Undercutting or Reinforcing Canada’s Civic Religion
In the previous blog, I wrote about the philosophic underpinnings of our current Canadian value system, what I call our Canadian civic religion. The positive spirit of our time and place is well expressed in the values and morals that have become dominant in Canada. They express the Absolute as revealed in our history that is articulated in the religious and moral consciousness of our age. There is possibly no better place to observe this spirit at work than at an interfaith conference held in Canada’s capital to commemorate the country’s 150th birthday as those in attendance searched for solidarity in diversity. The conference focused on Islamophobia, social inequalities, the plight of aboriginal peoples and on immigrants and refugees. In the final blog of this series, I will address the key elements of that civic religion, but today, tomorrow and the next day, I want to describe the conditions of our time that threaten it.
This past week, I attended the awards ceremony of the Donner Prize, a $50,000 award given to the best book published in Canada or by a Canadian on a public policy issue. The criteria for the award include the topicality of the issue covered, its significance (in the sense of importance) and the skill in communicating the subject matter. When the chair of the jury described the criteria and the process, he did not mention the depth, breadth and quality of the research and analysis entailed, but these factors could possibly have been included in the third criterion. A discussion of the five books on the short list offers a convenient portal to explore core Canadian values.
The five nominees for the prize, with my short form of reference included in square brackets, were:
- L’intégration des services en santé:une approche populationnelle[HIS – health services integration] (Yves Couturier, Lucie Bonin & Louse Belzile);
- Priests of Prosperity: How Central Bankers Transformed the Postcommunist World[Priests] (Juliet Johnson);
- A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices[Good Death] (Sandra Martin);
- A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age[Lies] (Daniel J. Levitin);
- Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control[Political Branding] (Alex Marland).
HIS is about efficiency and efficaciousness, values widely held, applied to the delivery of health services. Since it is about organization and administration rather than the values themselves, I will not discuss this book as offering a source of critical reflection on the spirit of our time. Priests, the most thoroughly researched book, as well as the one from which most could be learned that was new, was the one I favoured for the prize. But I was the only one at my table to do so and it did not win.
Priests is not about a civic religion rooted in the practices and values of the people, but about a priest-centered one. It is about the holy of holies in a materialist society: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and, most of all, the consensus developed among Western bankers on how the globalized international economy operates and the consensual neoliberal rules governing international monetary policy. Price stability, limited inflation targets, credibility and transparency were its central idols rather than employment, growth and social security. What better way to understand the priesthood than by examining the priests of another religion, a mercantilist one, converted and indoctrinated between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 2007.
The sacrificial goats in the West were those who had to absorb the impact of obsolescence and the home owners, particularly in the United States, who found the values of their homes underwater when the U.S. asset bubble suddenly deflated and Lehman Brothers collapsed. Unlike the banks, commoners were not bailed out by the neo-economic policies of the Obama program to save the Western financial system when the crisis became full-blown in 2008. And the crisis remains with us as Europe faces one crisis after another as the 2007-08 collapse turned into a sovereign debt crisis for some members of the EU. The priestly religion had lost its absolute authority and saintly status as the two elder children of the system (a puzzle for my readers) took their own lives as martyrs to save the system but, note, not reduce the suffering.
For no longer were monetary and financial policy to be left in separate silos to prevent the former from contamination by the latter. The priests, on the defensive, blamed the crisis on excessive risk-taking in financial policies by the politicians. The high priests were not to blame but, rather, the political commoners forbidden entry to the holy of holies who stormed the holy gates and, helped by a few wayward priests who betrayed their calling by innovating and not using consensual monetary policy to reign the upstarts in, contaminated the holy of holies. The temple was not destroyed. Its ramparts were reinforced as central bankers eased up on the strict monetary code with quantitative easing and other measures.
This book, however, unlike my treatise, is about priests and not commoners, and the conversion and indoctrination of the priests of an alien mercantilist religion in Eastern Europe. The losers and the victims in the West are not the subject of this volume. In the final chapter, the book is also about the god that failed. The result, faith in globalization, in the international priesthood and its values and norms, suffered a drastic blow. One of the results – the rise of protectionism and mercantilism along with populism in the West. Juliet Johnson does not overtly deal with the irony of this outcome in her final chapter, but it haunts that whole chapter as the effort to salvage the role of the central banks rested, not on reducing their functions, but expanding them into micro-level financial regulation and supervision, thereby politicizing the banking system and removing its immunity from day-to-day politics.
