The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Liberalism – Sidebar #3

These blog postings mean a lot to me and I spend a lot of time mulling over their content.  But at present I can’t pull a single thought together.  The reason is as human as they come.

Mario Lague joined my wife and I for a drink last Saturday night in London.  As Michael Ignatieff’s communications advisor, Mario was on the Liberal Express bus tour.  We didn’t know one another well, but he laughed uproariously listening to my wife tell tales of our past trips, especially to Greece.  I remember that laugh … especially now.  The news that he has just died in a traffic accident has hit us harder than we would have predicted.

Part of the emotional jolt has to do with the nearness of that drink.  But earlier that evening he wanted to discuss these blog postings.  “You think different,” he began, “but it’s challenging my own preconceptions.  Political life has become so partisan that it’s tough to just enjoy having a liberal disposition.”  He said a mouthful in that moment.  Admitting that my observations presented certain opportunities for his own messaging, he encouraged my wife and I to continue putting them out as often as possible.  “It’s the high road or it’s no road,” he concluded.

The truth is that Mario Lague often displayed a kind of understanding and fair non-partisanship that I didn’t know existed until the night of that drink.  It’s best described in today’s poignant reflections by Paul Wells:

His views, in short, almost never constituted a rote partisan caricature of his opponents, either in Quebec or across the aisle in Ottawa.  He saw allies and adversaries as people and believed understanding them with a measure of sympathy was a professional and human obligation.”

This remarkable trait should be the absolute bedrock of all political understanding.  Where has it gone?  Without people like Mario, where will it come from?  We are a people lost – not just for a friend, or a colleague, but for the very inspiration he embodied.  Why didn’t I spend time with him sooner?  Stupid, stupid me!

In Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, the 20th century Welsh Poet Dylan Thomas famously defied death with the words, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  Well, Mario turned that on its head, by projecting a demeanour of understanding and a slight impatience at what has happened to our Canadian political system.  In truth, he did go gentle into that good night because he was a gentle soul with a soldier’s heart.  It’s me who rages – frustrated with myself, and frustrated that God took such a beautiful man from the midst of people who wanted to change their world.

We have lost a friend but perhaps gained a legacy.  This country deserves the likes of Mario Lague – his example is one of our finest memories.  It’s time to grow angry with ourselves that we have failed to pick up this torch sooner in the day.  He has gone gently … and we weep.  When we parted on Saturday night he thanked us for picking up the tab.  “I’ll get the next one,” he smiled at us.  If only ….

Liberalism – Spotting Our Friends

Note:  To all those hopelessly ideological liberals out there, you might want to skip this post.

Those significant political challengers to liberalism – communism, fascism, for example – have all receded into history, except for one – conservatism.  It’s called “conservatism” for a reason: the desire to conserve a way of life – the nuclear family, traditional faith, financial holdings, or of a sentimental past.  These are noble views whether people agree or not.  The problem for current conservatism is that the world seems to move perpetually onward and outward.   We live in a modern era, largely empowered by liberalism; that’s just a reality with which conservatism has had to come to terms.

These traditional values within conservatism form part of its appeal.  It’s voice has something of a prophetic quality.  Yet calling for more nostalgic times when society itself has moved on helps it run the risk of being superfluous as a result.  Understanding this, conservatives end up adopting the mantra: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”  It’s a difficult transition but successful conservatives make the journey by grafting on the more popular parts of liberalism.  Politically this is done to reach or maintain power; philosophically or socially it is accomplished just to survive.

All of this is historic reality that should be accepted.  Conservatism has shown its relevance well, for when it adapts itself to modern political realities it has displayed great capabilities as both a way of life and in governance.  Which makes the present manifestation of ideological conservatism in its current political form such a conundrum for progressive conservatives.

In both the political and social order, liberals have the responsibility to fight back against the recent conservative emanation of ideologically rigid and anti-intellectual public policy.  Sadly, this has sometimes led liberals, owing to the current government’s hard right turn, to paint with too broad a brush.  In truth, progressive conservatives and liberals have far more in common at present than at first blush, especially in a shared collective alarm of the loose-spending, anti-evidence based policy presently on display.

Since Confederation, liberals and progressive conservatives – politically and philosophically – have established a remarkable nation, and each built upon the accomplishments of the other.  By its very nature liberalism is necessarily a construct of a cross-section of Canadian society at any point in time, and much of the progressive element from both socialist and conservative sectors forms important dynamics within liberalism itself.  It undermines its own prospects, then, when liberals diminish their cherished progressive values resident in other parties. If the liberal future entails the denigration of progressivism wherever it is found, that future will be disappointing.

Liberals must accept conservatism of the progressive as part of the Canadian makeup.  Liberalism starts with what’s there and seeks to bring about individual and collective self-organization within society, saying, “We all have differing persuasions and convictions and we as liberals celebrate that diversity.  We must now construct a workable social and political arrangements out of that diversity that permits each persuasion to flourish without seeking to rule over the others.

People, including liberals, who envision a future without that more traditional and compassionate conservatism are dooming this remarkable country in the process.  It is this same conservatism that has kept liberalism from extending too far; to question liberalism is part of its function and liberals are enriched for that effort.

Stephen Harper has vowed to obliterate liberals from Canada, but he won’t succeed.  But neither will liberals unless they retain the intellectual honesty to separate the fair and tolerant conservatism from the kind that would seek to pit us all against one another.  It’s the yin and the yang, and liberals can never prevail when they become ideological themselves.  The rebuilding of Canada following these recent years of division and decline will be a hopeless cause without our progressive friends from other persuasions in the mix.  In observing that, “intolerance betrays want of faith in one own cause,” Gandhi’s words might well serve as a cautionary tale to all liberals.  This country is tough enough to govern without making enemies out of those who share many of our accomplishments.

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