Archive for February, 2009

What They Think of Us, FT on Canada

They don’t think of us often. In the ten years or so that I’ve been reading the journal First Things, I don’t think I’ve seen Canada mentioned more than a few times and it’s never more than a mention. We’ve sometimes rated a wry note in editor Father John Neuhaus’ monthly comments on religion and politics entitled, “The Public Square.”

But here we are in the current issue. George Weigel writes: “Thankfully we [in the U.S.] are not in quite the same mess as Canada where the preaching of classical and biblical morality can now get you hauled up before a new form of Star Chamber known as a Human Rights Commission” (“A Campaign of Narratives,” FT, March 2009). Star Chamber! Weigel goes on to liken us to Europe. I’ve read I don’t know how many articles on the moral decline of Europe by Weigel and other First Things authors. There’s a good one by Jean Bethke Elstain in this very issue. By comparing us to Europe, Weigel is saying that Canada’s treading the primrose path to hell.

Can I bear the pain? The worst of it is that what Weigel says is true.

The March issue concludes once again with “The Public Square” by Richard John Neuhaus. Reading the cover I thought for a happy moment that the reports of his death had been exaggerated. But that is not so. The April issue will contain tributes to his life and work.


Virtual Museum; Virtual Anti-Semitism

At my university we had a celebration recently to acknowledge with gratitude the gift of a large collection of anti-Semitic books, pamphlets, drawings and posters. You will understand that this is not just run-of the-mill anti-Semitic material. It is splendidly, importantly anti-Semitic material from the period of the Second World War, written by German propagandists of extraordinary ability and illustrated by painters and draftsmen familiar with the powerful images of German expressionist art.

Distinguished guests were present: the Consuls of Poland, France, and Israel. Librarians spoke, the President of the university, the Provost, various educators, and grateful members of the broader community while a continuing presentation on large-screen power point showed dozens of images from the collection, each more compelling, astounding, and hateful than the last. Some of the items from the gift were on display under glass. Especially memorable were the books for children; anti-Semitism for the instruction of kindergarten classes. In a graceful and modest speech, the donor said: “I am humbled to be part of this. To be able to bring this information to this great university and have an opportunity to educate people about history is truly wonderful.”

The gift includes funding for a post-doctoral fellow to prepare the material for dissemination on the Internet. The compelling images we saw that afternoon on the large screen will soon be available to populations everywhere on the globe. The high point of the afternoon was the announcement that our university is about to create a “Virtual Museum of the Holocaust,” that is, a virtual museum of anti-Semitic propaganda.

Simon Wiesenthal says: “The history of man is the history of crimes, and history can repeat. So information is a defence. Through this we can build, we must build, a defence against repetition.” Information is a defence. Let’s hope.

Darwin’s Birthday

I missed it. The 200th was yesterday. But here goes anyway: Many Happy Returns of the Day, sir.

Our retirees’ book club – which bears the grand name, The Atheneum – will be discussing Darwinism next week. Club meetings are always a pleasant occasion. The wine flows. We allow digressions.

The book is Michael Ruse’s Mystery of Mysteries (1999), subtitled, is Evolution a Social Construction? Ruse is Professor of Philosophy and Zoology at the University of Guelph, now teaching at Florida State. He’s published many books, most of them on Darwin and Darwinism. I’ve read two, though not the one we will be discussing. (I hope to get along on the basis of general knowledge and reviews culled from the Internet. And perhaps a second glass of wine.) The Atheneum, all ten or so of us, includes mostly retirees from the science side of the campus. The topic – is science “independently real” or is it a social construct – should keep them going. What in their heart of hearts do they think they’ve been doing all these years? Uncovering nature’s secrets? Or expressing the fads, fancies, and preoccupations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the language of physics, zoology, and geology?

We will not in all likelihood get into the subject of Ruse’s recent volume – which I have read, and am rereading, and which is entitled The Evolution-Creation Struggle (2005). Ruse is familiar with the arguments of the prominent advocates of the theory known as Intelligent Design. He’s been reading them for years. And in this volume he sums up his conclusions. In the clash between evolutionists and creationists, who wins?

