New Book

 

 

$21.95 hardcover · 224 pages
9978-1594037641-January 2015

PRE-ORDER YOUR COPY AT

www.amazon.com
www.amazon.ca
www.amazon.co.uk

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)
Wednesday
Feb152006

No Fault = No Responsibility

Most “married” people in the Western world are shocked when told they are no longer married in the way they imagined. A close friend who was a very observant husband and is still a caring father of four children discovered this with something close to paralytic disbelief when his wife came home one evening and told him she was dumping him for a handsome young teacher.

The husband had no recourse. But he realized with terrible bitterness and a sudden sense of betrayal that what he thought was a marriage contract was in fact defined purely and solely by her will, and by that alone (and that it might have been his will alone, if he had been the cheater).

Prior to so-called “no-fault” divorce (and in the absence of adultery or criminal violence), one spouse could not divorce another without mutual consent. Marriage was considered, among other things, a contract. Two agree to make it? Then two must agree when and how to break it. Readers may enjoy the article “Society: The Third Marriage Partner” in the Essay collection on this site, which deals with this theme in more detail. But the plain fact is that most married people today think they have a contract of some kind, and that is not true any longer.

Why have most Western nations disposed of the idea of contract in marriage in favour of a unilateral right to divorce? One answer is that it is a predictable consequence of failing societies as they slowly move from a basis of faith in themselves as a whole community, through a process of social “atomization” to a new basis of faith only in individuals. In other words, they change from a conservative type of nation in which society is considered prior in importance to the individual, to a radical one in which the individual is considered prior in importance to society.

This process of atomization is part and parcel – a predictable outcome, so to speak – of the emergence of massive social-democratic welfare states that feed themselves on tax dollars by means of which they finance their long-term campaign to replace the myriad local community functions of the people with state services and benefits. I say “state,” but this process occurs at all levels, from municipal, to provincial to federal. It is also observable between these levels as the federal level repeats this process of replacing provincial functions, and the provincial powers steal influence from local communities. Just ask your Mayor!

The most thorough treatment of this reality was first published in 1953 by the late Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1990), and it is highly recommended. Nisbet shows how this has been the sad story of state encroachments on community and family life from ancient times to the present. At one point in the long decline of Ancient Rome, official were so eager to control and manipulate all social function that they provided over 150 feast days per year of “bread and circuses” for the rootless, community-less masses the city had itself created.

In more recent times, this process has been central to Western democratization. Its radical form was part of the anti-family political platform of the radical democrats of the French Revolution, and that process is clearly set out in another great book,  by J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London: Secker and Warburg, 1955). And what an eye-opener and insight into the workings of messianic democracy that is! There is a summary of Talmon’s ideas in my own The Trouble with Democracy (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 2001), but that book can only be found now in libraries or used-book outlets.

The connection with radical democratic theory is this: once the will of the people becomes Holy, then equality and individual Will becomes the only rational basis for resistance to all forms of authority, whether of government, class, church, or family. Marriage is soon seen as an authoritarian religious and social manacle left over from a less liberated time that must be cast off in the interests of “true marriage.”

What is “true marriage” in this radical democratic sense? It is a marriage, the reality of which is defined by, and which only exists as long as, the will to be married exists. In essence, under radical democracy and the individuation of society it engenders, a marriage is not a union of bodies and souls, or a contract between two parties that is also a pledge to the community: it is a pure creation of the human Will and it cannot be said to exist when the either of the two wills that created it is absent. Rousseau promoted this will-based concept of marriage; so did his admirers Marx and Engels.

The concept of a solely will-based marriage can even be found in the American poet Walt Whitman’s arresting essay, “Democratic Vistas” (1871), where he speaks of “perfect individualism,” of the “fusing” of citizens in democratic unity, and even of something he imagined as “cosmic democracy”! But the tip-off to this kind of thinking comes when he defines democracy and human independence as “freedom from all laws or bonds except those of one’s own being.” That is exactly what my friend’s wife wanted.

