Image | The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West
Andrej Litvinjenko is a 3L JD/MA student specializing in international law and economic policy. He holds a masters degree from Carleton University in political science. He earned a combined undergraduate degree from Nipissing University in political science and history.
This essay is part of a series.
In Epilogue no. 2 of War & Peace, Tolstoy examines the science of history (why did an event occur?). He comments that we do not get Tsar Alexander in France without Napoleon in Moscow; Napoleon as Emperor without the French revolution; the revolution without Le Contrat Social, etc. We get the sense that the present cannot be understood without the past. But, does that imply that the momentum of past events predetermines the future? Are we all just chess-pieces being moved by the zeitgeist?
Tolstoy tinkers with the notions of inevitability and free-will. He remarks that the further away in time you observe an event, the more inevitable its outcome seems. By contrast, we perceive contemporary events as the consequences of free-will because we have less information on the relevant motivations and circumstances. How about a demonstration? Consider this:
Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States of America
An unlikely outcome to the world of November 7, 2016. But just as Republicans saw the sun rise the day after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, so did the sun rise for Democrats on November 9. And the next day, and the next. Time illuminates. “Sexists, racists, xenophobes!” cry those with their heads still so deep in the sand they risk having their hairs mistaken for rice by Chinese farmers. The premise that a mass of certain “deplorables” suddenly came out of the woodwork to gleefully support Trump is not borne out by the facts. Voter turnout in 2016 was 55.3%, 54.9% in 2012, 58.2% in 2008: if anything, “progressives” stayed home.
Why did he win? Well, it turns out that certain states who voted in the first black President (twice) flipped Republican. Deplorables? Perhaps. But perhaps it is not a coincidence that these same states bore the brunt of the single greatest deindustrialization witnessed in the modern era, spanning decades but painfully exacerbated by the 2007 financial crisis. The Democrats promised jobs twice and twice failed to deliver.
Place yourself in the shoes of the man or woman who saw their father work an honest job and make enough so your mother could stay at home and raise you, buy a house, and send you to college. Reflect further: you and your spouse are both working (if there is work); kicked out of your home back in ’07; and, the hope your child will have a better future is more akin to a punchline than the “American Dream.”
Make America Great Again
Empathy is crucial to understanding the past. As we get further from November 8 and the more we learn about what was going on, what was coalescing from the individual into the group, the less unlikely “President Trump” becomes. Now, although the past does not predetermine the future, it has a profound impact on the probability of outcomes. Reflect on all the times you slept in or watched that extra Netflix episode (or seven…), how often did you manage to finish everything you planned to do that day?
Every action is binary: the act is either committed or omitted. Each is a choice. Each has consequences. You, me, Canada: all the synthesis of an incomprehensible volume of choices. The repetition of certain choices begets habits, preferences, and fundamental values: identity.
Prologue made clear, the purpose of this series is to reflect on the health of our democracy and the trajectory it seems to be on. We can neither fully appreciate the context of contemporary events, nor their consequences on the future, if we do not understand how we got to today. In that regard, the object of this essay is to reflect on the foundations of American and Canadian society.
To the American, Canadians seem overly socialist, denying individuals the full fruits of their labour. To the Canadian, Americans seem overly individualistic, denying individuals the full benefits of cooperation. The differences are most clear on matters of civil liberties or social programs (taxation & redistribution).
On their surface, our histories seem strikingly similar: former English colonies; settled on Judeo-Christian values and the rule of law; agrarian and trade-dependant economies; and each challenged to cast an identity out of a great many peoples. Why did we go down separate roads? I submit that nothing impacts a nation’s culture and identity more deeply than the circumstances of its founding (or re-founding).
The first and foremost seed of distinction between our peoples is that America was founded first and that it was founded during the Enlightenment. As a direct result, America was birthed out of rebellion and revolution and Canada out of statute and compromise.
E pluribus, unum
Out of many, one (US national motto)
Taxation has a knack for creating revolutions. Having won the Seven Years War against the French, the British Parliament decided the Thirteen Colonies should help pay the bill. Loyal British subjects as they were, colonists protested taxation without representation: a hard-won right with roots in the Magna Carta itself. To better contextualize just how adverse colonists were to any kind of taxation, consider Benjamin Franklin’s words in 1755:
They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little
temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Since 9/11, his quote has been often raised in opposition to the ever-expanding surveillance state. In truth, he was opposing a new tax. To you and me, in 2017, taxation is normalized. But in the Thirteen Colonies many saw it as such an encroachment as to harm one’s essential liberty. Britain repealed and reinstated taxes, playing a shell game with laws and tariffs. Unsurprisingly, opposition began turning violent throughout the colonies. But rebellion does not make a revolution. What was needed, was an idea.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…
Some 250 years before the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the doors of a church. No where did the Bible prescribe a pope and complex religious bureaucracy in order for Christians to hear their Lord and understand His Word. Luther exclaimed, “read the Bible and judge for yourself.” The Reformation ignited religious wars across Europe. Persecuted Protestants found refuge in the New World, spreading their egalitarianism and desire for a holy and just commonwealth.
