Seventh Meditation on Democracy [written October 1, 2008] REPUBLISHED

https _s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com_736x_ee_59_33_ee593300e425c02784549e0228c025e1In the begin­ning years of this blog, I pub­lished a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­larly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They still elic­it inquiries from remote cor­ners of the globe. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter so they can have anoth­er round of vis­i­bil­ity, espe­cially (I hope) with younger read­ers. I am re-post­ing them in their orig­i­nal sequence over part of 2018. Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched, though I may occa­sion­ally append some ret­ro­spec­tive notes. Most­ly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updat­ing.


14-03-18 BLOG SEVENTH MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACYA few days ago, I was in the sub­way, and I over­heard a con­ver­sa­tion about our cur­rent nation­al elec­tion. Two boys who, from their appear­ance, could have been no fur­ther along in school than grade nine or ten, were dis­cussing the tele­vised debates between the lead­ers of the five major polit­i­cal par­ties. What struck me, as I lis­tened in, was that the dis­cus­sion was cogent and intel­li­gent. One of the boys, who seemed the youngest, was par­tic­u­lar­ly artic­u­late, and his opin­ions were not the sim­ple par­rot­ing of some adult he had heard, or the pur­suit of a par­ty line. In fact, his analy­sis of the debate showed keen­er obser­va­tion and judg­ment than that of the pro­fes­sion­al com­men­ta­tors who dis­sect­ed the debate after the broad­cast.

Now, I’m sure that these were excep­tion­al kids. It’s unlike­ly that there are many in their age group who share their inter­ests and skills. But it’s a sign that there is some­thing going on, under the sur­face of our soci­ety, that you would nev­er guess by watch­ing tele­vi­sion or read­ing a news­pa­per. I grew up in a fam­i­ly where nation­al and provin­cial pol­i­tics were argued at the din­ner table with gus­to, and I have a clear mem­o­ry of the issues in an elec­tion held when I was ten years old. That was prob­a­bly an excep­tion­al envi­ron­ment. But I did not have access to the wealth of infor­ma­tion now avail­able on the inter­net. No amount of clev­er­ness is very use­ful if you have poor infor­ma­tion, so my capac­i­ty to ana­lyze was lim­it­ed. I doubt that I could have matched the sophis­ti­ca­tion demon­strat­ed by the kids in the sub­way. Many peo­ple, of any age, are still prey to the tra­di­tion­al tools of obfus­ca­tion, but­ton-push­ing and appeals to prej­u­dice that politi­cians have suc­cess­ful­ly deployed for cen­turies. How­ev­er, if some­one is fair­ly sharp, and raised with the infor­ma­tion tools now avail­able, they have a good chance of see­ing through these strat­a­gems. So you can expect there to start appear­ing a lay­er of young peo­ple who are rel­a­tive­ly immune to the kind of sil­ly-ass cam­paign­ing that our cur­rent gov­ern­ment relies upon. It will be very inter­est­ing to see what hap­pens when that lay­er of peo­ple, who were born with the inter­net, grows up and walks into the poll-booth. They will be dis­plac­ing a gen­er­a­tion that grew up with the much more pas­sive and homo­ge­neous medi­um of tele­vi­sion.

One of the results may be that the elec­torate does some grow­ing up in a psy­cho­log­i­cal, as well as a phys­i­cal sense. One of the chief points that I’ve tried to put across in my “med­i­ta­tions on democ­ra­cy” is that the core con­cept of democ­ra­cy is self-respect. Self-respect is man­i­fest­ed, in a healthy mind, by a will­ing­ness to take on the respon­si­bil­i­ties of an adult when one becomes an adult. The prin­ci­pal respon­si­bil­i­ty that an adult has is to gov­ern one­self. A child is born help­less, and must at first be con­trolled and guid­ed by par­ents, in order to sur­vive at all. But, as the child grows old­er, the car­ing par­ent relin­quish­es one aspect of con­trol after anoth­er, until adult­hood is reached, and the child becomes autonomous and self-gov­ern­ing. That is com­mon sense, under­stood by most peo­ple on the indi­vid­ual lev­el. How­ev­er, on the lev­el of col­lec­tive action, on the lev­el of soci­ety, that com­mon sense les­son is rarely under­stood.

