Moral, legal have different meanings

(November 20, 2020)

I’ve not been impressed by some of the recent antics of politicians. Instead of just fuming about their behaviour (and to help lower my blood pressure), I reflected on the tangled relationship between law and morality:

First, illegal doesn’t necessarily mean immoral. In fact, laws often lag behind morality by at least a generation — which means, of course, that there is at least one generation of injustice before the laws begin to catch up.

But things can change, and quickly. Once again, cannabis stores are on the list of essential services exempted from lockdown. My classmates perpetually dodged the drug police, fearing one arrest for marijuana possession would close the door on future careers. From prohibited to essential in one election cycle — makes your head spin, right?

There are many other examples. I also grew up being smothered by cigarette smokers, everywhere. If I had protested too vigorously, I would have been arrested for causing a public disturbance. Yet smokers are now banished outdoors to the circle of shame.

Laws work when they reflect the better (moral) angels of our nature — or, at least, those of the majority. Half-hearted legislation, however, means that our moral consensus needs improvement — which is why, despite changes over the years, laws against drunk driving are still weak, enforcement is erratic and punishments meagre — and why I still overhear people saying “I drive better when I’m drunk.”

The problem, of course, is that laws by themselves can’t create morality, though some governments seem compelled to try. Pierre Trudeau’s famous line “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” eventually led to changes in Canadian law on issues such as same-sex marriage. Yet too many other governments worldwide have done the opposite and tried legally to entrench discrimination on the basis of orientation, gender or race.

These efforts may be legal, but they are certainly immoral — and they won’t work. You can pass laws and publish decrees against the tide, but the water still comes rushing in, regardless.

Second, legal doesn’t necessarily mean moral, either. Laws, at all levels, too often reflect the power of those in control, not the moral consensus of a good society. This is why, in our collective history, slavery, apartheid, anti-Semitism, residential schools, and even genocide were sanctioned by the law, despite their obvious immorality. Overcoming injustice meant overturning the law, which is not easily done.

To be fair, however, it is not impossible for laws eventually to direct social change for the better. Sixty years ago, because the law changed and was enforced, a Black first-grade student walked by herself to a white school. Ruby Bridges must have relished the moment Kamala Harris became vice-president-elect, watching as a wave of first-time Black voters made the difference in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere.

Yet it took 160 years after the battles of the U.S. Civil War for this to happen, because the United States still remains divided and unconvinced about the immorality of systemic racism.

All of these thoughts then brought me back to those recent antics of politicians:

Soon-to-be-former U.S. President Donald Trump’s post-election Twittering might be legal, but his refusal to concede and to enable a smooth transition to president-elect Joe Biden is certainly immoral. The subsequent spineless behaviour of many Republican congressional leaders in support of Trump’s delusions is an even bigger moral disgrace. Instead of capitalizing on the largest voter turnout in American history, the future of the nation’s democracy (and the country itself) is now more at risk than ever, as a result.

In Canada, the inept wrangling of opposition parties organizing their own twisted version of WE Day in Ottawa is matched to the pandemic opportunism of a Liberal government that continues to prefer pipelines over people, planet or profit. We can’t wait for another generation of injustice to roll by before the laws eventually reflect respect for the land, for the water, and for future Canadians.

We don’t have the money to waste on pipelines no one wants, to carry fossil fuels no one wants to buy, to guarantee a future in which no one is able to live. (Worst of all, in Alberta, and soon in Manitoba, anyone who protests against this fundamental immorality could be thrown in jail.)

Here, Premier Brian Pallister’s government persists with an ideological agenda — in the midst of a pandemic — that aims to slash essential services, undermine education at all levels, dismantle public utilities, abandon small business, ignore farmers, dismiss the youth, privatize public parks, antagonize public servants, fumble public health, erode public trust, and then will just wring its hands when the wheels start to come off.

Is it all legal? Absolutely. Is it moral? Not a chance. Is it just the premier? Or is it the Progressive Conservative Party, too?

The jury’s still out on that one.

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Pass torch to younger hands

(November 10, 2020)

“In Flanders Fields” is woven into the framework of my memories of Remembrance Day ceremonies. For years I have wondered why that poem stands out more than others I have read from the Great War.

It could be somewhat personal: I recall the plaque identifying the McCrae family pew in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Guelph, and John McCrae’s name etched into the Memorial Wall at the University of Toronto, close to the arch I passed through many times.

I was brought to think of that poem again this year, as I listened to a young girl bravely recite it, supported by her mother in dress uniform and medals, as part of a service in Stony Mountain intended to be streamed on this strangest of all Remembrance Days.

There is a simple plaque on the cenotaph in Stony Mountain, noting that it contributed the most volunteers, per capita, of any community in the British Commonwealth, to service in the Second World War. Every year, their intergenerational Remembrance Day service has been packed to capacity by their descendants.

One line from that poem caught my attention, this time: “To you, from failing hands we throw the torch…” Taking a pause from treating (as best he could) the wounded and dying from the unending horrors of trench warfare on the western front, McCrae knew his generation was failing the test it had been given at the start of a new century. In a shattered world in which there were many victims but no victors, those who survived knew the reality of that failure, too.

Mere months after the armistice ending the First World War, even before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, people started preparing for the next war. Pandemic disease (the Spanish flu) followed world war. Later, the global economy fell into the Great Depression. To desperate people, the promise of strong leadership led them to support totalitarianism and fascism.

But at least, on the Allied side, there was victory in 1945. Seventy-five years ago, we won. There was no failure, this time. In the surge of triumphant emotion, the United Nations was then set up, riding that wave of victory into a better future. We had caught that torch, held it high, and let the dead finally rest in peace, in Flanders fields and elsewhere.