Anyone who studies this historical process will soon realize that until the inevitable dissolution of the very states that bring about this process – due mostly to the loss of true community that sustained them in the first place – this transformation of marriage from its former basis in spiritual, social, and legal contract to its present transitory reality as an expression of the mere wills of the parties, is a key enabling factor in the growth of all modern welfare states, which then stand eagerly by to minister materially unto the brokenness of all the lives that result.

Tuesday
Feb142006

There Can Be no "Sex" in Homosexual

Has anyone noticed that our endless public wrangling over political and legal rights has mostly to do with the human body? Surely this indicates that something very deep has changed.

The central moral preoccupations and concerns of robust civilizations have always been about the great mysteries of human existence such as knowing the will of God, the nature of destiny and fate, the ultimate meaning of the cosmos, the quality of the common good, how to imbue children with virtue, prudence, courage, and temperance, and so on.

But today we simply assume all that minor stuff has been squared away forever, and so now, as enlightened and liberated folk we are free to argue over our personal appetites and desires. But whether speaking of marriage, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, pornography, swinging, or divorce – we are basically fighting in a confused way about the body and its functions, and it all started with confusions of language.

Orwell said that words are like harpoons: once you get them in, it’s hard to get them out. And for sure, those who wish to dissolve traditional society have been very good at getting the rest of us to use their words. For example, we all use the term “pro-choice” rather than “pro-abortion,” which is the truer description of that position. And we speak of “helping” a sick person die, instead of “making” them die.

In the lead National Post editorial (‘Equalize the age of consent” Feb. 11) we had to endure a lecture about “sexual” equality for gays and lesbians and “the nature of their sexual relationship.” If the editors of the Post are going to invoke the word “nature,” then maybe they ought to follow through naturally.

I mean to say, if this discussion is to proceed beyond the infantile clamouring for equality of rights by which it is now characterized; if we want to properly discuss such things in full possession of the proper terms of debate, then we have to examine more precisely the words we use.

So here is my opening try.

“Sex” is a biological term, and biologists and life-scientists all over the world use the words “sex,” or “sexual” only with reference to plant or animal behaviour that has reproductive potential. To use such words in connection with the behaviour of entities for whom or for which reproduction together is impossible, is either a dumb, sloppy, or is an intentionally political usage (or all of these at once).

There are lots of animals and humans, and maybe some plants that indulge in mock sexual behaviour, or play sex, or pretend sex. Children do that. Puppies do that. But real sex, the only kind of sex that we should call sex, is always behaviour that has in principle and by natural design a reproductive potential and capacity, no matter how that intent, capacity,  or consequence may be avoided, postponed, or foiled. To use the word for anything else is to obscure the underlying reality, and hence the debate.

Accordingly, we ought to begin by agreeing that homosexuals by definition cannot “have sex,” any more than an individual can “have sex” with himself, or herself, or a bull can “have sex” with another bull. It’s impossible. Homosexuals can have lots of other things, like self-administered or mutual sensual pleasure. No problem. But don’t call it sex, when it can only be mock, or pretend sex.

What’s this got to do with age of consent laws? All past societies yet to imbibe the egalitarian solvent recognized at once that in the interests of self-preservation the laws of society ought to encourage reproductive behaviour between consenting adults of an appropriate age, and discourage unfruitful or non-reproductive behaviour. The law, in this respect – at least until we began to confuse sex with the merely sensual – has always been a teacher, nudging citizens in the most desirable direction and blocking intentionally dead-end, sexually-sterile behaviour. In short, age-of-consent laws have always been on record to make the distinction – along with other things such as child exploitation - between sexual and non-sexual behaviour. In short – oh, just say it, Bill - they were set up to discourage sexually-sterile relationships, or homosexuality. So perhaps instead of continuing the puerile psychological game of pretending there is no pretending here, and if we really do want to encourage and protect sexually-sterile behaviour in the young by lowering age-of-consent laws for homosexuals, then let’s have the honesty to say that is why we are doing it.

