Citizenship – “A Purpose Held in Common”

by Glen

We have all come from a rich heritage. Our democratic ideals descend from the ancient Greeks by way of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. And no matter how much this process has been defiled and corrupted over the centuries, it still constitutes the only real political morality currently in operation for us. For all its faults, this is still a democratic country. This is vital to understand, since it means there is no other alternative for us but to renew the system, renew the country, renew ourselves. And because there is nothing else, Canada suffers once its citizens opt out of the system altogether – it is democracy or apathy and decline.

It often fails to grab us that democracy is a purpose held in common, or that the very concept of democracy is synonymous with that of the citizen. It is an organism, an experiment, that requires the collaboration of everyone we can summon together, including the disparate groups across the country.  But as these blog posts have pointed out, Canadians are subjected to so many conflicted influences that they grow immobilized and despondent. At once, citizens are afraid, insecure, frustrated, angered, isolated, and feel inept before the great forces of government, lobbyists, and free market ideology.

In the face of such resistance, how do we ever manage to change? Is it only those who are champions of special issues and who appear fearless? Hardly. In every one of our communities, change, subtle and grand, has occurred because citizens of all personalities and capacities have pressed for a better way of living for all. Most were uncertain and apprehensive, doubtful and at times intimidated, yet the change occurred regardless. It seems to me that one of the greatest pitfalls we have to avoid is following those who haven’t a doubt in their mind. The great democratic mistake is to pretend to know too much, to speak as if we were smarter than the politicians or the bureaucrats. The greatness of the human mind is to be found in its questioning spirit and its humility, not in the brash bravado of those who prefer personal conquest over public cooperation.

The state, the corporation, the institution, most often describe power as things – dividends, investments, votes, roads, tar sands, etc. But citizens primarily define power as that which inhabits and constitutes their dreams – peace, the joy of children and grandchildren, safety, song, drama, inner independence and communal celebration. These are the things that citizens want in their communities, their country. But to get there they have to enmesh themselves in the contexts of things – taxes, democratic renewal, sacrifice, long-term monetary policy and short-term needs – if their inner values are to find expression and transcendence. It’s difficult.

So, can we do it? Can we somehow bring our values to bear on the politics and the economy of “things?” I believe so, but there is one golden rule that must be adhered to if it is to prove successful: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” I know that’s a biblical phrase, but it works because Canada has a history that proves it. We must determine whether we have the interest of the larger good. Civic participation – what we do as citizens – can prompt us to reconsider our self-interests in light of greater realities. Are we ready for this? Or do we just want democracy to alter and lean in our own personal direction? The answer to these two questions is pivotal. If you wish to merely better your own circumstances then just keep doing what you’re doing – it’s already the status quo. But if you comprehend that the path to personal prosperity wanders through the aboriginal reserves, food banks, small business associations, public policy, hospitals, etc., then you’re on to something and perhaps there’s a chance.

I’ve traveled this country extensively and have come to learn that Canadians in general comprehend that their personal privilege is connected to the public privilege. They can make that leap of sacrificing for the greater good, but all too often they are played for suckers, by politics, by consumerism, by each other, and they have grown disillusioned in the process. They feel democracy has failed them when, in truth, it is gatekeepers of democracy that have left them isolated. But the ability is still there to point themselves in the direction of a greater and more equitable Canada.

Somehow we must come together – not so much in special interests but in common endeavour. We must turn our homes, coffee shops, churches, business lunches, and service clubs into gathering places for the deliberation of the common good. That kind of deliberation won’t guarantee action, but it will help us to know that we’re not leaping alone. It creates the possibility that an action can have progressive possibilities. Deliberation is the beginning stage of how we can make collective decisions, but it will prove impossible if we come to such gatherings with the decision already made in our minds.

As Robert Reich has said, “Public deliberation is social learning about public problems and possibilities.” Canada’s history has proven that citizens function best when they are connected. They have done so for centuries in their respective communities. It’s time to expand that capacity to the national level, with the ultimate goal being a combination of effort to put our dreams and not things into practice. The time has come.