Category Archives: Change

Are We Up to the Challenge?

So, with the oath of office taken and the speech given, the 44th American President, Barack Obama, moves into his own private hell. Such is the lot of leaders in our world, as rather than accept responsibility for ourselves we pile all our hopes and fears on their shoulders, and expect immediate results, to boot.

The speech, actually, was quite good, and said things that needed to be said. Whether they will be heard is a separate question. Western society is quite infantile: one friend of mine referred to it recently as “a teen-age girl, all emotional, demanding, whingy, self-centred”. Funny: sounds like a teen-age boy, too.

Highly insightful, as well, although such phraseology has no doubt given tellement offense. But speaking the truth in public has fallen from favour. Indignant, easily-bruised egos and those who use any comment to push their agenda have made it so, alas. So, too, the failure of most people to recognise the difference between opinion and statements with backing. Today that lack of understanding and confidence makes everything opinion — and therefore off the table (save only for call-in programmes and gatherings of the faithful).

Enough said. It takes real self-discipline and responsibility to accept that change begins with ourselves. It is not something we can believe in; it is something we have an obligation to attempt on our own. Doing so is a sign of maturation: the move from adolescence to adulthood. So, too, is recognising that the world is, and we work within its limits; wishing that that be otherwise is fantasy.

It is time for us all to stop indulging in fantasy. That will be hard. Today Obama called on his fellow citizens (and, by extension, all of those who engaged in Obamamania and stopped their day to celebrate him today) to step beyond infantile wishing into the hard work of adult behaviour. Let us do so.

Stupidity on the “Salish Sea”

You might think it doesn’t really matter, much, what we call a place. After all, in recorded history, there have always been autochthonous people in place when newcomers came a-calling. Change the civilisation of those callers, and the place names change. We don’t, for instance, call the Mediterranean Sea Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”) any longer, and not just because we don’t speak Latin: the name itself has changed to “between the lands”. So, too, the place where I was born: from Toronto, to Fort Rouseille, to York, and back to Toronto. Names, in other words, change.

So why, then, be so vociferous — “stupidity” isn’t exactly a kind way to put things — about the latest bit of nomenclature adjustment that’s being proposed, that of changing the Strait of Georgia to the Salish Sea? Especially since, given the Premier’s enthusiastic taking up of this little bit of British Columbian change, it is likely to come to be, whether the public thinks much of it (in media web site instant polls and on phone-in shows) or not? (As Premier Campbell noted, “you don’t hear too many people referring to the Queen Charlotte Islands any more” — the renaming to Haida Gw’aii has taken over.)

Here’s the reason why I think this is an exercise in change for the sake of change, which is always a sign of a dangerous lack of thought: “how do we know that this is a historical name at all?” For it seems to me that there is a world of difference between reverting to a name that was in common use where the population at large remains in the majority (Haida Nation), and picking a name that might be appropriate simply for the sake of politically correct nomenclature (and whatever advantage in negotiations for treaties and in the next election it might bring). The first settles something in a way most can accept; the second merely opens the door to competing renamings.

(We will say nothing about the fact that this body of water is a strait and not a sea: it is not an open body of salt water of sufficient size to warrant that term, geographically. Pedantry isn’t needful or desirable here.)

It doesn’t take long to realise, here in BC, just how diverse the linguistic groups and First Nations communities are. The Coast Salish are just one of the many groups that are tied to the ebbs and flows of life in and around the Strait of Georgia. True, these predominate right on the shores of this body of water, but they are not exclusive, nor were the pre-colonisation “First Nations” geographically territorial in the sense that Western nations are. So, by renaming, we choose sides. We declare, in public, that we support one set of claims. Now what do we do for competing claims? Live with the years of animosity this brings forth? Or keep on with the renaming? When two claims conflict over the same territory — as many do in this province — which name “wins”?

In other words, this apparently simple step of “honouring” the First Nations opens a can of worms even worse than the treaty process has opened.

