Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

A Swing to the Right is Not Enough

June 1, 1995 -

This is truly an historic change that literally ends the Canada that we've known and sets us on a much meaner course.
—Bob Rae, former Ontario Premier (The Toronto Star, March 1, 1995)

The policing role of the state will expand with both workfare and the need to punish and imprison the increasing number of individuals who turn to crime because they can't get welfare to feed their families.
Labour Times editorial (July 1995)
 

First it was the Chretien government's budget of last February, intended to rein in the federal government's runaway debt and deficit, that was supposed to set Canada on to a new course of "conservative" hard-heartedness. At least that is how former Ontario Premier Bob Rae saw it, and he was joined by many others who have made the bloated state and government-provided entitlements the sine qua non of a "compassionate" and "tolerant" Canada.

James Laxer, a Toronto Star columnist and political science professor, predicted that the federal budget will cause another recession accompanied by "the politics of polarization between those who have and those who have not." He warned that "hundreds of thousands of Canadians will be pushed into a mean poverty that we have not seen for decades; many children will be malnourished; tuberculosis and other diseases of deprivation will reappear; and tens of thousands of young people will fall through the cracks into permanent joblessness, crime and prostitution" (March 5, 1995).

Homegrown fascism

As if that was not bad enough, the June 8 decisive election victory of the Ontario Conservatives, led by Mike Harris, sent another shock wave through the ranks of believers in "progressive" politics. Editorial writers and a stable of columnists swung into rhetorical overdrive to announce the coming of the apocalypse. They assured readers that the "Common Sense Revolution" of the new Ontario government would mean the devastation of cherished social programs that made Canada so different from and so superior to the United States. This is the coming of a dark age engineered by the greedy and the rich. An editorial in Labour Times hinted ominously that a home grown variety of "fascism" had arrived under Premier Mike Harris.

David Crane wrote that Ontario will soon resemble New Jersey as individual gain and selfishness will win the day over a sense of community and sharing. He wrote, "The Common Sense Revolution, in effect, is a revolution of the rich against the poor, and places like Newark are what you get if such a revolution succeeds" (The Toronto Star, June 3, 1995).

What are we to make of these dire predictions? Is it true that what appears to be a swing to the "right," at both the provincial and federal levels, will fundamentally change Canada from a compassionate to a cruel society? Or is it merely a ping-pong reaction that in due time will reverse itself? Should we welcome this conservative shift as a brake on and a possible reversal of the bloated and intrusive state? Yes, particularly if this shift is accompanied by greater respect for life itself, the integrity of the family, and freedom in the workplace and in the education of our children.

Beyond politics

Yet a certain amount of scepticism on this score is also in order. All three major parties, two of which have been in power at the federal and provincial levels (the New Democratic Party has formed the government in four provinces during the last half century), are responsible for the growth of an interventionist politics that has contributed to the current sad state of affairs in our nation.

Nonetheless, the deepest source of our current disorders, evident in a rapid rise in social pathologies in every area of society, are beyond politics. Whatever ails us in the political realm is a symptom of a more serious and a more deep-seated illness. That's why the cure does not lie in politics itself, although that is now the accepted wisdom. A major problem is the assumption, at least among the political and academic elite and among all manner of interest groups, that the difficulties and insecurities of life must be resolved, or at least ameliorated, by the powerful arm of the state.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms represents a drastic step forward in reinforcing the belief that the state is the central institution for the regulation of society. Under the large umbrella of the Charter; the courts have assumed an active role in revamping the law and thus restructuring society according to the new concept of the state. We now have it from the highest authority—Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Antonio Lamer—that the Charter has established the essential secular nature of Canadian society."

Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin expressed the same sentiment during a speech about criminal law reform: "Today it is not to religion or the community that society looks to regulate and remedy its evils—it is to the law, primarily the criminal law that it casts its eye."

This despite the Charter's preamble which declares that "Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God." It's ironic that those who are called to uphold the law and to respect the mores and institutions of this nation (of whom still more than 80 per cent declare themselves to be Christians), have taken upon themselves to eliminate all vestiges of Judeo-Christian influences from the law.

How and why is this happening? The answer lies in the prominence of a secular mindset that can rightly be called a revolution of modern liberalism—in distinction from classical liberalism. We hear much talk about the fact that Canada is one of the best countries in the world. And there is much that we should value in this country. The trouble is that what some consider a reason for appreciation and respect, others are determined to trash. A few examples come readily to mind.