Perhaps also it is time to recall that all good policies and laws are intended to make morally or socially useful discriminations between human actions and classes of citizens, and if they don’t, they are of no force and effect. They are either feel-good legal or motherhood statements (like including respect for God and the rule of law in our Charter), or general money handouts (like cutting the GST for all). But a true policy or a specific law is otherwise. It is intended by the specifically stated force and effect of its discriminatory powers to move society in one direction rather than another.

So it is no argument against a law or a policy to say it discriminates, when that is its purpose and vindication.

Monday
Feb132006

The Mirror of Islam

Face it. The sword of Islam cuts both ways. They look ridiculous when reflected in our mirror as they trample each other in their stampedes to kill the infidel, especially over a few distasteful cartoons.

But if we are truthful we will agree that Islam also constitutes a very present and damning mirror held up to the West in which we often look pretty ridiculous, too. It reflects us as we are now, and in contrast to the people we once were.

The riot in Jarkata over the impending publication of Playboy was such a mirror. As far as I can tell, these people live like Puritans, as we lived only a couple of centuries ago. And let’s admit it, some of that is very appealing. They pray daily and are extremely respectful of their God; they do not smoke or use any drugs; do not use alcohol; do not use religious swear words; do not allow their women (or men) to walk around half-naked; they forbid cheeky or rude conduct from children and students; demand respect for parents and elders; abhor homosexuality for the perversion it is; do not (as far as I know) kill 25% of their unborn children in the womb every year; do not allow public gambling; and do not permit even a hint of pornography. Well, all that sounds like North America in the Christian era, which slipped under the waves only about fifty to a hundred years ago. At any rate, I believe there are many Westerners who wouldn’t mind seeing the return of a little self-control and public decency a la Islam, minus the frothing-at-the-mouth fanaticism.

This is indirectly close to home for me, as I have taken an interest lately in a man I think must have been related to my family. His name was William Henry Temple Gairdner (born at Ardrossan, Ayrshire, 1873, died 1928). He went up to Oxford in 1892, there to become involved in the Missionary Society. Later, he was sent, unwillingly, to Cairo, the cradle of Islam, at the end of the 19th century to make converts. Within months he was preaching sermons in Arabic, and writing essays about Arabic language and music. There was much joy and reflection in the man, and much religious devotion, too. In that respect, he was like a Muslim, and he felt their genuine piety deeply. His personal secretary, Constance Padwick, wrote a charming book about him after his death called Temple Gairdner of Cairo (1929), for by then he cut so large an intellectual and moral figure in Egypt he had become a bit of a legend to his many admirers, so personally selfless and devout he was considered almost a Holy Man.

He believed that the Christian religion had very early showed signs of failing to fulfill its historic role in civilization, and thus had called down upon its own head the need for a more devout alternative (though for him Islam was distinctly not a more true one). Thus, Islam sprang up to fill the vacuum of Christian weakness and to him it constituted an historical rebuke to Christianity. So in 1909 he published a very interesting book about this entitled The Reproach of Islam. The book sold over 20,000 copies and was brought out in a fifth edition in 1920, now re-titled The Rebuke of Islam – a somewhat stronger insinuation of his thesis. At bottom, he saw Islam as a religion of strict rule and duty meant to regulate behaviour, whereas Christianity, in stark contrast was for him a religion meant to change the inner spirit. He continued to write extensively about many Christian and Islamic themes and in order to help bring these two worlds together he and a friend started a journal in 1905 called “Orient and Occident” that was to continue in publication for almost 75 years!

At any rate, it is no surprise that the threat of Western pornography upsets the Muslim world. It should be upsetting us, too. But it doesn’t. For we are all children of John Stuart Mill, whose teaching replaced ordinary civic morality long ago, to the effect that we are all free to do whatever we like as long as it doesn’t harm someone else or impede their freedom. This is now called “the harm principle” and most Westerners simply assume it constitutes a full and adequate social and moral code. Indeed, Canada’s Supreme Court adopted it just a couple of months ago as our new legal standard of morality. But it is far from an adequate ideal, for as Mill’s sharpest critic of the time, James Stephen put it in a terrific book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Liberty Fund, 1993). Humanity is like a pack of hounds all tied together but wanting to go different ways. It cannot travel as one without some common morality, and alas, Mr. Mill would like us each to take his own way. As for the word “tolerance” that is so much today in vogue? Stephen wrote wisely that “complete moral tolerance is possible only when men have become completely indifferent to each other – that is to say, when society is at an end.”

