Taking Back Our Democracy: Bridging the Generational Divide

These are tough days for Canada’s parliamentary democracy.  Having endured years of steady erosion, it is now under frontal attack.  Journalists and public leaders, across the political spectrum, have begun to document the injuries. We are seeing stirrings of outrage. But this assault on our democracy could not be happening without some complicity or at least indifference on our part.  How many of us are so disenchanted with government that we no longer watch what is happening in Ottawa because we no longer care?  And, in these volatile and uncertain times, how many of us are prepared to trade off a little democracy for a little certainty or a tax cut.

These Uncertain Times

These are indeed uncertain and volatile times. The space between crises seems to be getting shorter while the world seems to be stuck, in gridlock.  Economies are slowing everywhere. Our leaders are having trouble finding almost any consensus on what ails us and what needs doing. They met in Rio+20 to achieve little more than confirmation of a lack of political will. The European economy hangs precariously, while European leaders are torn between the Austerians (largely Germany) and the Krugmanians, and our own government is unprepared to do anything beyond offering what must be irksome finger-wagging lectures.

Yes Canada has weathered these storms better than many, but this is no time for self-congratulation. Inequality here is high and rising and for the first time in living memory we worry that our kids won’t have it as good as we do.   And yet we watch our governments behave as though poverty, inequality, youth unemployment, climate change and environmental degradation are not real or are somebody else’s problem. Self-imposed austerity and a growing list of trade deals do not add up to a plan for a sustainable economy. Little wonder that many are losing faith in the ability of our political institutions to grapple with the challenges.

We are living in a state of what the late American sociologist Robert Merton called anomie, when a society’s goals and means no longer serve most people.  Our model seems to be busted. Today’s problems seem more complex, unfamiliar, and our institutions seem unable to cope.

We are past the point of tinkering.  The goals that gave us shared purpose seem now out of reach, less relevant, and we have lost or are losing trust in government as a means for collective progress.

The Rise of Junk Politics and Magical Thinking

One might think or at least hope that this state of anomie would be the opportunity to re-imagine Canada, to build a new consensus about goals and means.  But things don’t seem to be working out that way.  Instead, we see heightened polarisation, indeed multiple poles, with those who have benefitted most from the current model digging in to hold on to their privilege, and those who have benefited least, fed up, looking for something new or retreating altogether from the game.

And a game it is; just as the stakes rise higher our politics sink lower.  The toxic combination of anxiety, uncertainty and a creeping ‘declinism’ leads many to want magical solutions, simplifying paradigms, or scapegoats upon whom to vent our anger.  This is the climate of culture wars where reason can look like weakness, the long-term just too far off, and collaboration takes on its ugliest meaning.

And our politicians too often feed and feed off our fears, giving us mythical wedge issues, dividing us up into categories of heroes, victims, villains and fools, providing the scapegoats depending on our appetites.  We have watched what Benjamin Demott, the American writer, has called the rise of junk politics, with its hyper-partisanship, where everything is personal, evidence and expertise are devalued, and political cooperation is off the table. Little wonder that fewer and fewer Canadians, especially young Canadians, even bother to vote.

The Search for Leadership and the Rise of Authoritarianism

Such times have never been kind to democracy, ripe as they are for more authoritarian solutions where tough leaders take charge, get things done, and crack down on those who get in the way.  Democracy always takes a hit in rocky times.

What we mean by “democracy” evolves and has, over the past decades, deepened with each generation.   It is of course about the right to vote.  For my parents, who never missed an election, voting was the key (and how disturbed they would be at the current allegations of electoral fraud).   It is also about a system that ensures fair and representative voting and that every vote counts (something our current system of first-past-the-post cannot do).

But democracy means more than voting.  It means strong institutions to hold governments to account, constrain their power in the public interest, and protect our rights and freedoms, not least the freedom of speech and the right of association. That requires an effective parliament allowed and resourced to do its job, an independent judiciary and a free press.

It means greater transparency and accountability to ensure that citizens have the information they need to participate and to make their electoral decisions.

It means strong civil society and mediating organizations that ensure a diversity of views and balance, at least to some extent, the ability of citizens to be heard. It means making every effort to limit the extent to which money shapes politics.

But democracy is a messy business and, in the current climate, when the challenges seem intractable and we worry about decay and disaster, we are at our most vulnerable to trading it away for the false and dangerous promises of certainty, for the strong hand that is ready to take charge or for the saviour whose personal qualities promise magical, transcendent solutions.

To some extent, this may also reflect a generational divide in how we think about leadership and democracy.   For many of my generation, products of the industrial age, of hierarchy and the privileges and burdens of office, leadership is not about engagement, consultation, and cooperation, it is about strength, winning, doing what it takes to get the job done.

We see this in the occasional Tom Friedman article when he talks with some envy of the Chinese oligarchy and its ability to make big decisions fast and get things done – good things like electric cars (not to mention not so good things – and Friedman scarcely does).  Closer to home, recall the nasty attack ads on Stephane “He’s-no-leader” Dion.  This did not refer to an ethical failing on his part or, given the “green shift”, a lack of political courage.  No, this was about good old-fashioned, who’s the boss, industrial strength leadership.  And we saw this in the campaigns against coalitions and minority governments in favour of stability and “strong” leadership.

How appealing is the promise of certainty, of someone who will bring democracy to heel or somehow transcend government, of someone who, while giving lip service to democracy, is willing to sidestep or subvert its institutions to get things done. This zombie leadership dies hard even if it is increasingly out-of-place in a networked world of savvy, connected citizens.

Authoritarian leadership can work in short bursts and in emergencies but over the long-term it will inevitably do great harm. It cuts itself off from the information and diversity of views necessary for creativity.  It cuts itself off from the people it purports to serve. It divides, inevitably creating winners and losers, insiders and scapegoats.  The poorest always pay the heaviest price.  This all breeds meanness – just look at our increasingly punitive crime policies, our approach to refugees, our willingness to cut services to the most needy. But in the end we all pay a heavy price.  We are all disempowered and alienated from the common good.  Only narrow, short-term interests are served.

This zombie leadership is running headlong into the digital age where it clearly does not belong.  But it persists because it is familiar to those who hold the power and  because it soothes our anxieties, feeds our need for magic solutions and quick fixes, and allows us to surrender responsibility for an uncertain future to someone else.

The dangers it poses to democracy are heightened in a system like ours in which majority governments face few constraints. We do not have the effective, if sometimes paralyzing, checks and balances of our neighbor to the south, so that means we are more dependent on good faith and respect for the institutions and principles of democracy. That makes our democracy more fragile, more easily injured.

A New Kind Of Leadership

Of course leadership matters.   But we need a new kind of political leadership: committed to closing the gap between citizen and government; to bridging state and an independent civil society; to bridging social, generational and ideological divides. Leadership that understands that government has a positive role to play but must be balanced by engaged and informed citizens and robust civil organizations.

We need leaders who embrace the new generation of communication tools  which make  more open government feasible.  Of course that doesn’t mean tweeting one thing and doing another. And it doesn’t mean “popularism”, going after the latest trending issues and opinions.

Leadership comes with a responsibility for modeling ethical behaviour, for appealing to the best in us, for believing in our potential, for challenging us to rise above our fears and private interests.

It means wanting to know and speak the truth but understanding the dangers of certainty and the importance of evidence, expertise, and citizen engagement.  Vision is important but vision not grounded in human experience and evidence is hallucination.

And, yes, leadership sometimes means, after having taken the pulse, doing what the majority may not have chosen, taking responsibility and accepting the accountability that comes with that – but doing so with openness and transparency, explaining what the evidence says, and with the humility to adjust or even change course as the evidence requires.

