Archive for the ‘AMERICA’S CIVIC RELIGION’ Tag



John Chuckman

What would Pierre Trudeau say? He stopped the FLQ dead in its tracks only to have the nation’s future now toyed with by selfish, angry children.

This is a terrible time to force an election. I don’t say this because it’s only been a year since an election. I don’t say this because another election will cost as much or more than the sponsorship scandal. And I don’t say this because an election can only give us another minority government. The forces of separatism are more buoyant than they have been for years. Jean Charest’s conservative policies have made the Quebec Liberals very unpopular, and the Parti Québécois waits to resume power. The backlash in Quebec against the federal Liberals means the nihilistic Bloc Québécois will take even more seats.

One hopes Stephen Harper will show statesmanship in not forcing a new election, but the hope is slim. His party, though it has virtually no chance of winning a seat in Quebec, naturally wants to be christened by even a brief assumption of power. Peter MacKay, number-two man in the party, answers questions about his past broken promises with a description of politics as a “blood sport,” and judging from the language he uses during Question Period, he very much means it.

The Conservatives have no critical priorities, no desperately wished-for program, but they have the opportunity to exploit an unpleasant situation for a possible minority government. In doing this they would be upsetting a lot of important initiatives now underway. They would be appealing to people’s unhappiness over a scandal where all the information has not yet even been collected. They would be trying to remove a government that has done everything anyone could expect from government in setting things right. Judge the meaning of an election called under those circumstances. And judge, too, the fact that Stephen Harper’s Quebec lieutenant effectively must be Gilles Duceppe.

Duceppe is an almost asinine figure, a man with such a checkered political history that words about principles sound bizarre coming from his mouth. The Bloc Québécois, a bizarre separatist party acting in the federal arena where it can never achieve its objectives, basically serves as a place to park votes when people in Quebec are angry or frustrated as they are now. That is, except for the genuine opportunity a Conservative minority government would offer the Bloc to extract serious favours for its support. Now there’s a principled arrangement: the Conservatives assisting separatism in order to gain power.

I do love the Conservative claim to moral high ground in the current scandal. This is, after all, the party of Grant Devine, a premier who had ministers sent to prison for fraud and who to this day sounds like a weasel trying to explain away what happened. This is the party of wife-murderer Colin Thatcher. This is the party of Brian Mulroney, whose immense Airbus scandal remains successfully buried. This is the party of Stockwell Day whose unique blend of ignorance and mouth cost a provincial government the best part of a million dollars defending him before he had the grace to apologize. This is the party of Peter MacKay, a man whose word goes about as far as the tiny distance between his eyes.

Danny Williams set a fine example for Canadians by taking down the nation’s flag all over the Newfoundland because he didn’t get quite the deal on revenue-sharing he thought he deserved. What else could you compare Danny’s behaviour to except a child who bawls in the store to embarrass its mother into buying something? Taking down the flag of course has more serious implications than just bawling or holding your breath until you turn blue. It is damaging to people’s sense of national identity and purpose.

I am not a defender of America’s civic religion around its flag, something closer in spirit to brown-shirt demonstrations than pride in rights and freedoms, but, still, flags do mean something. Perhaps rather I should say Canada means something, something a bit more than getting just the financial deal you want. Canada is a genuinely decent country, a peaceful place, a place that does not make enemies in the world, a place where discrimination and hatred are about as minimal as you will find anywhere. The flag is a symbol for these qualities, not a symbol for a particular federal party or a particular financial arrangement. A political leader who uses it for a stunt deserves contempt and owes the nation an apology. Danny largely escaped the price of his ridiculous and destructive behaviour because people do have a certain expectation and tolerance for quaint ways in Newfoundland.

Ironically, and some would hold with considerable justice, an election would prevent Danny’s special concession from being legislated. If that were the only consequence of an election at this time, it might not be bad.

Danny’s stupid behaviour quickly drew the attention of Dalton McGuinty sniffing around for money. Dalton then stumbled upon the existence of a mysterious and monstrous gap in Ontario’s financial arrangements with Ottawa. Evidently, Dalton was unaware of the fact that Ontario pays out more than it receives over the course of his considerable political career, just as he was unaware that Ontario was running a substantial deficit during the last election campaign.

Dalton’s slogans about a “$23 billion gap” and a “$5 billion down payment” are as insidious, and potentially as destructive, as the poorly-defined promises of separatist leaders in Quebec. Not that Dalton is as effective a speaker. He is not, coming off rather like a gangly door-to-door salesman in love with the sound of his adenoidal voice.

No reasonable person would argue with Dalton’s raising focused issues with the national government over aspects of equalization financing. There may well be aspects of immigration or transportation or other areas where Ontario is today short-changed because the variables in any established formula become stressed by changing circumstances over time. Discussing such matters would simply be part of his job as premier.

But that is not what Dalton is doing. Instead he keeps repeating cheap slogans that question the basic idea of sharing in the Canadian Confederation. Dalton has said he is not questioning the general principle, but the effect upon the public of his advertising slogans can only reduce public respect for traditional Canadian arrangements. That’s precisely how advertising and propaganda work.

