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What Happens to Truth

A Country Falling Apart: Can This be Happening Here?

January 1, 1991 -

The signs of discontent and division are everywhere—in this, one of the most free and privileged countries in the world.

Predictions of the breakup of Canada because of the powerful separatist movement in Quebec abound; the Alberta-based Reform Party of Canada has emerged out of a long-standing set of grievances in Western Canada; native Canadians are demanding a settlement of their land claims, reinforced by illegal tactics; the number of bankruptcies and unemployed are mounting; adversarial labour relations are alive and well; the national debt has increased disastrously; the federal government's attempts at constitutional reconstruction have been a dismal failure. The list goes on.

Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto historian, has aptly described the present Canadian reality as follows:

Weep for Canada. One of the world's richest, most-blessed countries is being dragged to the brink by its politicians and its people. Our short-term crisis revolves around our constitutional mess. Our long-term and perhaps more serious problem is our national indebtedness. During the prolonged boom of the 1980s we continued to live wildly beyond our means, adding some $200 billion to our national debt. We are in hock to foreign creditors and have no real control over interest rates or the value of our currency. Governments are hamstrung; the debt buildup continues. Taxpayers are fed up and the goods and services tax (GST) is still to come. Nationwide sentiments of demoralization, cynicism and sauve-qui-peut fuel the constitutional debate. The day of reckoning is nearly at hand. (Michael Bliss, "Gratification Now," Report on Business, June 1990, p.31) 

The present troubles besetting Canada led one writer in Maclean's to warn that "the ties of nationhood are more than ever in danger of snapping . . . Canadians as a whole are suffering a massive loss of confidence in politicians and in the political system itself." (Robert Marshall, "A Shaken Nation Bares its Anger," Maclean's, January 7, 1991, p. 10)

Blame fixing is a popular activity in Canada. A recurrent complaint is that politics and the political process have failed to deliver what they promised. By the same token it is felt that solutions must be found in the political arena, for example, by making politicians more accountable, by more direct involvement of citizens, or by a new constitutional arrangement. The Citizens' Forum, headed by Keith Spicer, is an attempt to find solutions. But how realistic are the expectations that solutions can be found via this process? A serious failure of the proffered diagnoses and prognoses is that they attempt to fix blame in a simplistic manner and, similarly, to find simplistic answers to deep-seated problems.

One of the paradoxes of the current debate is the assumption that more of that which caused the problem in the first place will also fix the problem. To put this another way: the demands made on (or the expectations from) politics are exaggerated and wholly unrealistic, inevitably leading to disillusionment and anger. This is not to suggest that the task of governments is unimportant. In fact, its task is extremely important and should contribute to the well-being and cohesion of a nation. But first, we need to have a clear view of what the government ought to do and, above all, by what principles its activities ought to be measured. It is on this score that we are suffering from a lack of clarity and, therefore, a lack of agreement. In other words, underlying the current frustration and division about politics is a lack of true insight concerning the very purpose of politics and the role of the state. This is a very large topic that cannot be adequately dealt with in a brief article. Therefore, I will restrict myself to mentioning what I perceive to be the key problems in Canadian politics.

From Individualism to Collectivism

These two contradictory streams of thought and action are clearly evident in our society. To begin with individualism, the most important reason for its current prominence is the assumption that mankind is not subject to any higher law than that which it designs itself. This is grounded in the now well-known phenomenon of secularization. Secularism is the belief that what we observe with our senses is all that there is. Its adherents are convinced there is no higher power or authority to which they are subject. All religions, especially Christianity, are considered to be nothing more than superstitions that are best assigned to the "dustbin of history." The Humanist Manifesto (first formulated in 1933 and updated in 1973) expresses this credo of modernity as follows:

Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created. . . . But we can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species. While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.

 The trouble with this starting point is that it presents us with an insoluble dilemma. For if there is no law, and therefore no law-giver above us, how then shall we know what is true or false, right or wrong? Or to put it another way, if there is no given standard of truth, what standards shall we then choose?

A convinced secularist is undeterred. This is how the Humanist Manifesto professes its absolute faith in man's ability to fashion his own standards:

We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human need and interest. . . . Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. 

Who can deny that this mindset is now prevalent in our society, notably in the major trend-setting centres such as schools and the media, both of which play an extremely important role in the shaping of opinions. The problem with this essentially relativistic credo (the belief that there is no truth) is that it destroys all possibilities for establishing any kind of social and political cohesion among us. This is so because what is true for one may not be true for another. What is true for today or here may not be true tomorrow or there. Thus we land in the bog of moral anarchy, which effectively destroys the very possibility of developing common standards that can serve as a foundation of a civilized and just society. (This is the major point of Reginald Bibby's important new book, Mosaic Madness: the Poverty and Potential of Life in Canada, published by Stoddait.)

However, the moral and spiritual vacuum resulting from the relativistic position does not remain as it is. Ideas have consequences. As Donald Bloesch has written in his Crumbling Foundations: "When God is dead, the way is open for the return of the gods of pre-Christian times, the gods of Volk, blood, sex, and soil. The Enlightenment desacralized the heavens; now society and nature are becoming the new domains of the sacred."

