Thou shalt not commit sociology

CAUTbulletin.ca – commentary (Vol.60, No,7)
September 2013.  By John F. Conway

The usual suspects are delighted. Harper has put his foot in his mouth once again and looks completely ridiculous. Just google “commit sociology” and you’ll see the general condemnation he has elicited, from sarcastic hilarity to outraged condemnation.

Prominent sociologists have jumped into the fray. Michael Adams of Environics published a witty slap in the face in The Globe and Mail (2 May 2013), “Confessions of a homegrown sociologist,” admitting to committing sociology since his early youth. Prominent sociologists Robert Brym (University of Toronto) and Howard Ramos (Dalhousie) published a more somber reply on 28 April 2013, officially endorsed by the Canadian Sociological Association, concluding “Current comments by the Prime Minister suggest we are now on the path to policy-based evidence. Increasingly, facts are ignored, suppressed, or distorted to suit government ideology. Doing otherwise has become an offence.”

In the May 5 edition of The Globe and Mail incoming president of the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Antonia Maioni, pandered to Harper’s obsession with the economy, insisting that “sociology pays off” and reminding the Prime Minister, “Given the pace at which our economic and political landscapes are changing, sociologists are more important than ever. And the work of those ‘committing socio­logy’ is integral to sound policy making and to analyzing and reacting to dramatic events.”

Not only does Harper not care about these responses, they are grist for his anti-intellectual mill. Doubtless he is delighted, since he has once again hit a key nerve to rile intellectuals, putting them on the defensive. For my part, as a sociologist at the Uni­ver­sity of Regina, I look forward to vastly increased enrollments in sociology courses. Given the mood of young people across Ca­nada, there couldn’t be any better campaign in favour of sociology than a public attack by our increasingly reviled Prime Minister.

But those who see this gaffe as a blow to Harper’s chances at re-election should think again. In fact, it is an early salvo in his campaign to win re-election. Harper is shrewd. He never says or does anything without calculated focus. Harper doesn’t care a fig about the opinions of scientists, experts and intellectuals. Don’t forget: here is the man who took a wrecking ball to the Census and a meat axe to Statistics Canada. He fired scientists from the public service, muzzled them, ridiculed them, and rolled over their recommendations repeatedly.

He does all this to the delight of significant elements of his far right support core — the right-wing kooks, crackpots and crazies. They love beating up on intellectuals, social engineers, “nattering nabobs of negativism” (thanks Spiro Agnew), absent-minded professors — bleeding hearts all, wringing their hands about the poor and the criminals, always whining about “why?” Harper’s hardcore base believes only in “who, what, when and where?” on the issues of crime, poverty and terrorism. Evil and laziness abound among many of our untrustworthy citizens. As Margaret Thatcher taught us, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

The why questions — why do criminals commit crimes, why do people murder each other, why do young well-educated men and women become terrorists — these questions are not to be asked. Such questions reflect dangerous softness and woolly-headed thinking. The cause of crime is bad people doing bad things; the cause of terrorism is evil terrorists; the cause of poverty is laziness and a sense of welfare-induced entitlement. Solutions are clear and simple: catch criminals and lock them up; root out terrorists and destroy them; force the poor onto the labour market to seek their individual fates.

As Harper teaches us, the world is really quite simple and can be understood in clear primary colours: white equals good; black equals evil; red equals effete commies; blue equals true tory patriotism. So don’t commit sociology, or any of the other why” sins. Such an approach borders on justifying the evil it pretends to study, and confuses the public about the correct policies to adopt.

Embrace the slogan of the 19th century American Know Nothing movement: “I know nothing but my country, my whole county, and nothing but my country.” Just substitute the words “Harper’s version of my country,” and you have captured the essence of Harper’s deeply loyal right-wing core. These have to be kept on side and motivated, since they work hard, raise money, and can be counted on to do the grunt work to get the Tory vote out. For those elements of his Tory coalition uneasy about the company they keep, Harper has soft, soothing words about the economy, tax cuts, keeping the lid on government spending, and eliminating the defi­cit and debt. His calculated ponderous, understated air delivers reassurance that he really doesn’t necessarily believe everything he says in the bare-knuckled brawl of winning and holding power.

Tragic circumstances presented Harper with a perfect opportunity to go on the offensive to reverse his party’s fall in the polls in recent months. The April 15 Boston Marathon bombing was seized upon by Harper to fast-track an old, unpassed anti-terror bill, S-7, the Combating Terrorism Act. Then the next week the RCMP arrested a couple of alleged terrorists accused of plotting to attack a VIA Rail passenger train. It could not have been more perfect had the Prime Minister’s Office ordered the RCMP to fast-track action on an ongoing investigation. (Surely not!!) Justin Trudeau then provided an opening to Harper by expressing concern about the root causes motivating terrorist acts like the Boston bombing. Harper went for the jugular.

The bill was rammed through in short order, constituting a major assault on civil liberties: preventative detention without charge for three days, up to one year in jail for refusing to answer questions during terrorist investigations, and outlawing foreign travel for alleged terrorist purposes. In answer to critics, Harper noted tough measures were necessary to fight the war on terror. Harper went after Trudeau, accusing him of being soft on terrorism by musing about motives and root causes. It was a win/win/win political moment for Harper: the fear of terror once again dominated the public mind; he got a chance to appear strong and decisive; he was able to smear Justin Trudeau as soft on terrorism and “in over his head.” You can expect a whole series of attack ads in the coming months rooted in these events.

And all these continuing attacks about the “commit sociology” comment bring a smile to Harper’s lips. They serve to remind his base that they can count on Stephen Harper.

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John Conway is department chair and professor of sociology and social studies at the University of Regina and a freelance commentator on economics and politics.

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