Believing this was to be some final victory, however, turned out to be a serious mistake. The generation that caught McCrae’s torch and fought through everything to win in 1945 did not, in turn, throw the torch to the next generation. They (and their children, the baby boomers) did not lay the necessary foundation for future generations. Instead, deciding on their own reward for sacrifices made and services rendered, they have built a world only they themselves are able to enjoy.

These are harsh words, aimed as much at myself as anyone over the age of 50 who reads this. But they are true.

In some ways, the people of Germany and Japan have done a better job — there was no triumph for them in 1945, just a shattered society that (literally) had to be rebuilt from the ground up. That generation could see its failures all around, every day, and so worked hard to make amends to the next generation.

Certainly, in reunited Germany, that sense of loss, guilt and determination is palpable — inescapably woven into the fabric of its society, because everyone remembers, still, the high cost of failure.

Here in North America, we seem to have forgotten victory costs almost as much as defeat. The gains of a post-war world have steadily eroded since 1945. We now live in a society that seems more polarized and less tolerant every day. The gap between the obscenely rich and the rest of us widens.

More troubling, that sense of voluntary service to others has faded with time. (Think of the community service groups that have withered and died, as the Royal Canadian Legion struggles to survive.) Members of that wartime generation set an example of service, without communicating clearly to the next generation why they felt so compelled to volunteer.

They held on to the torch, and my generation did not demand it. Instead, we baby boomers have amused ourselves and each other into the mess we are all facing today. Twenty years into the next century, our own world war has been against the planet, not each other. Now, our own pandemic is here, too.

In the U.S. between 1933 and 1939, the New Deal responded to the Great Depression with programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations.

The world, not just the U.S., needs a global New Deal — a green one, in which there is ecological justice, racial equality and economic sufficiency for all. We are called, once again, to live in service for others — especially for that next generation, into whose younger hands, very soon, we must throw the torch.

Otherwise, we will be the ones who break faith.

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In politics, loyalty can be dangerous

(October 29, 2020)

NO government — however tyrannical — survives for long, except by consent of the people.

It doesn’t matter who you are, where or when you are, or how much power you wield. If the people withdraw their support, it is game over for any politician, government or system. “Power to the people” is just a reminder of that political reality, not some revolutionary call to arms.

Accountability is the thin red line between order and chaos. It’s what keeps in check the anger of the crowds at mishandled situations or poor government. Things may be wrong, things may be bad, but at some point, the people responsible will pay for what they have done and things will get better.

Lose that accountability, however, and all bets are off. Overnight.

American democracy is on display right now, if not actually on trial. The question is whether U.S. President Donald Trump and the Republican party will be held accountable for the gong show that politics down south has become, especially during the last four years.

Historically, we rejected the divine right of kings to rule over us, in favour of democratically elected governments. It is therefore ridiculous for any politician or political party these days to think they have some natural right to govern. Long terms of office, especially, are a mistake in any political system, because power without accountability tends to breed arrogance and entitlement.

For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was first elected a senator for Kentucky in 1984. Perhaps, like other longtime incumbents, he has been held accountable by the people of Kentucky every election since then, and they have just loved the job he has done. But given the evidence of the last four years, I suspect his continuation in office more likely reflects voters’ loyalty to the Republican party (McConnell became a U.S. senator five years before Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born — and it shows).

In fact, it is fair to say this U.S. election, from the start, is more about loyalty than about issues or accountability — especially personal loyalty to Trump and his version of the Republican party.

Yet, if all politicians were truly accountable to the people, everywhere, there would be no long-term incumbents or safe seats of any political colour. Politics would certainly be much more interesting, as a result — and the people or parties that do a poor job would be punted out.

Without real and regular accountability, however, politicians and political parties come to believe they can govern with impunity, as long as they placate their “base” of forever-loyal supporters. As a result, they promote social, economic, racial and ecological injustice, trampling the rest of us underfoot — for now.

Believing you can govern with impunity is a dangerous, delusional attitude that can only have an inevitable and catastrophic outcome — in the United States, or in any society, anywhere else, including here in Canada.

At some point, the people will inevitably demand accountability. When that day comes, scores will be settled with those who at the moment arrogantly consider themselves the new “untouchables” — those political and economic elites whose positions (they think) are above any challenge from the rest of us.

We need loyalty; of course we do — not to individuals or political parties, but to the ideals on which a just society is founded. If we don’t hold our leaders accountable to those ideals, loyalty to individuals or a political party inevitably will become lethal to the democratic principles that are increasingly under threat in our climate-changing world.

Those ideals include the rule of law. When, in the Canadian West, the RCMP arrest Indigenous grandmothers to protect construction of a pipeline whose existence is harmful to the planet, as well as local ecology, but then stand by in the East and watch non-Indigenous lobster fishers torch the livelihood of Mi’kmaq lobster fishers, there is something seriously wrong with our system.

If the federal opposition Conservatives had wanted to demonstrate responsible leadership instead of childish petulance, they should have investigated the purchase and then construction of that pipeline, which wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars. Instead, playing to their loyal base in Alberta and on Bay Street, they chose to hyperventilate about the WE fiasco that did little more than wreck a charity doing good work.

Rather than actually safeguarding the finances of Canadians or working toward a sustainable future for everyone, they are playing pointless political parlour games — impressing themselves, but no one else.

This is why young people such as Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier are frustrated and angry, because they find themselves having to be the adults in the room, as the world around them — and their future — burns.

I could wish a plague on the houses of all the immature, irresponsible politicians, but it is already here.

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