The problem with pornography is that it is so powerful. Aside from the fact, as a close friend says, that its ubiquitous presence “demeans us all” there is no escaping the fact that if you could excise the conscience or sense of shame from the human brain, most red-blooded men (women are only rarely users of pornography) who stumbled alone and by surprise upon an explicit pornographic TV show, say, would not turn off the television and go do their laundry. Muslims are more publicly aware than we now are of the power of such human passions to alter society for the worse.

For this is not simply a matter of free expression or private interest, as Mill would have argued, and a moment’s reflection tells us why. Pornography is commercial to the root, an enormous industry with tentacles that extend into a huge range of shady social, financial, and criminal sectors that net billions of dollars annually. So to start with, porn presents what is false and commercial as something real. It is also intensely masturbatory. It does not encourage us as sexual beings to relate intimately and with dignity to another person; rather, it tempts us away from such human contact into self-pleasuring and sexual fantasy that specifically rejects real relations with real persons. There is something deeply disturbing about a society in which virile young men who ought to be honing the subtleties and graces of courtship in preparation for family duties, instead either alone or in groups closet themselves away with a 24-pack of beer on Saturday night to watch explicit porn. This is indeed free speech. But it is also anti-human and anti-social in its very essence.

And that is just the start. But if it is enough for Muslims to complain of it as a real threat to their world, as it clearly is, why can’t we see it as a threat to ours? Twenty-five years ago pornography in the West could only be found in the sleaziest places. Now it is main-stream and on offer in even the finest hotels of the Western world. Ten years ago my wife and I were staying at Toronto’s Park Plaza hotel for an international medical meeting. She watched the evening news while I brushed my teeth. Then I heard the sudden alarm in her voice: “Look,” she said, “there is pornography on the TV!” Sure enough, there before us were stark-naked men and women in the full thrust and parry of sexual abandon. “You must have selected the wrong button,” I said, “try CBC.” No she said, this is CTV, but she switched anyway, to find that hard-core porn was showing on every channel! Well, some of our guests at the hotel had teen-aged children. I called the front desk in embarrassed alarm to learn that they had had “a computer glitch” and porn was showing on thirteen floors of the hotel on every channel.

In the morning I asked to see the manager and complained vigorously. She apologized very sincerely, but not, I realized, for the porn.

She was just apologizing for the computer glitch.

Saturday
Feb112006

Meditation On Equality

Today, no word is more used and less discussed than “equality.”

Why do our minds reach for it so readily, like a wary hand reaching for a gun to force a point or defend ourselves against something we perceive as unequal? And when we use it, what do we mean? What did we ever mean? And on what personal experience of equality are we drawing? For a moment’s reflection reveals that nothing is “equal” to anything else. Not any two apples, two cars, or two people. Neither can we appeal to history, for our modern conception of equality seems to me unique. In what follows I am trying to follow the threads of this concept that kept me awake in the night.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had their own versions of equality, but would have ridiculed ours. The Greeks drew lots for many political offices, and at certain points in their history, all citizens were supposedly equally available for office (except for certain war offices) by lot. But the true Greek idea of equality was equality by rank: All soldiers must be treated the same. All generals the same. All Senators the same. All slaves the same. And so on. They never for a moment believed that these ranks and classes of people and ability were “equal” to each other, except before the law: a noble and a commoner ought to be punished the same for stealing.

But even in the most radical form of Greek democracy under Demosthenes, the Athenian Senate – called the Boule – made the laws and passed them down to the people for their acceptance or rejection. The legislative “initiative” was with the older and the wiser, not with the common people, for they were not considered “equal” to their wiser elders (minimum age of thirty for Boule membership). They would have ridiculed the idea of themselves making legislation and passing it up to assumedly older and wiser Senators, as we do. And needless to say, slaves were not equal to citizens. It was the same for Rome, where all citizens had the same rights, but Roman social classes were quite distinct, and their slaves (at one point in its slow decline, an estimated 75% of all Romans had some slave ancestry!) had applied to them a special form of category law not used for full citizens.

