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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Conservatism, stewardship, and Edmund Burke

I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases.

It's worth taking a few moments to reflect upon the words of Edmund Burke. In the late 18th century, Europe was in the midst of the social, political and intellectual ferment stirred up by the French Revolution. Burke was presented to me, during my early years at university, as one of the greatest figures in conservative political thought. The passage cited above is from his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and continues:

A man full of warm speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it; but a good patriot and a true politician always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve taken together would be my standard of a statesman. Every thing else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.

I'm choosing to cite Burke for two reasons. Firstly, his warning about “presumption” has always resonated with me, not just because of its integrity and principled eloquence, but also because of the way he uses the word. In this context, the word embodies everything we've come to dislike about “leaders,” whether they're in politics, business, academia, or anything else. It carries noxious connotations of arrogance, single-mindedness, disdain for opponents, condescension, authoritarianism, high-handedness, arbitrary behaviour, and entitlement.

Secondly, because he's been cited, so regularly, as one of the paragons of conservatism. Just so we're clear, I have no problem or complaint with principled conservatism, at least as I understand it. If it means you argue for the preservation of worthwhile traditions and retaining the best parts of our character, our history and the lessons we've learned from it, you get no argument from me. While I prefer not to throw too many labels around, that's also part of the way I've always understood the term “Tory.” Especially of the pink or red variety. It may not coincide with the dictionary definition, but at least in terms of the connotations it's acquired, the Tory tradition – indeed, conservatism itself – is a proud and honourable framework from which to address whatever issues one is confronted with. It embodies all the best things about citizenship: decency, respect, caring, and acceptance of obligations to one's society, community, and fellow citizens.

So what is to be preserved? One can't really do justice to it in the space of a single blog post, but I'd like to consider the question of character: in particular, the qualities of the Canadian national character. Yes, much of it is based on stereotype and caricature, and yes, in real life we may frequently fail to live up to it, but at a minimum, I'd like to believe that they include:
  • generosity
  • civility
  • tolerance
  • respect for different points of view
  • a wholesome ethic of common provision
  • deference – perhaps we are, in truth, a tad too deferential, but I'd submit that our readiness to accommodate is also a measure of our character.

Obviously this is just scratching the surface. And just as obviously, any one of these could spark extensive debate. It's an off-the-cuff enumeration, rather than an exhaustive or definitive list. Given that our real-life history is full of examples wherein we have fallen short of those qualities, perhaps the enumeration borders on the mythic. And perhaps I'm betraying an attachment to that myth that may even be a little excessive.

Be that as it may, however, it is for that reason that I will not refer to the present collection of Harperite / Reformist thugs and their media lickspittles as conservatives. They aren't worthy of that. They are not conservatives, they're pale U.S. Republican wannabes with a revolting extra layer of teabaggery. They and their ideological bed partners have hijacked the good name of conservatism and bent it to one of the most destructive and antisocial currents in recent intellectual and political history.

Over the span of generations Canadians have created, through our democratic institutions and processes (flawed and vulnerable though those may be), one of the most generous and envied societies in the world. Health care, education, a social safety net – all informed by perhaps the most fundamental principle in Judeo-Christian moral teaching: the notion that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. (I'm not suggesting, of course, that this notion is unique to the Western European Judeo-Christian heritage.) In other words, a body of character, tradition, and established social convention that we've collectively decided, over the decades, are worth preserving. That ought to warm any conservative heart.

So how is it that we have entrusted the care and stewardship of our country and our character to a man who has built his entire career on contempt for those very principles? On his disgust for everything we are and everything that defines us? In a blog post today, Chet Scoville writes about contempt. But it's not just, as he suggests, contempt for us as people and as citizens. It's contempt for us as a society, as a body of tradition and sociopolitical culture, and of everything we've built and everything we stand for.

But let's linger for a moment on stewardship. At its core, it's the idea that we have an obligation to care for our society, our environment, and our fellow citizens, so that what we pass on to succeeding generations is in as good a condition as the way we found it.

When you go camping, you don't leave the campsite a mess for the next person.

When you use public space, you clean up after yourself.

When you find a source of clean water, you don't hoard it all to yourself and you don't pollute it or ruin it for others. Simple good manners. Everything we know about sustainability, about avoiding profligate consumption or resource exploitation, about taking what we need and leaving enough for others, is related to the idea of stewardship.

When you're entrusted with a mandate to govern, your every action should, in my submission, be informed by an awareness of the responsibilities inherent in stewardship. That's the definition of good government in one sentence. You're inheriting something that generations of Canadians have built, have poured their lives, their hearts, their work and their souls into. You don't get to piss on it, tell your audiences how worthless or contemptible you think it is, or demolish it in favour of a pathetic attempt to remake it in the image of the worst aspects of U.S. Republican legacy.

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