Thursday, January 3, 2013

To Read, Perchance To Think

Shakespeare purists will perhaps forgive my titular, out-of-context paraphrasing of a famous line from Hamlet, but it occurred to me yesterday and today as I read two fine essays published in The Toronto Star.

The first, by former Globe writer Michael Valpy (strange how that 'newspaper of record' has either lost or terminated so many good writers in the past decade), appeared in yesterday's edition. Entitled Canada’s new politics of discord could carry a heavy price, it reflects on the implications of the breakdown in Canadian social cohesion both promoted and exploited by the Harper government as it works tireless to incrementally impose a right-leaning ethos on the country.

Valpy asserts that this wouldn't be happening if so many educated people had not disengaged from the political process:

If Canadian voters — that is, Canadians who actually vote — were all under age 45 and university-educated, there would be no Harper government, there would still be the long-form census, the Canadian Armed Forces would never have become mythologized as warriors, the country would not have become a side-taker with Israel in the Middle East, we probably still would have failed to keep our commitments under the Kyoto Protocol but at least we wouldn’t have withdrawn from it and we would not have advanced down the road to gutting federal environmental assessments.

While I do not necessarily agree that progressive values are the exclusive domain of the educated, his points about the consequences of disengagement are well-taken.

The second essay, found in today's paper, is by Alex Goldfarb, one of our most important and progressive voices. Entitled The mean test: Have we stopped caring about Canada’s most vulnerable?, Himelfarb's piece evaluates how successful Canada is via the following thesis:

How we measure our success as a country matters. It tells us a lot about what we value most. It shapes what we ask of our politicians and how we judge the performance of our governments. It shapes politics and policy.

Going beyond the standard economic criteria, he asks the question of how well we treat the weakest amongst us. By historical standards, Himelfarb asserts, we measure up pretty well, but he notes some very worrisome contemporary developments:

- Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike has drawn attention again to the suffering of her community, part of a growing movement, Idle No More, which got its impetus from the omnibus budget that weakened environmental protections without consultation with aboriginal communities;

- A few doctors and other health providers have also been leading protests against recent changes to refugee regulations, changes that mean more, including children, are subject to automatic detention and the separation of families...

- As for unemployed Canadians — too many of whom are young, often indebted graduates — cuts over the last 15 years have meant fewer are eligible for EI benefits or training;

- thousands have also protested the government’s punitive crime agenda, which, while politically popular, marks a sharp departure for Canada at a time when crime rates are going down;

- internationally, apart from freezing aid, our Parliament recently said no to a bill promising cheap drugs to poor countries, choosing, as Stephen Lewis put it, patents over people.

These changes, along with others he discusses, leads Himelfarb to conclude that we have become a meaner country, a country where the focus on short-term fiscal prudence is contributing to an erosion of our traditional national character. He calls for a real discussion about what we mean by the good life, the purpose of the economy, the kind of Canada we want. The opportunity for such a discussion, unfortunately, seems remote under the current regime.

My brief blog post only highlights some of the points made in these two important essays. I hope you will find the time to read both of them in detail.