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Canada's Mean Test: Myths behind neo-con madness

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General Strike posters, Montreal. Photo: Rob Caballero/Flickr

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It's difficult to overstate the significance of the Quebec student strike (the longest in North American history) and resultant public backlash against the provincial government's Orwellian response.

Not that you'd know it. According to mainstream (predominantly) English media, Montreal is being held hostage by a handful of scruffy, possibly naked, hooky-playing slack-tivists who got distracted on the way to a door-crasher sale at the Apple store and decided to stop traffic while demanding their constitutional right to free lattes. Or something.

The negative stereotyping of those who resist (or are an inconvenience to) the current neo-conservative model doesn't begin and end with students, of course -- public servants are also a favourite target, what with their middle-class wages and secure-ish retirement. And let's not forget sick days!

Then there's the anger directed toward anyone who realizes trading our collective potential for a tax cut to use as a down payment on a pair of boot-straps we can try to pull ourselves up with is not exactly a viable plan for future prosperity or social progress.

The righteous angst of the "I did it all myself/you owe me/what about my break?" constituency certainly finds political traction in the regressive pile-on from several mainstream media outlets -- but the substance behind the myths is, well, lacking.

No one gave me a free ride.

(Otherwise known as "I'm OK, you're...OK, who cares? It's your fault!")

If you've expressed concern with some (all?) of the following: global warming, Indigenous rights, tuition fee increases, cuts to health care, OAS, EI, the arts, the CBC, and a number of anti-poverty initiatives... you've probably heard this argument:

"No one handed me anything. I worked hard and did well at (public) school. Only missed classes when I was sick and had to go to a (publicly funded) doctor. When I got my first job (right out of university), I was there (on public transportation) every day. And somehow I managed (having little or no student debt) to buy a car and a house and pay my bills. You don't hear me complaining (except about paying the taxes that provide those social programs that I never, ever access); not like those whiny kids in the streets who wouldn't know hard work if it served them one of those triple-shot mocha-latte-chinos they're so fond of. Heh heh."

That whole myth of the self-made man is appealing in a plaid shirt/roaring fire/"it's Miller time!" kind of way (if you're, you know, into that sort of thing), but given what we know about the importance of social and physical infrastructure to our collective well-being, it's also a teensy bit naïve.

Let's break down the "free" ride vs. full-fare argument. Can you afford to:

- pay for your own (and your family's) private school and private health care, and the private medical school of the doctor and pharmacist who will tend to your every health need?

- purchase private security for whom you've paid private health-care and education expenses (this might take some planning ahead)?

- grow your own food which you personally pay private inspectors to ensure is safe (again, their private training and education will require some advance planning on your part)?

- pave and plough your own roads?

- engineer being born so independently wealthy (this part is kind of important) that you don't have to work, or rely on an educated work force, or on a consumer base that can afford whatever it is you're selling?

If you answered "what?" to any of these questions, you're on your way to realizing that your well-being is tied to everyone else's.

My taxes pay your salary.

This is a popular euphemism (directed at teachers, government workers and librarians --but not, for some reason, firefighters and police) for "You owe me. Now, grovel."

True, the salaries of some workers are paid publicly. But you know what? If you work in the private sector, your salary depends on the economy -- on people (including those public sector employees with their healthy incomes and their pensions that allow them to retire without being plunged into poverty) buying the products you sell, or the services you provide. If they don't buy, your company doesn't profit, and you don't have a job (though lately corporate profits and employee jobs and incomes are less and less related... am I right, Caterpillar?). So, pardon my mixed metaphors but that old chestnut holds very little water. The fact is: we pay each other's salaries. In other words, they don't owe you. We all owe each other.

If you get lower tuition fees I want a refund for the higher fees I had to pay.

This gem is getting tossed around fairly frequently in response to articles about the student strike. (Subtext: "Damn, I wish someone stood up for me while I was busy electing governments who didn't.")

Let's deconstruct this request for retroactive compensation; because time travel is still impossible, we can only impact the future. Otherwise, we could go back and ensure all women had the vote before it was legislated. Or that post-slavery racial discrimination never existed rather than requiring a Civil Rights movement to legislate an end to it. Or that no one ever had to do without health care and we could just retroactively eliminate the struggle to secure it and the devastation it wreaked on those who did without.

But since that's not possible -- not having a time machine handy -- let's recap: you don't get compensated for what we haven't yet won (or in some cases what you didn't feel was important enough to fight for on behalf of yourself or your kids).

After all, progress is not about a do-over. It's about a do-better.

And when so many are marching on our behalf -- in spite of misdirected hostility from those who should know better -- that is what throws the inadequacy of these "self-made" myths into sharp relief. Because these are people who understand that when confronted with injustice the only legitimate choice -- the only course of action -- is to do better.

Not just roll over.

This article was first posted on Behind the Numbers.

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