Saturday, November 19, 2005

Where's the outrage? a.k.a. Democracy in the age of cynicism.

With all the crap going on about the malfeasance in government, where Liberal Ottawa comes to mind, my greatest dismay is with a substantial portion of the electorate, who are willing to give this government a pass, vote Liberal, shrug their shoulders, and say "everybody does it". This, I believe is a symptom of a larger decline, a decay of the societal fabric that has been the foundation of Anglo-Saxon governance.

I was trying to put a term on the the political/moral culture - and what came to mind after a lot of thinking was WASP. This is not scientific, but more on an observation - nations with a more "protestant" or "anglo-saxon" political culture seem to have less corruption and tolerance for corruption than their counterparts. Historically, compare "anglo-saxon" Ontario to Quebec on a loose level, and you'll get my point. Anyhow, I think that there are two historical reasons for this: the first being the Protestant reformation, which was in part a revolt against corruption of the Church. The development of a protestant culture inculcated a suspicion of authority and intolerance of corruption, which manifested itself in part in the development of their societies an political systems. The second major element would have to be the Scottish enlightenment, and the writings of the preeminent thinkers - John Locke and Adam Smith. Smith, in particular, argued that a free society could not survive without a strong moral compass, that capitalism needed a moral foundation in order for it to be just and fair. Otherwise, he believed, society would evolve into anarchy or depotism.

This model survived well into the twentieth century, where two related movements, secularism and legalism, started to eat away at these foundations. I say legalism because it replaced an inate societial understanding of what is right and wrong with a complex legal code, which many use as a defense of their behaviour. Bill Clinton is a good example of this - what he did in a general sense was wrong, but he used legalisms to claim he technically did no wrong. The same can be said of the Liberals right now in Ottawa - using a bunch of legalistic defenses for the indefensible in a larger societal sense. Secularism has also played an indirect part, by attacking the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of soceity as being somewhat wrong or intolerant, and usurping these cultural underpinnings with a "whatever floats your boat" attitude in some sense.

These two elements have contributed to undermining the civil morality that has been the hallmark of Anglo-Saxon democracies: a sense of fairness, demands for accountability, and 'doing the right thing' in general. These notions have been erroded, and in its vacuum, two things have replaced it. The first is a growing cynicism, which, for a lack of a better word, has replaced faith in the civil discourse. The belief that everybody is crooked and there is not faith in elected representatives (not saying naive - as that faith should be subject to great scutiny), means that there is no faith in change for the better, no faith that there are people out there who believe in the ideals of public service. The second is the use and defense of legalisms to pursue what are otherwise odious goals: a society that relies on technicalities and not on general principles of right and wrong will descend into rent-seeking and amoral behaviour.

The solution to all this is for society as a large to find their moral compass and their faith. Find their faith in the system, demand accountability from those who play fast and loose with the trust that was placed in. Make accountability and proper behaviour a key criteria for public office - not bribing people with their own money. It won't happen overnight, but maybe if people start demanding that right behaviour is not an option, it will slowly change. In the case of Canada, with it becoming a "post-Christian" country - I do not have a lot of hope for a large segment of it.

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