How Do We Get There?

Where will the new political leadership come from?  I suppose it will only come if more ordinary Canadians, with diverse experience outside of politics, and across all the estates, are willing to step up and demand better.  How heartening for example to see David Suzuki one of the most respected – and surely the gentlest – of our leaders put himself on the line and challenge us to stop thinking about good people and bad people, “radical” environmentalists or “greedy” capitalists,  but rather to recognize that the problem is with our model, a nasty version of capitalism that treats people and the natural world of which we are part as commodities to be exploited.  How heartening to see doctors fighting for the health of refugees and a group of lawyers ready to pay higher taxes for the common good.  And more and more voices are calling for an elevated politics and an enriched democracy.

We also need some of these people to enter the increasingly ugly political fray to change things from the inside.  We cannot leave politics entirely to professional politicians.

We have much to learn from young Canadians who bring new experiences, new tools and new ways of thinking to the table.  They seem less ready to trade democracy for a super-leader or saviour. Most are not looking for a tough boss or someone with all the answers.  They may share the general disdain for government, but for different reasons:  it is too opaque, too remote, too hard to penetrate and seemingly impossible to influence – too undemocratic.  They don’t want less democracy, they want more.

Yes, many have opted out of conventional politics, including voting, but they are also finding new ways to engage in public life, in their communities or internationally, and some have taken to the streets, standing outside all our conventional institutions and conventional wisdom to find something new.  They are the digital generation that can make those of us stuck in the industrial age so uncomfortable.  How the semi-leaderless Occupy Movement or the students in the streets of Montreal drove so many of us crazy.  Their leadership was emergent, fragile, shifting, in a word, democratic. Networks and communities replaced hierarchies.  And the generational divide is exposed.  This is not the hyper-individualism or entitlement thinking that detractors claimed.  It is about rebuilding civil society from the ground up, about a new kind of solidarity and a different kind of leadership.

Finding new ways to engage and contribute, rejecting government as parent or nanny, refusing to see the state as the answer to everything – that is all part of a better future.  But to the extent that the young ignore conventional political institutions, including voting, to the extent that they do not engage with the state and try to make it better, we risk an ever-wider gap between civil society and state and a continuing erosion of our democracy.

Holding on to stale notions of leadership is dangerous but so too is disengagement.  We risk a state that becomes more and more remote and authoritarian, less and less willing or able to pursue a better future, to constrain the powerful, to listen to or help those who need government most, to solve problems that cut across our communities and the generations.

We need Canadians across the estates and  across the generations to get indignant, to get  engaged, to enter the fray, to re-imagine Canada, and to take back our democracy,

75 Responses to “Taking Back Our Democracy: Bridging the Generational Divide”
  1. Matthias says:

    Alex, I fear that we will enter or are already in the state Russia found itself prior to the 1917 Revolution, where there was a broad consensus that change was necessary and a small cadre of true believers, the “vanguard of the proletariat”, swept in and pushed the consensus oriented political organizations aside.

    It appears that the majority in Canada and abroad need to relearn some hard political lessons. I fear the costs involved. Deeper thinkers than I–Leonard Cohen “The Future”, Jane Jacobs “Dark Age Ahead”, and Denys Arcand “The Decline of the American Empire” “The Barbarian Invasions” “The Dark Ages”–suggest these lessons or reckonings are unfortunately unavoidable.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Matthias. I have an ongoing argument with a friend who insists that we need a crisis before people will awake to the dangers. I keep thinking that we might act to avert the worst. In any case even crises will not do the trick without a fight.

      • Matthias says:

        “Blessed are the peacemakers” i.e. those who ward off crisis’s and bring about reconciliation. I consider you one of those.

  2. Larry Katz says:

    Thanks for another thoughtful, needed contribution, Alex. Much appreciated. Stay with this subject. Inevitably more and more folks will come to appreciate what you are saying. Larry Katz

  3. John Edwards says:

    Alex, thanks for another excellent piece of work. After reading it, I felt somewhat depressed until I recalled the growing frequency of conversations with others, all concerned and determined to bring about improvements. Many have indeed turned their attention away from the functioning of the federal government, seeking instead to improve their communities.

  4. Mike Bleakney says:

    The late Ray Bradbury said “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Similarly, I fear that the apathy and futility with which most people now regard participation in the democratic process serves a useful purpose, to some, and will not be discouraged from above.

    • himelfarb says:

      I totally agree with that Mike. It is what inspired the piece. This is the most insidious kind of voter suppression. Thanks for the Bradbury reference. Sci Fi is always a great source.

  5. diamondwalker says:

    Exemplary observation & analysis as always..
    However …

    The Harper billy club beat-down of Canadian values and ethics will persist for a while yet.
    Then, after the First Nations beat Stephen and his Harper Government into a catatonic evangelical trance state… over the simple validation of Treaty versus PetroLaw, in The Supreme Court.. some of the ethical and visionary leadership you describe will be needed..

    Right now, though.. we need exemplar/warriors in the field.. in the rainforest.. In the tar sands, on the oceans. We need advocates in the courts like the Council of Canadians. We need every single possible body.. with a heartbeat. The First Nations and their treaties will be the final obstacle to a runaway government that has already made its deal with the Petro Giants and with China.. they just forgot to mention all this to the people who elected them.. or the people that will be destroyed by their actions.

    Ultimately.. from a First Nations point of view… Stephen Harper and his odd petro-evangelical set of suits are just another set of carpet baggers come to piss on their leg and try to tell them its raining. ‘hey Chief.. we just want what’s under the ground this time.. you can keep the damn forest.. whatever is left of it’

    For the most part.. this is all new to us.. but not to the First Nations. What the rest of us need to do is get up to speed and realize that we don’t like how it feels.. This is about trashing Canada, another attack/lie against First Nations, dispensing with honesty or integrity for situational ethics… and savaging democracy … Thank you for the brutal lesson, Mr Harper and your complicit and ignorant loutpack.. we are stronger for it.. amen

    • himelfarb says:

      Certainly big change happens from the outside, on the streets and in the courts, but for the longer term at least some of us ought to be working now to remake our politics and institutions. Thanks for your – passionate – comments, as always.

      • diamondwalker says:

        The ‘longer term’ is at extreme risk currently.. We are way behind the curve here, in the disastrous ‘short term’. I believe that very aggressive intelligent effort at the riding level can end the Harper Government’s hysterical run.. or they will self destruct in spectacular fashion. My prediction is that we may then see a minority NDP government afterwards, and then Canada will be governed only by minority rule. The Liberals seem completely irrelevant, the Progressive Conservatives were hijacked by evangelical petro reformers. Smaller electoral factions/parties will come to prominence and move forward within a drastically wounded parliament. That parliament however, will be highly attuned and resistant to corruption.. By definition, a coastal, prairie or maritime or Quebec based minority government will excel at communicating with all the other small & regional or rump parties. This may be the ‘long term’ you speak of..

        Stephen Harper is simply following a right wing evangelical republican Pennsylvania/North Dakota blueprint, He’s hardly original or creative in any way, he was just born in the wrong country. He and Joe Oliver should be in Pennsylvania with Aubry McLendon of Chesapeake Energy infamy. The tar sands will slip into a secondary concern as the full fracking of Canada comes under full federal support and control. Fracking requires systemic removal of personal and civic rights as well as obvious environmental protections. Its not really about fish or habitat, once you have stolen complete control of inland fresh water for hydraulic fracturing and can inject the waste waters or dump into ditches anywhere convenient. The boron or methane free to move up outside the well casing, and no law, inspection or science there to recognize or hinder it.. whether in the boreal or next to a public school or civic center.

