by “conservative commentators.”
After admonishing the witness, Faisal Khan Suri, president of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, that he should be “ashamed” of his “defamatory” comments, Cooper read into the record portions of the gunman’s manifesto in which he denounced conservatism and expressed admiration for the Communist dictatorship in China. Needless to say this did not help his cause.
Much of the subsequent reaction was overblown, not a little of it for partisan gain — Cooper is not a racist and does not deserve to be expelled from caucus, as Liberal MP Randy Boissonault demanded. Still, I wonder if Cooper might have been able to make his point in a better way…
“Mr. Suri, there is a well-known rule of argument known as the principle of charity, which obliges us to put the best construction on our opponents’ words and not the worst.
Accordingly, I’m going to assume that when you included ‘conservative commentators’ in your list of terrorist influencers you did not mean to attribute responsibility for terrorist atrocities to mainstream conservatives, or to conservatism, which is an honourable creed professed by millions of Canadians.
It’s particularly important to make this distinction in the current debate. As a conservative I wish to conserve the best traditions of our history, one of which is freedom of speech, but because I do not wish to ban hate speech should not be taken to mean that I have any sympathy with those who propagate it.
Sadly, too many of our opponents have been too quick to make such a slanderous connection, not only suggesting that terrorists were inspired by conservative writings — as if a madman could not find inspiration in anything — but that conservatives are themselves by nature anti-immigrant, racist, white supremacist, and worse. It is dishonest, it is despicable, and it should stop.
But if we are honest with ourselves, conservatives must take some responsibility for this state of affairs. Like any political movement conservatism has its extreme or fringe elements, and of late across much of the democratic world the latter have been on the rise, feeding on public unease over immigration, exploiting fears of Islamist terrorism, and appealing to resentment of “globalist” elites.
These fears and resentments have proven fertile soil for opportunistic politicians, so-called “populists” promising to defend “the people” from whatever it is that is not “the people” if only they are given power — only power that, due to the gravity of the alleged threat, must not be impaired by the usual restrictions of a democratic opposition, a free press, or an independent judiciary.
This dark, authoritarian impulse, most fully embodied in the person of Donald Trump, has nothing whatever to do with the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan or the limited government of Margaret Thatcher. Conservativism is about freedom; populism is about fear. Indeed, populism is not just different from conservatism. It is its opposite. Where conservatives see people as individuals, it divides society into Us and Them.
Where conservatives believe in empowering the people, whether through the deliberative institutions of democratic government or the consumer sovereignty of the market, populism teaches the people to place their faith in strongmen. And where conservatism seeks to uphold the Western liberal inheritance, these new populists’ hatred of liberalism and of liberal elites has led them into a kind of nihilism, in which whatever gets a rise out of liberals — or decent-minded conservatives —is to be desired for its own sake.
At the worst edge of this movement are avowed racists and neo-Nazis, liberated from the margins of public discourse by social media and emboldened by the discovery therein of others of like mind. But scarcely better are those who, seizing on the actions or beliefs of a few extremists to harass and demonize ordinary Muslims, or who interpret freedom of speech, which is a restraint on government, as a licence to say whatever hurtful or idiotic thing comes into their head, without censure or even responsibility.
I was tempted to say that you should be ashamed of yourself for linking conservatives, even inadvertently, to racism and extremism. But as I reflect on it, it is we conservatives who ought to feel shame — shame that such vile opportunists should be able to parade about as ‘conservatives,’ but even more, shame that mainstream conservative parties have been so unwilling to denounce or distance themselves from them.
A cancer has taken root in conservative parties across the West — witness the Brexit madness in Britain, or the Republican surrender to Trumpism — and conservative leaders have too often been too slow to cut it out. Even in this country, conservative leaders have not only failed to confront the populist threat, but have in some cases actively pandered to it — stoking fears about Muslims, as in the infamous “barbaric practices” snitch line during the last election, or pretending a difficult but manageable problem — the influx of asylum seekers at irregular points across our southern border — was a five-alarm ‘crisis.’
And so I want to thank you, Mr. Suri, for this opportunity to set the record straight — to say that this sort of thing has nothing to do with conservatism, and to urge my party to return to its roots as the party of free markets, limited government and equal opportunity. And with that, Mr. Chairman, I yield the floor.”
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