Why should we be surprised? Ever since Trudeau made multiculturalism the official policy of this land, we have tripped over this issue of recognition ever since. Recognise one group — for the whole idea of multiple cultures living independently in a single territory is all about groups — and you offend another. Picking the larger group alienates the smaller. (Why is it that the majority group of basic unhypenated Canadians never seems to be chosen? Ah, because to choose them is to expose the flaw of group-thinking and group-manipulation at the heart of multiculturalism, and indeed at the heart of Canadian progressivism and liberalism.)

This is why, for instance, Montréal accepted the change from Dorchester Boulevard to Boulevard René Lévesque — it was in accord with the majority’s will — and why Iqaluit could replace “Frobisher Bay” (majority population and language). But “Salish Sea” doesn’t fit this mould. First, it’s not in the autochthonic language needed, the way Haida Gw’aii was, and, second, the majority of the population around these shores — unlike the inhabitants of the Queen Charlottes — isn’t of that tradition. So this will be a bit of social engineering imposed on the region, not something springing authentically out of it.

Not that that will matter. The armies of the politically correct will be all over this one, as will those First Nations band members and supporters who see an issue with which to demand more. So, too, those amongst us (and they are many) who don’t believe in the value of tradition (and names are symbols that embody traditions and history), don’t think history is relevant, and are browbeaten and will not defend their own heritage. The cries of bigotry will be raised — is it an attempt at apartheid or ghetto-construction to simply say “my traditions count, too”? — and the earthworms will undermine the ground Canada stands on, once again. The group will once again override the sovereignty of the individual Canadian.

Worse, we will live through this change simply because an advantage is perceived, not because of any great moral principle at work (despite all the claims to the contrary that will emerge as the debate is joined). The labelling of this body of water as the “Salish Sea” is akin to selling the rights to a well-loved landmark and having its name changed to suit some corporate sponsor. Ask Torontonians, who saw the Pantages turn into the Canon Theatre, or the SkyDome into the Rogers Centre. Only a fool would have renamed the Montréal Forum or Maple Leaf Gardens; new buildings have sponsored monikers, but the historical sites do not.

This overriding of tradition in the name of advantage — pecuniary or otherwise — tears away at the fabric of society. It makes people care less about their communities (yet another source of escalating crime and violence, as people draw their curtains and live privately, ignoring the public realm). It destroys the well-springs of commitment. We are left with far less of ourselves each time this is done.

For once, the Left has understood this: the BC NDP is questioning the rush to rename. Good! This should be questioned — and in the end, rejected. For here’s the reality: colonial immigrants built this place. The First Nations culture of the rainforest and coast was one of the highest ones in North America — but still, not enough to make the jump into modernity without what the colonisers brought to this place.

It is our tradition that should for once be stood up for, not denigrated and cast aside to pander yet again. “Strait of Georgia” is but one of many symbols that say exactly that, and that is what I will call it, going forward, regardless of what my province might choose to ram down my throat.

For I am a free Canadian, and they can’t take my right to disagree publicly away.

Assume Nothing About the Electorate

Delightful though the new polls may be (or, depending upon your politics, horrid — I can’t rightly say that I care all that much at the moment) I think that, between last night’s Alberta election result returning very solid results to the Alberta PC Government of Ed Stelmach and the inability of either Federal party to capture the public’s imagination we have entered into a realm of waiting that will be resolved, eventually, by an earthquake.

Let me explain. All the incessant posturing, pre-electioneering, shouting, etc. that is modern politics in the age of the twenty-four hour news cycle, the spinmeisters, political consultants, and so on — all of which is focused on hard, fast, negative sound-bites — has alienated the electorate. The parallel to this, for those of us who have worked in and around the computer industry, was the late 1980s, when then “no one ever got fired for buying” giant IBM was almost universally disliked, mistrusted, yet (when a decision needed to be made) rewarded, for lack of an alternative. Alternatives are not a substitution of one company for another; they are a shift in the paradigm of use. When it came — with LANs, Windows 3.1, and the client/server computing model in and around 1992 — an earthquake occurred. IBM was rocked and spent years reinventing itself. (There are those who think this is about to happen to Microsoft in turn. We shall see.)