His answer is a little surprising: Here he is in the concluding pages: “We have no simple clash between science and religion. but rather between two religions.  The outcome of the conflict is not obvious.”

He goes on: “Those of us who love science must do more than simply to restate our positions or criticize the opposition. We must understand our own assumptions, and equally find out why others have (often) legitimate concerns. This is not a plea for week-kneed compromise but a more informed and self-aware approach to the issues. First understanding and then some strategic moves. You now know why I wrote this book.”

Rights and a Loose-Fish Legislature

In Our Republican Constitution (Hart Publishing, 2005), Adam Tomkins argues that parliamentary democracies do not need a constitutional bill of rights. Parliament alone, sans judiciary, can adequately check the exercise of executive power. (See my blog of February 4th, Does Parliament Secure Rights?) So much for Canada’s constitutional bill of rights, our beloved Canadian Charter. Not needed, if we buy Tomkins’s argument.

According to Tomkins, the principle or practice called “responsible government” does the job. “The government is required to secure the support of a majority in Parliament not only when ministerial careers are on the line, but every single day. It is a routine obligation on the part of the government that that it must ensure that its policies, decisions and actions enjoy parliamentary backing. Parliament is the instrument through which the government must legislate; Parliament is the instrument that will continuously inquire into the expenditure, administration and policy of every government department” (page 2).

It’s a pleasure to read someone so enamoured of the Westminster system. But Tomkins gives the argument a twist. He believes that parliamentary democracies would do even better at checking executive excesses if free of the constraints of party loyalty. “It has been customary to see the principal dynamic in Parliament, and particularly in the House of Commons, as being that between the two front benches, that is to say, as being that between government and opposition. But important as it undoubtedly is, there is a deeper dynamic at work in the constitutional understanding of Parliament than the relationship of government to opposition. This is the dynamic between Crown and Parliament, between front bench and back bench, or between minister and parliamentarian” (page 137).

Tomkins is asking for what we, with an eye to British North American history might call a “loose-fish” legislature. There would be no whipped votes; parliamentarians would be free to cross party lines on any and all issues. Thus we would see in the legislature the “separation of interests between the government ministers on the one hand and parliamentarians on the other.”

Canadians are familiar with proposals to allow more more free votes and to strengthen committees with a view to forging ties between individual parliamentarians in areas of expertise regardless of party allegiance. Tomkins endorses these ideas and a few more.

What he supremely contributes is a grounding in the history of Parliament from the early 1640s. It’s an important part of his case that the English Parliament in that early period had a coherent and disciplined idea of the “dynamic between minister and parliamentarian.” Hence his conclusion:  “The question in the modern era is how to re-energize this dynamic in the age of mass democracy and party politics” (page 137).

Am I convinced that parliamentary government suffices to secure our rights? I can’t deny that I’m interested. (And I have a few arguments of my own to support the contention; more later). Am I convinced that a loose-fish legislature is required? I know something of the seventeenth-century argument from my collaboration with Peter J. Smith (Ajzenstat and Smith, eds., Canada’s Origins, Liberal, Tory, or Republican, Carleton University Press, 1997).  I’ve reviewed the documents. What I’ll say at this point is that if I were still teaching a course on Parliament, I’d flog Tomkins’ argument for all it’s worth, before embarking on a defense of party politics.

Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry

The National Post has been running excerpts from Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard. The last one appears today.

I look for reviews of the book on Amazon. One reader suggests that Widdowson and Howard “get up in the morning and eat a dog’s breakfast of outmoded communist ideology and rotten anthropological theories washed down with strong racial prejudices inherited from their own unexamined colonial upbringings.” Another puts the matter more simply: “This book is not worth the paper it’s written on. It is but another ignorant screed by so-called experts. When in fact it is but drivel.”

And so it goes. I begin to get a sense of what the atmosphere must have been like at that Canadian Political Science Association meeting last spring at which Widdowson read her paper on the “aboriginal industry.” The session started as an orderly academic meeting we’re told, and ended in angry tears.