        In the short term.. we see our resources exported as quickly as possible and environmental law obliterated to expedite/facilitate. In the long term we end up with poisoned land and water and air. If you think the Queensbury Rules of boxing applies here.. or any other civilized behavior.. you may want to reconsider. There are suggested precautions for the safe capture and handling of rabid animals .. whether fur bearing or political …

  6. Mark Hammer says:

    I’ll recast the dilemma as one of a dialectic between “energy” and “efficacy”. Populism, such as we have seen with the Occupy movement, and the banging of pots and pans in Montreal, certainly brings energy. Part of the (to my mind, naive) push for proportional representation by many is spurred by a desire to have a more direct connection to democracy, in order to inject energy into it. But the omni-directionality of populism, of fielding the diverse wishes of so many people, ultimately goes nowhere and gets little done. Too many unaligned forces in too many directions.

    Conversely, though, the bureaucratization of public political will brings us to large monollithic institutions, an urge for majority governments, and the sort of powerful “policy-implementation machine” that won’t let anything, including diversity of opinion, get in its way or oblige compromise. They may get things done…or they may not, and simply spin many large wheels.

    The more we insist on turning to the energy of populism and diverse voices, the less likely we are to accomplish things. The more we turn from the energy of populism to the efficacy of bureaucratic and political institutions, the more energy we tend to lose. We have difficulty redeeming the planet as individuals, but yet when we try to do so through institutions and institutional cooperation, we just run out of steam. We can’t just go over to Syria and fix things as individuals, but when we turn to institutions like the U.N., the pace of influence is too slow to save lives.

    So, for me, the challenge is one of finding the sort of optimum balance between that energy, and that efficacy. Quite frankly, I think Nik Wallenda had an easier time maintaining that critical balance traipsing across Niagara Falls.

    Where does leadership fit into this? Management guru Warren Bennis has this idea of what he calls “management by wandering around” that I think warrants some cogitation here. Leaders need to be on the shop floor. That doesn’t mean scripted photo-ops, or quick in-and-outs. It means contact with the issues as they affect people. It means a day working in a context experienced by many, rather than a day spent in insular meetings with other similarly insulated officials. It means providing opportunities to harness the energy that comes from populism to the efficacy of institutions

    • himelfarb says:

      One reason for producing new posts is to see your comments Mark. Always surprising and insightful. I like the energy and efficacy idea and I totally agree about leadership and the shop floor. Little surprise that my generation may have run out of energy and the young may have little patience for bureaucracy. But what this misses is the cleavage between those who are more interested in protecting what they have (my generation) and those who want to build something new (the young). I believe that the noise the young and others are creating with pots and pans but with other forms of protest do make an important difference. Energy and dissent matter. And I do believe that we have not found an alternative for collective progress to the nation state. So if we recast the dilemma or the risk, it is that lack of energy and self-serving complacency on the one side and high energy but institutional disengagement on the other is a recipe for authoritarian government that makes positive change awfully difficult.

  7. Mark Hammer says:

    First, let me say you are a most gracious host. Thank you. Makes it a pleasure to return.

    How do we put flesh and bones on that “critical balance” between energy and efficacy? What forms do we imagine it to take, so that we can begin envisioning the steps to get us there?

    While my observation certainly *does* miss something critical in overlooking the generational cleavage, I have to ask myself if this is a division among specific birth cohorts/generations, or is it reflective of an enduring challenge that repeats itself, generation after generation? And if it IS, what do we have to build in to the infrastructure so that we don’t have to keep going through it and wasting more time and resources, and just as important, squandering good will. And finally, how do we switch gears so that we are not quite so distracted by our coveting, either what we currently have, or what we believe others are withholding from us?

    • himelfarb says:

      I guess I don’t think it is quite the same as always as I do believe we are in a transition from the industrial age to the digital age and the past may be a less useful guide for the future. Generational conflict may well be a universal, even a healthy one, but each probably has to be understood in its concrete time and place. But that does not answer your question and it is THE question. Is transformational change only likely after crisis? Can it be achieved democratically and to avert crises? Who knows but I do believe that it is time for my generation to hold the door open for young Canadians and while we share our experience we understand that our responsibility is to pass over the reins. We do have a lot of knowledge and experience we ought to be sharing. We should behave, as Suzuki fors, as elders. We have benefited so much from the sacrifice of those who preceded usIAAFis our turn to lead by following.

      • Matthias says:

        ♫ Repent, Repent…I wonder what they meant. ♫ Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

        In case anyone is interested, here is the full text for Leonard Cohen’s The Future.

        Give me back my broken night
        my mirrored room, my secret life
        it’s lonely here,
        there’s no one left to torture
        Give me absolute control
        over every living soul
        And lie beside me, baby,
        that’s an order!
        Give me crack and anal sex
        Take the only tree that’s left
        and stuff it up the hole
        in your culture
        Give me back the Berlin wall
        give me Stalin and St Paul
        I’ve seen the future, brother:
        it is murder.

        Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
        Won’t be nothing
        Nothing you can measure anymore
        The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
        has crossed the threshold
        and it has overturned
        the order of the soul

        When they said REPENT REPENT
        I wonder what they meant
        When they said REPENT REPENT
        I wonder what they meant
        When they said REPENT REPENT
        I wonder what they meant

        You don’t know me from the wind
        you never will, you never did
        I’m the little jew
        who wrote the Bible
        I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
        I’ve heard their stories, heard them all
        but love’s the only engine of survival
        Your servant here, he has been told
        to say it clear, to say it cold:
        It’s over, it ain’t going
        any further
        And now the wheels of heaven stop
        you feel the devil’s riding crop
        Get ready for the future:
        it is murder

        Things are going to slide …

        There’ll be the breaking of the ancient
        western code
        Your private life will suddenly explode
        There’ll be phantoms
        There’ll be fires on the road
        and the white man dancing
        You’ll see a woman
        hanging upside down
        her features covered by her fallen gown
        and all the lousy little poets
        coming round
        tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson
        and the white man dancin’

        Give me back the Berlin wall
        Give me Stalin and St Paul
        Give me Christ
        or give me Hiroshima
        Destroy another fetus now
        We don’t like children anyhow
        I’ve seen the future, baby:
        it is murder

        Things are going to slide …

        When they said REPENT REPENT …

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks Matthias. I love Cohen and I find his pessimism and angst familiar and comforting but I must say I prefer despair in poetry and song than in politics or policy. I guess in the latter when given the choice between hope and despair we are obliged to choose hope because that is the only choice that gives us a fighting chance and gives no excuse for inaction.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        The extent to which generational divides are unique to an era, or reflective of something more eternal, is always worth considering. So I think you raise a very fair point. I’m going to make another move out in left field, and suggest something we tend not to consider, largely because it’s one of those frog in the pot of warming water things.

        At present, North America, and much, though not all, of the western industrialized world, is influenced by two fairly powerful socio-cultural and economic trends. On the one hand, we have the social institution of retirement and its handmaiden, pensions. Over the last 123 years, since Bismarck brought in the first public pensions, we have seen the emergence of a revised social contract between citizens, economies, and work, where pensionable age has become the demarcation between participation in, or withdrawal from, the labour force. There do seem to be signs of people remaining in the labour force longer, as pension acquires the new role of unyoking occupational choice from fiscal necessity, and permits second careers in later life. But for the most part, we exist in an era where there is an assumption that a significant part of our lives will be spent with labour-force participation as an option, and that some form of privately or publicly provided money will occasion that inflection point (jeez, I’m starting to sound like Gilles Paquet here!). Stated more simply, over the last 60 years, we’ve come to tacitly accept that we have a right to be able to leave work behind. This, in turn has imposed a sort of “deadline” on people in the second half of their lives, and a sense of urgency about hanging on to what they have by whatever means, so as to be able to honour that imagined deadline.

