Canada’s new politics of discord could carry a heavy price
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
January 01, 2013. Michael Valpy
Day by day these past 12 months, when Canadians might have been collaborating with one another to build for the common good, to respectfully acknowledge and find room for each other’s thoughts and beliefs, we’ve advanced resolutely in the opposite direction toward suspicion and loathing and marginalization and the rejection of a communal public life.
Willing collaboration is the definition of social cohesion. Ours is battered. American commentators write regularly of the United States unravelling. We, too, are unravelling, being rent by demographic fault-lines of age and education yawning over the past two decades toward chasms.
There is no longer simply one or two Canadas — say, the old two Canadas of French and English ritually, comfortably, smiting each other with the biblical jawbones of asses.
There are three, four and five Canadas yelling at each other, contemptuous of each other’s values and world-views.
The British sociologist Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading theorists on social cohesion in liberal democracies, points out that one of sociology’s most sacred tenets is that values are beliefs governing actions. He then explains that it is not shared values that primarily define a cohesive society. Rather, he says, it is the ability to tolerate dissonant values.
Well, look at us. Are we doing that?
In 2012, Living Planet, the upmarket design shop on Water Street in St. John’s, did a slap-up business selling Second World War-môde postersbearing the caption “Attack Harper on All Fronts” and T-shirts proclaiming “I am not Canadian under a Harper government” and portraying a 1940s wartime little girl asking her father, “Daddy, what did YOU do to stop Stephen Harper?”
In 2012, across Facebook and other social media sites downloadable posters were offered that quoted the Pulitzer-Prize-winning U.S. journalist Chris Hedges, a darling of Canada’s intellectual young, calling the prime minister “a poster child for corporate malfeasance and corporate power . . . dismantling everything that’s good about Canada . . . a pretty venal figure.”
Other Internet posters excoriated his environmental and foreign policies. One had an icily smiling Harper saying, “We’re tough on crime except for election fraud.” Another bore his portrait photoshopped with a dog’s snout. Think of that . . . the head of the government of Canada, the once-peaceable kingdom, portrayed as a dog.
The messages from the other side were just as vicious.
Conservative cabinet ministers branded environmental opponents of the government’s policies as eco-terrorists laundering foreign money. They branded civil libertarians as child pornographers.
They’ve defunded Canadian non-government organizations at home and abroad deemed to be pursuing goals at odds with government policies — organizations like the court challenges program and the Canadian Council on International Cooperation. They and their municipal brethren in Ford Nation have gone to war on unions.
They have withdrawn from obligations to monitor employment equity and address discrimination, ended support for agencies that advocate for women’s rights, terminated scientific research, ended health care for refugee claimants, been contemptuous of Parliament and its rules. They’ve fuelled a civil society, a polity, of us and them.
This essay is not an anti-Conservative or anti-Harper rant. Most of us are contemptuous of Parliament. It’s broken. The most effective opposition in the country for decades has been extra-parliamentary. And, yes, of course, we have had inflamed political divisions throughout our history. French and English, East and West, Left and Right, the generational rift of the ’60s and ’70s.
But what we have today is different. What we have are profound, systemic demographic divisions of age and education that aren’t going to go away for years, if ever — divisions which Harper, like Shakespeare’s Brutus, has recognized as a tide in the affairs of men that, taken at the flood, can lead to victory.
He’s deftly caught the baby-boom on the boomerang — the young and rebellious of the 1960s and ’70s who grew into the old and cantankerously conservative of today.
He’s made hay out of the discontent of the non-university-educated who have been persuaded that the country’s so-called elites have made a hash of things.
A survey by Ekos Research presented at last month’s annual State of the Federation conference at Queen’s University found a 20-point gulf between university-educated Canadians who self-identify as small-l liberal, and high-school and college-educated Canadians who identify as small-c conservative, thus giving us the trappings of a class conflict in Canada, something we’ve taken pride in the past in declaring didn’t exist.
If Canadian voters — that is, Canadians who actually vote — were all under age 45 and university-educated, there would be no Harper government, there would still be the long-form census, the Canadian Armed Forces would never have become mythologized as warriors, the country would not have become a side-taker with Israel in the Middle East, we probably still would have failed to keep our commitments under the Kyoto Protocol but at least we wouldn’t have withdrawn from it and we would not have advanced down the road to gutting federal environmental assessments.
What’s odd is that Canadian default values, according to Ekos, haven’t really shifted to the right and the prime minister and his government really don’t represent the country’s defining political and ideological beliefs.
What has happened, first, is that the overwhelming majority of Canadians under age 45 have stopped voting — not out of apathy as far as anyone can tell, but because they simply don’t see their political agendas mirrored in the agendas of Parliament and the provincial and territorial legislatures. How democratic is a country where most citizens below the median age don’t vote? Canada has become a country governed by a gerontocratic minority.
Second, in a society where the well-educated are seen as possessing an unequal hold on power and an unequal share of the country’s socio-economic fruits, Harper and his Conservatives have been successful at presenting themselves as the voice of Canadians who incongruously have the short end of the inequality stick that government policies have allowed to grow.
Third, government research (until the government stopped doing this kind of research at about the same time as the Conservatives moved into office in 2006) has suggested a cause-and-effect phenomenon exists between the diminished presence of the state in Canadians’ lives — which the Conservative government is vigorously pursuing — and signs of Canadians’ diminished attachment to their country.
Fourth, a growing number of Quebec academics, politicians (federalist and sovereigntist) and journalists have warned that the Harper government’s domestic and foreign policies are so antithetical to mainstream Quebec values that they risk driving Quebec out of the country without help from the sovereigntists.
Is Harper aware that his government’s policies are not in step with the country’s default values? One of Canada’s most astute political scientists, McGill University’s Antonia Maioni, suggests that he is, and that by employing what she calls a calibrated move to the right, he’s creating what Canadians in time will come to see as a new normal.
A big gamble. A dangerous gamble.
If, as sociologist Mann says, social cohesion is measured by a society’s ability to tolerate dissonant values and the rising anger level in Canadian public discourse suggests tolerance is eroding, what have we got?
The Financial Times reported not long ago that some of the brightest minds at Moody’s bond-rating agency have been considering a fascinating question: Should there be a formal rating of “social cohesion” in sovereign debt indices, when they judge whether a government is likely to default on its debt or not?
The discussion, says the FT, points to a fundamental issue that will hang over bond markets this decade: As governments struggle to eliminate debt without unleashing political instability, or full-blown revolution, do their countries possess enough social cohesion for them to take truly tough choices or even rewrite the social contract?
What do the suits who moil the money markets think of Stephen Harper through that lens?
Michael Valpy is a Toronto writer.
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