The “consumer” they call us…

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Jan 192014

I’m reminded by Andrew Coyne’s column this weekend of a 1970s song by Stompin’ Tom Connors that gained particular reknown as the theme music for CBC’s “Marketplace” consumer affairs program. Tom was not given credit as a bard or for foretelling the future. About 40-years later, though, and Tom turns out to be more right than he could have imagined.

Andrew Coyne’s column was about the way that the political parties and the political process in Canada has now fully framed all 33+-million of us as “consumers” of government services and of the output of politics (and politicians). Despite his never responding to me–directly to the emails or indirectly when I reference his work, I like Mr. Coyne’s writing and, whether I agree with his position or not, how he arrives there. Usually. In this case, I tend to agree but think he’s been sucked in to the implicit premise that his column and the odious way government treats us is based. That is: We are consumers.

The argument, loosely, is this: the Conservatives and now the New Democrats are talking about how to treat their consumers (read: us) and how to best address our needs. It is premised on Mulcair’s charge against high prices, which warrants Mr. Coyne explaining fundamental economics and competitive structures. Mr. Coyne is right on both counts, and so the rejection of the politicization of the word “consumer” is complete. There’s a problem with all that.

By immediately moving to capitalism, laissez-faire, the value of competition and how successive governments make mockery of it, Mr. Coyne accepts and assumes the validity of us being “consumers”… of government and politics. I get where it comes from: the notion that good businesses that provide value to their customers are satisfying those “consumers” by putting their interests, needs, and desires at the forefront. (I would argue that this rarely happens at the best of times, let alone in politics, but that’s another blog.) So, this being an accepted truth of capitalism that applies without thought in every dark corner of society, it makes sense to assume it and get on with the hypocrisy of politicians and political parties putting the consumer front and centre, or so they say.

Last time I checked, I was not a consumer of the nation, of society, and of my own (social) existence. I am, as is Mssrs. Coyne, Harper, and Mulcair–as are we all–CITIZENS of Canada. As such and within a democracy, we have given to those we elect to administer on our behalf the right and responsibility to serve our (social) needs. It is not their place to treat me like a consumer; they are not making a profit. It is not their goal to satisfy my typically fleeting desires for X, Y, and Z, but to show some foresight and wisdom for not only my long-term good but for the nation’s long-term good. Consumer businesses exist, these days, in conveniently demarked 90-day reporting periods and respond to the fickleness of trends, fads, fashions, and evolutions in technology. One would hope that Canada is not and should not be operated on the basis of a persistently, creatively-destructively cycle of pandering to consumers. (Perhaps my real issue is that¬†as consumers we have become idly, compliantly ready to be told what we need by those who have something to sell us–need it or not. Again, different blog.)

Good for Andrew Coyne for calling to task at least two political parties and specific politicians for their misleading use of the already insipid “consumer focus” meme. It’s just too bad, though maybe a constraint of a 700-word column, that he opted to accept something that is a bastardization of two parts of our life. To which, I say,

Soylent Green is people!

 Posted by on 19 Jan 2014

Reasonable accommodations…

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Jan 192014

Maybe it’s because of the Polar Vortex: there has been an unusually large (a few, admittedly) number of bizarre demands for accommodation going on recently. The largest by far is what’s happening in Quebec viz. the proposed Secular Charter. The most extreme might be the demand for judicial interference to accommodate a child’s food allergies. The most institutionally gut-wrenching, because of its seesaw reversals and impact on not only religious but gender “rights,” seems to have been the circumstances around a male student at York University who asked to be permitted to not work with women on religious grounds. And, while not in Canada, today I read about a snowboarder who is launching a constitutional challenge to a Utah ski resort’s policy to allow only those on two planks not one. The severe cold–not severe by the measure of temperatures during my childhood on the Prairie, but no mind–seems to be affecting synaptic activity in a large number of uncovered heads.