        At the same time, we have several cohorts that have grown up since that period in the mid-1970’s that saw an explosion in youth employment in the service sector. It was, and remains, low-paying, but 20hrs a week of minimum wage without having to buy milk and toilet paper, or pay rent (because you’re still in high school and living at home) puts a lot of disposable cash in your pocket. Enough that, if nobody between the ages of 14 and 21 had a spare nickel tomorrow, the economy would be on its knees. Add to that the emergence of unrealistically easily-available credit (ever see any of Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s programs, like “Princess”?), and we see hugely unrealistic consumer expectations for young people.

        So, at the one end, we have seen a set of expectations fostered in young people that they ought to be able to have “more”, and that it should come sooner (and this is not some grizzled fogey dismissing them all as “spoiled”), or that delays in achieving it are a sign of something amiss. And at the other end, we have cohorts whose anxieties are fueled by the assumption that if they don’t have the resources and supports to live in some modest degree of comfort for a few more decades, without working, something is amiss. People at the young end have much higher consumer expectations at an earlier age, and people at the other end of the age spectrum expect to retire at younger and younger ages, with moves to bump age-of-eligibility for services or supports from 65 up to 67 interpreted almost as theft of a birthright.

        The scenario is one of both impatience, and concern over what’s “theirs”, among both the younger and older. Not quite a “class struggle”, but certainly ripe for conflict. I have my own rather unique reasons for thinking the pot-banging red-square wearers in Montreal are out to lunch, but much of the criticism I see of them is of a generation-vs-generation flavour.

        Such inter-generational conflict is easy pickings for those in politics (I won’t say “politicians”, because I’m also including strategists, advisors, media pundits, and comms people). You mention the “dangerous promises of certainty” as a source of risk to democracy. And I’m saying the reason that particular fruit hangs so low at the present time is partly because of the impact the social institution of retirement has had on our culture. Not that there has never before been a popular hunger for certainty, but that the particular type of certainty sought tends to be one that pits retired and almost-retired against the young, the established against the tryng-to-get-in-the-door.

        All nations should be concerned with the economic welfare of their citizenry. That’s partly why nations exist. But the concern over economic certainty that pervades our thinking these days can be an enemy, or at least an irritating neighbour, of democracy. What we need are sources of desire-for-certainty that cross generational and economic lines. I’m not going to “go all green on you” here, but environment is a good example of something can serve as a common focal point to engage multiple generations as collaborators rather than adversaries.

        Put more succinctly, it’s “the vision thing”. Some visions pit generations against each other, and some bring them together. If we want to see more robust, useful, and effective democracy, we need visions that people can share, not argue over. Arguing may let you “win”, but winning isn’t an end in itself. Winning is always subservient to the nation and national interest, and the national interest is subservient to the people OF the nation.

      • himelfarb says:

        A unifying vision grounded in the threats to the biosphere and in our responsibilities to the future couples with a commitment to fairness within and between generations, now that is something I could go for.

  8. Matthias says:

    Alex, no surprise, I don’t make such a clear distinction between poetry and song, and politics and policy. A state of affairs can often be seen in greater depth and depicted more accurately by an artist than by one who uses more prosaic tools, like statistics. I wonder if the prophets of old were similarly dismissed as only versifiers and purveyors of irrelevancies.

    I thought of the song The Future when I read your statement, “…it is time for my generation to hold the door open for young Canadians and while we share our experience we understand that our responsibility is to pass over the reins.” That is one response to our current predicament. Repentance, as suggested by Cohen and others, is another.

    • himelfarb says:

      Yes I think the arts are an important source of inspiration and insight. That is not the issue. The issue is despair or fatalism which is fine in the arts and paralysing in politics.

      • Matthias says:

        The truth will set you free. Do you believe the German Expressionists were doing their country a service or disservice? Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, an anti-consumerist screed, and Curt Cobain, Nirvana’s creative light, were also thought of as morbidly negative – especially after Cobain’s suicide. What makes depictions of crap and their depictors salutary is that they identify problems; a necessary step before effective responses can be fashioned.

      • himelfarb says:

        I repeat, I think such art is important and closing our eyes to the challenges is not the answer but giving in to despair isn’t ever it. This particular argument has played before in this blog and in the end I always admit that I have an uncontrollable predisposition to optimism, one that drives some of my dearest friends crazy. I also think that there are examples of servant leaders with the courage to stand up to evil without ever bowing to it who serve as reminders of what could be. Of course there are no guarantees and I won’t even pretend to know the odds. Have you ever seen Resnais’ La Guerrero est Fini? In any case, sometimes all we have is trying to do what we believe is right even when the likelihood of failure is high.

    • himelfarb says:

      But having said that, repentance is entirely in order.

  9. Beijing York says:

    Another thoughtful, eye-opening post, Alex.

    “In any case, sometimes all we have is trying to do what we believe is right even when the likelihood of failure is high.”

    Such is what I feel everyday. But every once in awhile I am surprised to hear what my colleagues and non-political friends have to say. Two years ago I felt like an unwelcomed Cassandra in my chats but that has changed – all of a sudden people I associate with are bringing up Steven Harper and his policies in the most unattractive ways without my prodding. This gives me hope, big hope.

    Given the summer we have experienced continent-wide, I cannot fathom people rejecting the concept of global warming. This is the new reality and now many are on the new “climate change adaptation” band wagon. Another new ruse to focus people away from destructive resource extraction and industrial practices. This is short-term thinking at its best if that.

    The whole situation of unrestricted oversight on banks is now under the spotlight at last. These 21st century king makers are finally under scrutiny because of what was finally uncover with Barclay and others tactics. They have been defrauding nations by the billions of dollars. It certainly makes one further question the veracity of austerity measures.

    Then there is the meme of how lower tax rates are GREAT for economic growth. Well history is showing that it certainly was great for the growth of wealth for the top tier of society. That’s what two or more decades of this thinking had brought us. Now the new meme is how high workers’ wages is impeding growth. This ties well into Harper’s policies to destroy the influence of unions and eradicate workers’ wages and benefits by introducing two tier wages for foreign workers and extremely limited access to EI payments amongst other changes.

    Goodness, there is so much more that I could spew about the failures of the Harper government.

    • himelfarb says:

      Hi. As you know I never think a post is real until you have commented. In fact I thought of you when Matthias and I were going back and forth on the role of the arts in capturing realities that we cannot grasp in our everyday language. I agree with you that there are signs of hope in the music of pots and pans, in the outrage of more and more pundits of every persuasion, in the courage of environmentalists who won’t be intimidated, in the doctor and medical student who disrupted a government announcement and the many other health professionals who are standing up for refugees, in the first voices of affluent Canadians talking about taxes, to the BC and Aboriginal pushback on pipelines, to the Quebec pushback on the punitive crime bill. There is definitely something in the air.

      • Beijing York says:

        Thank you, Alex. Very kind words that mean the world to me and encourage me to fight against what has become the new normal. There is definitely decent as we have seen, but uniting different factions might be a challenge. I remain hopeful.

  10. Nadia says:

    Thank you for yet another superb report on the status of our beloved Canada. I have also thoroughly enjoyed others’ comments including the full text of Leonard Cohen’s The Future which I do believe should be renamed The Present.

