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9978-1594037641-January 2015

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The theme of The Great Divide is that the populations of the democratic world, from Boston to Berlin, Vancouver to Venice, are becoming increasingly divided from within, due to a growing ideological incompatibility between modern liberalism and conservatism. This is partly due to a complex mutation in the concept of liberal democracy itself, and the resulting divide is now so wide that those holding to either philosophy on a whole range of topics: on democracy, on reason, on abortion, on human nature, on homosexuality and gay marriage, on freedom, on the role of courts … and much more, can barely speak with each other without outrage (the favorite emotional response from all sides). Clearly, civil conversation at the surface has been failing -- and that could mean democracy is failing.

This book is an effort to deepen the conversation. It is written for the non-specialist, and aims to reveal the less obvious underlying ideological forces and misconceptions that cause the conflict and outrage at the surface -- not with any expectation the clash of values will evaporate, but rather that a deeper understanding will generate a more intelligent and civil conversation.

As an aid to understanding, the book contains a handful of Tables directly comparing modern liberal and conservative views across a range of fundamental moral and political “issues” so that curious readers can answer the book’s main question: “Where Do You Stand?” An interesting result in testing this exercise has been the number of people who find they “think” one way, but “live” another.    

 

Good Reading
Essays (37)
Thursday
Feb092006

The Question of Democratic Legitimacy

Far beneath the ongoing public upset over Prime Minister Harper’s decision to appoint an unelected Montrealer to the Senate and the Cabinet, and to persuade a former Vancouver Liberal to cross the floor is public confusion about the nature of our constitution and the concept of democracy.

As if by instinct many of us,  myself included, were perturbed to see our freshly-minted PM behaving like the liberals we had just thrown out. Encouraging a liberal to betray his electors by crossing the floor as had Belinda Stronach? How can that be responsible behaviour in a democracy? Appointing an unelected man as Senator after years spent campaigning for an elected Senate? It all had the stink of party politics and maudlin revenge. That is the surface of things. But far beneath is the truth of our own history that must be revisited in order to understand what appear as shenanigans today.

Turn on the TV. Open a newspaper. Inevitably you will be treated to some impassioned American or Canadian insisting: “we live in a democracy!” But the truth is, we don’t, and were never meant to.

The Founding Fathers (FF) of both nations were by their lights justly terrified by democracy. All the elegant and impassioned American arguments against it can be revisited in The Federalist Papers (Penguin, 1987) by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay. What a storehouse of moral and political insight awaits us there! And what determination to avoid the perils of raw democratic rule. After the 1776 War of Independence (it was not a revolution) the 13 colonies suddenly became 13 states. The emphasis then was on the word “states” and not on the word “united”. And all hell broke lose accordingly. Most of the states raised their own navies, often to fight each other, and also fought interminably over their own state boundaries and rights to new lands in the Territories. Many of the state legislatures also proceeded to eliminate their own Senates on the grounds of interference with the democratic will of “the people”. And so the people – mostly angry indebted farmers, began to flood the legislatures and demand forgiveness of their debts or the printing of fiat money to pay them, which they got. In other words, they democratically conspired to legally cheat their lenders. In the state of Vermont, the legislature conspired against what was intended to be the independent voice of justice and overturned about 90% of all the decisions of its own courts. Democracy in action looked pretty bad. In Massachusetts, direct democracy had gone so far that individual towns actually declared a right to invalidate laws from their own state legislatures!

The Canadian FF knew a lot about the American situation, and were very well instructed in the horrors of radical democracy as it had played out in the French Revolution. For their equally elegant thoughts, I am proud to offer Canada’s Founding Debates (University of Toronto Press, 2003), by Ajzenstat, Romney, Gentles, and Gairdner. There are wonderful speeches in it about how Canadians must beware of democracy and American republicanism and seek a balanced constitution on the British Model. One FF, the French Canadian Joseph Cauchon, set a magnificent tone on March 2, 1865 when he implored us all to “have the courage to rise superior to passions, hatreds, personal enmities, and a miserable spirit of party, in order to allow our minds to soar more freely in the larger sphere of generous sentiments, and of great and noble aspirations.”

What does all this have to do with the PM’s actions? Wasn’t he so obviously offending democracy by urging David Emerson to cross the floor and so blatantly abusing the will of the electors who sent Emerson to Parliament?

Not if you see it from the side of the British Constitution rather than from the side of the unfettered democratic will of the people. Cauchon, once again, this time on March 6, 1865 puts it in the proper perspective: “Our Constitution is constructed upon the model of the British Constitution, and … members do not and cannot receive an imperative order from their electors. Each representative, although elected by one particular county, represents the whole country, and his legislative responsibility extends to the whole of it.”

