August 28, 2005


Parliament Unbound (Ken Alexander, The Walrus, July/August, 2005)

While Martin played Santa Claus and merchant of fear—gifts for all and beware of Mr. Harper's "hidden agenda"—in truth, Harper stood naked before the public. Greater provincial autonomy fit with his vision of a radically decentralized state, but by offering no social or fiscal conservative policy options and by initially assuring the electorate that he would honour Liberal budget deals, he had merely proven that his own thirst for power was unquenchable, and worse, that the Liberal big tent was so big that it could include an NDP budget and the Conservative policy manual.

Like Nietzsche's madman shouting, "I seek God! I seek God!" and looking for a way forward, I suspect Harper awoke from a troubled Thursday-night sleep and thought: "Why would I want the top job, if the top job stands for nothing?" In this revelatory moment, Harper may have realized that his "party of principle" had been sucker-punched by the party of tactics and strategy. Being rhetorically offensive but policy-lite, Harper had missed the opportunity to present Canadians with a federal government different than that of cash register for the bleating regions or for this or that interest group. Like the main object of his wrath, his courting of the Bloc Québécois—the one party with a consistent narrative, the end of Canada—had shown that he too was only in search of the winning conditions.

As I watched that group of senior citizens, it struck me that Canada has become the ultimate postmodern state, a state governed by verbal gymnastics, by politicians considering spin first and substance not at all, and that older people can find little to cleave to. After World War II, having made a substantial commitment to the Allied effort, Canada slowly emerged as a player on the world's stage. Its position was nuanced, nowhere near as ardent as the patriotic determinism of the United States, or as ideologically confident as the former Soviet Union, or as grasping for national identity as the damaged states of Europe. Long before Pierre Trudeau articulated it as such, Canada's purpose was to craft a just society not from the ashes of ruin, but as a model of tolerance and equity. Ideas spilled from the regions—universal health care, the special accommodations necessary for Newfoundland and Labrador, official bilingualism—and all were put in the hopper, compromises found, and the role of the federal government rooted in time and place.

During this period of nation-building, Canada's malleable constitutional framework, acceptance of a mixed economy, progressive taxation, hyphenated citizenship, and, in general, a philosophy of accommodation, gave us something to offer a troubled world. Accommodation might well describe the central theme of our historic federal narrative. How paradoxical, then, that at a time when ideological quietude and situational ethics are giving way to dogmatic unilateralism and the unifying of church and state, we would allow a predisposition for moderation to morph into standing for nothing at all.

This plaintive cry from the left will resonate with many conservatives, but the author fails to understand how this sorry state is the necessary endgame of his own creed. Tolerance, equity and accommodation can be virtues, but they are situational virtues that only have real meaning in the face of actual intolerance, inequity and exclusion. When they are raised to the level of timeless collective ideals that define a people, public discourse comes to reflect that paradigm and two things eventually happen. The first is that the political and intellectual elites become addicted to a ceaseless and increasingly frantic search for wrongs to redress and causes to promote through “social action” in order to justify themselves and their influence. Not surprisingly, they find them consistently and in the most unlikely places. The second is that the fatigued general population, raised on relativist language and a relentless disdain for the past, becomes stripped of any philosophical or linguistic ability (or confidence) to challenge the zeitgeist and defend matters of importance to them, such as faith, tradition, family and self-reliance, without being shunted to the margins of polite society. Eventually, most become either rotely supportive toadies or withdrawn sceptics unconsciously resigned to a growing chasm between public speech and private thought. Reality and action become secondary to rhetoric and cant. Just as cynical Soviet workers used to joke: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”, so much of the Canadian public seems increasingly disposed to say: “You pretend to fight for social justice and we’ll pretend to care.”

Posted by Peter Burnet at August 28, 2005 7:20 AM

Prior to 9/11 we could afford not to care either, but now that Canada is becoming more and more hospitable to Muslim terrorists, we have to care. In fact, if Canadian authorities don't take the lead, we may have to do a lot more than just care about the situation.

I'm assuming the Rovian eye is on this.

Posted by: erp at August 28, 2005 8:04 AM


Peter, that analysis is a real cut n' paste-er. Very well done.

Posted by: Andrew X at August 28, 2005 10:17 AM

Well said, as usual. Peter. A commitment to the politics of "social justice" must inevitably incubate in the proponent's mind a pronounced paranoia toward human nature. You are forced to see pernicious strategies of prejudice and oppression in every simple act of individual expression.

I am also reminded of the babbling rant of some leftist on NPR some years ago. This person continuously uttered the phrase "radical transformation" like some Zen koan. My silent questions to her were "Transform what? Into what? And for what purpose?". To the left, change for change's sake has replaced any need to justify the results of a political action. Just assume that the present is corrupted by evil right-wing forces, and keep moving blindly into the future.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 28, 2005 10:47 AM