When peo­ple dis­cussing pol­i­tics talk about “lead­er­ship”, you know that they are encased in a prim­i­tive, pre-log­i­cal, and infan­tile state of mind. Peo­ple who seek lead­ers are sim­ply not grown up, and peo­ple who advance the claim of Lead­er­ship are attempt­ing to keep adults in a state of per­pet­u­al child­hood. If to be an adult means to gov­ern one­self, then no adult should be seek­ing a “leader”. The pur­pose of democ­ra­cy is not to “select a leader”. It is to select poli­cies. The mech­a­nism of democ­ra­cy is not intend­ed to choose some­one to gov­ern the peo­ple, but for the peo­ple to gov­ern them­selves. In ratio­nal demo­c­ra­t­ic thought, office hold­ers are not “lead­ers”, they are ser­vants. The pur­pose of an elec­tion is to 1) choose a pol­i­cy of admin­is­tra­tion and an over­all plan, 2) assign peo­ple to the rel­e­vant tasks, and 3) make sure they do what they are told to do. “Lead­er­ship” does not come into it. Vot­ers are not sup­posed to be “led”, they are sup­posed to be in charge. The last per­son I want to see hold pub­lic office is some strut­ting alpha-ape who claims the right to tell me what to do. If I see some­one run­ning for office who is flaunt­ing dom­i­nance sig­nals, claim­ing to have “vision” and telling me I need “lead­er­ship”, then my healthy, sane, adult response is to want to see such an ass­hole slapped down, hum­bled, and kicked out of pub­lic life. I want to see them replaced with some com­pe­tent per­son who will faith­ful­ly car­ry out the instruc­tions they are giv­en by the peo­ple. I am an adult, and a free man, so any­one who dares to claim to be my “leader” earns noth­ing but my con­tempt. My fun­da­men­tal her­itage as a Cana­di­an is that the only legit­i­mate leader of me is me.

Cana­di­ans are sup­posed to know this. We are not some back­ward tribe of sav­ages danc­ing around a gold­en calf and wait­ing for a crack­pot Mes­si­ah to tell us what to do. We are sup­posed to be grown up enough not to be impressed by a tai­lored suit, a jut­ting jaw, or a man­u­fac­tured pub­lic­i­ty image. The polit­i­cal sys­tem we have built, slow­ly and pru­dent­ly, out of dis­parate tra­di­tion­al sources — England’s slow­ly evolved par­lia­ment, New England’s town meet­ings, native Cana­di­an coun­cils, the long fight for uni­ver­sal fran­chise, notions of auton­o­my, indi­vid­ual rights, social equal­i­ty, and self-rule — should not be per­mit­ted to lapse into some kind of mys­ti­cal monar­chy, after all our strug­gles. That is pre­cise­ly why, in our sys­tem, the prime min­is­ter is not the head of state, and his or her gov­ern­ment can be called to account at any time, or dis­solved by a vote of no-con­fi­dence. In fact, the pres­ence of a prime min­is­ter is a mere super­sti­tious holdover, an arti­fact of prim­i­tive hier­ar­chi­cal thought that is fun­da­men­tal­ly incom­pat­i­ble with democ­ra­cy.

The only valid func­tion of a prime min­is­ter in our sys­tem is to “form a gov­ern­ment”, i.e. to select a cab­i­net and over­see the admin­is­tra­tion of what­ev­er laws the assem­bled par­lia­ment choos­es to pass. Oth­er­wise, he is mere­ly a min­is­ter like any oth­er, elect­ed to rep­re­sent his local rid­ing. It is the assem­bled mem­bers of par­lia­ment who are sup­posed to be mak­ing deci­sions, not the prime min­is­ter. A par­lia­ment can func­tion bet­ter with­out the office, and if we man­age to evolve our sys­tem fur­ther, it will even­tu­al­ly be abol­ished.

Peo­ple con­sis­tent­ly con­fuse (because they have been encour­aged to con­fuse) a polit­i­cal par­ty with gov­ern­ment. But a par­ty is mere­ly a pri­vate asso­ci­a­tion of cit­i­zens, some hold­ing office and some not, that sup­pos­ed­ly shares some par­tic­u­lar opin­ions about pol­i­cy. Mem­bers of par­lia­ment may choose to belong to a polit­i­cal par­ty, but their role in par­lia­ment is to pro­pose, debate, and vote on leg­is­la­tion for the well-being of the coun­try, as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of their con­stituents. They are not sup­posed to be cogs or func­tionar­ies of what­ev­er par­ty they belong to, and they are sup­posed to be answer­able to the elec­torate, not to their par­ty lead­er­ship. The fact that Stephen Harp­er, the cur­rent prime min­is­ter, is the leader of his par­ty (a pri­vate orga­ni­za­tion) should nev­er be con­fused with the fact that he has been instruct­ed by the Head of State, Michaëlle Jean, to select a cab­i­net and car­ry out pub­lic admin­is­tra­tion.