This is the British model – and there is a lot of precedent for floor-crossing in British as well as Canadian history – under which Harper and Emerson felt justified by something that seen solely under the magnifying glass of radical democracy appeared so abusive of the will of Emerson’s electors.

So on two grounds, Emerson and Harper were in the clear. A representative under our constitution is elected locally, but then his legislative responsibility is immediately transferred from them to the whole people. Our own first PM John A. Macdonald, put it sharply: “We, in this House are representatives of the people, and not mere delegates [of our electors].” In other words, Macdonald and the other FF were standing for a form of British Constitutional democracy that they deemed far higher and nobler than the mere direct form that had torn apart the 13 states.

The second ground that clears Harper, if not the optics of his actions in today’s milieu, is that a Cabinet Minister in the British model acts in the name of the Crown, and not in the name of the people. A PM may freely appoint any citizens of ability he wishes as advisers to his Cabinet. Election by the people is not a requirement to be a Cabinet Minister. In principle he could appoint a whole Cabinet of unelected Ministers, but would not do so as that would be both unwise and against unwritten constitutional precedent.

As for an elected Senate in Canada? Here, too, we must heed our own history. The reasoning behind an unelected house was that the passions underlying the new legislation of the people in the Commons ought to be subjected to a Chamber of “sober second thought.” And that requirement was based on a metaphor of the cool mind calming a hot body. For anyone truly alive has felt the war between mind and body themselves. It was also grounded in the ideal of the Great Man, so to speak: the idea that it is possible to fill a Senate with older, wiser, nobler, and above all impartial people above the stink of party politics whose job it was to help us reflect on our own legislative will.

So now, in a different time, these two conflicting models of democracy rear their heads once again. What is to be thought and done?

On the matter of crossing the floor, we could accommodate both systems by agreeing that under our model a representative must not be tied directly to his electors and may indeed for the good of the whole people cross the floor. But we could modify that right by saying that the right to do this is limited to one year from the crossing, after which the electors may force a by-election to democratically legitimize or invalidate the crossing.

For there is no getting around it: the democratic imperative has increasingly asserted itself as against the higher democratic British form for about a hundred years now. Examples are the American Senate, which began its existence with appointed Senators on the British model, but was altered in the early years of the 20th century to an elected chamber. The American FF must have rolled in their graves! And in Canada, the increasingly loud call for a “Triple E Senate” – Equal, Elected, Effective – will not diminish. So what are Canadians to do about the conflict of models and their Senate?

We could compromise by allowing each Canadian Province to present a list of candidates, elected if they wish, from which the PM may then appoint Senators. This way, we preserve the right of the PM to select Senators, but we control his choices and avoid the problem of filling the Senate with his personal friends or party hacks.

In closing, here is a sobering thought. The modern surge of insistence for “democratic rights,” which as often as not these days are identified with personal rights, is not an expression of our higher faith in the people - ourselves.

It is an admission that people of greatness, statesmanship and noble sentiment who are capable of standing above all base political interests are now much harder, if not impossible to find. It is an admission of loss of faith in ourselves.

Tuesday
Feb072006

Sorry

Sorry, but the in-depth piece I wrote today got lost because my system timed-out unexpectedly. Still learning how to operate this blog.

The main point was that Cabinet Minsters in the British system such as Canada's speak for the Crown and not for "the people".  There is a lot of precedent for what Harper did in appointing an unelected Minister. So it was entirely legitimate - in the past sometimes preferred - but it had bad optics given the recent gerrymandering by the liberals.

back tomorrow, I hope

Tuesday
Feb072006

My First Blog

Out Of the Gate

This is my first blog, and I dare say the whole procedure has been kind of exciting. It is currently a blog "under construction," but I couldn't wait to get going, even though we are still setting up the design features.

But already I love the idea of instantaneous publishing,  with no gatekeepers.

And I have had unpleasant experiences with some of those!

My first book, The Trouble With Canada (1990) was turned down by at least five publishers in a row, because it fell into the hands of first-in-line radical feminist editors who hated it.  They would send me back the Manuscript all marked up with scolding red ink and phrases like "You can't say this!" Even Stoddart, the eventual publisher turned it down, and only accepted it later because I went down there to persuade them myself that it would be a big seller.  When Stoddart Publishing went bankrupt three years ago, one of the editors told me they had accepted it because they figured doing so helped with their image as broad-minded liberals. But they had all agreed amongst themselves "it wouldn't sell 1,000 copies." Well, it ended up selling somewhere around 100,000 and they ate crow, as the saying goes (but happily).

