Canadian Civil Society I
At the conference in Ottawa last week on “Our Whole Society: Religion & Citizenship at Canada’s 150th,” the objective was to advance solidarity among faith groups by allowing them to operate within a broader framework of shared practices, in spite of diverse perspectives. I was there to address the role of faith groups with respect to immigrants and refugees and to help comprehend the role of faith groups in society more generally.
In my talk, I addressed each of these topics. On the issue of solidarity, I challenged such an objective on two grounds. First, a family resemblance existed among different faith groups on shared practices and values that required no solidarity on perspectives. They already had a common frame; they did not need solidarity on content. As John Borrows noted in his keynote address, the goal should not be to close the space and eliminate the gaps between and among groups. Nor should it simply be to allow space for others. Rather, those spaces should be used to encourage dialogue and debate, to facilitate exchanges that encourage respect for others.
Secondly, I addressed the conjunction between immigrants and refugees and suggested a fundamental difference between the two groups, not in terms of the traditional difference between one group who came of their own free will and the other who came because they were forced to flee. Free will and coercion are not dichotomous choices. Rather they are ideal poles and different immigrant and refugee groups arrive with different degrees of each motivating their quest for Canadian citizenship. I then suggested that the groups could better be distinguished by the different ways they integrated into Canadian society, a process that had important implications for future support of refugees and for the premise of the interfaith dialogue that led to the cooperation of faith groups.
Third, I challenged the conception of “exclusive secularism” that seemed to have been presumed by the organizers. This is a brand of secularism that insists that a hard line had to be drawn between the secular and the faith worlds, as hard a line as Kant drew between reason and faith in his Critiques. I challenged this proposition on two grounds. First, in many jurisdictions, especially in France with its doctrine of laicité, secularism itself is a religion and a relatively dogmatic one at that. It is a value-rooted system that prescribes conduct and especially dress, not just the banning of the hijab by school girls, but the wearing of speedos by males at public swimming pools. Second, it is a myth that faith groups are excluded from the political process. They enjoy in many areas, but especially in the sphere of refugees, an intimate partnership with the state as well as with the rest of secular society.
Fourth, I insisted that research had pointed to the important relevance of history rather than the primacy of faith in explaining the hand religious groups extended to refugees. That is why the Mennonites and the Christian Reformed Church were first to step up to the plate in a partnership with the Government to bring Indochinese refugees into Canada in 1979 and why more established churches, the United Church and the Catholics, had been stragglers. There was a hierarchy of commitment among faith groups, but the degree of commitment was not determined by faith, but by the historical experience imprinted in a group’s priorities concerning the effort to be devoted to refugees.
But the major part of the talk addressed the family resemblance among the different faith groups. I argued that the same family resemblance was shared with a significant part of secular society so that it could be said that most Canadians share a Canadian Civil Religion. It is a civil religion because it is not rooted in a singular faith and because it influences and prioritizes what governments do and, in particular, how government deals with strangers, how it deals with immigrants and refugees, how it deals with the most important question a polis faces, who to admit into membership. They shared core values. The values as articulated below were all expressed by various participants on the first day of the conference. I merely wrote them down.
The easiest way to explicate the Canadian Civil Religion was to contrast it with the American Civic Religion currently dominant in our neighbour to the south. I stress the phrase “currently dominant,” because most Americans do not decry the Canadian values depicted below. Second, the current dominant American values are also present underground in the Canadian collective psyche.
A set of ten values as follows indicates the contrast:
- Civility Incivility
- Compassion Passion
- Dignity Indignation
- Diversity Unity
- Empathy Insecurity
- Impartial Partisan
- Egalitarian Inegalitarian
- Fairness Ruthless & even Unfair
- Freedom as a Goal Freedom as Given
- False-consciousness Humans as Falsifiers
Let me explore each of these dichotomies in turn. In doing so, I will make reference to the brilliant and gripping Netflix documentary, Get me Roger Stone, in which the Stone-Trump doctrine of cynicism is explicitly articulated. Roger Stone has been depicted by Jeffrey Toobin as the “sinister Forrest Gump of American politics.” Whereas the movie Forrest Gump provided a story in which a naïve innocent was present in every key event since 1960, Roger Stone’s biography reveals a cynical disrupter present in everything from an indirect involvement in the McCarthy hearings through his mentor and hero, Ray Cohn (who was also Donald Trump’s litigation lawyer) from whom Stone adopted his dandyism, to his own actual involvement in everything from Watergate to the election and performance of Donald Trump.
Though not ever present in the Canadian sprawl, at the centre of the Canadian Civil religion is the quality of civility. For Canadians, it is the queen of virtues. It is what Americans refer to when they say, “Canadians are so polite.” Civility esteems reasonable behaviour that elevates courtesy to an art form. At the funeral of Ron Atkey, one could not ignore the civility that characterized this man during his life and the order and respect of the memorial service in his honour at Metropolitan United Church. For society to be civil, political engagement has to show reverence for civility in the conduct of those who practice the profession. Civility, relatively, is an outstanding trait of the Canadian Parliament.