Secularism has given rise to the idea that the state is the chosen instrument for building the "good society." Even the pragmatic study of Canadian society and economy, undertaken by the Macdonald Royal Commission in 1985, referred to the state as "the key actor in channelling" the evolution in national self-image, and claimed that governments "must provide meaning and recognition for the citizenry" and "manage society as well as the economy."

Such sentiments are symptomatic of a mindset that has become increasingly pervasive. As Jacques Ellul, a French social philosopher, has observed: "The motives, the processes, the mysteries that made man accept religion and expect God to accomplish what he was unable to do, lead him nowadays into politics and make him expect those things from the state." (Quoted in Bloesch's Crumbling Foundations.)

Overload Paralysis

The paradox that belief in the autonomy of the self (individualism) gives rise to collectivism, is accompanied by a further paradox: the modern state, which is increasingly interventionist, is also incapable of doing the very things that the state ought to do in the first place. For an ever-expanding role of government means that governing itself is becoming more and more demanding and difficult. In other words, governments are vastly overloaded and therefore ineffective, if not paralyzed. Both realities of overload and paralysis are painfully evident on the contemporary Canadian political scene.

Politics is becoming more and more a matter of pragmatic deal-making and social engineering. Lacking are insights and principles derived from a well-understood and articulated political philosophy, firmly anchored in a profound respect for that which is transcendent and abiding. The result: modern politics is becoming more and more shallow while governments are faced with increasingly complex and difficult challenges. (Overspending and the massive national debt now burdening Canada are but one symptom which seriously hampers governments.)

Robert Stanfield, senior Canadian politician, warned against the overload of parliament in these words:

Parliament is not fitted for controlling the kind of all-pervasive government we have today. .. . My point is that the parliamentary control of government is not effective and it is difficult to see how it can be made effective because of the vast scope of government activities. . . . If we want all-pervasive government we must accept more and more government by improvisation or by bureaucrats who become increasingly inaccessible to scrutiny. (Toronto Star, May 23, 1978) 

The New Egalitarianism

Another important phenomenon of modern politics, which greatly abets the politicization of society, is that the concepts of freedom and equality have undergone a fundamental change. The great teachers of this modern view of politics are Jean Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx. Rousseau's ideas of equality and freedom are especially influential now. Freedom no longer means the limited state, respect for the spiritual core of human beings, and constitutional protection against arbitrary power, including the power of the state. Instead, it has come to resemble the idea of entitlements (or claims) by individuals on the state. This change in the relationship between citizens and the state is accompanied by two other phenomena.

First, rights are now interpreted in the context of the contemporary preoccupation with self-realization, and for this reason they have become divorced from an accompanying (and balancing) sense of responsibility and duty.

Second, rights are no longer perceived to be prior to the state but products of the state, prescribed in charters and codes and administered by the courts and human rights tribunals. The true significance of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is that it destroys the historic, constitutional foundation of freedom and simultaneously undermines the legitimacy of parliamentary government. The destructive impact of these changes now underway has not yet dawned on the Canadian consciousness. Until it does, no cure for the political disorder of Canada will be found.

Equality has also assumed a new meaning: not equality of opportunity and equality before the law, but equality of results, to be mediated by an interventionist state. This is the true meaning of the modern push behind affirmative action and pay equity. They are all about building a radically different society in which a new kind of egalitarianism is the driving motive. Unfortunately, critical analyses of this important development are scarce.

An exception to this rule is Rainer Knopff s Human Rights and Social Technology: The New War on Discrimination (Carlton University Press, 1989). Professor Knopff argues that the new anti-discrimination measures in the name of equality constitute a massive shift of power from the private to the public realm at the expense of genuine freedom. The author, who teaches at the University of Calgary, summarizes the thrust of this important book as follows:

My central argument is that this "new war on discrimination" promotes social equality at the cost of undermining private liberty and the democratic political process, and that it implies an exercise in "social technology" which, despite its rhetoric of human rights, actually deprives the idea of rights of any solid foundation. 

Ironically, universities and their faculties, who pride themselves on serving as defenders of freedom, have massively capitulated to the new egalitarian mindset and the politicization of education. The latest weapons in the egalitarians' arsenal are the so-called women's studies and affirmative-action programs in the universities. (See, for example, Virginia Byfield, "Fembos in Academe," Western Report, January 7, 1991, pp. 24-30.)

This article is only a brief description of the deep-seated problems affecting Canadian politics. Believers in the Christian gospel need to work hard to counteract the destructive assumptions and practices that now govern much of that which passes for politics. This does not mean that we can reshape Canada into a Christian nation. But at the very least, it means that Christians are called to present a thoughtful defence of an alternative vision to the ones that are now busy destroying our nation. Over against the imagined autonomy of human beings, we need to pose the truth that God is the sovereign and merciful creator of all that exists, with far-reaching implications for life. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn so simply yet powerfully stated: "One word of truth outweighs the world."

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment