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  October 12, 2008

Crisis changes spectrum of political debate


Rick Salutin: While elections limit the scope of discussion, financial crisis is blowing it wide open
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biography

Rick Salutin is an novelist, playwright and freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada. He has written columns for Canadian Business, Toronto Life, TV Times, Rabble.ca and This Magazine, of which he is a founding editor, as well as a series of plays, novels and books. He was The Globe and Mail media columnist from 1991 to 1999 and is now an op-ed columnist with that paper.



In the second part of their interview, Senior Editor Paul Jay and Rick Salutin discuss the degree by which political discourse is affected by both elections and moments of crisis. Rick believes that the two events are competing forces, with the election campaigns providing a very shallow analysis and the crisis forcing people to consider ideas normally outside the realm of acceptable discussion. For the first time in recent memory, we are hearing words like capitalism and socialism in the mainstream grammar.


transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the next segment of our discussion about the upcoming Canadian elections. With us today is freelance writer Rick Salutin. Rick's been following the election for The Globe and Mail newspaper. Thanks, Rick. We're at a time where I find this strange parallel dialog going on. There's a serious conversation taking place within financial circles, within political circles, on the Internet that are we on the precipice of a 1930s-style decade of deep depression. There's the possibility of the state of California going bankrupt. There's the possibility of cities across the United States not being able to have bonds to do infrastructure programs. There's a story, I think, in The Globe yesterday, the predictions of the worst economic crisis in Canada since the 1930s. The price of oil and commodities going down, industry in Ontario and Quebec getting gutted. The dialog of the seriousness of the nature of the problem is happening over here. The elections carry on in both countries with, like, lip service to the crisis, and then kind of just carry on with message track, which leads me to the question, which is, is this, the real conversation, doesn't have very much political expression. There's no party that really expresses it. You and I were just talking about the US. On the right, you get more of this kind of dialog in the Ron Paul libertarian sphere of this politics than you almost do on the left. What's your thinking?

RICK SALUTIN, COLUMNIST, GLOBE AND MAIL: Well, I think part of it is the legacy of the collapse of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rotten and corrupt as it was, it at least in image terms represented a genuine alternative, and for a hundred years you had the specter of communism haunting Western capitalism, and it provided the basis for a dialog, and there were two models, and you could argue about it. And with the collapse of the—nothing has really emerged to allow that in a time of crisis, to allow that discussion and those poles to exist. The environment has sort of by default, I think, taken up some of the load. And I think the Ron Paul thing is really interesting, the kind of what would have been called anti-imperialism on the left of Ron Paul. But nobody will take it on. Personally, I found the most chilling moment in the American electoral campaign so far when Barack Obama, the candidate of the left and of change, said the real problem with the war in Iraq is it's drained American Treasury so that they can't, in his words, project power into the rest of the globe, so that there's no challenge, except Ron Paul, as you say, you know, and a really marginal figure.

JAY: If you go back and look at Obama's anti-Iraq War position in 2003, it was for those reasons he opposed the Iraq War that it would be a strategic blunder, not that it would be a violation of international law or something like this.

SALUTIN: Yeah. So, you know, you live with the burden of a society in which alternative views are not strongly presented. So they're not there as a resource for people at every level, running for president or just chatting in a coffee shop, to dip into those and use them as the basis for thinking out whatever crisis is upon them.

JAY: Well, perhaps this is a moment of great opportunity in that sense. For example, for the first time in my memory the mythology of Reagan is being questioned, Reagan, this great, mythological, grandfather figure that everyone prays to, and when he died, everyone on every political spectrum in the United States had to sing his hosannas. Now Reagan's starting to get blamed for this crisis. Maybe there's some unraveling of the mythology.

SALUTIN: Maybe. But I think there's always a moment of great opportunity coming along and being missed. You know. I think mostly people—.

JAY: Well, we'd better not miss this one.

SALUTIN: Well, people just mostly muddle through. You know. And, you know, I don't know what—. It could be a time in which somebody articulates a different vision.

JAY: Like Katrina, that two weeks of Katrina.

SALUTIN: Yeah, that's right.

JAY: There's, like, all this—I always thought of Katrina as this moment in Twilight Zone. There's a guy who walks down the street flipping a coin, and by mistake, when he goes to buy a newspaper, he flips the coin into the box, and it stands right up on end. And now, all of a sudden, he can actually hear everyone's thoughts, and he hears what people are really thinking rather than what they say. And these Katrina moments, maybe this is one of these moments where the fabric of the mythology starts to tear.

