Hypocrisy in the Burnaby South byelection

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I've developed a new respect for hypocrisy in light of B.C.'s Burnaby South byelection. Not long-lived I hope, but special to this cruddy moment.

It's the riding NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is running in. It's highly multi-cultural, mostly Asian. About half its population was born outside Canada, making it Toronto-esque. Liberal candidate Karen Wang torched her own campaign by pointing out that she was "the only Chinese candidate" and that Singh is "of Indian descent." The party pushed her to drop out for pitching identity, and she did, with subsequent misgivings. They've nominated another Chinese-Canadian.

Pundits like Andrew Coyne noted, "The hypocrisy of the universal outrage over Wang's appeal to tribalism" since "her real crime was to have said out loud what everybody in politics knows … but prefers not to mention."

I agree it's hypocritical. It's just… this may be a moment for hypocrisy to step forward proudly. The fight against racism and tribalism is broad-gauged and systemic but that means it also includes the shallows of expression and even etiquette. These are part of what's clunkily known as a society's "hegemonic discourse," stuff that's so accepted as the way to think and speak, that it's scarcely noticed. It matters, even to a Marxist hardass like Antonio Gramsci, who coined the term while locked up in one of Mussolini's prisons.

It took a long time for the hegemonic blahblah in this and comparable societies to include even superficial acceptance of minority groups along with routine condemnations of racism -- only since the mid-20th century basically. Then came Trump. Of course in truth, bigotry never vanished, but it was driven off the main streets. He made it mainstream and potentially hegemonic again.

He wasn't subtle. The racist killers in Charlottesville included "very fine people." Elizabeth Warren was "Pocahontas." The most striking case, I thought, was mocking a disabled reporter. Junk shoved into corners came blasting back. It's significant what people are afraid to voice publicly. If hate-based views are socially unacceptable, they may actually, gradually diminish. You'd rather have the real thing but some high-minded hypocritical crap can be a step along the road to it. I confess I didn't used to think this way but Trump turned me round.

This process applies especially to the young. When small, they may take seriously values that their elders only mouth. Kids are naturally serious. As they age and get savvier, they sense the adult hypocrisy and it becomes a chance to distinguish and separate themselves generationally by really meaning that stuff. And so I acquired a new respect for superficial demeanours.

Returning then to Burnaby South: Liberals have been Canada's masters of pious political hypocrisy. They're a big tent and include true idealists, along with piety spouters. They can generate tepid moral ecstasies on anything from national unity to balanced budgets (over which they peed themselves in the 1990s.) Deep down, they're pretty shallow. Ditching Karen Wang was a breeze.

The NDP's special skill in this respect has to do with congratulating themselves for being the only ones who aren't hypocrites. We saw it in their leadership debates prior to Singh's victory. Asked what distinguishes the party, everyone said, humourlessly, "We are the only ones who mean what we say about our good intentions and high ideals." This is a higher level than straight-out hypocrisy and starts the whole cycle over, bumped up a notch.

(Tories, by the way, tend to be not very good at hypocrisy; they barely try. They're sort of hypocritical hypocrites. Their candidate in Burnaby South said his approach to desperately needed housing is to unleash tax breaks, which will lead to investment and better jobs for everyone, who'll then be able to afford overpriced homes and condos. Yuck yuck. It's almost refreshing.)

A qualification: I applaud all the denouncers and puncturers of hypocrisy, starting from Molière's evisceration of Tartuffe, in the golden age of Louis XIV, who banned the play because he alone could fully appreciate its truth while others might miscontrue it — a brilliant moment in hypocrisy's history.

Nothing drives people nuts like hypocrisy. If we're at a special moment in its career, I hope it's brief, a tear or sliver, in the fabric of its time, soon to fade again.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star

Image: Karen Wang/Facebook

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