The Reformation did more than just challenge religious persecution, it legitimized the individual’s natural right to question and defy. The scientific revolution demonstrated the natural world could be ordered. If reason could be applied to faith and nature, surely it could better organize society? In the Thirteen Colonies, the Enlightenment finally gave political form to desires for tolerance, equality, justice, and liberty 200 years in the making.
… that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Initially, the Colonists had no desire for secession – they were proud subjects of the Crown. But Imperial Britain continued to interfere, often symbolically just to demonstrate power. As opposition turned violent and it became clear Britain would kill its own subjects to enforce primacy, the struggle became an existential one. The many different peoples of the Thirteen Colonies became one. Those still loyal to the crown fled northward into Canada.
From designing the Declaration to the Constitution, to the Bill of Rights, the Congress was always possessed with a beautiful, ambitious, and laudable objective: how may the Union be made more perfect? Having witnessed firsthand the consequences of an overbearing, power-coveting state, their discussions centered on minimizing the powers of government and maximizing individual liberty and opportunity. How successful were they?
Having toured America in the early 1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America. He observed a civic religion of hard-work, dignity, and egalitarianism. Where there was a needed service, the market or volunteers quickly filled the gap. Reliance on government, or greater society in general, was limited (how different is this today?). But, he speculated, with prophetic accuracy, as booms brought wealth to almost all segments of American society, liberty was being corrupted by materialism. Tocqueville died shortly before the Civil War began, in which the South sacrificed nearly 300,000 of their own sons before freeing a single African-American from bondage.
A mari usque ad mare
From sea to sea (Canadian national motto)
Loyalists were politically conservative, as conservativism was understood in the 1700s. They supported the Crown, government, tradition, hierarchy and all their respective roles in maintaining the economic and social welfare of society: collectivists. Not all English colonists lived in the Thirteen Colonies. Some lived in French Quebec but were a clear ethnic, linguistic, religious, and political minority. When America won independence, Loyalists mostly settled in modern-day Ontario.
This balanced British and French political power, forcing the two peoples into constant compromise and cultural empathy. The Quebec Act of 1774 ensured the French language, religion, and civil practices would retain integrity. More importantly, between the conservatism in Quebec, flowing from the Catholic Church, and that of the Loyalists, an effective political counter-culture rose against the classical liberal influence pulsating from America.
In a way, Canadians were the unwanted peoples of both France and America: cast together by the circumstances of history. Tolerance and individual liberty were not values cultivated for 200 years. Diversity was reality – and we made it work. Our treatment of indigenous peoples was far from perfect, but we more often relied on the pen than the sword – distinct from our Southern neighbours. Settling matters by bargain was our way. Heated words, certainly. Rebellion, never quite. Revolution? Unthinkable.
Peace, Order, and Good Government
I recommend no Canadian ever study in detail the negotiations of Confederation (1863-1867). It is a maddening, depressing, and tedious affair. The sheer lack of vision by some, gamesmanship, petty politics, and greedy efforts to squeeze out some banal concession or two is horrendous and, in all honesty, having served our Parliament for four years, not much has changed. We are taught that an important factor was the American Civil War and implied threats from Northern States: “you’re either with us or against us” (perhaps the US has not changed much either). The letters and exchanges between delegates reveal it was mostly about inter-provincial trade and economic prosperity.
But regionalism has its benefits. It forced delegates to negotiate in excruciating detail the constitutional separation of powers. Whereas American discussions centered on minimizing government, Canadian discussions were content with a notionally large government, but preferred it at the provincial level. Without the dominance of liberalism, Canada enshrined no substantive individual rights into the Constitution except insofar as they were indirectly provided through provincial powers: namely education, language, civil and religious rights. Whereas America was founded around the individual, Canada rendered inviolable the group.
The national mottos of our two nations reflect our histories well: the ambition and vision of e pluribus, unum; the grandness and complexity of a mari usque ad mare.
There is no normatively “perfect” balance of individual and collective rights. History should humble us. Deeply rooted beliefs, preferences, and prejudices cannot be summarily undone by legislative or judicial fiat. As Robespierre and St. Juste so dramatically discovered, society can only be pushed so far into the radical before it violently pushes back. The balance of our preferences is organically cultivated and only by genuine and widespread reconciliation with our past may we truly democratically steer the future.
Revolution was necessary for America; patience and empathy for Canada. There is much to be proud of in our respective histories but also much to be ashamed of. Canada’s relationship with its indigenous peoples remains tenuous and a far cry from what is honourable. But as was true in 1774, 1867, 1982, and now 2017, the 150th anniversary of our Confederation, Canada moves forward by bargains – and this means accountability and concessions by all sides.
Aware of our past, we turn to the present. The next essay, Ghettoization of Expression, examines the crisis of civil discourse, segregation of thought, and the regrettable descent of liberalism into totalitarianism.
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Politeia & Demokratia: Short Essays on Individual and Collective Rights in Canada and the United States of America
- Born of Blood or Bargain