It was nearing the end of one of the most brutal periods of my life. A particularly nasty civil war in Asia had left hundreds of thousands suffering starvation. I had spent some time there assisting with famine relief efforts, yet it all seemed to little avail. I was emotionally undone, questioning my own effectiveness. When my time came to leave, one dear old Roman Catholic lady approached, handing me a medallion. “Glen, it will take us years to recover from this, and we know you think you’ve done little. We have nothing left, but our people wanted me to give you this. It’s a medallion of St. Jude – the saint of lost causes. As long as people like you come and help us, we are not lost.”
In truth, that community was much stronger than I, yet that one single moment of generosity in many ways has everything to do with this series of blog postings on liberalism. As it past eras, liberalism was the secular version of St. Jude – undertaking the impossible lost causes that eventually transformed the societies in which it functioned.
These posts spent a complete month, starting on Canada Day, dealing with the new Canadian context in which liberalism finds itself. The middle class has become the elite – a group the political process seems bent on pandering to. The true agents of social change in our communities – the disenchanted – are having trouble coming together in significant enough numbers to change the political dynamic. The discomfited lie outside the mainstream of Canadian life, with few willing to raise their game in society to reach out to them in their struggles. The media seems to have accepted that this present status quo is the new Canadian normal and spends much of its time concentrating on the weaknesses of the political order as opposed to assisting citizens by providing them the tools for public conversation and empowerment. In other words, we’re in something of a fix.
These posts haven’t been so much about the Liberal Party of Canada as they have been about liberalism itself and our need of an effective and updated version of it today. Far more than just a kind of political or social philosophy, liberalism has been an ingenious dynamic with a history. A number of years ago, American writer Francis Fukuyama released a book titled The End of History and the Last Man, in which he reasoned that with the end of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, liberal democracy has now become the ultimate and most prevailing political and social system. So effective has it been that it has become the ultimate system – socialism, communism, fascism have all passed away leaving liberal democracy to prevail and thus ending the progressive struggle in history for a successful working order. Many argue with Fukayama’s reasoning, but his ultimate conclusion has yet to be bettered. This is how powerful liberalism has been.
And yet it hasn’t been entirely successful. Despite appealing potential and possibilities, pockets of inequality and poverty remain that it has never been able to overcome. It has created an elite of the middle-class but has never expanded beyond that point, leaving entire groups marginalized and often destitute.
The history of liberalism has been in many ways a narrative of rescue. It’s ability to overcome authoritarian power and provide prosperity and self-direction for citizens has become the great success story of the modern age, and Canada itself has become one of the crown jewels of its success.
Nevertheless, we have now arrived at a juncture in our collective history where our liberalism has failed to break the bonds of our increased imprisonment. It has grown accepting of an opulent citizenry, disgruntled agents of social change, entire groups that live outside of liberalism’s benefits, and a media grown more interested in the foibles of politics rather than the responsibilities of public conversation and accountability. And it has remained this way for some time.
Liberalism’s history has been the St. Jude of social, economic and political realities; things that were once deemed hopeless came to life under its dynamic. Its strength never dwelt in its novelty as a concept but in its genius of unleashing the power of citizen self-organization and helping to unlock its potential.
Presently in Canada there are far too many “hopeless causes” that are hardly befitting of our potential and possibility, and, sadly, we have lacked the political drive to tackle them. Their very presence in our midst at this advanced stage of our democratic life means they are likely to endure unless we can summon the will to transform them. It is time for liberalism once again to not so much tackle the problems as to overcome its own penchant for materialistic laxity. We require a liberalism reborn to the enduring challenges of the age.
The remaining posts on this subject will deal with those lost causes in Canada that, like a cancer, have sapped our collective strengths and international promise. The liberalism that overcome millennia of authoritarian shackles is required now again, but only if it will take up the serious calling like that of St. Jude.