The Quality of a Nation

According to St. Augustine, a nation is an association of reasonable beings united in a peaceful sharing of the things they cherish; therefore, to determine the quality of a nation, you must consider what those things are.

He wrote this in a monumental work of Christian philosophy, entitled The City of God, in the fifth century AD.  Fifteen-hundred years later, in 1951, the Canada Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters & Sciences used it as a preface to their report to parliament.

royal-commission

The recent triumph of Donald Trump in the US presidential election was one of two things that got me to wondering what a list of those qualities might be—not so much for the USA as for my own country.  What are the values that Canada, as a nation, truly cherishes?

The political opponents of the American president-elect have cast his ascension to power in the darkest terms, quite a difference to the sunny ways seemingly endorsed in our own federal election a year or so ago.  Words like racist, misogynist, bully, and xenophobic, used in reference to Trump by his foes, offer a stark contrast to words such as enthusiastic, transparent, optimistic, and leader, which have been applied to our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, by his supporters.

On the flip-side, Trump’s supporters have described him as strong, forceful, down-to-earth, and no pushover.  Trudeau’s detractors have used words and phrases like boyish, emotional, and not man enough in their descriptions.

Of course, political opinions, like beauty, are mostly in the eye of the beholders, and care should be taken not to believe everything one reads or hears about either of these gentlemen.  Still, the fact that both were elected to their country’s highest office by their respective citizens might say something about what is cherished by each nation.  At least at present, and by a sufficient number of those who voted.

But the critical thing about nationhood is that, despite these opposing viewpoints, each nation as a whole must accept and adhere to a basic set of values if it is to survive.

us-constitution

The second thing that prompted my curiosity about the qualities Canada might cherish was the proposal by a presumptive political-party leader, Kellie Leitch, to vigorously pre-screen potential immigrants for any trace of “anti-Canadian values”.  If they fail to measure up to the standard she will presumably establish, she will bar them from entry.

It makes sense, of course, to ban terrorists and criminals; it also makes sense to admit people with skills and training Canada needs, and people who are fleeing for their lives from oppressive regimes.  In fact, our current immigration practices and procedures do both of these things quite well.

But what are the values Leitch is looking for?  She has stated that the test will screen for anti-Canadian views that include intolerance toward other religions, cultures, and sexual orientations; violent and/or misogynist behaviour; and/or a lack of acceptance of our Canadian tradition of personal and economic freedoms.

I wonder, though, how she might define such concepts as intolerance (Sorry, but I will not eat poutine!) or personal freedoms (Okay, okay…I won’t pee on the golf course!).  Could it be so simple and light-hearted?

Likely not.  For example, if I were a prospective immigrant of a particular faith, say Catholic, would I be banned for not endorsing the notion of same-sex marriage?  If I were to vigorously protest the environmental policies of the federal government (perhaps a government she might be leading), thereby exercising  free speech, would I be expelled?  If I chose to wear a niqab during my citizenship swearing-in, would I be rudely escorted from the room?  And the country?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted as part of the Constitution Act in 1982, pretty much lays out in its thirty-four sections the entitlements and responsibilities conferred upon, and expected of, every citizen.  By its very existence, it establishes many of the values our nation cherishes; for example:

  • the right to life, liberty and security of the person…
  • [equality] before and under the law and…the right to the equal protection and equal benefit  of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability…
  • [these rights] shall not be construed as denying the existence of any other rights or freedoms that exist in Canada…
  • [these rights] are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.

canadian-charter

In effect, this means all citizens enjoy the right to cherish, and act in accordance with, whatever they believe—with the proviso that they must not harm anyone else.  No one, it seems to me, including a politically-motivated Kellie Leitch, can judge any of us on a set of arbitrarily-established Canadian values.

Perhaps John Stuart Mill said it best, in his 1859 essay, On Liberty, where he attempted to identify standards for the relationship between a nation’s authority and its citizens’ liberty:

          The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself…

          Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

If we were to accept the guidance offered in these two foundational sources, I don’t believe we would need a test to suss out anti-Canadian values.  To the contrary, our co-existence would exemplify those values, and allow us to live united in a peaceful sharing of the things we cherish.

And we would be proud of the quality of our nation, upholding it for all to see—from sea to sea to sea.

