At the recent Broadbent Institute conference in Ottawa, progressive icon Gloria Steinem dropped a clanger that rates high among the fatuous pensées of this addled decade. “The power of the State,” Steinem opined, “stops at the skin.” Even in this moment of Donald Trump turning political speech into Mad Hatter word balloons, Steinem’s nine-word pronouncement can only leave us gasping: “What, Tom Fool, does that sentence even mean?” If we explore them at a most literal-minded level, the words are demonstrably absurd. Police officers do not shoot soap bubbles at fleeing miscreants. Public education is not intended to be toweled off like a daily shower. Both testify to the full-body transformative power of the State. But the words are untrue even more than they are nonsensical. Our ancient legal tradition of habeas corpus literally translates to “you shall have the body”, and incarnates our presumption that all accused have the right to be wholly physically present to face their accusers. We have never, in the fulfillment of English-speaking justice anyway, adopted the doctrine of habeas epidermis: “just bring in the skin”. Indeed, we have fought wars and waged civil campaigns – not so long ago against South African apartheid, to cite one example – against the assertion that skin is the defining limit of political process. So an iconic left intellectual said something that was either unintelligible or, if parsed for maximum available clarity, simply false? It happens, yes? It happens, we are all painfully aware, across the partisan spectrum. What’s truly compelling, however, was the reaction. Or rather, the utter absence of so much as a lone groan from the more windswept reaches of the hall. A room filled with social activists went inert when drops of pure gibberish fell from the lips of a hallowed thinker. How? Why? Is it simply the case that no one actually listens to speeches that closely anymore, even those delivered by savants of Steinem’s impeccable pedigree? If so, then we are in trouble that’s much more than just skin deep. For the Broadbent Institute is a think tank. And as my Cardus think tank colleague Ray Pennings astutely points out, networking conferences of the kind hosted by the conservative Manning Centre, liberal-centrist Canada 2020, and left-progressive Broadbent, are the new branch lines for political idea generation in this country. If we’re all furiously generating ideas but no one’s actually actively listening…. But no. That can’t possibly be the case. Who would do the work of networking, who would hold conferences to confer, if the expected outcome were a mere dialogue of the deaf? No, it’s actually much worse. It’s a function of naturally selective hearing in which we elect to hear only from those who have the same skin in the game that we do. On the basis of that election, we come with the expectation that what they say will naturally correspond to what we believe, that is to inviolable and unalterable truth. The contest of ideas becomes the affirmation of me. What’s at stake goes beyond the medieval metaphysics of pinpointing the precise boundary between power and pores. It’s much more than merely a matter of being trapped in ever-diminishing circles of self-regard. What’s at risk is the elimination of the possibility of the political. If, for some reason, that cheers you, you need to reflect that the antithesis of the political is the tyrannical. As political philosopher John von Heyking argues so cogently, politics requires friendship. A tyrant, von Heyking reminds, cannot risk having friends. It’s a fate the progressive mind is particularly vulnerable to inflicting on the world around it. For while the strength of progressive politics is its urge to think and act in commonality for the broadest good, its temptation is to be led into solipsism: the rigid elliptic of what makes sense to me. Thus progressive economics often staggers into fiscal imprudence under the conviction that other people should pay for what I love most. A case in point at the Broadbent Institute gathering was a panel discussion that scanned the topic of whether publicly-funded daycare centres should qualify for federal infrastructure spending. Thus, too, progressive social policy is lured to dealing death to those I love less, or not at all. It’s a conceit so powerful that it can attract even self-styled fiscal conservatives who insist vociferously that there is no political link whatever between addiction to State debt financing and universal provision of abortion-euthanasia. Perhaps, after all, that is what progressive icon Gloria Steinem really meant to say.
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