Something’s currently happening in conservatism that represents a clear threat to the gains made by liberalism in recent decades. Universities and colleges – crowning jewels in any smart advanced democracy – have come under threat, with many ideological conservatives believing they are dens of political correctness, special interest groups, and, ultimately, recruiting stations for liberal persuasions. It’s an ironic reality. Since Confederation, Canadian conservative-minded temperaments have cooperated with their liberal counterparts to strive for higher learning and showed solid support for research. The “progressive” part of that brand of conservatism did much to raise the scholastic level of this country.
The new strain of absolutism on the hard right edge of the conservative movement in this country has begun to challenge their historical counterparts in this area, however. Like many of their kin in America, they have begun perpetuating a long tradition of anti-intellectual contempt associated with evidence-based learning and scientific conclusions. I discovered this past weekend that a large number of progressives in the philosophically conservative camp are as deeply troubled as liberals.
Their clearest indicator of this phenomenon at present is conservatism’s political dimension in Canada. In what the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson yesterday termed the Harper government’s “assault on reason,” the rise of the intolerant right is producing a culture of anti-intellectualism in this country that threatens the very nature of public policy. If pursued, this would challenge the fabric of federalism and undermine an international reputation for effective governance and smart, advanced policy.
In an article this week titled, “Why Stephen Harper thinks he’s smarter than the experts,” Maclean’s senior writer John Geddes interviews Gordon McBean, a climate change scientist from the University of Western Ontario and also a Nobel Laureate. “I think there is a significant problem – unwillingness to entertain, or invite, or listen to, people who are experts in their fields and want to provide advice and guidance to the government,” McBean concludes.
While much of the media has picked up on this “dumbing down” of Canada, it’s actually people of liberal temperament that need to sit up and take notice. This development has undercut the very legacy of liberalism (perhaps Stephen Harper’s intention), and unless arrested and challenged will propel Canada into its own dark age.
Scientific advancement, proof, evidence-based policy – these are likely the greatest gifts of liberalism to public progress. To quote John Dewey in his speech, “The Future of Liberalism” at New York University:
The individual is something achieved, not in isolation but with the aid and support of conditions – including cultural, economic, legal, and political institutions, as well as science and art. Liberalism knows that social conditions may restrict, distort and almost prevent the development of individuality. It therefore takes an active interest in the working of social institutions that have a bearing on the growth of individuals, which shall be based on fact and not merely on abstract theory.”
This is liberalism in its essence. Sustained individual growth and progress would be an impossibility without unfettered knowledge and experience. This has been a cardinal rule in all advanced societies for decades and formed important components of the policy plans of all parties in the recent British election. Yet in speaking to a senior Ottawa civil servant in June, I learned that he felt the attack on the knowledge sector within the federal government has become so entrenched that many career pubic servants believe it is “hopeless” to convince the government otherwise.
It is important to remember that this new development is not a construct of conservatism per se, but of the ideological stream of that working philosophy that trusts its own prejudices over knowledge. Career civil servants recall the freedom of expression and insight enjoyed under previous Progressive Conservative governments and worry those days may be gone forever.
Who among us, having taken our seriously ill child to emergency, would ignore the advice of the doctors and interns? We would be fools to do so. Who among us would insist on only having teachers for our children that had no training? Such things matter, and ignoring the advice of knowledge and experience would be something the majority of us would never risk our children’s welfare for.
And yet we are permitting it in our country at present. Researchers will tell you it’s true, as would civil servants and educators. That government spokespersons would naturally say something to the contrary, doesn’t make idiots of the smartest among us, but rather calls into question the viability of a government policy that would ignore decades of research and experience.
This development is a direct affront, not only to liberalism, but to the history of Canada itself. While ignorance at the moment might control the play, liberalism yet owns the field. But for how long? This cuts into the very fibre of liberalism’s reasoning and mustn’t be permitted to endure in its present form. Small “l” liberals of every stripe are honour bound to rally around this flag, including the conservatives that are progressive. A future without knowledge is hardly the legacy we wish to pass on to posterity. This need not be a hopeless cause, unless we just play dumb.