Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Beyond Legalism

 We must build a moral Canada, or none at all. These are the paraphrased words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He was speaking, of course, about his native Russia, not Canada, but his message gets at a truth that is valid for any nation.

If you don't know who this great man with the difficult name is, you should. In the prison camps of the former U.S.S.R., Solzhenitsyn endured suffering that most of us cannot even imagine. At the risk of his life, he defied the ruthless and murderous power of the communist state and became a powerful witness to the truth. His detailed, first-hand revelations of life under the communist yoke, especially as published in The Gulag Archipelago, created shock waves around the world.

When he first arrived in the United States in 1974 as a political outcast from the now defunct Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn was hailed as a hero. He was expected to mouth the appropriate niceties about his host country. Instead, he warned about the dangers facing the U.S.-not from the outside, but from within. Relations between him and what was at first an adoring media soon soured.

What annoyed many in the U.S. is that Solzhenitsyn had the courage to tell his American audience that they, too, were in serious trouble. He explained that most of his life had been a struggle against a lawless and cruel regime. But he added that any society governed merely by legalistic rules-law without a moral founda­tion-is also in great danger.

Canada, too, must be built on a moral foundation. Legalism-living by the letter of the law-is increasingly becoming the supreme standard of behaviour. A number of recent court cases and highly publicized investigations, such as those into the Westray mine disaster, the Red Cross blood bank management, and the Canadian army's activities in Somalia, highlight this point.

What is painfully evident from these inquiries is the attempt by people to pin blame and responsibility on others. The investigations grind on endlessly over the fine points of mountains of legalese fought over in the minutest details.

Legalism Kills

As Richard Gwyn wrote, in one of his recent Toronto Star columns, the debate is "not about what should be done but about words on paper, that is, the legalistic regulations that define everyone's rights and responsibilities." Gwyn concluded: "A democratic system that lives by legalisms will eventually empty itself of meaning, because legalisms will inevitably displace common sense and tradition and a sense of civitas [civic duty]." Sounds a lot like Solzhenitsyn. But Gwyn is only nibbling at the edges. Solzhenitsyn gets at the heart of the problem.

The question is, how do we counter this serious threat to our society? A good place to start is to expose the lie behind all legalism-that something is right just because it is done according to the rules.

The inescapable truth is that all laws need a moral foundation, some standard of what is right and true. Otherwise they are bound to be wrong and unjust, like in the former U.S.S.R.

We cannot live as if the legal and the moral are two separate things. Inevitably, doing so invites people to evade responsibility and blame their failures on someone else. They will say-and haven't we heard this before? "I was only following the rules." In other words, if I am legally correct I cannot be held accountable on moral grounds.

Today, the "rules" say that killing a perfectly healthy baby still in its mother's birth canal is not a crime. What an extreme and hideous example of legalism gone mad. Is killing unborn children really okay because the law says so? Legalism robs life of its meaning and kills-literally.

Solzhenitsyn warned the West that we are exchanging the truth for a lie ­the truth that life has dignity and meaning because God created us, ver­sus the lie that we ourselves define the meaning of life. If we want to avoid the slide into a new dark age, we had better pay attention to the prophetic voice of someone who was there.

NOVEMBER 1996