The Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran once made the prescient observation: “Desire is half of life; indifference is half of death.”
One gets the sense that today’s liberalism is facing both challenges in the same moment. Having triumphed at so many levels (and failing at some), liberalism has either rested on its laurels or forgotten its birthright as it rushed along the same road of materialism and affluence as everyone else. And yet there remains within many the desire to find a new, more dynamic future for this country. The future of liberalism will ultimately depend on whether desire or apathy wins.
One thing is certain: neither of these can depend on sentimentalism. Those that are liberally minded today, coming from all stripes across the spectrum, are aware that our country’s journey to self-empowerment has stalled. They often deal with this by casting a fond eye back to 1967, or the development of healthcare, the usefulness of peacekeeping, or the reality of multiculturalism. Both those who desire and those who are indifferent are impractically maudlin about this part of the nation’s past.
Liberals can’t recede into such golden hues lest they lose their relevance. Liberalism today, like it or not, is now carrying the burden of maturity. It has been around long enough and achieved enough success that it now bears the responsibilities of progress and modernism. It created a land of wealth, individual and collective rights, and a carefully crafted niche on the world’s stage, and now it must assume responsibility for those legacies – not by sitting back but by preparing Canada for the next step.
It was through liberalism that Canada outgrew is confining preoccupation with tradition and gained a wider perspective of life. But in many ways this cut small “l” liberals off from the more conservatively minded who wanted things to remain as they were. It is an abiding truism in any country that conservative temperaments wish for a past that no longer exists. They still hanker today for the lure of the simple family farm, when, in truth, their support for an unfettered free market has largely relegated that great Canadian reality to the dustbin of history.
From its stress on education and enlightenment, liberalism is unable to escape the burden of sophistication. Broader knowledge brings more possibilities and problems at the same time. Yet it can’t be escaped. Complexity is now a standard within Canadian life. This has brought many benefits, and there’s hardly a liberally minded person out there who would trade places with those pining for a nostalgic life. Yet liberals have not yet dealt with the abiding problems that derived from all that sophistication. Liberalism set the framework for creating fabulous wealth, yet it resulted in environmental decline at the same time. It assisted millions in owning their first home, but looked on in perplexity at the rising tide of homelessness. In its creation of health systems, it has also had to observe the lack of access to that system faced by millions. Its founding of the principle of multiculturalism somehow saw it neglect our aboriginal people at the same time. Conservatives, in their preference for being left alone, worry little about such inconsistencies, but liberals bear responsibility for any outcome in these areas.
This is not a bad thing. The disillusionment confronting liberalism today is a natural byproduct of a nation acquiring so much affluence in such little time. This is the price of progress, but indifference is hardly the way to deal with it. There is work to be done, oversights that must be corrected. Many conservatives evoke the past only to bury it alive with their market-oriented outlook. Liberalism must ensure that it doesn’t carry a similar weakness. The past is the past. It’s the present and the future that we must get on with.
There are dark and looming clouds on our horizon. The last few years have witnessed the increase in competing communities, massive deficits, corporate meltdowns, a loss of place in the world, and the introduction of a culture of brutality in our political life. These can’t be merely wished away. These things taken together are slowly bringing Canada to the inevitability of authoritarianism. Because of its impressive ability to break down the walls of such repression, liberalism is required again today as much as it was in the time of kings. That will never occur if we remain indifferent to our slide to despotism, nor can we discover a new future if we remain sentimental. The question is: are those liberally minded folk from all parties and from all walks of life capable of bringing themselves together for the cause of freedom and self-liberation and empowerment once more? Michael Ignatieff is talking about a big red tent composed of decent people from all stripes, including conservatives who detest how their political philosophy has been overrun by hard right Republicanism. But will we do it?
Former Toronto mayor Allan Lamport was often belittled for his statement that, “Canada is the greatest nation in this country,” but he might have actually hit on something. We have become a country of parts, of regions, of division, and of meanness. Where is Canada in all that mess? Somewhere in the confusion of our politicians and the distraction of our citizens lies a land that can still be the greatest country in the world for its belief in the creation of wealth, the power of free enterprise for good, the ability to be tolerant and welcoming, employment for all and the ongoing struggle for poverty for none, a natural and environmentally sustainable jewel in the international crown, and a presence for good in every region of the world. That is the Canada we want, but we must begin the process of cleaning up the mess, splintering, and enmity of our present time.
One of the key secrets to successful living isn’t getting what we want; it’s wanting it after we get it. Well, we’ve inherited an exceptional country and it’s time to want it again. But it must be regained by the kind of national temperament and disposition willing to work with anyone to get it and to empower them in the process. Liberalism is the question for which Canada is the answer.
Note: This concludes the series on liberalism. Now it’s back to the old format and shorter posts. Thanks to all those faithful readers this summer.