The Making of a Conservative
If I had to pick the moment I began calling myself a conservative, it would be the summer of 1975. I was 14 going on 15, and I was working — improbable as this is going to sound — as a volunteer for an NDP candidate for the provincial legislature. Not that I considered myself a New Democrat — or anything else. My political views at the beginning of that summer were still hazy, to put it charitably. But the candidate was a friend of my parents, and I had wanted to watch a political campaign close up. Somehow my parents persuaded the candidate to let me hang around his office, fetch sandwiches, type letters and generally subtract from the efficiency of the struggle for socialism in west Toronto.
The campaign’s headquarters was a 45-minute bus and subway ride from my parents’ house. I devoted the resulting reading time to a book that my mother had loaned to me: the first volume of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The horror of Soviet communism burst upon me like a bomb. A kind of evangelical fervor gripped me: Everybody had to know about this! (Remember, I was 14.) I couldn’t accost my parents — they’d already read the book. I couldn’t accost my school friends — it was summer holiday. So I went to work on my campaign colleagues.
Theoretically, of course, there’s no reason why one couldn’t be a fully paid-up member of the NDP and also a vehement anti-communist. But as I quickly discovered, very few of my fellow volunteers were much influenced by this interesting ideological possibility. I quickly became an office nuisance. Quarrels erupted whenever I was around. Eventually, the office manager sat me down for a quiet little chat. I didn’t finish out the campaign.
One of the other volunteers in the office liked to sing to himself the old trade-union anthem, ‘‘Which Side Are You On?’’ By the end of that summer, I knew.
Back then, of course, it was rather an eccentric thing for a teenager to be “right wing” (as my co-workers on the 1975 campaign termed it). In the Toronto where I grew up, everyone who mattered agreed that there was something inherently un-Canadian about conservatism. Canada, it was once painstakingly explained to me, was not a nation-state, like Ireland or France. It was a state-nation, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, assembled in defiance of logic by a strong central government. The stronger that government, the stronger the country. Weaken the government, and Canada would fly apart like the Habsburg domains in 1918. As for those of us who wanted to restrain the expansion of government, we were not merely cold and heartless, etc., etc., but were also accused of subversion.
In those days — really, until very recently — Canada possessed an official ideology in more or less the same way that Britain possessed an established church. Not everybody adhered to it, but it set the tone of polite society. The textbooks studied in school, the programs broadcast on television, the news published in the papers, the speeches bellowed at election time, all hailed Big Government and moral permissiveness — in a word, liberalism — as the political fundaments that defined Canada. Doubters who wondered whether it really made sense to build railways to nowhere, to regulate the songs radio stations could play, to outlaw private medicine, to invite fishermen and loggers to spend three-quarters of the year on unemployment insurance, were dismissed as reactionary skinflints, unwilling to pay the necessary price “of being Canadian.”
Suddenly, that all seems a very long time ago. The doubters have been winning the day for nearly a decade, spectacularly so over the past two or three years. Increasingly, Canadians—and young Canadians in particular — have been wondering, “To be a patriot, do I really have to be such a sucker?” We are beginning to work our way to the answer: No, of course you don’t.
Social programs are all very well, in moderation. But they hardly constitute a national identity. Medicare did not climb the cliffs to the Plains of Abraham in General Wolfe’s knapsack. We copied it from Britain three years after we imported the Twist. The Dominion of Canada antedates the oldest of its social programs by nearly three-quarters of a century. If it takes Medicare, the CBC and cheap tuition to distinguish us from the Americans or the Mexicans, how in the world are we to explain the generations of self-confident Canadians who lived without any of those things?
In truth, it is not the ethic of personal responsibility and limited government that we call conservatism that betrays Canada’s national character. On the contrary, it is the statism and moral weakness of the past 30 years that have traduced the real nature of our country. A country whose people settled some of the world’s bleakest terrain without even the gift of a free bag of seed — did these people need welfarism to provide them with their nationhood? A country that left 100,000 of its sons dead on the world’s battlefields between 1914 and 1953 — was this nation well served by the palaver that authentic Canadians are a uniquely peaceable lot?
Has any group of self-proclaimed patriots ever felt so little interest in the actual traditions of their country as did the liberal nationalists of the 1960s and ’70s? Is it not bizarre to convene symposia on the national identity while systematically wiping away all traces of the past from the nation’s currency, its post office boxes and even its flagpoles? Our liberal nationalists celebrated a Canada that never existed. The Canada that sang “The Maple Leaf Forever,” that hanged Louis Riel, that listened to black-clad priests denounce the theory of evolution, that erected statues to Queen Victoria, that volunteered for the trenches, that shunned the New Deal reforms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that made a hero of Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko — that Canada, historical Canada, was erased from our textbooks, its monuments destroyed, its achievements disparaged. Instead of taking pride in the construction of a vast, rich and free nation, we were — as Margaret Atwood argued in her hugely influential 1969 book — humbly to think of ourselves as “survivors.”
