Diversity Debates Over Canada’s New Cabinet

Justin Trudeau unveiled his cabinet today, making good on his promise to have equal male and female representation. He missed it by one, with 15 females in a 31 member cabinet. Today, when asked about it, he had a great reply:

It’s a great rhetorical flourish, but underlying it is the notion that we’ve waited far too long to see the diversity of real life reflected in government. There are even two aboriginal cabinet members out of a record eight aboriginal MPs.

It turns out that a lot of assholes—white males, the lot of them—are upset at this turn to diversity, grunting about merit while ignoring the fact that merit has rarely figured into cabinet. One of them—The Walrus’s editor, Jonathan Kay—even suckered me in for a time with his arguments about how class is the real frontier in diversity:

While traditional metrics of racial and gender diversity remain important considerations when building a government or professional organization, I’d argue that the most profound schism in Canadian society isn’t skin colour, gender or sexual identity. It’s social class…

As an editor, I have the privilege of working with all sorts of interesting and influential Canadians. On paper, many of these people are “diverse”—men, women, black, white, straight, gay, trans, cis, Jew, Christian, Hindu, Muslim. Yet scratch the surface, and you find a remarkable sameness to our intellectual, cultural, and political elites, no matter what words they use to self identify. In most cases, they grow up middle-class or wealthier, attend the same good schools, and join the same high-value social networks.

The first problem with Kay’s argument is that it doesn’t celebrate the momentousness or the momentum of today’s cabinet diversity. Of course this isn’t enough, but it’s something; something that moves us in the right direction. But Kay doesn’t seem to actually want diversity, he just wants to criticize today’s cabinet appointments from a less reprehensible angle.

I was fooled until I read a follow-up article—also in The Walrus—by Karen K. Ho titled Meritocracy Is a Lie, first addressing the meritocracy issue:

If we really want to get technical, it’s important to acknowledge that notions of merit have never stopped previous governments from determining the make-up of their cabinets based on a variety of criteria. As Vice Canada parliamentary reporter Justin Ling has pointed out, “regionalism, parliamentary experience, who they endorsed for leader, [and] which MP they beat” are all considered valid reasons for the job, and gender is not. In effect, quotas meant to be fair representations of a variety of different Canadian constituencies have been around for almost fifty years…

This whole debate is infuriating because the issue of meritocracy only seems to come up when the capital-e Establishment, mostly a population of well-connected white men, find themselves suddenly at the slightest risk of losing their historical stranglehold on power.

And then, addressing her own editor’s seemingly laudable class-based critique, she says:

[W]omen and people of colour, including Canada’s Aboriginal population, are more likely to experience being part of a lower class than white men. We know this from information gathered by Statistics Canada. Having more women and people of colour involved, be it in politics, business, art, activism or journalism, means you have a higher likelihood of encountering people with experiences of either being lower class or treated as lower class. Perspective is a powerful thing, especially in the halls of power, where it appears to have been historically in very short supply…

For many women and people of colour, the endless fight isn’t worth it. They quit before rising to the ranks of editor, manager, partner, designated candidate or MP. In this sense, a “meritocratic” bias simply increases the likelihood that those who rise to the top will be the same people who started out from closest to the top in the first place, as they have the least to lose and the least to overcome.

Today’s cabinet diversity is still woefully insufficient, but it’s a start.

Fear and Boundaries

Today I took my son with me as I voted in the advanced polls for the federal election. I joked with my wife that I was introducing him to voting based on what you’re afraid of. Conservative supporters seem, to me, to be afraid of immigrants and poor people and change, while people more like me are basically afraid of the Conservatives forming another government. And I suppose that Conservative supporters may primarily be afraid of the Liberals or—even worse—the NDP forming a government.

Later on, we walked by a parking lot that had been transformed recently during Nuit Blanche. My wife had been there1 and described how they had put up large chalkboards at the open edges of the parking lot, which had made the space a lot more cozy and intimate. Having politics on my mind, I made the comment that “liberals and progressives generally like to commend openness and a lack of boundaries but they sure do seem universally appealing and comforting.” I guess the key thing is recognizing the human need for boundaries, while ensuring that they’re permeable, and continuing to question if they’re deployed properly.

  1. I was home with the kid. We used to go out together. 

Ending Homelessness

Homelessness is actually very simple to solve: give homeless people homes. Done. This is what’s known as the Housing First philosophy: housing the homeless is not only the most humane approach to homelessness. Utah has had huge success giving homes to the homeless:

Precious few places have had the nerve to fully implement a Housing First policy, though hundreds of cities have drawn up the plans. But the approach has been successful in Utah, where chronic homelessness is down 91 per cent over the past decade, and where rapid rehousing programmes have housed thousands of newly homeless veterans and families quickly and cheaply. To the surprise of every self-described progressive, Utah has emerged as a model for municipal programs around the country.

It turns out that Housing First’s effectiveness also extends economically, which probably surprises a lot of people:

Homelessness has always been more a crisis of empathy and imagination than one of sheer economics. Governments spend millions each year on shelters, health care and other forms of triage for the homeless, but simply giving people homes turns out to be far cheaper, according to research from the University of Washington in 2009. Preventing a fire always requires less water than extinguishing it once it’s burning.

