What Are We To Think?

What are we to think when our government tells us that government is the problem, that notwithstanding a decade of tax cuts, we pay too much taxes, that we should be concerned that our government has private information about us, that our government has ulterior motives for its firearms registry?  What are we to think?

What are we to  think when our government tells us that the problem with the country is Toronto elites, that reliable information for policy and accountability is a luxury, that the police chiefs are not to be believed about the benefits of the firearms registry?

What are we to think when our government stokes our anger and fears about refugees and immigrants?  When it pits urban and rural citizens against each other rather than seeking common ground?  When it promotes questionable and costly crime measures even though rates of crime and violence continue their thirty year decline based on more balanced policies?  When the government picks and chooses which citizens deserve to have their rights respected and which not?

I suppose many of us will simply become increasingly fearful and cynical and angry at government certainly, at one another probably, at immigrants and refugees increasingly.  But how will anybody benefit from any of this?  How will any of this make us safer, more prosperous, healthier?  How will any of this help us address the challenges of an aging population, deepening inequality and poverty, climate change and environmental degradation, a widening productivity gap?  Feeding and feeding off anger and distrust is easy but just where does it take us?

I just came back from a conference at Central Michigan University on public management in the global economy where academics and practitioners from Canada, the U.S. and Europe talked about how to reverse the decline in public institutions. The consensus was clear: we cannot govern as we have in the past, but government is no less important if we are to help people manage the changes and challenges we all face. While it may be popular to pretend that government is unnecessary or irrelevant,  this is no more than pretending.  Just look at the suffering in those countries where governments are truly incompetent and corrupt.

One constant theme was the need to rebuild trust, not blind trust of course, not even deference, but enough trust to enable cooperation and collective action when these are clearly in our interests.  Of course, this means reinventing government, closing the gap between civil society and government, developing private-public partnerships, focusing on those things that only governments can do and encouraging non-governmental solutions where possible.   In the past, governments have been able to reinvent themselves to suit the times.   But how can any of this happen in a climate of anger, cynicism and distrust?  How can any of this happen when government doesn’t want it to happen?  What are we to think?

9 Responses to “What Are We To Think?”
  1. Marvellous thoughtful piece, as usual.

    My humble suggestion is to start by winning back the words. Much of this government’s cynical and divisive agenda depends on stripping words of their meanings, and, indeed, discouraging critical thought and genuine engagement by reducing language and ideas to simple-minded slogans and clichés. In their hands, words are no longer means for effective communication, but emotional and rhetorical cudgels designed to shut down debate.

    Step one in fighting back, I’d submit, is an aggressive campaign with the reinvigoration of ordinary civil discourse, and the reappropriation of contested language, as its objective. Hardball.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for this. I think this is also what George Lakoff is saying and, in quite a different way, Michael Sandel. You are onto a very important issue.

      • Thanks Alex. In my own small way, that’s what I’m trying to do on my own site. It’s a battle that needs to be fought on a lot of fronts, and there’s always the danger of being co-opted and then marginalized by so-called “moderate” or “centrist” initiatives that talk the progressive talk but really just serve the same entrenched interests (Liberal party here, Democratic party in the U.S., major media outlets … ). It’s a long haul, and we’ve got an overwhelming aggregation of institutional and financial power deeply invested in stripping words of their meanings and in keeping people trapped in fear and ignorance.

        One hill at a time, I guess.

      • himelfarb says:

        Count me among your regulars!

  2. Style says:

    I wonder if you’ve brought too partisan a lens to this. Let’s rewrite a few of your introductory sentences from anohter perspective: “What are we to think when our government tells us that government is never the problem, that we should not be concerned that our government has private information about us, that we should not question its need for this information? What are we to think? What are we to think when our government tells us that the problem with the country is too little trust in the government, that the government is the only source for reliable information for policy and accountability, that we should not question the police chiefs about the benefits of the firearms registry?”

    If you portray any party’s arguments in an extreme form, they become troubling. And is there really a debate in Canada over whether we should listen to all Canadians and respond with balanced policies? You may not like how Canadians feel about refugees and crime, but is the appropriate government response to ignore these concerns? Is it appropriate to respond to them by saying the experts have got it figured out and don’t need citizens questioning their decisions?

    • himelfarb says:

      Of course the diverse views of Canadians are not to be ignored. Fear of crime is real and has consequences for our quality of life. We all want a fair and effective immigration system. But pandering to our fears and basing policy on them is something quite different. And dismissing policy based on the best evidence on the nature of the problem and what would work to address these concerns as some form of “elitism” is itself part of the problem.

      • Style says:

        All due respect, but isn’t demonizing the current government also part of the problem? I could keep recasting your argument as a better-dressed version of “beer and popcorn” and you could keep accusing the current government of dismissing evidence and pandering to our fears, but where is that going to lead? People were worried about the Tamil migrant ship, for good and bad reasons, the government empathized, told people how seriously they take the possible threats from refugees, and then processed the refugee claimants quickly and fairly. On immigration in general, what has the current government done that’s so offensive? They’ve worked to make it easier for foreign students to stay in Canada and for foreign professionals to have their credentials recognized. That doesn’t sound like a group of people tearing down democracy.

  3. RamaraMan says:

    Re: “When the government picks and chooses which citizens deserve to have their rights respected and which not?”

    For me this has always been the baseline for which a could establish what separated Canada from nations like Iran. For the 1st 40 years of my life the distinction was crystal clear, black or white. For the last 6 years that line has become fuzzy grey and opaque, as the current regime in Ottawa appears to pick and choose where and when to intervene, on behalf of Canadians. The response of government should be unconditional…. period!

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