But what, in this sys­tem, actu­al­ly neces­si­tates there being a prime min­is­ter? The affairs of gov­ern­ment are sup­posed to be under­tak­en and man­aged by cab­i­net min­is­ters. The “chief exec­u­tive” of the gov­ern­ment is Par­lia­ment itself. It is the process of vot­ing in assem­bly that deter­mines pol­i­cy and assigns tasks to the rel­e­vant min­is­ters. There­fore, there is noth­ing neces­si­tat­ing the des­ig­na­tion of any sin­gle per­son as the “chief exec­u­tive”. The only thing that brings the office into promi­nence is the chron­ic and dys­func­tion­al habit that peo­ple have of seek­ing a “chief”. They embroil them­selves in his or her per­son­al­i­ty, rather than con­cen­trat­ing on the actu­al con­crete deci­sions that have to be made and car­ried out. That is not demo­c­ra­t­ic behav­iour ― it is the behav­iour of peo­ple who fail to grasp the ele­men­tary prin­ci­ples of democ­ra­cy. Par­lia­ment as a whole could elect the cab­i­net min­is­ters from their own num­ber, and dis­pense with the prime min­is­ter entire­ly. In such a reformed sys­tem, the elec­torate would be forced to think about poli­cies, pro­grams, and choic­es of action, rather than idi­ot­ic irrel­e­van­cies such as what cloth­ing a can­di­date wears or the tim­bre of their voice, or their sense of humour, or their puta­tive “lead­er­ship qual­i­ties”.

Stephen Harp­er and the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty have done every­thing in their pow­er to import an Amer­i­can-style “cult of the prime min­is­ter” into this coun­try. He has been large­ly unsuc­cess­ful in this enter­prise, since it runs against the grain of the country’s habits and tem­pera­ment. But he does suc­cess­ful­ly deploy the “lead­er­ship” con­cept, because Cana­di­ans are just as much accus­tomed to assum­ing that “lead­er­ship” is a pos­i­tive, desir­able thing as Amer­i­cans are. The notion is relent­less­ly pound­ed into us, from ear­ly child­hood, through edu­ca­tion and the media. In the cur­rent elec­tion, mil­lions of fool­ish peo­ple will vote for Harp­er because he looks like a tele­vi­sion cast­ing choice for a “dis­tin­guished leader”, and spends mil­lions of dol­lars shout­ing the word “lead­er­ship” at the pub­lic. In real­i­ty, he is a pathet­ic flunky who jumps to the orders of glob­al oil exec­u­tives, believes in a dis­cred­it­ed crack­pot ide­ol­o­gy, and has pissed away most of the country’s sav­ings. His lead­ing oppo­nent is a com­pe­tent enough admin­is­tra­tor, rea­son­ably well-informed, propos­ing far more sen­si­ble poli­cies, but he is awk­ward in front of a cam­era and has no act­ing skills. His party’s poli­cies are a more rea­son­able choice in this cir­cum­stance, some­thing evi­dent to any­one who has an adult revul­sion for “lead­er­ship” non­sense. After decades of con­stant incul­ca­tion, many have come to believe that the pos­tur­ing and man­ner­isms of “lead­er­ship” are the only things worth think­ing about. Con­se­quent­ly, there’s a great dan­ger that the cur­rent government’s bla­tant incom­pe­tence will go unpun­ished by the elec­torate, sim­ply because the oppo­si­tion can­not make the nec­es­sary dom­i­nant simi­an nois­es. In this elec­tion, it is the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty that embod­ies the cult of lead­er­ship, so the opti­mum vot­er strat­e­gy is to vote for whomev­er might defeat the Con­ser­v­a­tives in their rid­ing, a strat­e­gy pop­u­lar­ly known in Cana­da as “ABC” (Any­thing But Con­ser­v­a­tive).