This disparity, between what we are and what we are told we are, has led to something close to national schizophrenia. Canada is a big, rich, North American nation, where people live in suburbs, drive to work, shop in malls, invest their money in mutual funds, listen to country music and resent paying taxes. But watch a Canadian movie, read a Canadian novel, flip through most Canadian magazines, even turn on the news, and you’ll see a different country: a poor, struggling hinterland of the American empire, where people live in outports, work for the government if they work at all, collect groceries from food banks, listen to folk singers and enjoy paying taxes.
What the political convulsions of the 1990s tell us, however, is that our schizophrenia may at last have found a cure. Like a nervous middle-aged man in a James Thurber story, official Canada has rounded a corner, only to bump into the actual Canada, heading in the opposite direction. Actual Canada began to make itself heard in 1988, when it swatted down the self-proclaimed nationalists to vote for free trade with the United States. It was heard from again in 1992, when it defeated the Charlottetown accord — an agreement that would have perversely inscribed a further dose of socialism into a constitution that already regarded welfare, but not private property, as a fundamental right. And again in 1993, when outraged Westerners crumpled up the Progressive Conservative Party and replaced it with the steelier Reform Party. And once more when voters in Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick and British Columbia overwhelmingly supported provincial constituents that explicitly promised dramatic cuts in spending. Perhaps the best way to understand the politics of our country today is to think of them not as some radical transformation of Canada, but as a simple rediscovery of a country that was there all along.
Detractors of this old-new Canada — defenders of the liberal Canada that now feels so beleaguered — complain that the coming era of smaller government threatens to sever the bonds of community so that a few greedy individuals can indulge their lust for gain. If true, that charge would sting. But is it true?
In a disused corner of my local library, a puppet stage gathers dust. “Do you ever perform shows for the children?” we once asked the librarian. “Not any more,” she answered bitterly. “It’s the cutbacks. The city, you see, used to send round a professional puppeteer once a month. Now it doesn’t.”
So if, by the weakening of “community,” you mean the loss of puppet shows performed by government employees, then yes, I suppose, the shrinkage of government stands guilty as charged.
But I’d like to know something else. When we were children, the puppet shows at the local libraries were performed by library volunteers — people from the neighborhood who loved reading and loved children. What happened to them? How is it that so elementary an act of community spirit as an afternoon’s amusement at the local library can collapse once the political authorities cease to pay for it? Alexis de Tocqueville knew the answer. As he wrote in Democracy in America: “There are countries … where the native considers himself as a kind of settler, indifferent to the fate of the spot he inhabits. The greatest changes are effected there without his concurrence, and (unless chance may have apprised him of the event) without his knowledge; nay, more, the condition of his village, the police of his street, the repairs of the church or the parsonage, do not concern him; for he looks upon all these things as unconnected with himself and as the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the government.”
As government grows, the ambit for real community shrinks. Conservatives want to roll back the state not because they envision human beings as selfish individualists who must be left alone to make as much money as they can, but because they see the functions of real communities being usurped by overweening governments — a usurpation that ends with the citizens ultimately unable to do anything for themselves without the aid of the central authorities. To an endless refrain of “We need more funding!”, the job of putting on puppet shows at the library passes from my neighbors and myself to some municipal or provincial employee and his supervisors. And — who knows? — from there someday to Public Service Alliance of Canada workers at the federal Ministry of Mimes, Clowns and Puppets.
Nor is that the worst of it. Our very understanding of the meaning of community has been degraded. Canadians take shockingly little interest in their immediate environs. Municipal politics are barely reported, and voter turnout in local elections seldom rises much above 25%. The parent-teacher associations so prevalent in the United States ignite very little enthusiasm here, largely because our schools receive their money and their orders from bureaucrats who can ignore parental preferences with impunity. The civic pride that inspired private citizens in the United States and Britain to donate their money and artworks to found great museums, libraries and universities never seemed to flourish here. Never mind the Metropolitan Museum or Oxford; Canada has nothing to compare with Chicago’s Art Institute or Atlanta’s Emory University. We have learned to transfer the community’s responsibilities to the government, and we have ceased to understand the difference between the two. We are not, in fact, a highly community-spirited people; we are merely a highly taxed people.
