Harper’s sociology smear plays to his base

by John F. Conway

John Conway

“I think, though, this is not the time to commit sociology, if I can use an expression. These things are serious threats, global terrorist attacks… I don’t think we want to convey any view to the Canadian public other than our utter condemnation of this kind of violence…” —Stephen Harper, April 25, 2013

“The first messenger… was so far from pleasing that he had his head cut off… and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him…”  from Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus (118 to 56 BC)

“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” —Thomas Gray, Ode to a Distant Prospect of Eton College, 1742

The usual suspects are delighted. Our prime minister, Stephen Harper, has put his foot in his mouth again and looks completely ridiculous.  Just Google “commit sociology” and you’ll see the lively criticism directed at him, from sarcastic hilarity to outraged condemnation.  And prominent sociologists have, naturally, jumped into the fray.

Michael Adams of Environics published a witty slap in the face in The Globe and Mail (May 2, 2013) called “Confessions Of A Homegrown Sociologist,” in which he admitted to committing sociology since his early youth. Prominent sociologists Robert Brym (University of Toronto) and Howard Ramos (Dalhousie) published a more somber reply on April 28, 2013, that was officially endorsed by the Canadian Sociological Association. It concluded: “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.”

There’s more. In the May 5 Globe and Mail, Antonia Maioni — the incoming president of the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences — pandered to Harper’s obsession with the economy, insisting that “sociology pays off” and reminding the Prime Minister that “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 and put 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 in the coming academic year. 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’s an early, calculated salvo in his campaign to win re-election. Stephen Harper is shrewd. He never says or does anything without calculated focus. Our Prime Minister 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. And he does all this to the delight of his far-right supporters — 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 19 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 the do the grunt work to get the Tory vote out.

But what about those elements of the Tory coalition uneasy about the company they keep? For them, 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 over recent months. The April 15 Boston Marathon bombing was seized upon by Harper to fast-track an old, unpassed anti-terrorist bill, S-7, The Combating Terrorism Act. Then, the next week the RCMP arrested a couple of alleged terrorists accused of plotting to derail a VIA 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 provided an opening to Harper by expressing concern about the root causes motivating terrorist acts like the Boston bombing. Harper went for the jugular. He went after Trudeau, accusing him of being soft on terrorism by musing about motives and root causes.   And 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 terrorist purposes (whatever those may be). In answer to critics, Harper noted tough measures were necessary to fight the war on terror.

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 terror 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? They bring a smile to Harper’s lips, because they serve to remind his base that they can count on Stephen Harper to protect them from hand-wringing intellectuals.