Our Own Worst Enemies

In the early seventeenth century, the poet John Donne wrote: No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

Almost two hundred years after he wrote that, I have just finished reading a book loaned to me by a friend, which warns of and laments the decline of democratic society in the USA, which has long proclaimed itself as the world’s greatest democracy.  Written by Tom Nichols, the book is titled, Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within On Modern Democracy.

On the one hand, the book agrees with Donne’s assertion—in effect ascribing the success of US democratic institutions thus far to the truism that each of us must be part of the greater whole.  Sadly, however, the book asserts that the nation is currently experiencing a rise of individualism that is tearing at the fabric of democracy.

Nichols is a professor at the US Naval War College, a columnist for USA Today, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.  He is also the author of several other books, a former aide in the US Senate, and has been a Fellow of the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  In short, he knows whereof he speaks.

As I read the book, I fond myself wondering how closely my own country, Canada—and, indeed, other democracies around the world—might be following in the direction of our neighbour to the south.

Three of the chapter headings give a hint as to what lies inside the book’s covers: a) When Good Neighbors Are Bad Citizens; b) Democracy in an Age of Rage and Resentment; and c) How Hyper-Connection Is Destroying Democracy.

That last one is a central thesis in the book.  It seems, even as we become more and more connected virtually through our electronic devices, we are becoming less and less bonded in person.  Our communications, therefore, are untempered by any intimate knowledge we have of each other’s personalities and proclivities, or by any affection or consideration of each other’s feelings and opinions.  We have almost unfettered freedom to say anything online, to make whatever outlandish claims we want, with very little fear of repercussion or consequence.

The noted American writer, Isaac Asimov, wrote, There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Of course, he wrote that long before the proliferation of the internet and the hyper-connectivity it has brought us, which has only exacerbated the trend—and not only in that country.  Everywhere, it seems, ignorant people are now free to spew their venom and disinformation on a worldwide platform unavailable to previous generations.

An unfortunate by-product of this trend is the propensity for each of us to believe everything we think—surely a dangerous practice—and to assume that what we think is always right.  It thus follows that, if I disagree with you on any issue of significance, you believe I must be wrong.

On a grand scale, where no one believes anything espoused by others holding different opinions or political affiliations, the very notion of democracy is threatened.  Democracy flourishes, after all, on a free exchange of contradictory and opposing ideas, and an earnest consideration of the merits of all, eventually leading to a consensus as to how best to proceed.

The Economist Intelligence Unit publishes an annual democracy index, ranking the nations of the world on their adherence to democratic principles.  The scores are based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. Based on their scores on sixty indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime.

The USA of which Nichols writes in his book was ranked as a ‘flawed democracy’ in 2020, riven by acrimonious, partisan proselytizing, with no attempt to listen to or understand others’ points of view.  As Nichol’s title attests, Americans have become their own worst enemies.

By contrast, Canada—with all its own warts and blemishes—was ranked at # 5 in the ‘full democracy’ category, behind Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and New Zealand.

Those five nations are small by superpower standards, however, and thus able to exert only minimal influence on world affairs.  The USA, perhaps the most powerful nation the world has known, continues to influence global affairs on a massive scale.  If it were to drift from democracy to autocracy or dictatorship, it would surely draw along many others, some of whom—Brazil, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey—are already embarked on that path.

Plato wrote, Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.

After my reading of Nichol’s book, I wonder if I am seeing the beginning of that before my very eyes, where the islands of democracy are slowly shredding.  And if so, I hope we may yet resist, that we, with all our individual freedoms, will choose to remain a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

When the worst of us triumph, they get the government they want; when the best of us sit back, we get the government we deserve.

My Helping Tree

Here in Florida, the holiday season is full upon us with the advent of American Thanksgiving.  In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, I have set up my Wonderful Life Tree of Help once again, something I have been doing during every Christmas season since childhood. 

My helping tree is festooned with ornaments celebrating the many ways I have helped people throughout my life.  With all the modesty you have come to expect from me, I must tell you it is a magnificent display, and I am still adding to it.

Each ornament speaks to a person or group of folks whom I have helped along their way.  Some asked for my assistance, others were the unknowing beneficiaries of my kindness, and although things did not always pan out as intended, I’m pretty sure every one of them would have been appreciative of my good intentions.

Mind you, the ornaments are the reason I think that, as no one has ever actually bothered to thank me directly.

That aside, I have a beautiful ornament commemorating the first time I realized I had this compelling need to be of assistance to others.  In grade seven or eight, I saw two kids beating up another kid in the schoolyard, so I immediately stepped in to help.  The kid never had a chance against the three of us.

Another ornament celebrates the time I helped one of my friends who was really upset because, rather than kissing him during spin-the-bottle games, the girls always preferred to give him the nickel penalty and go on to the next boy.  I showed him how to open a bank account.