What about Canada? All I could discover is that the Green Party is committed to ending homelessness, calling the housing shortage amongst indigenous peoples a scandal. And Medicine Hat has implemented Housing First to great success: they report that there are no chronically homeless people in the city.

The city’s mayor, Ted Clugston, said that while it’s been a challenge to convince his conservative constituents — “We consider ourselves independent. You work hard…So if you want a place to live, you pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” he told The Tyee. — conservative politicians support Housing First because it’s a money-saving initiative in the long run.

The stability of a home means fewer costly trips to hospitals and interactions with police and the courts as well as taking shelters out of the equation. The Alberta government reported it can cost over $100,000 annually to support a chronically homeless person while “under Housing First, it costs less than $35,000 per year to provide permanent housing and the supports they need to break the cycle of homelessness.”

Democracy & Responsibility (to Love)

It’s election season in Canada, which means it’s time to decide which distant oligarch is slightly less distasteful to us in the charade that many believe to be democracy. When Winston Churchill described democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried,”[ref]Decontextualized quotations fascinate me. In its context, Churchill is obviously defending democracy against its detractors, softening this frequently deployed quote as folk wisdom with the qualifiers it has been said and from time to time. The original quote more fully reads: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” See the Winston Churchill Wikiquote page.[/ref] I hear him differently than most, who assume that it’s appropriate to describe the system of governance that we live under as democracy.

I instead mentally paraphrase Churchill’s oft-misued quote as “We have this form of government that’s definitely better than oppressive and/or totalitarian regimes, but it falls incredibly short of the classic democratic ideal.” If you aren’t hearing bitching and moaning about our form of government as “chaotic” or “disruptive” or “unworkable,” then it isn’t democracy.[ref]The first canonical attempt at democracy in Athens was routinely called that, and it only included land-owning males as “the people.”[/ref] True democracy is rule by the people, and not just the people you would expect to be capable of having a say. Democracy is the breathtaking ideal that everyone, no matter their race, gender, religious affiliation, or other definable characteristic, would have full and equal say in their governance. This is ennobling to everyone, but terrifying for the rich and powerful, who would then have their privileged place of power and influence threatened by so much unworthy rabble.

True democracy is therefore always deemed “impractical” and systems that subvert actual democracy are suggested in order to make democracy “workable” and “practical.” The dark genius behind all these attempts is that they contain some features that resemble democracy, and appropriate the name democracy to this only minimally realized system.

Of course the feature that deserves the most notice is representative democracy. This is the system our Social Studies classes taught us to equate with the word democracy. Instead of having direct say in our governance, we are instead allowed to elect a representative to speak for us in some governing body. In a five-year election cycle, this effectively gives us one day out of 1,826 to exercise our democratic rights, leaving the elected representatives to play power games for most of the remaining 1,825 days.[ref]They do have to pretend like they’re doing no such thing, especially in election season.[/ref]

None of this is to advocate for a withdrawal from politics proper. Quite the contrary, we all need to rouse from the slumber of believing that voting once every 5 years is being “politically responsible.” We must be engaged in our communities, believing that we have a right to have a say in how we are governed even though the system doesn’t reflect that reality. Politics, after all, is too important to leave to the professionals.

Finally, as a Christian, I find it doubly distressing that so many of my brothers and sisters buy into the “vote responsibly” bullshit flung about during election season. We worship a failed political revolutionary executed as a state criminal. They would have painted “terrorist” on the sign above Jesus’ head if they used today’s language, for he relativized everything about power and authority in the name of the kingdom of God. If we walked around saying we only obeyed “the nation of God” like he did, folks would start getting mighty suspicious.

It was precisely this politically subversive language that got early Christians in hot water. In calling Jesus Lord, they were saying that Caesar was not. They held themselves under the law of Christ, which is to say under the law of love for God and neighbour, which led them to political acts such as the rescue of infants left exposed to die and care for widows and orphans. The law of love in God’s kingdom always seeks out those ignored and abused by the “legitimate” powers of the day.

This is what God’s politics looks like: love, especially the seemingly irresponsible love of the poor and the marginalized. Voting for one chump or another every few years is all fine and well, but it has nearly nothing to do with responsibility. Unless political responsibility takes on the face of our neighbour, it means nothing at all.

Apologetics Are Inherently Political

Because Hauerwas & Wllimon are so quotable:

Apologetics is based on the political assumption that Christians somehow have a stake in transforming our ecclesial claims into intellectual assumptions that will enable us to be faithful to Christ while still participating in the political structures of a world that does not yet know Christ. Transform the gospel rather than ourselves. It is this Constantinian assumption that has transformed Christianity into the intellectual “problem,” which so preoccupies modern theologians.

We believe that Christianity has no stake in the utilitarian defense of belief as belief. The theological assumption… that Christianity is a system of belief must be questioned. It is the content of belief that concerns Scripture, not eradicating unbelief by means of a believable theological system. The Bible finds uninteresting many of our modern preoccupations with whether or not it is still possible for modern people to believe. The Bible’s concern is whether or not we shall be faithful to the gospel, the truth about the way things are now that God is with us through the life, cross, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, 22.

Them’s fightin’ words.