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Howard Anglin: Bring on the culture wars

Commentary

By all accounts, there was much weeping among Liberals as the new Canadian flag was hoisted above the Peace Tower for the first time on February 15, 1965.

Perhaps I lack imagination, but it’s hard for me to understand why the new banner, which evoked no memories, no deep associations, would inspire such emotion. By contrast, I can understand John Diefenbaker’s tears, shed quietly away from the crowd. The former prime minister had fought for months against the new flag, drawing on deep reserves of rhetoric to compensate for his party’s lack of numbers in the House, and condemn the erasure of Canada’s past.

So bitter was the flag debate that by the end some of Diefenbaker’s own MPs whispered that it had changed him, that his passion had curdled to bile as he saw the growing inevitability of defeat.

After voting with the government to impose closure, Conservative MP Paul Martineau rose to address the chamber in a speech that Peter C. Newman, reflecting his anti-Diefenbaker bias, called “the best speech of the entire debate.” Martineau said that he regretted that “many hard and bitter words have been spoken that it would have been better to have left unsaid” and explained that he had voted to end the debate because to let it go on would risk “the very destruction of this country.” It was a weak, if genuine, apologia for betraying his party’s cause.

If it is hard for most Canadians today to appreciate why the flag debate was so divisive, that just shows how complete the victory was. Once symbols or language are changed, it becomes harder to see, let alone understand what came before. That is why revolutionaries try so hard to remake the trappings of society: to change the flag, the calendar, the way we describe our world, the way we keep time, and above all the language. This deliberate disorientation is intended to make dissent not just impossible but literally unthinkable.

But to get a sense of why Diefenbaker and so many others fought so hard, try to imagine a new conservative government proposing to reverse the decision, replacing the now-familiar red and white flag with the old Red Ensign or the Union Jack. The reaction today would be as angrily uncomprehending as it was for so many in 1964. The reason is obvious: a flag symbolizes a country and its people, so changing the flag implies a change in the country and perhaps even in the people themselves. If you disagree with that change, it’s not just a symbolic affront — it’s personal.

Today, the flag debate would be described as part of the “culture wars,” a dismissive term usually accompanied by the words “unnecessary” or “distracting.” It would be lumped in with the debate over statues of Sir John A. Macdonald, or whether you sing the old or new English lyrics to “O Canada.”

This says more about the priorities of our media than of our country. The anger the flag debate evoked on both sides should cause us to reconsider the easy dismissal of “culture wars” as secondary to politics.

I would go further. Culture wars aren’t a political sideshow, they are the essence of politics. They define the community and establish a shared identity.

These are the core questions of politics. Squabbles over tax rates and infrastructure funding are trivial next to them. Economic matters hit our bank accounts, but questions of identity hit us in the gut.

English historian Dominic Sandbrook agrees. “Centuries from now, people won’t be arguing about taxes and spending. These are merely our own contemporary obsessions, which would baffle our ancestors and bemuse our descendants. But flags and statues, history and identity? That’s what politics is really about.” In other words, culture wars are politics; the rest is accounting.

The political Left also agrees, which is why they are so quick to denounce things they disagree with as “not who we are” and to dismiss their opponents as being “on the wrong side of history.” These are powerful rebukes because they cut to the heart of politics, which is our place in the collective. Are you in or out? Friend or enemy? What could be more important?

This may sound odd in a country where most of our recent elections have been fought over taxing and spending, rather than the fundamental questions that are still actively debated in our peer countries, like immigration levels. But all that tells us is who is winning the culture wars. The spoils of political victory include the power to set the limits of internal disagreement, and our progressive political, academic, media, and judicial elites have declared most controversial cultural issues beyond the pale (matters touching on Quebec’s distinct identity being the telling exception). There is no more final political victory than redrawing the boundaries of acceptable social discourse to exclude your opponents.

Occasionally, however, a new cultural question does emerge and galvanizes both sides, drawing the latent energy unspent on other cultural battles. A recent example is the federal attempt to impose a uniform state childcare policy on the provinces. On the one hand, the Liberals (with the support of the other progressive parties) favour a model of childcare that sees parents first as units of the national GDP and secondarily as child-rearers; on the other side, some conservatives believe that the balance between work and childcare, and between state-licensed care and informal care by relatives or neighbours, should be left to parents to decide as it suits their different preferences and circumstances. As this debate plays out, it will be fuelled by the simmering sublimated frustrations of the other, unfought, social skirmishes.