First, on the one side of the abortion debate are those who believe that life is sacred because it is a gift of God. Therefore they believe that abortion is a sin, and that its widespread practice (more than 100,000 per year in Canada) is one of the most poignant signs of national decadence. Pro-abortion advocates on the other hand believe that abortion on demand is a woman's fundamental right and the means of liberating her from traditional forms of bondage.

Second, some view pornography and the brazen removal of all sexual restraints as a sign of liberation (now often defended in the name of artistic freedom). Others consider it immoral and a sure way to coarsen life and to incite violent behaviour, especially towards women and children.

Third, some believe that education should be a department of the state and completely secularized. Others hold that education is shaped by one worldview (religion) or another and therefore parents should have the freedom to choose the kind of education they want for their children.

Coerced into virtue

It is clear that there exists a split of worldviews (or beliefs) of which the political divisions and arguments are only an imprecise and vague, yet very real reflection. There is indeed what some have called a "culture war," but its true nature is often hidden, because the one side, especially in the public domain, is apparently winning, while the other side is poorly prepared and equipped. Also, there is much use of euphemisms and doubletalk, which only adds to the confusion. Examples are plenty: taking the life of the unborn is described as a matter of free choice; unrestrained licence to follow the basest instincts is called freedom; and shrugging off all sense of shame and modesty is described as spontaneity.

In an article about the decline of American culture (see the attached supplement), Robert H. Bork makes a number of observations that are equally applicable to Canada. We, too, suffer from what Bork calls a combination of moral anarchy and political and social collectivism. We, too, are in the process of "progressively jettisoning the restraints of religion, morality, and law," in the private sphere while simultaneously putting in place a system of political control and intervention driven by a strong egalitarian ideology. Bork writes:

Egalitarianism requires hierarchy because equality of condition cannot be achieved or approximated without coercion. The coercers will be bureaucrats and politicians who will, and already do, form a new elite class. Political and governmental authority replace the authorities of family, church, profession, and business. The project is to sap the strength of these latter institutions so that individuals stand bare before the state, which liberals assume with considerable justification, they will administer. We will be coerced into virtue, as modern liberals define virtue: a ruthlessly egalitarian society. This agenda is, of course, already well advanced. 

The process described by Bork is also abundantly evident in Canada, as are the consequences—increasing social breakdown, political conflict, and utter confusion about what is true and right. What is most remarkable is not that people act in immoral ways, but that the very concept of morality is now denied. We no longer dare speak of conduct being right or wrong, moral or immoral, because that is considered to be judgmental and bigoted. Instead, we discard terms of judgment and discernment and use neutral, nonjudgmental terms for behaviour that not so long ago would have been considered immoral. Thus the very notion of holding people responsible for indolence and promiscuous behaviour is now jeered at as a fall back to Victorian hypocrisy. As in the following outburst by prominent Canadian columnist Dalton Camp:

The present fetish of fret over "welfare," which so concerns the new conservative regime in Ontario, is hardly different from the family values, workfare and accompanying cant from the Gingrich legions of the morally fastidious next door. And these are fully resonant of the Victorian Age, with little change in the candlepower of their hypocrisy. Still, history goes on repeating itself, as does politics. The poor have always been blamed for hard times. (The Toronto Star, July 5, 1995) 

"Remoralizing" society

The most pressing issue is not the reorganization of politics, not even the revitalization of society, but what Gertrude Himmelfarb has called the "remoralization" of civil society. One thing is certain: if the Pied Pipers of the new liberalism, contemptuous of absolute standards rooted in religion, continue to have their way, we can expect more political breakdown and social disorder. But that is not inevitable. There is still time to turn away from freedom understood as licence to do as we please, and from the new egalitarianism that is destroying freedom at the other end of the spectrum. But to escape that slippery slope will require more than merely a conservative swing to the right in politics, although that in itself may well bring certain benefits. It will require deep-down spiritual renewal and an acknowledgement that the old virtues are nothing to be sneered at. Above all, we need a humble awareness that no human effort is adequate to tame the beast within us and to create the good society by our own efforts alone.

How can such a radical turnaround occur? Let me make a few suggestions.

First, we need to develop a thick skin. Don't be intimidated by the hostility and contempt that you will meet when you challenge the current ideological sacred cows.

Second, we need to hone our skills to remain polite but firm in standing our ground by presenting an articulate, Christian alternative to the modern paganism that is so obviously leading us to self-destruction.

Third, we need to be prepared to make alliances with all who are prepared to stand up for ordinary decency, civil virtue, and plain good sense.

Fourth, we need to pray much that the judgment on our human follies will be averted, and that instead the light and grace of the Gospel will break through in the hearts of many people so that in this nation we may yet experience the genuine shalom of the Lord.

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