    The only remaining issue for me is your thoughts on the role that the public service ought to have in our current situation. I am old enough to believe that in a parliamentary democracy such as ours, the primary function of the public service is to consider the well-being of all citizens while facilitating the implementation of the agenda of the elected group who are often supported by a relatively small group of citizens. “A professional and non-partisan federal public sector is integral to our democracy” is in fact how the Treasury Board’s current internet site identifies the role of the federal public service in Canada. What I experience in real life, however, is a “public service” that has become almost obssessed with facilitating all of the ideological demands of its political masters with no questions or concerns about the long-term impact of these ideas on the citizens. This is the source of my despair: our “public service” has become the “politician service”.

    • himelfarb says:

      Nadia, what an insightful comment on a very important issue.. I couldn’t agree more that a key institution for our particular brand of democracy.is a professional, non-partisan public service. It has been a source of extraordinary advantage to Canada. When we public servants are at our best we are able to ensure that the government of the day gets advice from professionals (who have not drunk the koolade) as well as from their own partisan advisors.

      Public servants draw their advice from their experience in the field serving Canadians in every part of the country and every part of the world,,from their knowledge of the institutions and conventions of our federation, and from the best available science and research, not ideology or partisan interests.

      Of course elected officials decide – democracy demands that – but they are likely to decide best when they have been exposed to this kind of information and advice,. A great public service provides fearless advice – including advice elected officials may not want to hear – and loyally implements the lawful and ethical decisions of the elected – sometimes implementing decisions they do not like. Fearless advice and loyal implementation – that is public service. This is not some cliche but goes to the heart of our democracy.

      If the elected are not asking or listening or if the public service is no longer offering – if that is happening and to the extent that is happening – well that would mean a further and significant erosion of our democracy. Even while many Canadians may be ready to criticize public servants – we are an easy target – many of our leaders across all sectors know the importance of this institution to the public good, to our place in the wor,ld, to the evonomy, to safety, to health, to justice, to the environment. Yet I fear it has become just another institution at risk at a time when we need it to be at its best.

  11. Jim Davis says:

    There is something wrong with modern capitalism. Capitalism is a system intended to advance society; to improve our lot in life. Instead, it has polarized us into the working and non-working; the rich and the poor. The model is most certainly broken.

    Democracy is the answer. We need to hear from as many voices as possible to sort through some possible solutions. We also need to hold our politicians accountable. When politicians promise more accountability and transparency yet fail to deliver on that promise, they must be thrown out!

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Jim. I do think capitalism is becoming meaner and our democracy weaker. And that means, at the least, that we cannot be silent.

    • Mark Hammer says:

      Jim, I’ll challenge you on that a bit, by suggesting that the very lack of accountability and transparency you lament may well stem from the desire to NOT be “thrown out”. Many writers more knowledgeable than myself have referred to what they describe as “the permanent campaign” in federal politics these days. It is an approach in which communications strategists tend to hold increasingly more sway than scientists or other similar subject matter experts. Not that public policy has ever been completely disconnected from the desire to be re-elected, but these days it seems that tether is stronger and never untied. Donald Savoie has written extensively about the concentration of power in the PMO, but it may soon be time for academics to begin examination of the new power elite of comms people and other strategists who are neither elected, nor subject to the federal merit system.

      There was a time not long ago when the more high profile members of the current government could not resist any opportunity to inject a partisan stab, no matter what the topic or how banal. Thankfully, they have toned down that rather unbecoming rhetoric, but the backroom tactics that are more akin to what we’d typically see during campaign periods have become SOP between elections, including, some might suggest, the selection of what policies and legislation to introduce and how it is pitched. The increasing conflict between ministers’ offices and federal scientists may also be a consequence of the manner in which government announcements are used in this “permanent campaign”.

      So, I’m going to suggest that, as much as we wish it were otherwise, the “throw the bums out” approach to politics is likely to only further entrench the opaqueness and unaccountability of government, and distract us away from well-informed policy that serves the public interest in the best and least partisan way possible, pointing us toward policy that becomes evermore shaped to win voters’ hearts and minds so as to *sidestep* being thrown out.

      For my part, the goal is not simply one of who does and who doesn’t have power, but to shift the conversation so that it becomes about wise, workable, thoughtful, inclusive, and affordable public policy, whether it gets one’s “side” elected or not. Elections and power are a distraction, and the more we make discourse ABOUT who has power, the more we feel the need to appeal to the rabble and its immediate concerns, and the less energy we are devoting to good public policy that thinks about the future (and especially that future that supercedes several changes of government)

  12. Jim Hackler says:

    This paragraph in one of your replies is crucial.

    “Of course elected officials decide – democracy demands that – but they are likely to decide best when they have been exposed to this kind of information and advice,. A great public service provides fearless advice – including advice elected officials may not want to hear – and loyally implements the lawful and ethical decisions of the elected – sometimes implementing decisions they do not like. Fearless advice and loyal implementation – that is public service. This is not some cliche but goes to the heart of our democracy.”

    My question is: What type of political institutions would make this process work best. My hunch is that proportional representation (and minority governments) would improve policy making. Would it increase the number of people with integrity in various parties? Assuming that there is a reasonably high level of morality, some ability to compromise, and a willingness to listen carefully to public servants, we might create Parliaments and Legislatures that are more effective.

    Jim Hackler

    • himelfarb says:

      I think electoral reform is part of the answer, Jim, in part because it typically forces coalition and compromise, and we might want to look at other institutional reforms such as regularizing First Ministers Meetings. But in the end our system is hugely dependent on good faith and respect for the institutions of democracy and until this is what the electorate demands we are not going to reverse the decline.

    • Mark Hammer says:

      I think you broach on one of the more enduring questions: To what extent will *structural* changes to governance elicit and maintain the sorts of individual and group behaviour we view as fundamental to good governance, public administration, and democracy at its finest? On the one hand, the present structure does not *preclude* those things (which is why we lament their decline, because we believe we have achieved them in past under the present electoral system), so it’s not like we NEED structural changes. On the other hand, we feel an ominous and not irrational sense that the declines we believe to have occurred are not easily reversible within the present arrangement.

      Would structural changes to the way that representation is achieved *necessarily* bring about the behavioural and attitudinal changes in the government/public-service relationship we want to see? Personally, I’m not confident. The party you like is just as capable of ignoring the “fearless advice” as the parties you don’t like.

      When I entered government, I came in waving the flag for wisdom in public administration and public leadership. Deputy heads, ADMs, and other senior managers are selected on the basis of many things, but wisdom is generally not on the competency profile, even though it is fundamentally what we want in our leaders. Smart is good, but wise is better.

      But is wisdom enough? I think courage should be added to wisdom. Perhaps we need a cadre of senior bureaucratic leaders who can say “NO” to Government. Not in an arrogant, disloyal, or disruptive way, but in a way that reminds about the value and purpose of “fearless advice”, and the common objectives of the legislative and bureaucratic sides of government. Munir Sheikh gave a nice illustration of that in 2010. I have no idea what went on in the backrooms, but from all outward signs, he was not exactly fully supported by his colleagues across the public service, at least in any demonstrable way. Maybe the way forward is NOT structural change to how elected people are elected, but rather efforts on the part of bureaucrats to restore the rightful and functional relationship between the bureaucracy and elected representatives.

      Sometimes, it’s not divorce that is called for, but something to shake up the relationship and get it back on the rails. Something to bring back those honeymoon days.

      • himelfarb says:

        All good points. Leadership and courage matter. But I guess we are all a bit hostage to our training and education so I am particularly taken with the sometimes suble effects of institutions and how they are designed. On this you could do no better than to read Bo Rotstein on institutions and social trust. He makes a compelling case for universality whenever possible and provides comparative data on how institutions influence trust which in turn shapes are willingness and capacity to act collectively.