SALUTIN: Well, I think those moments often do happen. Not every day, but as you say, you know, Katrina wasn't long ago; 9/11 was a moment; this is a moment. For myself, I think what's diminished is the sense I used to have that if you had a correct analysis, you could seize those moments and present them to people, and then everything would follow rationally from that. I don't think that happens at all, but the moments happen. And who the hell knows who is going to make something of it? And the people who are into the environment, they may be onto something, you know? I have a nine-year-old kid, and I think he's probably got a better sense of what's going on and what's useful than I have, and I imagine he's got more to teach me about the best way for things to unfold at this point than I do from drawing on the Marxist classics of the past, something like that.

JAY: Well, if you go back to the 1890s, there was an interesting alliance. Mark Twain was vice president of something called the Anti-Imperialist League, I think it was, and it was actually an alliance of these kind of progressive left forces with the kind of Ron Paul-ist isolationist forces in an anti-imperialist platform. And maybe there are some seeds, at least in the US, for this kind of politics. We don't see quite that phenomenon in Canada.

SALUTIN: Well, they do have it in the US. It goes all the way back to Washington. And there's a great non-interventionist, anti-imperialist tradition in the US that got smeared as isolationist, and they've been trying to come out from under that label ever since. We have a different problem, because we never made a real break with empire. We just kind of evolved.

JAY: "We" being Canada.

SALUTIN: "We" being Canada. Since we never really—.

JAY: [inaudible] you being Canada, 'cause I'm on both sides.

SALUTIN: Oh, okay.

JAY: I'm a dual citizen. I can say "we" both times.

SALUTIN: Nah, I'm just solid, you know, just straight Canada. And we never quite made the break from empire, from the French Empire to the British Empire, to the American Empire, and we never had a revolution, we never had a national movement for independence, so it's a bit hard to see that. And in some ways I think, you know, that's another good that the socialist thing is—socialism-capitalism seems dormant at the moment. The environmental thing seems alive.

JAY: Although I must say for the first time in ages one is actually hearing the word capitalism—and socialism, for that matter. We've heard this idea the People's Republic of Wall Street, and socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor, and we're starting to hear this grammar again for the first time in 40, 50 years.

SALUTIN: That's completely interesting. And, see, what I also think is to some extent it's what socialism became was a kind of Keynesian government activism as a way of warding off socialism, probably, in its original form. And there are people who are quite nostalgic for that, and this is the moment of the Keynesian resurgence, that government can play a role. I mean, Stéphane Dion, who's this schlub who has been leading the Liberal Party, has been reborn as a dynamic, confident, charismatic Keynesian, basically, saying, "We Liberals have the understanding of how to manage the economy which the right wing, the Harper-ites, don't have."

JAY: Well, I interviewed Chalmers Johnson a few days ago, and at the end of it we came to the conclusion we had better do something, because I think all the people who have kind of bought into political parties have become partisan more to the party than to the issue of solving the country's problems. And I'm not saying everyone involved in the political process has done that, but a lot of people have. They're stuck. And I think reality's going to force us all to take a stand here.

SALUTIN: Well, in some ways I think elections, you know, they're great moments, because they allow people to come out politically and actually talk about politics with their friends, because it's in the air. And they're wretched moments, because they are so confining and so shallow and superficial that the political impulse, the moment it's evoked, it strangulates because of the lack of breadth and oxygen in the discussion.

JAY: I've talked to people, I've interviewed people—I won't say their names right now—but who in between elections give quite complex critical analysis of both parties, both leaders, but now I ask them what they think of Barack Obama in the US, and you can't get a negative critical word out of them—they're in campaign mode, and it's just attack McCain, defend Obama, because they believe that's what wins elections. Maybe they're right.

SALUTIN: Well, yeah, no, I think so. And I think that you think maybe your side will do something good if they're elected, but there's also an element of just wanting a win. And I think people tend to follow party politics and elections the way they do their sports team, and they go up or down. So in a sense they don't even care that much. I mean, in a sense they want the win, and if something bad happens after, okay. But if politics is not going to give you much and the world is going to go down the drain anyway, you might as well have the high of a winning season, you know?

JAY: And in these particular elections you get so concerned at what the McCain-Harper type of political forces can do to the world that you're kind of willing to live with whatever might take its place, and so you kind of root for the defeat of those forces and figure we'll hope for the best otherwise.

SALUTIN: In practical terms, I think, you know, Barack Obama is—you know, I can't see anything particularly inspiring or visionary that he's got, but I do feel he is less likely to blow the world up than the alternative, and that's about it.

JAY: And that's something.

SALUTIN: That would be something.

JAY: It's something. Thanks for joining us, Rick.

SALUTIN: Okay. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us. Please stay tuned for more reporting, analysis, and discussion about both elections.

DISCLAIMER:

Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.



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