“The collective wisdom . . .”

Miranda: Oh, brave new world, that has such people in’t.
The Tempest 5.1.188-9

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Portions of Miranda’s line from The Tempest have been used in many ways through the years, most notably – and ironically – as the title of Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World. References to Huxley’s work can’t help appearing whenever a political change comes which seems to usher in an era of great promise. As I read the reactions to last week’s election victory by Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party, I couldn’t help smiling. I had been bothered by the course of this election for quite some time and I was glad it was over, a widely-held sentiment, I’m fairly certain, from sea to shining sea.

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I don’t think anyone needs me to wax poetical about the power of optimism and hope, but the contrasting campaigns of the election serve to illustrate how it can work when the time is right. Please note that last part: when the time is right. We would be practicing a form of revisionist history if we failed to acknowledge that, in other circumstances, negative campaigns can be very effective. Just ask Stephane Dion or Michael Ignatieff if you doubt that. The number of campaigns south of the border scuttled by attacks far more vicious than anything we would think of mounting in the Great White North are legion.

As we heard from innumerable pundits over the last few years (if you were listening), the evidence is inescapable: attack ads work. At the same time, this conclusion, as with so many others, lacks nuance. Some make the point that negativity can backfire but it tends to be more as an afterthought than a rebuttal of the central tenet that tarring the opposition with any available brush works. As I listened to ongoing coverage of the election results, many expressed surprise, especially with the majority result. To understand, though, I don’t think you need to look beyond the central player in it all: us.

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I’m never sure how well my little part of the country reflects the larger collective so I always avoided making any sweeping claims about how things were going to go as the election approached. At the same time, I was struck by the depth and ferocity of the opposition to Stephen Harper and his Conservative government just about everywhere I went. Never before had I seen anything like the “Stop Harper” campaign that manifested itself in signs, hashtags, strategic voting and a whole lot of ways about which I probably know nothing at all. While it could have something to do with the circles I travel in, the feeling was palpable, it seemed, just about everywhere other than amongst the true stalwarts among Conservative supporters. As I’ve said in previous blogs, this polarization concerns me.

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My hope, now, is that this particular election proves to be an anomaly; that Canadians will, by and large, return to the moderation that was celebrated in the media on the days following the election. The bitter rhetoric and enmity of the campaign was replaced by articles complimenting the rapid concession from Mr. Harper and his congratulating Mr. Trudeau while affirming that the electorate was always “right”. In turn, the two leaders appearing together and cordial while laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier reminded us that we were Canadians, after all.

For me, though, that’s where caution comes in. The Liberal victory has an inevitable character in retrospect. Alone among the three major party leaders, Justin Trudeau hitched his wagon pretty much exclusively to the mantra of hope and change and, quite simply, people were ready for that, longing for it, in fact. People, by and large, want to feel good about themselves and their choices. For the moment, I’m with them. Most people I know seem cheerier this week and that can’t be bad.

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But, as I said, we’re the constant through all of this and we will come to be dissatisfied in time with whatever and whoever ends up doing things that we don’t necessarily like. The grumbling will start and eventually a day will come when the current government will be swept away to a chorus of voices shouting about the need for change. If I’ve learned one thing, “change” is the one constant in every election at any level. And yes, it’s a good thing.

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At the same time, I hope we can hang on to the images and the editorials that were so much kinder to the departing prime minister and his government than anything seemed to be during the campaign. I’m not absolving Harper from blame for much of it, either. History will tell that tale as time goes on. I remain, however, fearful of Canada becoming too much like the United States where your opponents become the enemy within rather than just someone whose opinions differ in certain ways.

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Canada is a special place to me. Maybe I’m just another Canadian buying the propaganda but I really do think we are better than most at getting along and allowing for differences. The extremity of some of the rhetoric on both sides in this now-concluded election has concerned me. I hope it was of the moment and that my Canada is the gracious one I saw over the past week. As a Canadian, that’s the best I can hope for. Even Canadians, after all, are only human.

Canadian enough?

Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.
– Herbert Marshall McLuhan

As promised, the rallies in opposition to Bill C-51 went ahead and, I suspect, they have had the impact I would have predicted: they made a newspaper here and there and probably were reported in other media but, overall, the voices raised in protest will join the ranks of others at similar events, events important perhaps to the few who were involved, but largely ignored by the general populace. Most people went about their business confident that the country wasn’t going to descend into dictatorship and become a police state anytime soon. One need only look to Russia for an example of what such a process really looks like. As one commentator pointed out, can anyone imagine a scenario where Stephen Harper would take charge, personally, of an investigation into the assassination of a political rival? In Canada, we leave the policing to the police; in Russia, Vladimir Putin increasingly seems to be the sole voice of law and order, if you can call it that. But I digress (but only slightly).

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I’m mentioning Bill C-51 because it segues nicely with another controversy that I believe is rooted in a similar, core issue: “values”. I’m referring of course, to the court ruling which supported a woman’s right to wear a niqab to a citizenship ceremony and the subsequent decision by the federal government to appeal that ruling. In a manner similar to the response to C-51, both opponents and proponents of either side are lining up and leaning toward “outrage”, the default position it seems these days for just about anything one might support or decry.

On the one hand you have those who view the controversy as a matter of religious freedom, as outlined in Canada’s charter. Personally, the law being the law, I expect this view to prevail. It seems pretty clear that the woman in question has no other reason for wanting to present herself veiled beyond the convictions of her faith. The other side interests me far more by virtue of its important but nebulous appeal to “Canadian values”, as in “covering your face while you are participating in a citizenship ceremony goes against Canadian values”.

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I know many other fine examples of oversimplification exist but rarely does one of this caliber come to the forefront of public discussion. Whoever makes the claim for this violation of values assumes a willingness among those hearing it to simply nod assent and express something along the lines of “yes, as a Canadian, I don’t want anyone covering his/her face while swearing allegiance to the queen and the country”.

At the risk of being accused of treason, sedition or some other soon-to-be-defined offence, I have to ask: what “value” is it exactly that the niqab-wearer is violating? Please don’t think I am disparaging this position in favour of the other. As I’ve already said, I think the law falls on the side of the niqab wearer. But making the issue a question of some overarching set of Canadian values is of especial interest to me because it assumes that such an animal exists and is clearly understood by all. I can only speak for myself here, but am I alone in feeling that any such a value-set is far from clear?

We have instruments of law that outline rights which seem to coincide with, or emerge from, values of some kind, but the niqab example serves to illustrate extremely well just how complicated things can become when elements are added to the equation that probably no one envisioned when the charter was devised. In particular, public fear of the radicalized versions of Islam embodied in al-Qaida, ISIS and others creates an atmosphere where people can feel that something they treasure – even if articulating that “something” might be difficult – faces a tangible threat.

And the niqab is both tangible and exotic. I can’t recall having seen one around Saint John until a few years ago. Having spoken with some who are adamant in their opposition to the niqab, I know they associate it, negatively, with all kinds of things that might fit within that Canadian value arena: oppressed women, extremism, religious fanaticism, etc. And I’m with them inasmuch as I believe values are key to the manifestations of angst we see over both Bill C-51 and the niqab-wearer.

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However, just what those values are presents a problem. When the Prime Minister appeals grandly to Canadian values while announcing plans to appeal the niqab ruling, he does a disservice to us all. Politically, such a narrow opposition may serve him well but the entire question deserves a closer look. IS it consistent with being Canadian to go around in public places with your identity obscured? Will we equally require teenagers and others to remove their hoodies, a feature of certain apparel which rivals the niqab when it comes to hiding your face?

Canadians have been accustomed to define themselves by saying what they are not.
– William Kilbourn

Really, the larger question concerns that age-old dilemma: what, precisely, does it mean to be Canadian? Growing up and later studying Canadian literature, I heard a variety of voices on the subject. The only place consensus seemed clear concerned our neighbours to the south: whatever it meant to be a Canadian, we definitely WEREN’T American.

Perhaps, as the world becomes increasingly complex and we are challenged to accommodate more and more differences from some vaguely stated, but commonly felt, norm, the time has come to give some thought to just what values we do cherish as Canadians. My point always would be, simply, it isn’t a stark choice between tolerance and intolerance. Somewhere amidst the fear of terrorism, anxiety over things that are new to many, and a general unease as the world seems increasingly chaotic lies a Canadian identity. Maybe it’s asking too much that we try to articulate clearly some common principles that define us but we certainly won’t know unless we try. If that is to happen, we need to scale back the “us” vs “them” rhetoric and, in today’s public arena, that might be the hardest task of all.

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