The childcare debate is also instructive because it fits a pattern. While culture war issues are usually depicted as obsessions of the Right, that is, like most casus belli, a matter of perspective. In fact, modern culture wars are almost always initiated by the Left and the term “culture war” is a misnomer.

We are not in the middle of a culture war, we are in the throes of a progressive cultural revolution. “Culture war” is just what the revolutionaries call occasional demurrals in defence of the status quo. Revolutionaries from Robespierre to Mao have never had time for doubters with their sentimental attachment to the old and the familiar, and our modern cultural revolutionaries are no more sympathetic: get with the program or expect no mercy.

In his article, Mr. Sandbrook posits that progressives don’t actually want to fight the culture wars because they don’t trust that the mass of the people are onside. “After all,” he writes, “polling in Britain shows that most people like ‘Rule, Britannia,’ think Churchill was a hero, and have no desire to flagellate themselves about the supposed sins of their ancestors. So the last thing the culture warriors of the woke left want is a public debate.” I am not sure that the Canadian public is quite so doughty, but our progressives don’t seem to want to risk finding out. Much easier to declare contested matters settled and label any objection as a distraction from the “real issues,” which is one reason why the pseudo-culture wars in Canada are mostly just progressive gaslighting.

If the recent, rapid acceleration of the cultural revolution has been overwhelming, then that success, which the thoughtful commentator Tanner Greer has described as coming “gradually, then suddenly,” suggests the proper response. Slow things down. Raise questions. Stand athwart history yelling stop. Remind people that the progressive agenda is not ineluctable. Insist on debate and wide public consultation before irreversible decisions are made. Ensure that people understand what is being lost and have time to consider before capitulating.

In politics as in war, momentum matters; confidence or its absence can sway morale and a seed of doubt sown today could be the flower of a counterrevolution tomorrow. Above all, conservatives, reactionaries, and plain old apolitical sceptics should not be afraid of the culture wars — what else, after all, is worth fighting for?

Sean Speer: A retreat from greatness

Commentary

This piece originally appeared as part of a Canada Day symposium at Law & Liberty.

The New Republic once ran a contest to see if its readers could come up with a headline more boring than “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” The satirical challenge played up a perception of Canada’s political culture as staid, boring, and predictable.

It worked precisely because notwithstanding a hint of hyperbole, the basic premise that modern Canadian life is less assiduous (and less chaotic) than in the United States is mostly accurate. American culture is personified by the frenetic dynamism of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Canada has become marked by the technocratic tedium of what historian Jack Granatstein once referred to as the “Ottawa men.”

It wasn’t always this way though. Canada may not have been born out of revolution, but the Confederation project was indeed an act of audaciousness. The piecing together of the separate provinces and different cultures, languages, and religions across the North America continent didn’t just require shrewd judgement and careful negotiation. It also took a spirit of ambition and a vision of greatness to ultimately bring Canada into existence in 1867.

For all of the discussion of Canada’s founders as highly pragmatic, we underestimate their collective boldness as the crucial ingredient in such an exercise of nation-building. Thomas D’arcy McGee, one of the country’s founding fathers (who was subsequently assassinated by a Fenian Brotherhood sympathizer steps from Parliament Hill), reflected such boldness when he famously spoke of Canada’s destiny to be a “great new northern nation.”

This aspiration to greatness long remained core to the Canadian identity. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier’s bold admonition that the 20th century would belong to Canada might now sound to modern ears like a kind of jingoism but it reflected a common view at the time that Canada’s potential was unlimited and that greatness for the young country was a fitting aspiration.

Similar levels of grandeur were displayed in the railway projects that connected the country through its highly-challenging terrain, the unprecedented waves of immigrants early in the twentieth century, the breakneck pace of urbanization and industrialization that followed, the Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge in WWI and their heroic contribution to the D-Day invasion in WWII.

Canada was a country on the move. Though smaller in size and stature than the United States, it matched its sense of optimism and confidence in the future. That the country’s post-war baby boom was among the biggest in the world — indeed, the largest in the contemporary G-7 — was itself an expression of national buoyancy.