Tyrants

Herewith, four definitions—

  • sociopathic: personality disorder manifesting extreme antisocial attitudes and behaviour, and a lack of conscience;
  • psychopathic: chronic mental disorder manifesting amoral and antisocial behaviour…extreme egocentricity…an inability to feel guilt;
  • psychotic: severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are impaired to the point where contact is lost with external reality; and
  • zealous: fanatical and uncompromising pursuit of religious, political, or other ideals.

Tyrants the world over, since the dawn of history, have displayed one or more of these characteristics in dealings with their contemporaries.  A catalogue of infamous names might illustrate the point.  Caligula; Genghis Khan; Attila the Hun; Ivan the Terrible; Robespierre; Stalin; Hitler; Pol Pot; Amin—all deserving of the wonder, fear, and loathing they inspire even today.  Under their regimes of terror, countless people suffered and died as a consequence of their perverse aspirations.

tyrant

Interestingly, this small list of tyrants contains no names of leaders of the so-called civilized world.  There is, for example, no Cromwell, no Elizabeth I, no Bolivar, no Lincoln, no Churchill, no Gandhi, no de Gaulle, no Roosevelt, no Mandela—no one, in fact, who is thought to represent the ideals we enlightened peoples cherish.  Ideals such as liberty, peace, prosperity, and good government.

But could any of these worthies have been tyrants, too?  Benevolent tyrants, perhaps, pressing forward their own ambitions, convincing us of their correctness?  And do such tyrants exist in our world today?

We live on a planet fraught with peril, both in our local communities and globally.  Granted, many dangers result from natural phenomena—earthquakes, floods, droughts, pollution, and epidemics.  And for the most part, there is a cooperative, international effort to cope with these.

Too many of the perils, however, are brought on by foolish actions in the face of consequences we know to be severe, perhaps even catastrophic—

  • the deliberate despoiling of our environment and atmosphere, knowing such actions are unsustainable;
  • antagonistic expansion of national borders, provoking states of war and massive displacements of people;
  • premeditated acts of terror, often visited upon innocents; and
  • a relentless, worldwide drive to acquire ever greater wealth, enriching the few at the expense of the many.

Insanity, it has been said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  To that I would add:  insanity is purposely doing something in the face of overwhelming evidence that the outcome will be ruinous; insanity is wielding power over others, for our own benefit, without regard for the effects it may have on them; insanity is living on a small, blue orb floating in a vast interstellar sea—a lifeboat, so to speak—and deliberately engaging in actions that will inevitably capsize it.

And insanity is the purview of tyrants.

Tyrants pursue their ends without regard for truth, careless of consequences, without attention to moral imperatives that govern most of us, never doubting the rectitude of their delusions.  Uncompromising in their beliefs, they seek to foist them on the world they inhabit.  As do sociopaths, psychopaths, psychotics, and zealots.

But an interesting thing about tyrants is that their actions are judged, not objectively, but through ethnocentric filters we all employ.  We hold, many of us, a belief that the groups to which we belong—be they racial, religious, gender-based, age-related, economic, nationalistic, political—are superior to groups to which other people belong.  It is all too tempting, therefore, to label the motives and actions of other groups’ leaders as tyrannical, even if suspiciously similar to those of our own leaders.

Tyranny, it might be said, is in the eye of the beholder.

aphorism_by_aesop_ancient_greek_poet_and_fabulist_any_cg1p45800971c_th

With respect to the first list of tyrants referenced earlier, it is likely that consensus exists among much of the world’s peoples as to the evil of their deeds.  Most of us share an abhorrence of certain actions—genocide, for example, or murder and rape.  These are obvious and odious.  But what of the smaller, less noticeable acts of tyranny we put up with?  What are the checks and balances in place to restrain the leaders to whom we grant governing power?

When I look at the state of our planet, and at the people who have brought us to where we are, I wonder if they are all not tyrants of a sort.  Whether elected, appointed, or self-installed, do our leaders act in the best interests of us, the people?  Or do they pursue their idiosyncratic crusades, heedless of potentially harmful outcomes?  Are there fifty, or more, shades of grey in the spectrum between insanity and rationality?  Between tyranny and altruism?  And if so, where on the scale do our current leaders fall?

I despair of the answers when I observe the follies they subject us to.

Benevolent tyrants are tyrants, still.