Until It Isn’t

They were twenty years old, two houses across the road from one another in the Florida golf community where my wife and I live for six months of the year.  Identical models—two bedrooms, two bathrooms, den, double-car garage, large screened-in lanai—the stucco walls of one were painted mist-green, the other taupe.

I was surprised one day to see the green house completely shrouded in plastic sheeting, two large hoses snaking from a truck parked in the driveway to the house.  A neighbour told me the owners had discovered termites and had promptly called in the exterminators to ‘tent’ the house for fumigation.  It was a week or more before the residents could move back in, by which time we had gone back north.

Six months later, after arriving back in the community, I drove down the same street, only to discover the taupe house was completely gone.  All that was left was a starkly-white concrete pad between the adjacent houses, the paving-stone driveway leading to where the garage had been.  Weeds were sprouting between the pavers, and the scene was sadly incongruous, like a missing tooth in an otherwise-gorgeous smile.

The same neighbour told me that during the summer, the roof over the spare bedroom had collapsed.  No one was home at the time, fortunately, but an inspection of the house led to its being deemed inhabitable.

“Termites!” the neighbour said.  “All through the place.  Little buggers had likely been gnawin’ away for years, accordin’ to the insurance adjuster.  When the studs couldn’t support the roof any longer, down she came.”

I had long known of the perils of termite infestation, and was conscientious about looking for signs in our own house.  But they are hard to find—windows or doors that jam unexpectedly, mud tubes around the outside foundation, tiny pinholes in the painted drywall indoors, small piles of sawdust.  An awareness of the prospective danger is needed, and diligence.

The neighbour shrugged when I asked him if the owners were planning to rebuild their home. “Eventually, I guess, if’n they get the insurance money to cover it.  Otherwise, somebody else will prob’ly buy ‘em out an’ put up a brand new place.”

It seemed so unfair to me that those two lovely homes, both of which had steadfastly withstood numerous external threats for years—blistering sun, torrential rain, flooding, hurricane-force winds—had been attacked by stealth from within.  And only one had been saved, perhaps providentially, while the other had been destroyed.

I’ve been reflecting on that lately, considering how the scenario might be analogous to the state of our democratic form of governance.  In both Canada and the U.S., most of us appreciate the freedoms we enjoy—although some of us might too often take them for granted. But fewer of us, it seems, recognize the responsibilities that accompany those freedoms.

A partial list of such rights might include the right to elect those who govern us, to assemble peacefully, to speak freely, to enjoy an unencumbered press, to worship according to our conscience, to receive equal treatment under the law, and to be safe in the privacy of our homes.

Alas, in both countries, our history shows that not everyone has benefited from an equal application of those rights, although as Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Our two democracies have, so far, successfully repelled all attacks on us launched directly or indirectly by malign forces from abroad.  We are aware of, and perhaps readying to defend ourselves against, future existential threats like climate change and pandemic diseases.  Despite our individual differences, we have always rallied together to defeat external foes.

But what of the stealthy foe from inside the house, the metaphorical termite gnawing away at the foundations of our democracy?  Are we ready for that fight?

Even in hitherto strong democracies such as ours, there seems to be a growing threat of authoritarianism, a drift toward mis- and disinformation, a widening chasm between people of different political persuasions, a greater tendency to hurl insult and vitriol at one another, rather than listening to each other’s respective points of view.

Too many of us appear to be increasingly adopting and promulgating viewpoints that reflect our preconceived notions—confirmation bias—instead of keeping our minds open to alternative opinions that might modify our thinking and help us to learn and grow—and most importantly, to understand one another better.

So many are becoming increasingly tribal in our affiliations, whether based on race, religion, politics, or culture.  We are growing ever more selfish about, and protective of, what we deem our rights, too often without an acceptance of the responsibilities we bear in the exercise of those rights.  Too many of us seem willing to violate the rights of others in pursuit of our own self-centred aims.

For too many of us, the distinction between fact and falsehood, between integrity and mendacity, has become blurred to the point where we begin to declare the only truth is ‘my truth’.

The choice our countries are facing, in my opinion, is threefold:  1) we blithely allow ourselves to be attacked from within by those who would dissuade us from our most precious assumptions about democratic governance; 2) we choose to ignore, despite the signs, that the attack is occurring; or 3) we acknowledge the attack and take appropriate measures to deal with it.  

As Abraham Lincoln said in 1858, drawing from the Bible, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  The enemy from within is always the more dangerous, and the termites certainly proved the truth of that in the destruction of the taupe house in my community.  I cannot imagine that the owners of those two houses blithely allowed such an attack, but it is clear the owners of the green house took effective action as soon as they became aware of the problem.

With similar due diligence and swift measures by its owners, the collapse of the taupe house could have been stopped.  But it was not.

And in the same way, the insidious attack on our democratic form of governance from within is preventable. 

Until it isn’t.

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.