Having arrogated to itself the functions of real communities, modern Canadian government has proceeded to attack the very preconditions of communities’ existence: the moral norms that they enforce on their members. An old adage tells us that Spain suffered arbitrary government for so many centuries because the Spanish failed to understand that “freedom” entailed something more than a certificate declaring that this Spaniard was free to do anything he wished. Self-governing communities demand a very high degree of personal restraint from their members. Many people fear that this spirit of self-restraint is weakening in Canada. If so, it’s not because of free markets: Markets encourage self-restraint, a virtue essential to economic success. Nor is it because there’s too little government spending. We imposed many more restraints upon ourselves in 1965, before the great expansion of government, than we do today. It is the expansion of government that has accelerated the decay of our old “obligation culture,” as David Gelernter calls it in his wonderful book, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, to an “entitlement culture”; from an era when people said “I must” to one in which they say “I want.”
One small but telling example. Toronto formerly forbade women to remove their tops in public. Not an unreasonable rule, one would think. But a passel of feminist activists launched a court challenge against the ruling, and an obliging court struck the ordinance down as a violation of the Charter guarantee of sexual equality. A legal revolution? Not exactly. Toronto’s women have not yet made much use of their new freedom; the parks do not swarm with topless sunbathers.
The significance of that action extends far beyond the single rule at issue. One of the thousands of little rules and conventions — the vast majority of them unlegislated — that maintain Toronto as a pleasant place to live was set aside at the whim of a judge. Think of that the next time someone argues that “capitalism” dissolves community. Most of the time, the acid eating away at the restraints and rules of civilization is modern liberal government — in the form of judges and human-rights commissioners operating in the service of grievance-bearers with ever-expanding lists of claims on the rest of society.
Yes, corporations can undermine community standards, too. I dislike it as much as the next parent when Calvin Klein puts up a quasi-pornographic billboard on my street corner. Writers like Daniel Bell and the late Christopher Lasch tell us something of the truth when they warn that a marketplace undisciplined by morality can inflict real harm. Advertisers may attempt to exploit pervasive feelings of entitlement.
But it is our public policies that foment those feelings. In our heroic — but alas, inevitably futile — determination to use the state to wipe away every human tear, we have inculcated in ourselves a spooky certainty that failure is everywhere and always reflects on society. Are you poor? Fat? Ignorant? The fault is not yours, but everyone else’s — and you have a right to demand that some large new social program come into existence to redress the fault at once.
Flip open the report of Ontario’s 1994 Royal Commission on Learning for a spectacular example: “There must not be the slightest doubt that this Commission shares the concern, the desperation even, of the black community about the under-achievement of black students as a group. We can hardly stress too strongly our conviction that the school system must better accommodate the needs of black children and young black men and women. Schools must become more inclusive, staff must become more representative of our society as a whole, courses must reflect the perspectives and contributions of minority groups.
“But even that is not enough….”
Black students are performing poorly, the commissioners report, and therefore society is failing! The possibility that the blame for poor performance lies with the students or their parents is simply inadmissible. That would be “blaming the victim.” The possibility that we shouldn’t be tracking the performance of racial groups—that we should applaud individual success without measuring the skin color of the successful — is inadmissible too. That would be averting our eyes from a “crying social need.”
I don’t doubt that the educrats responsible for producing the Royal Commission report regard the critics who oppose their project for re-engineering the schools in the name of racial equality as opponents of “community.” But isn’t community spirit attacked far more viciously and directly by promoting racial aggrievement? Isn’t community responsibility for schooling certain to be the first casualty of orders from Central Education HQ?
Newcomers to a country tend to respect the rules of their new home. They intend to be good citizens. They hope to prosper here, and they begin full of confidence that they can. But once here, respected authority figures tell them to blame all the inevitable difficulties and disappointments of life in a strange country on the bigotry and unfairness of the old inhabitants, and to look to — and vote for! — an ever-expanding state as their only protection against the enemies that lurk all around them.
The accusation that limitations upon government threaten to sap the strength of our communities is diametrically opposed to the truth. Under our present circumstances, reductions in the arrogance and ambition of government are the very first steps that must be taken by those who hope to strengthen and revitalize communities. The late C.B. Macpherson, a Marxist political theorist at the University of Toronto, coined the intentionally unattractive phrase “possessive individualism” to describe the democratic capitalist societies he disliked. But contemporary Canadian conservatism is only incidentally concerned with acquisition, and defends individualism only within limits.
At its core, conservatism is a doctrine dedicated to the vindication of a good society — and to the preservation of that society from the ideologies and interest groups bent on destroying it.