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  14. Mark Hammer says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. “SOCIAL TRAPS AND THE PROBLEM OF TRUST” is now safely sitting on my tablet, to make my daily busrides a little more inspiring.

    • himelfarb says:

      I will be interested in your take.

      • jakenben says:

        Well so far, it’s fascinating. I also didn’t realize that the “social trap” construct comes from someone I sort of know. I was working in neurobiology of memory at McMaster throughout the late 70’s, when John Platt was chair, and knew him and pretty much everybody in his lab (intramural softball leagues will do that). I had no idea at the time he was thinking in these terms….but then I didn’t know how important it would be to me all these years later!

        Rothstein’s musings about how the expectation of corruption, or at least non-adherence to shared goals, ties in very nicely with some stuff I directed you to a while back – the work of Dan Kahneman; specifically, the notion of the “availability heuristic”, and how people come to assume that something is more frequent that it might actually be.

        The fundamental requirement of mutual trust for any sort nation-building to occur cannot be emphasized enough. I just wish it was as easy to know how to recreate it, and do so, as it is to understand how it is undermined. Rothstein reminds us that the transformation of states, such as those involved in the Arab Spring…and Syria (from my lips to God’s ears) will not be easy, nor a simple matter of booting out a despot and holding an election. The expectations of citizens about the course of daily life and how public officials normally behave will be a hard thing to shake. If Robert Mugabe and his sycophants were to disappear tomorrow, it would still take at least a generation or two for Zimbabwe to turn around from the corrupt all-but-failed state that it is now. In that sense the manner in which the idea that “everybody else is doing it so I might as well too” entrenches dysfunctionality and corruption nudges communities and nations into a corner they can’t get out of.

        I look forward to learning more from the book. Thanks again for the recommendation.

      • himelfarb says:

        Pleasure and I agree that there is something dangerous in our tendency to attribute problems to “very bad people” and then to see the solution as simply replacing those people.

  15. Mark Hammer says:

    Whoops, that was me.

  16. MundoCanada says:

    Always very impressive and very persuasive arguments that you put forward. It seems to me that to a significant degree the western world’s malaise (and i fully include Canada here) is not so much initiated by internal factors but is almost exclusively a reaction to the rise of the ’emerging’ (emerged?) world. Displacement of manufacturing, de-industrialisation, pressure on wages and pension benefits seem to be caused largely by more ‘competitive’ and aggressive economic players.

    As such our need for reform and our need for solutions can be viewed as something that we did not ’cause’ ourselves but rather as something that is being imposed on us; as we react to a very fluid external environment. This global discombobulation manifests itself differently across the western world but in general seems to create appetite for right-of-centre politics, greater political polarisation and an inability to undertake basic political and economic reforms. These challenges are amplified by the demographic bulge.

    For example, where I live, in a country with an ageing population and a low birthrate, trying to convince the (for example) owners of a condominium complex to invest in (for example) renewable energy technology that will pay dividends to the environment and to their pocketbooks, but in a 7 to 10 year window, is a tough sell when many of the owners fear they may not be around in 7 to 10 years.

    I am not sure there currently exists a cogent, unified solution to how the West can move forward in these challenging times but your hypothesis certainly provides a clear and well-argued framework for how Canada can begin to address the ‘anomie’ we currently face. I look forward to your future pieces.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. I agree that the “external” forces of technology and globalization and the shift in economic power impose real challenges for articulating a progressive option. Even if we can agree that the neoliberal model is part of the problem, we have no clear attractive alternative on offer. That makes for very fragile and potentially explosive times. These are the kinds of times when we might be at our most vulnerable to authoritarian models that promise moral clarity. But what we need is a new kind of leadership that puts people and nature – human well-being now and for future generations – at the centre of the agenda. But this is hard work, much harder than dismantling the progressive state. It won’t happen with one manifesto that magically sets out the agenda. That is why I believe leadership deeply committed to a rich version of democracy is so important. This is a time for collaboration at home and globally, for evidence-based decision making, and for challenging citizens to reach above their narrow and short-term interests and fears and to reengage in public enterprise.

  17. Hi Alex .. some time has passed since I last read your refreshing essay & the numerous highly related and enlightening comments.. I enjoyed then, learned further and was uplifted..
    I read them all again tonight.. amazed at the eloquence.. and the weight

    At the same time.. I was frustrated/concerned.. and I remain that way.. and I am angry. As a Canadian ‘senior’ – targeted by a mysterious disturbed malevolent entity with an astoundingly data rich data base, lucid script-lies and a blind alley untraceable phone & IP, I am seen as weak, ripe for electoral ‘grooming’ and easily vote suppressed/stolen.

    No toothy, clawed, fearsome or legitimate entity stands up and enforces that this my just desserts.. its more likely some outsourced database and telephony gee whiz banger geek has totally gamed & punked me as paid by some extremely dubious and whacked out partisan bureaucrat teckno hip loser.. no doubt suitably distanced or fire-walled from his even higher petro – political – padrone.. and his or her owners .. Thus we must look at China – Enbridge – Harper – Oliver – the lawyers al la Arthur Hamilton – and pray The Supreme Court defies the rot.
    (in case of loose ends to anything Electoral or having to do with Elections/Oil ! Call Hamilton)

    I do not like seeing (OK.. will NOT accept) people being abused.. nor do I have any tolerance for bullying, not will I accept pathetic or hypocritical or omnipotent behavior.. by those elected or paid to protect us from such attacks. Election Fraud, attacks on our environment, threatening our citizens.. not accepted.

    I grew up on a farm, Alex. When there are rats in the granary.. you don’t sit in front of the farmhouse, of an evening.. and talk about the next wonderful barn you might build.. or review/debate the existential or eternal conflict of rodent and man. You head directly to the barn with your pitchfork, your dog and the meanest barn cat you can find in the township.. stuffed in a burlap bag.. spitting angry.. (you or the cat.. or both..)

    So .. let me put it this way, in the simple farm boy way I know, as a question
    (as I like the simple Edward DeBono approach of Lateral Thinking.. to problem solving
    ie .. state the question correctly and the simple/clear answer is almost certainly included.. !!)

    Who or what is the biggest threat, the most dangerous offender or predator against democracy and parliament that you and your readers have identified. Who is knocking you and much of Canada and its vaunted but shrinking democracy on their collective and stunned asses right now?

    I’ll give you an example of someone I think is getting away with pretty nasty behavior. Perhaps you and a number of your very worthy readers could do some ‘groupthink’ .. brainstorm a wee bit collectively.. gather a smart, realistic, practical solution and let fly.

    Not necessarily the absolute worst.. but I have to say.. he continually scores very high on my list of so called Canadians that would do well to step back, recant, seriously rethink their ‘stance’, their actions/words .. indeed their loyalties. Get his dude straightened out or retired or resigned or if necessary, humiliated.. and the next one up or down the chain of ‘command’ might start to crack.. or resign .. or sing his or her guts out.

    So ….. Its not that hard to notice Mr. Joe Oliver. Point man on all things related to the tar sands, pipelines, Chinese tankers, fracking, mining. and radical Haida elders and environmentalists funded by shadowy American’s looking to launder money. Somehow he is very very far from jumping out at me as even coming anywhere near of being any kind of an exemplar standing up for Canada, its citizens .. or democracy.. or our environment… Instead he’s all about the ‘economy.. as if its something we can eat or drink .. or share .. or count on.