In 2004, Tom Flanagan’s First Nations, Second Thoughts got the same kind of reception. The editor of McGill-Queen’s University Press tells me that he has drawers-full of angry letters about Flanagan. Here’s what Joyce Green said about Flanagan (the same Green who features in the accounts of last spring’s CPSA meeting): “These aren’t second thoughts … They’re the same old first thoughts that the colonizers came with from Europe. It’s a celebration of the original arguments that supported the subordination of indigenous peoples.” (My source for Green’s comment is an article by Marci McDonald in The Walrus of October, 2004.)

It’s a central part of Widdowson and Howard’s argument to show that anthropologists, lawyers, bureaucrats, aboriginal leaders – the “aboriginal industry,” in short – attempt to preserve aboriginal culture in unchanging form because doing so yields concrete benefits in the form of government funding. The “industry” rejects books like Disrobing in an effort to preserve its livelihood. But Widdowson and Howard don’t argue that greed is the sole motif. They believe a disinterested Romantic vision at work. See the February 4th excerpt in the Post. The teaser reads: “Alienated by the Industrial Revolution, eighteenth-century Europeans romanticized primitive hunter-gatherers as Noble Savages. The cult they created persists to this day.”

What we’re looking at in the vituperative reaction to Disrobing and First Nations, Second Thoughts, is the centuries-old quarrel between Liberals and Romantics. We’re looking at a deep and largely unacknowledged cleavage in Canadians’ political thinking. Widdowson and Howard in Disrobing, and Flanagan in First Nations, are heirs of the seventeenth-century Liberal Enlightenment. They are arguing that everyone, regardless of race, origin, creed, is equally entitled to the benefits of participation in the economy and the political life of Western nations. In brief, they make the case for allowing members of the First Nations to assimilate to the broader Canadian society.

The critics adhere to the Romanticism of the eighteenth-century Counter Enlightenment. Though they sometimes contend that there are no universal norms by which cultures can be compared or ranked, just as often they suggest that pre-modern ways of living are superior to the modern. They seldom address the crucial fact that their ideas about “special rights,” diversity and multiculturalism cannot be reconciled with the central tenet of the Enlightenment, the argument for equal freedom.

Does Parliament Secure Rights?

Remember Garth Stevenson’s suggestion on this blog, January 12, 2009, that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “has proven to be the worst thing that ever happened to our country, other than two world wars.” A bit extreme, did you think?

For an attack on constitutional bills of rights beside which Professor Stevenson’s mumblings pale, I recommend Adam Tomkins’ Our Republican Constitution (Oxford and Portland: Hart Publishing, 2005). The book came to my attention when Christopher Moore reviewed it recently in the Literary Review of Canada.

Tomkins is the John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow. I do not know who John Millar is or was. I do know that it’s news when a professor of law, occupying a named chair, takes to court bashing. Garth Stevenson, however esteemed in Canada, is a mere professor of political science (Brock University).

Here’s Tomkins’ claim: Politics, that is, Parliament, “is able both democratically and effectively to stop governments, to check the exercise of executive power, to hold it to account. The courts, no matter what their powers and no matter what their composition, will always find it more difficult” (page 10).

The idea that it takes the courts to check government, Tomkins calls “legal constitutionalism.” It’s a useful term. “Legal constitutionalism,” he says, is less democratic, and – note this – less effective in securing individual rights than “Parliamentary constitutionalism.”

He writes as if in the world of academe today, he is Parliament’s sole defender. He’s battling the universe. I’d like to be able to tell him that there are a few professors and students in Canada who could act as allies but Tomkins knows nothing of Canadian judicial review and parliamentary practice. There’s one reference to the Canadian Charter in Our Republican Constitution, but it is not substantive. Tomkins knows the America literature, and of course, the British. He cites Australians on occasion. But not Canadians. We’re not doing a good job of publicizing Canadian political science and legal thought.

If there is a flaw in this valuable book, it’s that Tomkins is not content with arguing that parliamentary politics secures rights. He’s convinced that a reformed Parliament would do an even better job and he has reforms to offer. Here again he proves himself a bold thinker. He has in mind nothing so prosaic as electoral reform or monkeying with the representation. He recommends first, the abolition of the monarchy. (Perhaps you saw that one coming?) Tomkins is a true, old-fashioned republican. He sees no need for a distinction between head of state, and head of government.

He also wishes to abolish political parties. I’ll have more to say in the next blog.