In contrast, Roger Stone and Donald Trump raised incivility to a political art form by using discourtesy to others, innuendo, ad hominem attacks, personal insults, troll accusations and hate speech as the core of the political process. Whether Trump was telling the Russian ambassador that Comey was a “nut job,” or whether he and Stone were leading a mass crowd to shout, “lock her up” in reference to Hillary Clinton, Trump wallowed in libel and defamed his final competitor in the race for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz, by referring to stories accusing his opponent of being a sexual gallivanter when Trump’s own operators had written the stories. This is not a core value of most Americans. It is a core value of the Trump regime currently in charge of the polis in the U.S.
A second virtue extolled in the Canadian Civil Religion is compassion, a concern for the sufferings and misfortunes of others. Compassion entails not just pity, but self-sacrifice for others. Compassion is not merely driven by the sight of the dead three-year-old Syrian refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Turkish beach, or abhorrence at the horrors of war itself, as Donald Trump was possibly motivated by the dead children killed in the chemical attack by Syrian forces that left 75 dead, including 20 children. Donald Trump called the behaviour an “affront to humanity” and castigated Bashar al-Assad for his heinous action. But his outrage was not based on compassion for it did not lead to sacrifice and the admission of Syrian refugees into the U.S. Rather, it led to blowing up runways, facilities and planes with tomahawk missiles.
For the ideology of the Trump brand extols passion for a cause rather than compassion for others. Zealotry, intensity and pugnacity are highly praised under a doctrine of “take no prisoners” and leave behind a scorched earth. For the object is not just winning, but winning at any cost and winning at great cost to the other. For politics is not a positive sum game or even a zero sum game. It is a negative sum game in which you lose, but your opposition must suffer even greater losses. Politics becomes provocation and the only response to criticism is to attack, attack and attack.
A third virtue of the Canadian Civil Religion is dignity. Dignity admires serious attention to a problem and self-control in dealing with it. But it is not only a virtue with respect to one’s own bearing and conduct, speech and self-regard, it is also the accord extended to others who one considers to be a being who is valued even as one disagrees with his or her opinions. The virtue is identified with respect for inherent and inalienable rights. Humans of all types must be treated with dignity. So must the dead.
The contrasting values of the Stone-Trump ideology esteem indignation in oneself and insults aimed at the other. The goal of the latter is to humiliate and lay open to scorn the character and conduct of others. Indignation demonstrates unconcern and indifference for the other and total absorption and care for oneself. The object is to debase the other and draw attention to oneself. The irony is that indignation is seen to arise because of perceived unfair treatment of oneself. One is affronted and takes umbrage at the disrespect shown. But indignation does not normally result in the quest for fair treatment, but rather in a view that the world is inherently unfair and that the only response is fight if one does not want to flee the plane of battle. Indignation presumes a politics of resentment and uses that deep understanding to mobilize those suffering from indifference and disrespect.
A fourth value esteemed in the Canadian Civil Religion is diversity. Often, many think that this is the primary cultural attitude as we extol multiculturalism. But the curious question is why anyone would prefer monochromatic unity in opposition to diversity. We do not want to eat at the same restaurant every night. And we all do not love meat loaf and fast food. Canadians extol the richness of multiculturalism, the benefits to society brought about when multiple cultures live side-by-side and interact.
However, the reverence for diversity, the respect for pluralism, is not confined to civil society. It permeates the polis, its makeup, policies and priorities. Canadians do not favour assimilation; Canada has no melting pot. Canadians do favour integration. Canadians support strong multiculturalism, not simply tolerance and respect for differences, but a positive effort to promote diversity both in the political representatives of our society and in how the government deals with different cultural groups. This is a work in progress because the government has never been able to adequately address the status and role of aboriginal groups in Canadian society. However, John Borrows in his keynote speech offered a primer on how to do precisely that.
Trump trumpeted unity in his victory speech. This past American Thanksgiving in late November, when Donald Trump was forming his government, he offered the following prayer: “It’s my prayer that on this Thanksgiving we begin to heal our divisions and move forward as one country strengthened by shared purpose and very, very common resolve.” From the most divisive force in the history of American politics, this prayer may have seemed like an expression of hypocrisy, but Trump has a record of engaging in fisticuffs and then inviting all those he beat up for a drink, while notably abstaining himself.
When he appointed South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, it was not done to highlight America’s multiculturalism, but to honour the success of its efforts in assimilation. When he gave his first address to a joint session of Congress, he extolled unity to end a toxic, partisan environment, ignoring totally that he was the prime source of the toxicity. When he is in charge, everyone should march to the tune of the pied piper even as he plays very different tunes at different times. Unity is a virtue as long, and only as long, as it means unity in “following me.”
That appeal did not last as divisions worsened in society at large, between Democrats and Republicans, within the Republican caucus and even within the White House itself. Trump does not invite or welcome dissident voices. He sees himself as the captain of dissent and difference, but a captain intent on winning the big prize and forging a regime of unity under his suzerainty. It does not work in politics or in society, and Canadians know why.
To Be Continued
With the help of Alex Zisman