    My latest understanding, surprisingly, is that dear old Joe is recently quoted as saying..
    “I personally have not said that this pipeline should go through” .. PARDON ME ? WHAT ?
    Who was speaking for him or through him? Does he ‘channel’ someone ? I thought his convictions were crystal clear over his elected period .. certainly holier than most, ever since he sallied forth on his crusade for unearthing, transporting and selling the holy and ethical fruits of the tar sands!

    Alex.. Joe Oliver jumped from Bay Street to suddenly supreme and strident Canadian Capitano of Oil .. he forgot about caring and coherent Canadians. Fish habitat is in his pipeline’s precious ‘right of way’, he struck back viciously when questioned by Haida elders older than him.. suddenly he’d jumped from an about to retire stock broker to being the center of government, environmental and media attention.. and being party to selling to foreign owners, the actual tar sand operations and resources.

    My lowly premise is.. remove Mr. Oliver (deservedly) somehow.. from any credulity or standing.. and we suddenly tilt the democratic environment in a healthy way.. Mr. Environment Peter Kent and Mr. Fisheries Keith Ashfield would become more isolated and vulnerable.. ready to be pushed to retirement.. and blessed silence due to zero credibility or power. (Lord knows both of these shallow men are already on very shaky ground and about to try walking or skating on water)

    The cracks are there.. incredibly evident.. in the see through Harper Covenant ..
    The weak,, the pompous, the entitled, the liars, the controlling. the deluded, the psychotic, the juvenile .. the corrupt, the thieves.. the obstructors.. the anti-transparent or accountable.
    Do I care if they stem from greed, evangelism, partisanship, cronyism.. ignorance ? No.
    I care that we identify the problem and move through the barn and clear the vermin from it.

    Can we not collectively and successfully focus enough fact, reason, shining light.. opinion, intelligence, clamor, or common sense.. that the likes of Joe Oliver retreat in confusion or defeat and become our best weapon against any further challenge, erosion or the destruction of our Canadian wishes, beliefs .. democracy?

    We can’t wait till the next election .. the crisis is now… hell, its worse than that ….

    • himelfarb says:

      DW, I took some time to respond to your comments because the power of your anger seemed to burn through your words. Anger has been an important driver of change and I often wonder why people arent more angry than they are in Canada. But I am also struck by Bill Moyer’s book entitled, I believe, cool anger, in which he describes cases when anger was turned into positive social action. As for the targets, I truly get what you are saying but my own bias, and some would say my own limitation, is not to personalize these issues. I think of how often in foreign policy, say, we think that replacing one person or a team of people will change the game and, each time, we realize that, no, cultures and structures matter. It is always about “hearts and minds” and systems of governing, not just a handful of people. I have said elsewhere that all transformative change needs a combination of poets (who work on the hearts and minds), engineers and plumbers (who work on the systems), and soldiers ready to fight for a better way.

      • diamondwalker says:

        Thanks Alex.. You are correct.. there is an intense and growing anger.. but do not overlook the fear that matches it. They feed each other. I read and listen intensely, and I am examining far more closely how The Harper Government and The Conservative Party are adapting and utilizing strategies, mechanisms, ideals, abuses, ‘vote moving’, tactical blueprints, legislation tactics, vote suppression, lobbying, obstruction etc from American political parties, State Legislatures, Advocacy Groups and wealthy individuals & interest groups. I will be glad to forward selected reading material in support of my observation. I doubt though, that any of these attack modes against democracy, decency or common sense are new to you.

        It is incredibly unlikely that the Harper-Conservative faction will self destruct.. though I believe a stunning black swan event or astounding scandal could do this at any time. I believe the wall of secrecy, greed, fraud, obstruction, mass media manipulation-cooperation.. and complete absence of promised transparency, accountability or good government.. must be carefully revealed and pulled apart. Then, the type of political & socially responsible exemplars you describe and stand up for will be able to restore what we all know is currently being trashed by flawed, dangerous, un-Canadian ideology and corporate servitude.

        I see Joe Oliver as a keystone brick in that wall… It appears that he sees, as Stephen Harper does, that diluted bitumen, sold and delivered to China is more valuable than Canada’s land environment of forests, rivers, lakes or its coastal waters.. the larger aspects of global pollution, or the wishes of the Canadian people or any of the living creatures that share this. Elections are simply part of this partisan group’s strategy or divine political right to simply do what they want, when they want and however they want.

  18. A fantastic read sir! Some good points and great comments. It gives one hope that we don’t have to suffer a major crisis to establish reform. I must agree with Mr Hammer and his pessimism of our current “democracy” to institute that change. Too slow m’ thinks. The pots and pans are nice to hear, for they are a sign of action rather than complacency, which has been the typical Canadian response via lack of voter turnout for decades, but I can only think that it might symbolize the beginning of something bigger. Kind of like a tremor deep down below the ocean floor which gains momentum to finally illicit a tsunami of change.
    Technology and Globalization are all well and fine but they merely transfer the balance of power/wealth to underdeveloped countries with no social or environmental policies in place and eventually cannibalizes jobs and breaks down the middle class. I’m afraid we are victims of our own system, the great capitalism. Let’s tweak it.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thank you for your generous comments Michael. You may be right about the tremor. Perhaps big change is in the air but, as Polanyi warns us, wht that might look like is far from certain. Ideas do matter.

  19. Ian says:

    A brilliant post, as per usual.

    A couple of points. Bill Moyers’ ‘cool anger’ is useless. We in Canada need real honest-to-goodness anger if we intend to change the situation.

    Why no reference to Steve Harper and the Reform party? These are the very people who are intent on destroying Canada, yet not even a mention?

    But, as you say, a reference to Cohen is not a bad thing.

    • himelfarb says:

      Always great to hear from you Ian. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read the Moyer book but if you haven’t I think you would find it inspiring. And thanks for the link.

      • Ian says:

        I suppose one could argue the virtue of cool anger versus hot anger – I’ll get out my ouija board and consult with Marshal McLuhan 🙂

        I will read the Moyer book as you suggest and I’ll let you know if it’s any good.

  20. Rob W. says:

    Just watched your piece on TVO and am a fan. The current government is truly willing to handle the expense issue of a consultant charging for a muffin and would rather talk about this in the press than the equivalent of 100 trailer loads of muffins going out the back door on a regular basis without so much as a peep of debate. (see absent cost projections for Omnibus Crime Bill).

    • himelfarb says:

      Thank you Rob. You are absolutely right. While we obsess about the muffin we totally miss the 13 billion of revenues that the 2 cent cut to GST cost us or the billions that misguided and ineffective crime policies will cost.

  21. Susan Z says:

    Alex, I’m late coming to this post (bad blog-reader as well as bad blogger, I guess), but I have to say I think it is even more insightful than usual. I particularly like what you say about the need for a new kind of leadership, and I agree entirely not only that the answer is for more Canadians to demand better behaviour but also with David Suzuki’s approach to not demonizing those on the other side.with David Suzuki. In that regard, I am quite disturbed and disappointed by some of the other comments on this post, which seem to me to reveal an appetite for demonization, anger and polarization which would pretty much guarantee that we won’t get where you want to go.

    I also wonder how much the “digital age” is contributing to the kind of polarization that threatens effective democracy. We all tend to seek out opinions and reporting that reinforce our own views – blogs do that very neatly, by attracting readers who agree with the blogger. The more our political parties and interest groups use social media and the Internet to get their messages out, the less chance we have for dialogue and discussion of different viewpoints.

    I am a fan of proportional representation, in principle, and have been ever since I was quietly asked to scope it out when I was at the Privy Council in 1979 and people were worried about “Western alienation”. I don’t think it would be likely to have much impact on the role of the civil service, and whether it would have a positive effect on the issues you are concerned about in this post is very much open to question – it could force the governing party to compromise, or it could just lead us to the mix of log-rolling and paralysis that we see in the USA. Given the huge shift in attitudes that PR would require at the federal level in Canada, I would argue for continuing to make the present system work. It does have the advantage of holding each MP accountable to the voters in a particular geographical area, which is not to be sneezed at if you are aiming to encourage politicians to behave better.

