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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