Archive for April, 2010

Mr. Harper and the Senate

Do we need a Senate? Yes. It is one of the institutions securing Canadians’ liberty. A free country requires a legislature that hears all political and ideological arguments and it is supremely the Senate’s duty to resist attempts by the Prime Minister and Cabinet to use their numbers in the Commons to discourage criticism and limit debate.

That’s what the Fathers of Confederation believed. They didn’t think a constitutional bill of rights was necessary. The freedom of political deliberation guaranteed by parliamentary institutions would suffice.

These days Mr. Harper is doing his best to reform the Senate. You’d think he would prefer to let it languish or die. Not a few Canadians believe Harper is prone to act high-handedly and is intolerant of political criticism. But here he is, bent on saving an institution that will be likely if his efforts succeed to house effective opposition.

Most of the provinces started out with two legislative chambers but first one ambitious premier and then another found the frustration of coping with the dual legislative process intolerable and used his constitutional powers to write the upper house off the books.

Abolishing the Senate of Canada would require amendment of the Constitution Act (1867), something difficult under our present stiff amending formula. Difficult, but perhaps not impossible. The provincial premiers don’t like the Senate. The Canadian public is more or less indifferent. (I won’t speak about the academics.) The idea that an upper chamber fosters liberty is unknown. (“What’s the Charter for then?”)

Consider the arguments an anti-Senate campaign could mount. With the senators out of the way the party in office will be able to get more done, and do it faster and more cheaply. The Commons represents the electoral majority; Senate interference is positively anti-democratic. Those arguments might fly. It would be said that while the Canada of Confederation needed an Upper Chamber to represent provinces and regions, today we have other mechanisms in place.

What could a pro-Senate campaign offer in reply? “We’ve always had an Upper Chamber. It’s part of the Confederation bargain. Efficiency isn’t the be-all and end-all of politics. Make haste, make waste. Unicameralism would be faster and cheaper, true, but you get what you pay for.” How effective would those sentiments be? It would be said that the Senate excels at turning out political reports and studies. Are Canadians addicted to the idea of political research?

Abolition, thank goodness, is not on the agenda and Mr Harper is determined to save an institution that has served Canada well and continues to serve. What’s odd is that the political opposition appears uninterested.

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Parliamentary Deliberation as Canadian Tradition

Pierre Elliott Trudeau was notorious for saying that few yards from the House, Members of Parliament were “nobodies.”

All governments, conservative or liberal, come in time to think of hoarding information and curtailing public debate. Power corrupts.

Prime Minister Harper’s prorogation of Parliament last January in an attempt to forestall debate on the treatment of Afghan prisoners of war looked dodgy then and seems positively shabby now, evidence of the government’s disdain for Parliament.

Now House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken has upheld Parliament’s right to examine the documents necessary to assess the policy of releasing prisoners of war to Afghan allies. There will be a debate. The two hundred or so Canadian political scientists, philosophers, and law professors who signed a petition four months ago protesting prorogation are entitled to feel vindicated.

Parliament may decide to limit publication of information threatening national safety or the Canadian troops. But the important matter has been settled. In a parliamentary democracy the government of the day may not high-handedly control an issue from start to finish.

A.V. Dicey said it; the Canadian parliamentarians of the 1860s said it: parliamentary deliberation secures a country’s liberty.

Constitutions, Politics, and Pragmatism

It’s often said that the Fathers of Confederation were not political thinkers. They were practical men, men who could make a “deal.” E.R. Black’s comment is typical: “Confederation was born in pragmatism without the attendance of a readily definable philosophic rationale.”

The Fathers had their pragmatic side. Who would deny it? But when they bent their thoughts to the task of making a constitution for British North America they had to think of principles and philosophy. They were designing a great and innovative political constitution modeled on the fundamentals of the European Enlightenment.

Now I hear from an eminence in the field of national history: why is Ajzenstat always complaining about that comment by Black? “What’s wrong with being pragmatic? There’s nothing wrong with it; there’s nothing shameful.”

And I feel a pang. I think of all the times I’ve lectured students on the necessity of give and take in politics; all the times I’ve tried gently to persuade some admirably principled young woman or man that politics works best for everyone when it’s seasoned with a hefty dash of pragmatism.

I agree that politics requires “doing deals,” making concessions, horse-trading, if you like. But Confederation was not about politics per se. It was about making a constitution to facilitate the doing of politics. The difference between statutes and constitutions is exactly that statutes are “deals,” and as “deals” can be amended, trashed, reviled, or indeed, rehabilitated, as the political seasons change.

Constitutions, in contrast, set out the conditions for deal making and for exactly this reason are supposed to be difficult to change. The Fathers of Confederation and the legislators in the ratifying parliaments speak of the process of making and ratifying the British North America Act as lawmaking “for all time.” The phrase recurs in the debates in several provinces: “for all time.” The question was whether ordinary lawmakers, elected to their colonial parliaments for a limited term, could make law “for all time.”

In the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada (March 8, 1865), James O’Halloran says: “You sir, and I, were sent here to make laws, not legislatures.” It’s one of my favourite quotations. Here’s another, addressing the same issue while conceding the necessity of a degree of pragmatism even in constitution making: “Where there are two great parties in a nation – as there have been with us – it is clear that, when they agree to effect a settlement of the constitutional difficulties which have separated them, this can only be accomplished by mutual compromise to a greater or less extent” (Alexander Mackenzie, in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, February 23, 1865).  Yes, there was a principled debate on pragmatism at Confederation.

