As we come to the end of 2006--a miserable year personally, and not all that great politically either--I want to take yet another opportunity to thank bloggers for all the support and comfort you have offered me. It bears repeating that this poured forth, in an unreservedly heartfelt way, from across the political spectrum. And that alone raises some intriguing questions--about politics, why we do it and what it means.
Certainly we will survey the political landscape of 2006 and, Rashomon-like, tell our many conflicting stories about what we've seen and heard. But in Canada it tends to be those stories themselves that go into battle, rather than the tellers.
We've had just under a year of Stephen Harper, which for some reason I keep thinking of merely as an irritant that will soon pass rather than something worthy of my Angst. We've seen him strut about on the world stage, embarrassing the hell out of many of us, offering pleasurable frissons to others. On his watch Canada has offered uncritical support to Israel (which has just this week approved another settlement on Palestinian land, contrary to international law). We were the first country to cut off badly-needed aid to Palestine for daring to vote the wrong way in a democratic election, and we're waist-deep in Afghan quicksand.
Here at home, Harper snubbed the opening of an international AIDS conference, raised the same-sex marriage issue in Parliament once again, and stacked a board with social conservatives to oversee standards for assisted human reproduction. His leadership style is command-and-control all the way, and his public persona is a godawful blend of petulance and paranoia. He could be heading for a majority government in 2007.
The Liberals under their new leader may give the Conservative Party of Canada a run for its money. Stéphane Dion seems actually a rather likeable chap, although I suspect there's less to him than meets the eye. But Liberals have always tried to be all things to all people, while carving out vast swathes of privilege for themselves and corrupting the very nature of politics in the doing. I have rubbed my eyes hard, but try as I might I just see the same party with a new leader.
The NDP is staggering in the polls, which I think is too bad. Jack Layton is at his best when, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, he isn't playing at being Jack Layton. Internally he gave hope to many who were poised to abandon the party. The NDP does offer at least the possibility of alternatives to politics as usual, but it is congenitally timid, and too often, instead of blazing a new trail, is content to occupy the left lane of the corporate highway. The NDP is still non-cynical enough to have a vision--I think--but finds it, for some reason, difficult to articulate. Its strategy, if it has one, is a closely-guarded secret.
As for the Greens, their main achievement seems to be taking votes away from the NDP. Damned if I can figure out what their national position on anything is, although they have some brilliant spokespeople--David Chernushenko comes to mind. If the two parties merged we might get actually get somewhere.
This has also been a year of attempted electoral reform. Ontario now has a shot at it, after failures in BC and PEI. But the whole approach continues to be structural rather than cultural, and, never mind those unaccountable "citizens' assemblies," little or no effort has been made to get people on the ground involved in actually brainstorming about electoral reform and proposing new ideas of their own. Instead the discussion tends to be channelled into voting systems and models. We'll see how things go in Ontario this New Year, but I'm pessimistic.
Which brings me back to my original question: why do we do politics? And by "we" I mean that small minority of us who are actively involved, whatever our stripe. The fact that most people are left by the wayside highlights a major deficiency in our political culture, as I've said before.
Politics is a highly moral activity. It's how we practically exercise our values. In Canada we tend to do this without hatred--that terrible emotion that seeks to erase and obliterate others. We can be bloody in print, but seldom in person. Indeed, we can befriend each other over yawning political gulfs. But does this mean that politics is a harmless pastime in the agora, and we all go out drinking afterwards?
Well, no. Because our values do not all coincide. And the practical application of any set of values has real flesh and blood consequences.
Certainly there is a widespread sense of decency that transcends many political differences. Nearly everybody means well. But let's not get all Kumbaya-ish about it. I couldn't be a conservative if my life depended upon it. Many of them want the law to consider a fertilized ovum a person, and give the state guardianship over the carrier. Some saw the devastation of Katrina last year as the victims' fault--they didn't perhaps sing a hymn about God raining down vengeance upon those with an alleged sense of entitlement, but they gave a rousing secular version of it. Right now they are enjoying the spectacle of the Hanged Man, but maybe they'd better check out the archetype, one that will almost certainly take hold in the ashes of Iraq. They talk incessantly about traditional this and traditional that, not recognizing that all tradition is invented and continuously reinvented. They have an abiding suspicion of people Not Like Them, and so we get spirited defences of racial profiling at airports and hand-wringing about veils. They stand for Individual Responsibility, but that tends to be code for leaving those less fortunate to their fate, and rationalizing indifference with finger-wagging moralizing.
Obviously my vision and theirs have little in common. But let me say this about the long voyage that I've been taking on the wild river of politics. As I get older, I have become less tolerant of our own brand of sanctimony, and more and more certain that building the alternative society of our dreams will require that all dreams have an opportunity for expression. I believe that the best politics is the politics not of installing this vision or that but of enabling. For me, democracy is about citizens, not governments. It's about working together, not competing. It's about the collective drawing its strength from the unfettered creativity of its constituents, and about individuals drawing strength from the collective. It's about doing away with the unequal power relations that stand almost immoveably in the way of positive, radical change.
So, what is to be done? Maybe we'll figure it out in 2007. Most likely not. In any case, friends (and here I don't simply mean my political co-religionists), have a happy New Year's celebration, and give your loved ones a hug. We'll be back in the trenches soon enough.