I have ornaments from my teenage years, too.  Once, when I was re-stocking shelves in a supermarket, a woman asked me which brand of toilet-tissue was best.  I was very helpful and told her on the whole, they’re all pretty good.

On another occasion, I was dragooned into helping my boss at a formal reception for his important suppliers.  My job was to stand at the entrance to the ballroom, like a doorman, and call the guests’ names as they arrived in all their finery.  They were quite astonished at the names I called them, and I awarded myself a beautiful ornament celebrating that occasion.  Lost my job, though.

Later, as a young married man, I was hiking a wilderness trail with my first wife when we saw a huge grizzly ahead of us in the path.  Although I knew I couldn’t outrun an angry bear, I was sure I could outrun my wife, so I told her I was going for help.  She’s not with me anymore, but there’s a lovely ornament on my helping tree to remember her by.

Around that same period, I offered two pieces of advice to a friend having marital troubles of his own.  With typical male smugness, I advised that the secret to a happy marriage was, first, to always let his wife think she was having her own way.  The second bit, I told him, was even more important—always let her have her own way.

Eventually, I became a father, and that’s when my propensity to help others really bloomed.  There’s a particularly lovely ornament on my tree marking the time I counselled a friend debating if he wanted to have children.  I reminded him of how he used to wonder why his parents were always in a bad mood.

I also have an ornament on my tree in honour of the time I told a particularly harried father that it’s not enough to put a loving note in his kids’ lunchboxes—he has to put food in there, too.

Lest you think I neglected my own parental responsibilities, let me assure you that I helped myself become a better parent by always finding out in advance what my daughters wanted to do, then advising them to do that exact same thing.  I earned so many ornaments for my tree by doing that simple thing.

– by Vickie Wade

All in all, my helping tree is a splendid sight, festooned with so many brilliant ornaments.  My favourite might be the one celebrating all the lost strangers who have asked me for directions over the years, directions I made up on the spot.  I wonder where they ever ended up?

Or perhaps it’s the ornament marking the time I helped my second wife with typing capital letters when she had her broken arm in a sling—I called it shift work.

Even now, at my advanced age, I find I’m still trying to help people, and I’m forever creating new ornaments to adorn my helping tree.  For example, I’ve lately been counselling aspiring writers who get frustrated when they run into blocks by telling them they’re not good enough to get mad.

More recently, I explained to a younger friend despairing about his lack of success in life that the two things holding him back are an abundance of witlessness and a justified dearth of confidence.  I’m not sure that cheered him, but I gave myself props for trying—and another ornament.

And just this morning, I earned my latest ornament by listening to a friend ramble on about his crackpot political leanings, then telling him I’d agree with him except that would make both of us wrong.

I confess it has become more difficult as I’ve gotten older to be of assistance to others.  I’m finding that most folks tend to look away when I approach, or even scurry away in unseemly haste.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it seems I now bring happiness and support to people, not wherever I go, but whenever I go.

Nevertheless, I persist in my relentless efforts to help whomever I can.  And to that end, may I suggest to you, dear reader, that if you find my advice tiresome and irrelevant, just stop reading!

No, no, wait…I mean…

New Book Release

fly away on the wings of a thrilling new adventure with

Maggie Keiller and Derek Sloan

~ AFTER THE LAKE CAUGHT FIRE ~

The pristine shoreline of Georgian Bay north of the resort town of Port Huntington is threatened by voracious developers planning to build a vacation condominium development.  Several local municipalities and community organizations are opposed to the plans, and the struggle soon becomes acrimonious.

At the same time, environmental testing reveals that the land proposed for development is a toxic wasteland, a result of chemical dumping by a long-ago munitions manufacturing company.  Although the Russian-backed developer is undeterred, the public outcry increases dramatically after several unmarked graves are uncovered at the site of a former Indigenous residential school located on the property. 

When a prominent, outspoken community leader is murdered by persons unknown, Maggie Keiller and Derek Sloan are drawn into the ensuing police investigation.  That shocking murder is shortly followed by two more killings and the abduction of a young girl, alarming the entire district.

As the scandalous involvement of the provincial government in ensuring approval for the development comes under close scrutiny, several players step forward with plans of their own to enrich themselves.  Skulduggery and mayhem abound, and Maggie and Derek, immersed in the midst of these fast-unfolding crises, suddenly find they are under attack from the same malign forces.  In order to save themselves and protect the interests of the Port Huntington community, they must use every means at their disposal. 

AFTER THE LAKE CAUGHT FIRE

is the eighth novel in my acclaimed crime-fiction series, and I’m sure you will enjoy it.

From now until Christmas, the book is available for $16.95 CAN, a pre-holiday 15% discount off the regular price.

You’ll find it, and all my other books, at this safe site—

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