Yesterday I spoke about how our own sense of democracy – and equality - was a child of the Reformation. It was a Christian artifact born of the idea that humans in the Garden of Eden before the Fall were pure, sinless, all the same, equal, and all the goods of the earth were to be held in common and shared equally. It was, if you like, a Christian vision of a communism we once lived and would live again. Radical Christian reformers used to protest that we should return to that condition and here on earth there should be no meum and teum (mine and thine). Some of them took this protest in the name of common property so far they started sexually preying on other men’s wives on the supposed religious ground that no one has a right to a woman for their sole private pleasure!

At any rate, after the rise of industrial prosperity when Western society as a whole began to lurch toward increasing materialism and atheism, the connection with that religiously engendered ideal of human equality; with the possibility of a selfless spiritual grace unencumbered by differences, simply got replaced by what was left over: by claims for an equal distribution of material things and equal personal rights - minus the spiritual grace, thank you very much.

For centuries there was a slow transition from the civic form of democracy we had under the influence of a reasoned Christianity, which lasted until the very early part of the 20th century, to our present form of secular democracy, which I call “hyperdemocracy.” The earlier form accepted that all humans are different, and if in some sense they are the same or equal it is obviously only in the eyes of God and before the law. Social and class differences were and are a fact of life and true equality may be found only in the afterlife. Indeed, in this world the various rankings of ability, intelligence, wisdom and wealth, were expected to fill the roles of artisan, farmer, soldier, statesman, noble, teacher, priest, and so on. And it was widely feared that an insistence on radical equality would devastate the harmonious interaction of these degrees of rank, ability, and character, and bring civilization down. Democracy in that epoch, resting on a myriad of such fruitfully interacting inequalities, was assumed to reflect the moral consensus of the whole people. The French Revolution was sufficient evidence that at the end of the road to forced equality there is always the shadow of the guillotine.

Very recently the idea of a democracy that also renders public opinion as a moral consensus has been replaced by the hyperdemocratic idea that democratic rights and morality are not inherent in society as a whole but in ourselves as individuals, and so no consensus is either possible or desirable.  So at once morality, too, became thought of as something to be decided by individuals, and no longer something formed by a consensus that hovers over us as an edict for personal behaviour. We stopped thinking of “the body politic” or society as a whole greater than its parts. Rather we began to believe – we all now take it as an article of faith – that the parts are all there is, and therefore all that matters. There is no whole any longer. (And if someone says there is, I ask – if so, then in modern Canada, who dares speak for it?)

It was this transition that set us all up as equal individual claimants on welfare states conceived as mere administrative entities expected to deliver the goods equally to all. No one expects equality in the afterlife any longer. So let’s arrange it now, was the conclusion; by force, via taxation, legislation, and Court edicts. In other words, let’s get equality from our neighbours. For ever more the debates would focus not on working together for some common moral vision of the good, but on rankings of individual rights to what we think we, or - when we have the energy to organize others for personal gain - our petty little interest groups deserve.

All that remained was to write a Charter of Rights and Freedoms (no mention of duties or responsibilities) as a kind of national promissory note to ourselves to facilitate and guarantee that vision. That is how the notion of equality driven forward by a secular bible called the Charter changed our national home into a motel.

Back on Monday.

Friday
Feb102006

The Western Multicult and Danish Cartoons

Alexander the Great was likely the first coercive multiculturalist in history. Word is that on his long forays of conquest through foreign lands he forced his troops to wear local garb, adopt foreign customs, and on one occasion arranged history’s largest wedding ceremony in which he made thousands of his war-weary troops marry Persian brides. I don’t suppose his men, who likely hadn’t seen a woman for a few years were too upset about that! At any rate, Alexander caught a fever and died in a dusty tent at the age of thirty-three surrounded by his tearful generals. In no time at all, his multicultural dream fell apart. There is a lesson there: to make multiculturalism work you need a lot of coercion from the top because it is an unnatural policy.