In Quebec, the Marios government’s pendulum has moved so far to the right that it begs for being both pilloried and ridiculed. That said, at its root it would appear to be a response to what is an ongoing, persistent (successful) demand for individual accommodation with regard to all things “religious,” irrespective of how dubious or discomforting to the majority. It’s probably too late to stay clear of religious freedoms at this point, but I need to say that I’m not entirely in disagreement with the underlying intent. It is a very fine line between cultural protection of the nation and odious persecution. At this point, the Quebec government would seem to have both feet firmly planted on the fetid side of the line–a condition that is not uncommon for successive editions of that august body. But it does raise the very valid question of where should that line between the will of the majority and the demand of the individual lay. And the problem with even putting one’s hands on the line is that it is so charged with the electricity of emotion (and “unreason,” which I use to describe religious beliefs) that the thickest rubber gloves will not prevent a ringing shock.

The most significant, and obviously hypocritical aspect of the York University situation was that the student ultimately withdrew his request and need to be accommodated. At least that’s what I’ve read. So, after the verbal acrobatics undertaken by the professor (“Grayson” — no relation), the administration, the ink-stained wretches and blog floggers such as myself, the boy determined that he would do the assignment even with the women. Funny and perhaps not even warranting comment… but I’ll say it anyway. The situation reminds me of a Groucho Marx line: “These are my principles. And if you don’t like them, I’ve got others.” So, after miles of column-inches and histrionics in debate about the religious and gender issues, it was for naught. The principle seems to be squishy.

In southern Ontario, a parent wants the world (or at least the school) to accommodate her child’s allergies. I do not know, beyond what I’ve read and heard, how long or how far these demands and attempts to accommodate or refusal to do so went. I do know that the mother has raised it to judicial intervention. At root, her child has allergies to foods that are, unfortunately, now and for at least the past couple millennia, considered “staples.” That means, they are foundational to the diet of the entire population, perhaps around the world. That the girl is presently (“presently” because children have been known to outgrow allergies) allergic to these foods it very unfortunate for her and for her family, who want to both protect their child and ensure that she has as normal a childhood as possible. Focus on the words “as possible.” We should all want the same for the child.

Where this gets particularly thorny is in the nature of accommodations. As I understand it, the school tried to ban milk and egg products, but apparently even the mere proximity to someone who has eaten such things (without them actually being present or the girl coming in contact with them) can set off anaphylaxis. That is terrible. It’s also a bit dubious–to me. But let’s go with it to the extreme. So that has resulted in the stand-off that the Court will hear. But if we extend this, should this girl be allowed in public at all, never mind school? What if she’s on a bus and somebody that she will come in proximate contact with only once in her entire lifetime is hurriedly scarfing down an egg salad sandwich between school and work or somesuch? Won’t that cause shock? Should everyone in the city, on the basis of the argument that mere proximity is dangerous and the child should be fully accommodated, be forbidden to eat eggs? Should the movie theatre, where the girl wants to go see Despicable Me 2, enforce a breathalyzer test at the door to ensure no milk or egg product fumes are exhaled by anyone going to the 24-theatre complex? It becomes ridiculous very fast. My child, thankfully not allergic to anything to the extent of mortal danger, was once drummed out of a classroom because of her egg salad sandwich because one of the 30 children was allergic to eggs. My, frankly, furious response was something of the sort: ¬†“Let me understand this. The kid with the allergy is being accommodated and specifically not being “ostracized” by having to leave the room because in some corner of it there is an egg. But my child is, in full fact does get ostracized. After all, within the group it was not my child that was different and in a perilous circumstance because of a chicken ovum. Yet her ostracization was OK, while asking the child to protect himself by leaving a place where there was an egg is not. Please refer back to the bus trip and movie theatre earlier in the paragraph.

All of that is thorny social issues that should be dealt with reasonably and sensibly by all parties. In our case: my child went to the hallway; I ranted at home as I did above; we saved egg salad for sandwiches at home from then on. What is most disturbing about this, however, is just how much ink has been spilled and how many soundwaves have been generated over all this; how much has been written; and how little has been said. When the vast majority of the media reporting on this are satisfied to “report” and provide the enormous insight that it shouldn’t be like that or the Court should not be involved or we need to talk it out and be reasonable, without taking a position and providing light rather than mere heat to the dialogue, it is a clear comment on the weakness of the media’s (and by extension it’s editorialists and opinionators) knees. Positions should change and that’s OK. But that is an impossibility if there is no position to begin with because we are ready to accommodate even the notion that there could be valid reason to take a firm stance and debate.

At the very least (and it is the VERY least), the Quebec government has put on the table something to expose real views and values. We could stand for more of that.

 Posted by on 19 Jan 2014