When I want my car fixed, I don’t want “lead­er­ship qual­i­ties”, I want knowl­edge of auto mechan­ics. When I want my kid­ney stones extract­ed, I want a com­pe­tent sur­geon, not some­one who can make peo­ple cheer at a ral­ly. When I want my rights pro­tect­ed, I want an hon­est ser­vant who acts moral­ly, not a clever pow­er-seek­er. When I want the envi­ron­ment pro­tect­ed, I want some­one who knows the phys­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal sci­ences, and is not in the pay of pol­luters, not an expert at manip­u­lat­ing peo­ple. When I want the econ­o­my pro­tect­ed from fraud, I want an hon­est accoun­tant, not a con-artist with “charis­ma”. When I see a pompous ass telling me he is my “leader”, I want to see him defeat­ed, laughed at, and dis­missed. That is because I’m grown up. I’m an adult. If I have any doubts about this atti­tude, I need only look south of the bor­der to see what hap­pens to a great nation when it flees into a state of per­ma­nent, arti­fi­cial child­hood.

The pres­i­den­cy, in the Amer­i­can sys­tem, is an even more archa­ic left­over than our office of prime min­is­ter ― and it has mutat­ed into a dan­ger­ous roy­al cult, which has brought the Amer­i­can peo­ple near to destruc­tion. In the midst of that destruc­tion, Amer­i­cans are not talk­ing about what should be done to fix the prob­lems, but about who will be the charis­mat­ic Leader who will kiss them and make things bet­ter. In oth­er words, it is still an elec­tion about mag­ic, when it’s pre­cise­ly a belief in mag­ic that got them into the dis­as­trous posi­tion they’re in. Luck­i­ly, in Cana­da, we don’t seem to have moved so far into such a world of unre­al­i­ty. The typ­i­cal Cana­di­an vot­er does not sit around cal­cu­lat­ing whether a can­di­date bears the num­ber of the beast, or demand that a politi­cian infuse them with “hope”, or that they fix the econ­o­my by being hand­some, or that they pro­duce effort­less pros­per­i­ty out of a hat. Cana­di­ans still see politi­cians as human beings hired to do a job for them, though the “lead­er­ship” con­cept intrudes and con­fus­es their oth­er­wise com­mon-sense instincts. But that con­fu­sion is crit­i­cal in this par­tic­u­lar elec­tion, where our future is more at stake than usu­al. The elec­tion will be held in two days, and we will see exact­ly what per­cent­age of us are chil­dren and what per­cent­age are adults, since pur­port­ed “lead­er­ship” is the only thing the incum­bent gov­ern­ment is run­ning on. It is our Thanks­giv­ing week­end, and polls sug­gests that most unde­cid­ed vot­ers plan to make their deci­sion after fam­i­ly dis­cus­sion over the turkey din­ner.

Which brings us back to the kids in the sub­way. The kids I over­heard did not say any of the stu­pid things rou­tine­ly spout­ed by adults in the press and on tele­vi­sion. They did not once men­tion “lead­er­ship”. Will the greater access to infor­ma­tion they enjoy, and the habits of research, process mod­el­ing, and inter­ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion, which home com­put­ers have exposed them to, even­tu­al­ly allow them to see beyond the “image” and “lead­er­ship” fal­lac­i­es? Will they be more inclined to grow up into func­tion­ing adults, rather than eter­nal­ly depen­dent chil­dren? Will they learn to fol­low facts and prin­ci­ples, rather than Lead­ers?

I have a sus­pi­cion that they will. They will, unlike the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion, grow up. The ques­tion is, will they grow up quick­ly enough to save us from the destruc­tive choic­es of a gen­er­a­tion of arti­fi­cial infants?


This arti­cle was writ­ten ear­li­er than it’s pub­li­ca­tion date, and the inci­dent in the sub­way refers to the fed­er­al elec­tion of the pre­vi­ous year. That elec­tion ini­ti­at­ed the long tenure of Steven Harp­er and his Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty in the nation­al par­lia­ment. At the time it was pub­lished, anoth­er elec­tion was being con­test­ed here in the Province of Ontario, which result­ed in the even longer tenure of Lib­er­al Par­ty gov­ern­ment. The impact of home com­put­ers and the inter­net on the elec­torate has tak­en some­what dif­fer­ent turns than most of us assumed when this was writ­ten. How­ev­er, the ulti­mate results may turn out some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent. 

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