The commoners were entering the holy of holies. Donald Trump was elected on a protectionist platform. He became a partner of Vladimir Putin in the effort to resurrect mercantilism, including the kleptocracy that accompanied such policies as Trump himself had been a beneficiary of the $500 billion Russia had accumulated in foreign reserves during the oil boom. Russian money was laundered through Western capital investments. If Putin and his cronies helped Trump, then Trump would return the favour now that the Russian economy was in dire straits. In turn, the Trump brand would directly benefit from the resurrection effort and the U.S. currency as the stabilizing factor of last resort was about to be put on the altar for sacrifice in the holy of holies, thereby contaminating it forever.
The fight for control of the Holy Temple is now in full swing. It is important background to my concern with civic religion.
Four of ten people at my table voted for Good Death to win the prize, but, like HIS and Priests, it also did not win. Good Death, like most of the other books on the short list for the award, is ultimately about social ethics. The book focuses on the right to die at a time of one’s choosing in the search to find the correct balance between compassion for the suffering and protection of the vulnerable, between individual choice and social responsibility. As Sandra Martin wrote, “Baby boomers, reared on choice and autonomy, are radically restructuring the landscape of death, not only for themselves but for their elderly patients and the children coming up behind them.”
I mention her book as the first of the three dealing with civil society values because it affirms the critical importance of the leading cohort in society changing the ethics and practices in dealing with how and when a person chooses to terminate personal suffering. For the book is more about suffering than death. A good death comes with a minimum of suffering; this is the semi-Aristotelian premise of the volume.
Choice. Autonomy. In contrast to those values, Daniel J. Levitin in Lies contrasts the bad data, half-truths and outright lies in our current information age with the need to evaluate rational arguments, assess statistical data and recognize the meanings of words used in communication. Donald Trump demonstrates daily how limiting access to information – about workplace violation of norms and corporate disregard of environmental regulations that offer the new norm – has undermined Moses’ (Obama’s) political leadership in moving towards the Promised Land. While the financial crisis seriously weakened the sacred authority of monetary policy as set by central bankers, Trump was busy attacking the legitimacy of the polis itself by deregulating its role in every field as he issues ethical wavers to allow the profiteers and outright crooks to enter the political palace.
Levitin offers up the rabbinic codes of the information age, defining the proper use of statistics and how they are to be read, the role of clear and distinct language to replace obfuscation, and the role of informal logic to construct rational arguments and spot fallacies. The book is particularly strong on statistics but somewhat weak in its discussion of language while providing a clear and concise introduction to informal logic. However, it is like reading a nostalgic longing for the enlightenment, for rationality and for the scientific method in the face of a rise in philistinism and irrationality in public discourse.
Alex Marland, in the book that won the Donner prize, took an opposite tack and focused on the Canadian polity to uncover the role of unreason and control – in contrast with Sandra Martin’s celebration of choice and autonomy – in managing information and spreading a message. But it was the most moralistic book of them all, upholding a rationalism in public discourse, not as a standard as Levitin did, but as a “rational” populist political counter to the sustained effort to desecrate autonomy and choice in favour of collective thought on a niche level and the control over what people choose.
Branding is not inherently bad. The effort in marketing and selling an idea or a product by controlling images and messages from a central point of authority offers concision, simplicity and efficacy in communication. However, in his analysis, institutional weaknesses and the current digital media environment – not illogic, innumeracy and lack of literacy – are the culprits.
I end with Marland’s very sincere and spontaneous acceptance speech (he was truly surprised at winning). It dwelt with how to keep the threatening ghouls away from your door. The priests, evidently, will not protect you. Neither will simple good management. Presumably, confronting the sources of irrationality with logic, statistics, logical arguments and precision in one’s use of language will not keep the zombies at bay. In the age of messaging and mass manipulation, any emphasis on choice and autonomy might be a side show. What does Marland suggest in dealing with the outright lies, distortions and distractions of Donald Trump?
Turn the messaging mechanism off whenever Trump is discussed. Become a silent and distanced protester. Spend your considerable time on helping to forge Canadian policy where, in my words, a more compatible civic religion and political institutions exist. Will heeding the voice of a superego to ensure purity and immunity from contamination save us?
With the help of Alex Zisman