Archive for June, 2010

Monarchic Canada

Canadians’ rights and freedoms are guaranteed by the distinction between Head of State and Head of Government in the Constitution Act (1867).

We have a backup system in the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But without the 1867 Act our Charter rights would be pie in the sky, about as well grounded as wishes and dreams.

The Head-of-State/Head-of-Government system secures a populace from the depredations of ambitious political elites by providing for the orderly competition of political parties for office. (The assumption is that the greatest danger to citizens comes from would-be oligarchs.)

Think of Mr. Harper at the G20 meetings. For a happy day or two he was Mr. Canada. The Canadian political opposition was out in the streets, or sulking in Ottawa, and not in the G20 deliberating chamber. He was talking to kings and oligarchs as an equal. The posture was required by the occasion. But Harper knows, and we know, that no Canadian politician speaks for Canada in the way that King Abdullah speaks for Saudi Arabia or Putin, for Russia. It’s the Canadian Head of State, the Governor General, who speaks for Canada, that is, all of us. But the 1867 Act doesn’t allow a Governor General to govern. We don’t allow her to make policy.

Our political leaders are necessarily partisan; our governor general and constitution must be non-partisan. That’s the formula in the Constitution Act (1867). And that’s the formula for freedom in parliamentary systems: a Monarchic representative and a Prime Minister. “It takes two,” as the song goes.

Earlier this month an ad hoc group of academics, legislators, and journalists met in Ottawa to discuss “the purpose, functioning, advantages and drawbacks of the present system of constitutional monarchy in Canada.” They call themselves, Friends of the Canadian Crown. Among the sponsors were the Queen’s University Institute of Intergovernmental Relations and the Canadian Study of Parliament Group. Senators Serge Joyal and Hugh Segal officiated. I’d have liked to go; but one can’t do everything. The IIR will issue a book of essays on the subject sooner or later.

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CPSA Women’s Caucus Comes Alive

After an absence of months, the Canadian Political Science Association Women’s Caucus is back on line.

Or is it?

I get a message addressed to WC-CPSA@YORKU. Fine. That’s the Women’s Caucus calling. But who sent it? The reply address reads Teresa Healy, thealy@CLC-CTC.CA. Who is she?  She doesn’t identify herself as a political scientist. She’s not in the Canadian Political Science Association directory.

Whoever she is, she wants us to read a letter she and 211 other women sent Jack Layton, asking him to use the whips in the vote on the long gun registry: “We are urging you in the strongest possible way to compel your caucus to save Canada’s gun registry.”

We’re not being asked to sign the letter to Layton. It’s already sealed and in the mail. Healy’s just keeping us informed of her doings.

The letter may be found at http://www.caw.ca/en/9005.htm

Who are the 211 signatories? Hard to say. None identify themselves as political scientists. Only a few give a university affiliation. Many indicate association with a union. Some describe themselves as “women’s advocates,” or “activists.” Some provide no form of identification.

Who decides what goes out to the CPSA Women’s Caucus? It’s a puzzle.

The G20 Protests

“We will take back our city from these exploitative profiteers, and in the streets we will be uncontrollable.”

The National Post knows how to design a front page, don’t they! This declaration from groups planning demonstrations at the upcoming G20 summit dominates page one (June 22) in revolutionary red and anarchist black.

“Day to day, the tentacles of global capitalism threaten to choke the life from us … Rest assured that when the G20 comes within striking distance this June, we won’t miss.”

Where does this adamant opposition to capitalism originate? In the third quarter of the eighteenth century, I’d say. It pre-dates Marxist anti-capitalism. It’s a product of the German Counter-Enlightenment. And it’s not shallow. It’s not something you could hope to talk a person out of in an afternoon. The men and women you’ll see at the G20 protests are hearing in their minds the echo of arguments originating with Blake, Byron, Coleridge, Herder, Heidegger, Rousseau, Schiller, Schliermacher. Listen to the literary critic, Lionel Trilling: “the characteristic element of modern literature, or at least the most highly developed literature is the bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through it.” By “literature,” Trilling means, in addition to novels and poetry, the major works of the last two centuries in philosophy and the social sciences.

“The historic sense of our literature has in mind a long excess of civilization to which may be ascribed the bitterness and bloodiness both of the past and of the present and of which the peaceful aspects are to be thought of as mainly contemptible – its order achieved at the cost of extravagant personal repression, either that of coercion or that of acquiescence; its repose otiose; its material comfort corrupt and corrupting; its taste a manifestation either of timidity or of pride; its rationality attained only at the price of energy and passion.” (Trilling, “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” [1961]. Trilling’s students read Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Conrad, Proust, Kafka, Mann, Gide, Fraser [The Golden Bough], Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.)

We don’t have to suppose our G20 protesters have read these works. Some have. More will have met the Counter-Enlightenment in books like Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs McWorld, or Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

And I don’t want to suggest that the sheer adventure of behaving outrageously isn’t a spur. What the heck, we’ve cleared the streets for them. We’re spending money like water to prepare our city for a great encounter. We’re giving them splendid advance publicity. We could hardly have done more to attract the demonstrators if we’d issued formal invitations.

Think of it this way: the G20 demonstrations promise participants more thrills than a Pride Parade. Pride can be outrageous, even offensive, but it’s licensed; it’s advertised as a tourist attraction. It’s a bourgeois, civilized affair, roundly supported by capitalism and the governing authorities.

Rosenbaum on Political Acrimony

Is politics today more acrimonious, more unforgiving?

That’s the general impression. But perhaps it’s not so. We should consult the historians. Has someone written a general history of political stridency and violence in the more-or-less settled democratic societies of the modern West? Probably. Let’s see, there would be a chapter on assassination and bomb wielders, a chapter on violent industrial strikes, and another on the old rural forms of political protest like rick-burning.

And one on pamphleteering. There’s nothing new about attack ads and toxic political pamphleteering. Sheer underhand dirty tricks and nastiness: in a liberal democracy, that’s par for the course.

Ron Rosenbaum is appalled by the “noxious and polarizing” expressions of hate on the Internet. The National Post of June 17, 2010 (A24) carries an excerpt from his New Threats to Freedom. (The publisher is not given and the book has not yet shown up on Amazon.) He worries that “The vicious anonymous nature of Internet discourse is threatening the free interchange of ideas on which democracy depends.”

But he then goes on to say that you can’t blame the Web entirely. “There is alas what seems like a kind of disease of human nature operative here. It’s as if our worst instincts, like the shingles virus, could lie fallow for decades and then suddenly erupt in rashes.” He’s right, surely.

We have the G8 and G20 protests coming!