    • andyincapebreton says:

      Whoops – I guess Susan was signed in, not me. I don’t know how to correct that…


      • andyincapebreton says:


        Sorry about this confusing message – I had sent you a fairly long and extremely lucid comment, but it appeared under Susan’s name for some reason. And now it has disappeared. I’m baffled (not an infrequent occurrence). I’ll try to recapitulate:

        Another brilliant post, with which I agree. I especially what you say about the new leadership we need, and how the way to get there is for Canadians to demand better. I also like David Suzuki’s approach of not demonizing the other side. I think a number of things have come together that are leading us towards more polarization in politics, and making it more and more difficult to engage in productive discussion of important issues. One of those things is the example of US politics and the adoption of American political tactics by Canadian back-room advisers and the acquiescence in such by political leaders. As I got older in Ottawa I was increasingly appalled by the attitudes of the younger political staff I met – the ones to whom the ends justified the means. (You’ve probably noticed them – dark suits, gelled hair, little shits). Another thins that encourages polarization, it seems to me, is the fragmentation of audiences brought on by the Internet, social media, and the demise of newspapers. I include blogs in that. We all have a tendency to seek out reporting and opinions that reinforce and confirm our own viewpoints and prejudices, and although technology has made expression easier and quicker it has also created smaller and smaller sets of audiences, making it harder for people with different views to talk meaningfully to each other.

        On the demonization issue, I must say that I am disturbed by the tone of some of the other comments on this post. The anger, despair, and, yes, demonization in them would pretty much guarantee failure. I’m not ready to accept that we can’t make our existing system work. Political parties used to be fairly efficient at finding consensus, educating the public on policy issues, and, now and then, handing over the reins of power to others. Having been a fan of proportional representation since I was asked in 1979 to take a quiet look at its potential during the days of “Western alienation”, I have to say that I think it is largely irrelevant to the concerns you raise in your post. It may be helpful, but it may just be a contentious distraction with unforeseen consequences. The current system of one-member constituencies may well make it easier for Canadians, if they have the will, to force MPs to behave better and to insist that political leaders behave better. Ever the optimist…


      • himelfarb says:

        Optimism is contagious.

      • himelfarb says:

        I thought it was you and now I know for sure.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Susan. On electoral reform, the details matter and I, like you, value the accountability link between voter and electorate and would want reform to preserve that, at least in large part. Stephane Dion has proposed a mixed system that is very interesting and there are other models worth considering. As for the polarization and anger, I agree with you but perhaps even more troubling is the lack of anger, the lack of outrage at injustice and inequality. That’s why I am impressed with the attempts by some doctors to stand up for refugees. Or the students standing up for fairness. Or the residents of BC protecting their ecosystems. That’s why I like Bill Moyer’s notion of “cool anger” in which we convert anger into constructive action. Thanks again for your generous and insightful comments.

  22. Ian says:

    And now for something completely lighter,,,,

  23. Jonathan Eskedjian says:

    Professor Himelfarb,

    You are, as ever, astute in your examination of the current problems and situations surrounding our ailing democracy here in Canada, and I do enjoy that you do your best to view the holistic whole as well, taking in the bigger, global picture. I commend you on another excellently written post, and readily admit that I (as per usual) agree with most of the points you’ve made.

    With that said, I believe that the overall system and methods of governance we have fallen into over the past fifty years are more self-protecting than people understand or are willing to admit, and changing them is far more difficult than you make it seem in this article. It may not be enough to simply shift leadership, to refocus ourselves on our problems… Why? Because of momentum.

    The nature of the beast is such that it is like a train, on fixed rails, accelerating in a single direction. To slow it down means the whole will spiral into a lazy collapse. We cannot move away from our paradigm of constant incremental growth even a little bit, because doing so means recessions for the world’s economies. Even more than that, we cannot at this point hope to interrupt or stop it, because to do so would mean a complete and immediate collapse.

    Everything now, is interconnected, and the world’s communication, political, and economic paradigms are changing, you point this out quite nicely and it is very true… But, we should be aware that with this increasing interconnectedness, we are all tied together. If one falls, we all fall, the 2008 hiccup was a perfect example of this, and the only answer the world could muster in that situation was to do everything possible to protect the train’s momentum, and ensure that it did not slow any more than need be, and definitely not stop.

    I should point out that I do essentially concur with David Suzuki’s view that it is the system itself and not the people within it that are broken, and that the problems and political strife we are suffering from on a global scale all stem from that malfunctioning whole, not necessarily its component parts. However, this is exactly why it is not at all easy to change. We are locked into something very dangerous which has but a single direction to move in, and can only be sustained by constant growth and acceleration in said direction. See: Paradigm of infinite growth vs. the world’s very real limits of finite space/resources/elasticity and ability of the global ecosystem to accommodate it.

    I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that I am not as optimistic as you are when it comes to my hopes of changing/fixing the world’s problems. It is not now merely a case of replacing our leaders. It is not even a case of restructuring our society. We have dug ourselves into a very deep hole here, and the solution most people assume to be best, is to dig further, hoping we will come out the other side. Those with more optimistic/informed views, seem to prefer to suggest we “dig up”, attempting to reverse the course we’re on, but I do not think this is realistic.

    I fear that it will take a true crisis to wake people up, break the current model, and open avenues towards change, but I am not certain we will weather that storm very well, when it does hit us.

    My 2 cents on this.

    Thank you again, Professor, for your insight and hard work on these articles.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Jon. No doubt you are right that the challenges facing those seeking a new paradigm are daunting and some argue will only come with a crisis if at all. Optimism is partly a metaphysical thing and partly a matter of temperament. When faced with the choice between hope and despair I tend to opt for hope partly because that’s how I’m wired and partly because no good can come from despair. With hope you give yourself a chance. Min any case profound change won’t happen all at once with some big idea, it will come in increments, accelerated perhaps by a generational change in leadership.

  24. Mark Hammer says:

    I heard an interview on CBC radio yesterday with a political philosopher whose views I found refreshing, well-articulated, and encouraging (or discouraging, depending on whether one is uplifted by finally pinning down a problem). Michael Sandel ( http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2012/09/10/what-money-cant-buy-michael-sandel/ ) articulates his critique in “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets”. There is a nice synopsis here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/04/what-isnt-for-sale/308902/

    I mention it here because I think the market-directed view of things plays a significant, if often unseen, role in who and what we think “matters”, how we weigh issues, who gets to speak to them, and ultimately our sense of being included in the discussion or having what we consider to be important the focus of government and democracy.

    Part of the frustration many feel is not that their voice, per se, is treated as unimportant, but that the things that matter to them are considered unimportant, relative to economic factors. That the folks who get to participate in democracy live in this entirely different universe.

    • himelfarb says:

      Exactly Mark. I just bought his book (available as an ebook) and really enjoyed it. Frankly it is what I have been trying to say when describing the impact of the neoliberal counter-revolution and the elevation of market thinking, though Sandel does it so much better. When private always tumps public, when everything is marketized, when public goods and services are turned into commodities to be bought and sold by those who can afford this, when it’s always the economy stupid, and when debate is stiled and alternatives crushed, we get, well, what we have got, eroding democracy, rising inequality, deepening polarization, declining productivity, and loss of trust in the future and the idea of progress.

  25. Ian says:

    Alors on danse

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