I won’t dwell on Ralph Klein’s being re-elected a while back in Alberta, his lifetime political achievement being holding office when oil prices exploded. For some mysterious reason people in Alberta are comfortable with this argumentative, unpleasant man who all too often behaves as though he’d just emptied a pitcher of martinis at the Petroleum club. I’ll only mention that in looking at the Alberta government Internet site recently, I discovered Klein listing himself under the heading, the Executive Branch. I think that pretty much sums up his understanding of parliamentary government and perhaps says a word about his dreams.

Which brings us back to Stephen Harper. Can he rise above Ralph Klein’s bar-room vision of Canada? Can he show the statesmanship and decency we knew from Joe Clark? Can he contribute genuinely to Canada’s precious integrity? Few of our contemporary politicians seem even slightly capable of passing such a test.



John Chuckman

Many otherwise well-educated Americans know remarkably little about the actual circumstances of their country’s birth. Assumptions about that early period, frequently offered as counterexamples to the current dangerous and dreary American government, too often contain little more than boyish daydreams of nobler times.

America’s central myth about its founding goes something like this: An extraordinary bunch of men, dressed in frock coats and wearing powdered wigs, closeted together after a long and heroic war against tyranny, worked unselfishly to give the United States a perfect modern system of government.
Since they were men concerned with rights and abuses and the tyranny of absolute monarchy, they gave Americans a set of basic rights that is the envy of the world.

Some Americans, blissfully unaware of European history and the long-term development of democratic and enlightened government in all advanced societies – a process that has proceeded as inexorably as the growth of modern science since the Renaissance, albeit in fits and starts over some periods – add that the events of those early days were almost a set of miracles, providing the world with a new concept of government, “made from whole cloth,” as one enthusiastic Fourth of July editorialist put it.

These notions manage to get thoroughly muddled with Puritan religious ones that have been around since America’s colonial days, producing a story with strong overtones of a biblical legend.

Belief in the sudden, unprecedented appearance of a new form of government reminds one of the sun being halted in the sky or the virgin birth. Attitudes about the Founding Fathers uncomfortably mimic those for the Twelve Apostles. There’s even a Judas character in Benedict Arnold. The documents associated with these events, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, are regarded with much the same awe as books of the Bible, even though, as is the case certainly for the Declaration of Independence, there is a good deal of silly, outdated nonsense.

This set of myths and attitudes has been called America’s Civic Religion, and it is an apt name.

It follows that the thoughts and actions of someone like Mr. Bush – a narrow politician, a man of few ideas and less learning – can only suffer by comparison. One sometimes sees letters in The New York Times from people with lengthy titles, people you might think should know better, making what are silly comparisons of real people to myths. Clearly, even the most robust flesh-and-blood politician would suffer by such comparisons.

But contemporary America is not a case of a saint who’s fallen into sin. The historical fact is that America was born out of some pretty unpleasant circumstances, and better understanding of this fact would provide Americans with perspective in the way they understand the world, especially concerning the arrogant habit of expecting everyone to see how clearly America “has got it right.” and to instantly copy the pattern. America, in fact, did not “have it right” at the beginning, and it has taken more than two centuries to make a great many corrections, with many still to be made.

Along the way, since its founding, some moments of genuine human progress have occurred and the concepts of democracy and human decency for all have begun to take hold, but no more so than is the case for all other advanced countries of the world whose history did not start in revolution and the myths of Sacred Writ.

The myths about America’s origins serve several purposes, apart from the obvious one of tidying up a not-so-pretty historical record. As I wrote in “Flirting with Fascism,” America has a long history of doing just that, flirting with fascism. The birth-myths help solidify the hold on the American imagination of democratic and human-rights principles and, to that extent at least, serve a worthy purpose.

America was founded by a small coterie of privileged men who were mainly interested in maintaining their privileges and indeed in expanding them at the expense of a foreign-born aristocracy.

The first truly important cause for American independence was Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War (more generally called the Seven Year’s War). The French in the 1750s were setting about constructing a series of forts both along the Canadian border and in places like the Ohio river valley. Their intention was to prevent the westward expansion of the British colonies and to lock up much of the valuable fur trade.

British colonists did not look favorably on this development. Their intense desire was to become rich through land speculation and endless westward expansion, the kind of
activity, apart from marrying a rich widow, that made George Washington one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, one with rather a reputation for sharp business practices. It has been said that the shooting of a French officer (the French flatly called it murder) by an ambitious young George Washington, serving in the Virginia militia, marked the opening of the Seven Years War, sometimes called the first world war.

Britain did win the war, but at considerable cost. The colonies’ first reaction to British victory was joy and celebration. It was later that a series of what can only be regarded as reasonable tax measures to have the colonists help pay the costs of the war aroused such great antipathy in the colonies. The view was simply this: The war was over, the benefits to the colonists could not be re-claimed by Britain, so the colonists felt no obligation to help pay beyond what they had contributed during the war. Hatred of taxes – unavoidably associated with crippling good, sound government – has remained to this day a feature of the American cultural landscape.