The modern Western version of multiculturalism seems to be hoisting itself on its own petard (and perhaps 9/11 was the first terrible visible sign of that?). What are its roots? One version is that our western democracies (which have nothing to do with the radical ancient Greek form) began their lives as children of the Protestant Reformation, but soon got secularized. In short, the Reformation taught the purity of individual religious faith. Repudiation of religious authority was all the rage in the name of the sacred individual. But it didn’t take long for God to die, and for people to begin raging next against political authority, now in the name of the “equality” of all. You can see it all at work in the run up to the English Revolution. A great source for all that is Professor Ian Gentles’ book, The New Model Army (Blackwell, 1992). The men called “levelers” in that fracas were fanatical egalitarian democrats. To them, all men were the same and must be treated the same. The levelers got all this so confused that at one point of egalitarian pique they actually demanded that “they had the right to control and overthrow the officers…”! But is any of it true? Is a general the same as a foot soldier? An honest man the same as a thief? An upholder of free speech the same as someone willing to kill you for speaking?

Alas, this very old egalitarian mood has by now become the West’s most prevalent knee-jerk response to political trouble. Quebec wanted to separate, so the response was/is to equalize all Canadian citizens by turning Canada into a socialist empire. Bilingualism, multiculturalism, the National Energy Program, and socialized medicine and welfare everywhere were all part of that reaction. Deep in the remotest bush of British Columbia, where no one speaks French for 500 miles you have to read forestry signs in French and English (while Quebec province declared itself unilingual!). If immigration in Canada (or France, as we have seen recently) results in an internal clash of civilizations, of people who want to cling to their own traditions, the response from the West is an even more frantic multicultural policy. Which is to say: we take steps to obliterate our own hard-won traditions. The French story is not over, mind you. Egalitarianism is their national faith. But intimations of the brewing European troubles with the Islamic tide were around long ago. A fine book reviewing all that, published well before 9/11 is Milton Viorst, In The Shadow of The Prophet: the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Doubleday, 1998). There is an especially good chapter “The Beleaguered Muslims of France” explaining and warning of the coming French multicultural debacles.

The trouble, of course, is that all cultures are not the same. And we are just now finding that out, to our own astonishment. In our tradition an offensive cartoon published in a newspaper would be met by alternative cartoons, or by subscriber cancellations, or at the limit, by private legal suits for libel or slander. But from Islamic countries we get riots, bombings, and calls for “death to the infidel.” Some cultures are highly developed. Some are barbaric. Some are modernized, some are not. Some cultures are healthy, and some are definitely sick. A good intro to that topic is a book by the anthropologist Robert Edgerton, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (Free Press, 1992).

But what is our political response to this challenge to our customs? Suddenly, we do a turnabout. We do not cite multiculturalism. We do not say all cultures are equal. We gingerly defend our tradition of free speech and civilized dialogue. Very timidly, mind you. Canada’s new Foreign Minister Peter Mackay (as Ezra Levant points out in a great piece in the National Post today, p. A16) lectures us on how to exercise our Charter right to free speech “responsibly.” The subtext of what he meant was what everyone has been thinking since 9/11: these are violent reactions from an undeveloped and uncivilized society that demonstrates this by showing at every turn how it cannot cope with criticism of its ideas and beliefs. But as Levant points out, no one has a right to have their own world-view protected from criticism. Short of getting himself killed, Mackay ought to have vigorously defended our traditions.

Lest we forget, what, exactly, must we defend? Let’s start with private property rights, rights to free speech and a free press, parliamentary institutions, checks and balances on government, independence of the courts, religious freedom, and many more. We are far from perfect; indeed, we are failing in many ways. But chief among these is our failure to defend our own history and traditions because we are so busy bowing and scraping to the myth of multicultural equality.

Readers who want to see the European reaction to all this, at least through the eyes of rather outspoken German journalists should go to www.signandsight.com and read their weekly posts.

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.