Sex Pistols and the Counter Culture

I’m having a discussion with John Bonnett (Guelph) on counter-cultural attitudes in the fine arts. He asks:

“Why is it that artists today seem so bereft of wisdom and a moral compass?  They pretend to possess both.  They pretend to say profound things. They in fact offer obscurities that say nothing, the sorts of polysyllabic banalities George Orwell condemned in “Politics in the English Language.” Have there ever been wise artists, or is it their perpetual lot to be troublemakers who stomp on conventions, social and moral, and make wrecks of their personal lives?”

Good question! A good observation. But I’d argue that the artists who stomp on convention offer more than banalities. They are drawing on a tradition of social thought with powerful philosophical precedents: the tradition of the European counter-Enlightenment, which dates from the late eighteenth century. It’s poisonous, yes, destructive of settled middle-class convictions, destructive of the social and political order. It attacks ideas of personal responsibility while encouraging extreme ideas of personal freedom. Nevertheless as argument it’s disturbingly convincing. I make the beginnings of an attempt to analyze the counter-Enlightenment in The Once and Future Canadian Democracy (2003).

There’s a more or less helpful article on the subject by Fred Siegel in the current Commentary magazine (“The Anti-American Fallacy”). It begins: “In 1928, D.H. Lawrence wrote a poem entitled “How Beastly the Bourgeois Is” in which he compared the middle class to a “fungus, living on the remains of a bygone life / sucking his life out of greater life than his own.”

Taking his cue from Bernard DeVoto’s The Literary Fallacy (1944), Siegel races through an analysis of Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald and their successors. I can’t supply the complete list of famous names. He doesn’t forget their English predecessors and contemporaries: Lawrence, John Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, T.S. Elliott.  But he slights the social and political philosophers and as result gives us only a glimpse of the counter-Enlightenment’s seriousness and the threat it poses for a liberal democratic politics rooted in the seventeenth-century.

He contends that DeVoto illuminated the anti-bourgeois thrust in American literature “as no one had before or since.” But recent and comparatively recent American critics come to mind, first among them Lionel Trilling. And for  goodness’ sakes, Siegel is making his assertion about DeVoto’s preeminence in a journal of political ideas founded by Norman Podhoretz, author of The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet?

I think of Leo Strauss, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Allan Bloom, Jean Bethke Elshtain. All describe the subordinate and subversive thread of thought that is the counter-Enlightenment’s legacy in our day. I won’t go further afield, except to say that I am just finishing Victor Klemperer’s diary of the Nazi years, I Will Bear Witness. It’s book that will still be read centuries from now. Klemperer was a literary critic and historian of ideas. He knew what he was seeing in the collapse of Europe.

Added note: Today’s National Post (April 9), offers an obituary of Malcolm McLaren, manager of the punk band, the Sex Pistols. His art college “manifesto” called on people to be “everything this society hates.” He wrote: “All I have ever felt is disruptive – I don’t know any other way

Getting to Whitney Public: Angus Remembers

Our family’s remembering Toronto’s Whitney School in the 1940s and 50s. (See the blog of March 19). It was a good school, indeed a famous one, with some excellent and lovable teachers. It’s been interesting calling up our pre-adolescent selves! Our home life was strict; the school was strict, but in between home and school and after  we had hours of freedom without adult supervision. No one was driven to school in those days. Rain, shine, sleet, hail, you walked, friends joining on the way.

My brother writes: “Interesting, Janet, that you ran in terror from the trains passing below the railway bridge. We would run as fast as we could to get into the smoke and soot. What fun, what joy we had dancing around breathing in all those carcinogens!

“I remember running all the way home for lunch with John McLean only to be told it wasn’t lunchtime, it was recess! So we turned around and ran all the way back again and made it in time.

“I recall changing the fish bowl in our room on warm sunny spring day and the fish jumped out the open window and landed on the cement below. I left the classroom, went down and retrieved it, then put it back in the freshly changed bowl, but alas it never swam circles again. I remember the principal hauling me into his office when I was in grade four and telling me I was responsible for another boy (I forget his name) getting brain damage after running me down with his bike, then landing on his head.

“Boys’ fights were common, but I remember the first and only time I saw two girls having a punch-up in the school-yard. I remember Margaret McMillan (Paris 1918) pontificating to her coterie of female acolytes by the north fence and wondering what she was telling them all the time. Whatever it was she would keep them spellbound at recess.

“I remember the school inspector telling us that he had visited hundreds of classrooms in Toronto schools but ours was the best of all of them because we could see Lake Ontario shining in the distance. He was right.  But of course he was hopelessly old fashioned as they soon began to build windowless classrooms for the improved structuring of little wandering minds. I think it was in grade five that you were allowed to use fountain pens.  And in grade six you could use aquamarine coloured ink without getting into trouble.

Kady forgot to mention another layer of smell. Kids throwing up. Lots of that. And by the way alleys was banned as school yard activity by the time I got to grade 8 because the girls played it with the boys and so …. in a splay-legged sitting position skirts would not conform to the appropriate knee length.”

My sister adds:

“Angus is right, kids did throw up all the time. And kids often peed in class because the teacher would not give permission to leave.

“I don’t remember alleys being banned, but one terrific game was banned. It was only played by girls. We went to the back hill for this.  We took a band of elastic – every house had rolls of elastic because it was used for garters and underpants and bloomers. Two girls would stretch the elastic out as tight as it would go and make the line nice and high. Then the others, one by one, would leap over it in a sort of high jump stance, one leg at a time. That was the game. We loved it. You just had to be a girl, any grade or age. One sad day a female teacher was sent to tell us we could no longer play the game. She was very red in the face as she told us the school was afraid the elastic might snap at some point.”