Besides, the colonists were used to a rather privileged position that none of them wanted disturbed. They lived a healthy and relatively happy life, as all the statistics and observations of the time attest. Foreign observers frequently commented on how healthy Americans under the Crown were. As well, it was widely observed, and commented on in Europe, that these colonies – well before the Revolution – were amongst the freest places in the world to live.

Ben Franklin at one point made the forecast that America’s population and wealth, given the conditions under which they prospered, would one day far outdistance those of the Mother Country. He was not alone in understanding this.

So, after the French and Indian War, things at first looked favorable for the desires of settlers to build limitless land empires, but then several developments considerably darkened the view.

A key one was the Quebec Act which vastly extended the territory of Quebec to include what today is Illinois as part of a vast Quebec Territory. Most Americans will not know what a huge storm this caused in the colonies because it is not an attractive subject for elementary texts.

First, it appeared to make the possibility of endless western expansion impossible. England, quite fairly and reasonably, wanted to discourage expansion over the Appalachians into Indian territory like the Ohio valley as a way of maintaining peace. The Mother Country had a conscientious policy of avoiding further conflicts with native Americans. This policy American colonists had tended to ignore, but the creation of a new Western jurisdiction under a Catholic province like Quebec, was an entirely different matter.

There was a paranoid fear of “papism” in the colonies, peopled as they were by many Puritan extremists who had run away from the dislike they often aroused in the old country. Anti-Catholic feeling ran very high in the American colonies. Indeed, it was an old custom, and remained the custom for decades after the Revolution, to burn effigies of the pope each year on Britain’s Guy Fawkes Day. America’s nasty-tempered Puritan settlers wanted nothing to do with “papists.” Yes, the very same nasty, hateful words we heard during the Northern Ireland conflict over the last thirty years were constantly on the tongues and in the newspapers of American colonists.

Britain’s final reaction to the colonists’ refusal to pay taxes, after a long period of adjustments in the taxes and talks with colonial representatives, and to their contempt for Imperial regulations over boundaries and trade – many of the colonies’ richest men such as John Hancock were simply smugglers – triggered an authentic “grass-roots” revolt in Massachusetts.

When the unthinkable actually happened in Massachusetts – violent revolt being originally unthinkable for most well-known and established colonial figures like Franklin or Washington or John Adams – there was no going back. The central issue became one of how things were to be managed by the colonies’ ambitious little Establishment.

Washington’s appointment as commander-in-chief represented an important turning point. What had been an almost spontaneous revolt organized by militia groups who elected their leaders became an organized opposition with an organized army under an appointed commander who suddenly started lashing and hanging volunteers who didn’t obey orders or show proper respect. Washington, the cold Virginia aristocrat, expressed contempt in his letters for the New England militiamen who had taken all the chances and started the whole business. He wanted to command a real army with smart uniforms and traditional discipline just like the British army he so admired. He had been frustrated for years about getting a permanent commission in the British army, something that was then rarely awarded to colonials.

Washington actually proved one of the worst generals of all time, losing battle after battle, although he offered a strong and stubborn figure as symbol and rallying point. Had the battle-hardened British commanders been ruthlessly determined instead of complacent and actually more than a little indulgent towards their American cousins, there is little doubt the Revolution would have died quickly (of course, the same local grievances and ambitions would years later have flared up again in some other form). In the end, it was French assistance, as I’ve detailed in “France’s Great Folly,” that made the Revolution a success, although this was rarely acknowledged later by Washington, an attitude still widely displayed today.

The real lessons of the American Revolution include the fact that early Americans were not motivated by quite the high ideals that contemporary Americans generally attribute to them. Anti-Catholicism and greed for Western expansion were basic causes. So, too, antipathy to taxes. Still, given enough time, America outgrew some of these early narrow prejudices.

One narrowness that has not disappeared with time is found in the Declaration of Independence. Few Americans ever actually read it, but after a few stirring, handsome words, this document is a long, whining list of grievances, almost amusing to read now. Jefferson’s first draft, which included even blaming the slave trade on Britain – Jefferson was very poor at economics, not recognizing the need for demand as well as supply in any market – was heavily excised by the Continental Congress, making the petulant Jefferson so irritated he disowned the document until in his later years it had become an American icon. Then he wanted credit for it engraved on his tombstone. Whining, unthinking demands and petulant attitudes remain readily-identified with America even as a world power.

The great lesson of Yorktown in 1781, the final, decisive battle, was that even a great power like Imperial Britain really could not suppress the naturally-grown ambitions and desires of a people thousands of miles away, not without investing at a cost out of all proportion to the benefits, and not without becoming intensely disliked. This is a lesson that America, now grown strong and very arrogant in its strength, has utterly failed to learn.

Posted May 28, 2009 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

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