Incidentally, since their bankruptcy my books have been hard to find, to say the least. Those interested in used copies can find some at www.abebooks.com

But publishers in Canada, with its small markets, do not keep a lot of back copies around.  So I am thinking about publishing all my former books myself (shown at the right) through a U.S. company called LightningSource that can speed-print as many or as few copies as needed - even one at a time, if necessary - and send them to regular booksellers like Barnes and Noble or Amazon for distribution. More info on that when I get this set up.

 

Some Thoughts On the Rules

I have been told not to allow comments on this blog.  But I figure half the fun is the dialogue. At least I hope it turns out that way.

I plan to write comments here four or five times a week (with some days off for cross-country skiing in winter and cycling in summer!). And I hope those who offer comments will abide by the normal rules of decent discourse: no bad language; no attacks on personalities; when possible, please offer support for facts cited;  and so on. I will read what I can, and sometimes respond to get a dialogue going. If it doesn't work out, then we'll have to trash the comment section.

A New Day For Canada

It's hard to describe the personal feelings surrounding the election, but they are pretty  good. A mixture of elation and slight trepidation. I have known Stephen Harper, if only casually for about fifteen years, since the Preston Manning days. He is a good and earnest man and I hope he stays that way. Rivetting blue eyes, a little more ice than fire, for sure.  But Canada needs less showmanship and a more determined hand on the tiller. Less finger-in-the-wind politics. A steamliner instead of a sailboat. Going more to the mushy liberal centre of the political spectrum for stategic reasons certainly helped his party get elected, and I think he will continue to be good at threading the political needle.

But unelected cabinet Ministers? I don't like it. It smacks of cronyism.  I think we are living in a time of general euphoria and confusion with respect to the general subject of democracy. Most do not see that we often appeal to conflicting democratic ideals. But at bottom it seems offensive to have anyone in such an important role as Cabinet Minister who does not have the voting support of a single citizen, but gets to whisper in the ear of the most powerful man in the country.  

As for crossing the floor? Also very offensive. A betrayal of all those on the ground who worked so hard to get Belinda Stronach elected before she took a walk, and the same for David Emerson. He spent a lot of time speaking against Harper and the conservative party. Now party spokesman John Reynolds dismisses all that as "the cut and thrust of partisan politics" (Toronto Star today, p.A6).  Well, why should that stop? If he is saying that Emerson didn't mean those things, then why should he be trusted now? And if he did mean them, why should he be embraced as a conservative? 

Mind you, the word conservative is now a strange term. For it is difficult to maintain with a straight face that a political party that supports socialized medicine (and policies that can get you into jail for attempting to offer core medical services privately!), is"conservative".  But that is a topic for another day. Canadians have been sold a bill of goods with the government medical care they seem to love so much, and it is clear that for now, at least,  no political party can get elected without supporting it. These are the same people who would never buy a house or a meal or a car from government, but it is all an expression of the modern egalitarian boondoggle. And this includes the mistaken idea that Canadian have "single-tier" medical services. Heck - with regional discrepancies and big city versus outlying hospitals and services, we have always had about five tiers! I have always argued that if America were not right next door, to which (at last count) well over 100,000 Canadians travel every year for medical services they cannot get here, or not soon enough, socialized medicine would have broken down in Canada twenty-five years ago because the rich and powerful who avail themselves of American care would have screamed bloody murder. Instead, they get looked after with their after tax dollars, then they shut up and let the rest of us wait and fight over what we can get. Rationing by the queue is a moral scandal no matter how we cut it, and I hope I live long enough to hear a politician say so loud and clear whenever he or she brings back freedom in medical care.  

 A New Book In the Works

For those who may be interested ... I am working on another book that has absorbed my spare time for the past three years. The seed for it began to sprout at a cocktail party. I was trying to make conversation with a fellow who looked like he wanted to talk. I made a comment about a clear morality issue,  and he immediately responded "Well, that may be true for you, but it's not true for me." When I answered: "It can't be true, and not true at the same time, can it? One of us must be wrong!" Well, his eyes glazed over and he wandered away. And I said to myself: That's it. Somebody has to write a critique of relativism and a defence of the absolutes, universals, and constants of nature, and human nature.

So three years agoI got started. The title is just a working title for now, but the book is called The Book of Absolutes.  And it has been a lot of work and a lot of fun. There are chapters defining relativism, on the objections to it, and a half dozen chapters on such as:  human universals (anthropology); the constants of nature (physics); natural law; postmodernism; and the universals of language and literature, and so on. Stay posted.

Back tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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