It’s important to recognize that not every Canadian shared in this sense of opportunity and destiny. The country’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples (including the illiberal and tragic experience of Indian residential schools) was often discriminatory and wrong. The economy and society were patriarchal and conformist. Racism and anti-Semitism were far too prevalent. No one should want to go back to an era that in hindsight was too insular and non-inclusive.

But in today’s “decadent” age of identity politics and technocratic public administration, it can feel like something has been lost. We’ve given up a common sense of national purpose and chosen instead to focus our collective attention on narrow distributional questions. Politics and governance are now dedicated to reconciling competing claims from so-called “equity-seeking groups” for scarce public resources. Greatness is off the agenda.

The question, of course, is: when did this happen? There’s a good case that it occurred in fall 1972.

It may strike some readers as an odd choice to mark the beginning of Canadian decadence because it started in a moment of national triumph. In late September 1972, Canada defeated the Soviet Union in the historic Summit Series hockey games that fully captured the country’s collective attention. Defeating the global superpower in the hard-fought, eight-game series put Canada at the center of the Cold War contest and demonstrated our capacity to compete among leading nations. Paul Henderson’s famous goal with 34 seconds remaining in the final game produced a genuine expression of national fervour.

But it’s what followed barely a month later that matters for understanding modern Canada: voters elected the country’s most socialist government in its history.

There was a high degree of provincialism and protectionism in this unprecedented Liberal-NDP agenda.

The Liberal Party, led by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was re-elected in late October 1972 with a plurality of seats in the federal House of Commons but not enough to govern on its own. It needed to rely on the parliamentary support of the even more left-wing New Democratic Party to pass legislation. The two parties worked together in an informal coalition for the next two years to enact a series of inward-looking, highly activist policies including foreign investment restrictions, the establishment of new state-run enterprises, and a general expansion of the size and scope of government.

There was a high degree of provincialism and protectionism in this unprecedented agenda. The implicit message was that Canada would now orient itself to protecting its culture and economy from foreign influences and advancing equity goals through higher levels of government spending. It seems clear in hindsight that this brief, yet formative burst of hyper-progressive policymaking marked a lasting retreat from greatness. Growth and dynamism were replaced by fairness and redistribution. Canadian politics in turn became transactional rather than aspirational.

It’s also a notable year because it represented the growing maturation of baby boomers into voting age. Although Canada’s fertility rate averaged 3.6 children per women between 1946 and 1965 (compared to just 1.47 in 2019), it specifically peaked during the 8-year period between 1954 and 1961 when it consistently reached nearly 4 children per women. Those born at the beginning of this “boom within the boom” were able to vote for the first time in 1972. In hindsight, that election marked the start of the sustained political dominance of the baby boomers which, of course, persists to the present day.

One cannot help but think that these two developments are linked: that the end of greatness and the rise of decadence are manifestations of the culture, economic, and political influence of the baby boom generation.

They came of age animated by progressive ideals about equity, fairness, and rights-based issues and, as such, tilted public and private priorities away from growth, dynamism, and progress. Now, as they reach retirement age, they’ve once again shifted their political attention to financial security, old-age benefits, and health care. The set of issues may be different, but the effect is the same: Canada seems stuck in a 50-year cycle of decadence driven by baby boomers’ demands, interests, and needs.

This has contributed to a mainstream political discourse that’s primarily focused these days on carving up the economic pie as opposed to imagining a different and better future. In such a political milieu, the “Ottawa men” (and increasingly women), who are directly responsible for allocating public dollars to regions, businesses, and individuals, necessarily loom large. The mythology of the determined doer has been supplanted by the rise of the transactional technocrat.

There’s reason, however, to think that this may be starting to shift due in large part to the sweeping effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Younger Canadians are beginning to express generational identities with their own unique interests and concerns (including house affordability and delayed family formation).

Canadian governments’ poor pandemic performance marked by lengthy and stringent lockdowns may cause citizens to question their “social contract” with a sclerotic state apparatus. The scientific breakthrough of the mRNA vaccines may contribute to greater interest in technology and progress. And the pandemic-induced recession may ultimately lead to renewed commitment to getting out of the “two-percent trap” that has bedeviled Canada’s economy in the twenty-first century.

As we celebrate the 154th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, therefore, we may be on the cusp of reversing the baby-boom induced changes to Canadian political culture that took shape in a short, one-month period in fall 1972. That would indeed be a worthwhile Canadian initiative.