Left, lefter and leftest

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Recently in the online edition of the U.S. conservative magazine National Review, California-based Canadian Doug Gamble provided Americans with an astute analysis of Canada’s upcoming winter election.

Gamble noted the three national parties—the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats—could be “best described as left, more left and most left,” relative to America’s Republicans and Democrats. Then, of course, there is the Bloc, which works to take Quebec out of Canada.

It requires distance to get perspective.

From outside, Canadian politics appears to be crowded into a very narrow spectrum of thinking, where the idea of individual liberty is held suspect and subordinated to the needs of collective interest, articulated and defended by the guardians of the same.

A history of a country is a complex tapestry of many threads, yet there are dominant themes or motifs separating one history from another.

Liberalism in Canada—the sort retailed by the Liberal party—has been consistent with the country’s founding theme of “peace, order and good government,” in contrast with the republican liberalism of America, which promotes “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Canadian liberalism has been elite-driven and top-down.

For a long while in the last century, such thinking served Canadians well, and a country built in harsh latitudes came to be viewed by many around the world with envy.

But a country’s life can never remain still.

Change is the pulse of life and it is paradoxical.

Just when Canadians thought they had rightly become the global model of success, they got pulled back to the reality of losing their country, of not being immune from the perils of nationalism that have devoured so many countries.

Both success and the fear of failure can paralyze thought. The late Northrop Frye, one of our most eminent thinkers, warned of such an eventuality. In a 1990 essay, Frye wrote: “Nothing has improved in this century except science and scholarship, which have improved because they have no boundaries. If they do have boundaries, in other words if they are politically controlled, they soon become sinister and dangerous.”

The success of science and scholarship also requires (and Frye did not mention this) that a society respect individual liberty as the noblest goal of politics. But the narrowness of thinking on which rests Canada’s current political consensus on most issues—social spending, health care, defence, foreign policy, immigration, bilingualism and multiculturalism—constrains our ability to think outside the box.

The differences among the main parties, including the Bloc if we set aside its separatist agenda, are more a matter of shades than of substance.

The result is predictable.

The public, or a strategically significant portion, wants to be seduced by promises, and the success of the Liberal party has been its ability to sell them—at least, until the Quebec AdScam, which has now placed the party and the country into some jeopardy.

We cannot expect this election will resolve the fundamental problems afflicting our country, unless we are prepared to expand the spectrum of our thinking and set aside our famous smugness, which seems based on the unsustainable notion that somehow we have greater moral sensibilities than our neighbour to the south.

In the meantime we can expect, as our politics become increasingly disconnected with the needs of a fast-changing world economy, our political leaders will confuse their sound and fury with the requirements to think fresh and critically on issues resistant to prevailing consensus.

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