What this means is that the problem with politics has practically nothing to do with who the leaders are! The Liberals, for instance, will see no real gain by dumping Stéphane Dion for another leadership choice. Alberta PCs may be led by a less than stellar leader in Ed Stelmach — I expect the negative comments about him and his actions to begin again immediately — but that’s not the point.When the problem is the way we handle politics in the public arena, leaders are irrelevant.

I sometimes think the Green Party has it precisely backward (and I speak of them here because Green is as much a movement beyond normal politics as it is an attempt to enter the fray in the chambers of government). It’s not that we need another party. Instead we need a new politics. Part of the mania for Barack Obama that we see south of the border — and the original Tony Blair in Britain — and recently, Nicholas Sarkozy in France — and ever (malheursement) Pierre Trudeau in 1968 — is that they didn’t need to campaign from the sound-bite, negative, “my opponent est un gros enmerdement” point of view. They could strike out positively and say nothing about their opponents. (“Vote for us because of a, b & c” is so much more appealing than “Vote for us because we’re not those lying, cheating, stealing cretins”. So is treating the electorate as thinking, rational adults who are capable of responding to a sense of history, of vision and of direction rather than scaring them into taking action to avoid their fate.) That’s not to say that at various points in the campaign the experts didn’t create negative views, and the sniping didn’t begin — clearly it has — nor that the public is fooled with the leader keeping to high road while his or her entourage gets down in the mud (it is not; merde can be smelled even when the front-man’s shoes don’t stink).

Periodically institutions need reform. This is because, as Thomas Langan showed in his book Tradition and Authenticity in the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom, the institution takes on a life of its own separate from the tradition that gave it life. The faith yields the Church, and by so doing people in charge of the churches have interests in their roles separate from those required of them by the faith. The desire for societal self-government yields parliaments and assemblies, and those who sit in them have interests (for their factions, as the first American President, George Washington, noted) that diverge from what the process of governance requires of them. So it goes, everywhere.

Our political institutions are in advanced decay. They have been subordinated to parties, and those who cling to the apron-strings of power these represent.

What this electorate — and I care little whether we speak of your municipal government, your provincial government or institutional Ottawa — is most waiting for is the person who will come to politics to reform the system. Reform, in this sense, need not mean “a new political faction”: it could come just as easily by working within an existing party. But it would be a reform, indeed, of how politics is conducted. They would take the Kinsellas with their “ass-kicking”, and the Carvilles and Morrises with their “triangulation” and “it’s (just) the economy, stupids”, and others of their kind and boot them overboard. They would stop playing to the polls, or even worrying about them — pollsters need not apply for work here. They would treat their counter-parts with respect and speak firmly but quietly about matters of import rather than seizing upon the “issue of the day” or seek to blow up the scandal du jour (really, what’s the difference between that and the pumping and dumping which our Securities Laws say is illegal around the stock market?) in their place. They would assume in everything they do that their potential voters are capable of following complex issues with complex argumentation and rational (i.e. not simplistic) solutions on offer.

They would, in other words, offer an adult in place of the schoolyard bullies we must listen to today.

Would they win at first? Oh, heavens, no! — for staying the course is part of proving that this is reform and not merely a dash of lipstick on the same old street-walking. But there comes a tipping point, and then the whole structure from before comes tumbling down. When they do, it will wipe much of the past out of existence.

This is what Preston Manning didn’t know and lost sight of (and why I could not support his Reform Party). This is what is yet to be born. This is why Albertans told pollsters they wanted change and then voted for more of the same. This is why Federal politics remains deadlocked; why BC’s politics are frozen almost to the point where Gordon Campbell could do anything and not fear returning to the other side of the House; why Dalton McGuinty exists in the face of Caledonia, incredibly bad economic management and the destruction of a province and why, in the face of everything, Vancouver will probably return Sam Sullivan and Toronto David Miller to continue their reigns of error.

We don’t want what’s on offer, but the alternative hasn’t been placed before us. When it is, watch out. The earthquake will be a sight to behold.