Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Civil disobedience and postmodern politics in Canada

In the midst of the presentation of the Speech from the Throne, among Canada’s freshly elected politicians and most senior officials, a 21-year-old Senate page named Brigette De Pape stepped into the only open space in the Senate chamber and raised a small cardboard sign declaring “Stop Harper.” The Governor General talked on; security staff wordlessly escorted her off of Parliament Hill. And by the end of the day, Ms. De Pape had lost her job and had issued a press release to help the media flesh out her message.
Classic deadpan civil disobedience: a neat sign, no redundant exclamation mark; a calm presentation; and obvious appreciation by Ms. De Pape that her insolence would cost her future career prospects on “The Hill.” Fifteen minutes with Michael Moore on the celebrity machine and, as likely, a new life for Ms. De Pape.
“The Hill” spoke as one in its indignation: her behavior was disrespectful. The reading of the Speech from the Throne is the one occasion the Sovereign’s advisors all feel on the “inside,” when politics and political change is their privileged business.
There’s much that is reassuring about Ms. De Pape. In Canada, despite its almost narcotic good fortune, there are still individuals with the competence to disrupt the status quo and the conviction that change can be precipitated without waiting your turn.
Acts of civil disobedience, inspired even by petty or outlandish motives, can provoke others to look more critically at their circumstances. The Arab Spring was launched in Tunisia by a vegetable peddler who had been hassled once too often by corrupt officials. Mohammed Bouazizi dream was simply to be allowed to make enough money to be able to buy or rent a pickup truck. His personal dream will not be cut in stone—but his grievance was real. It connected directly to a genuine universal aspiration: to be respected as an equal.
Ms. De Pape’s personal dreams are likely more ambitious. However, her message is distracting and cringingly derivative. Her grievances—including wasteful defense spending, weak environmental regulation, and inadequate health care—are utterly mainstream. In elaborating on her overarching theme, “Stop Harper,” she repeated in her press release almost word for word partisan complaints that will soon fill opposition speeches in the House of Commons.
There is something significant and disappointing about this incident. Civil disobedience is a precious tool; people risk their careers and lives to employ it. However, Ms. De Pape’s cause doesn’t justify its use. The grievances in her press release are not radical or universal, nor do they need to be addressed outside existing avenues of political expression.
Her coolly executed initiative was built on—and surpasses—the extravagant and extreme protest rhetoric of much of contemporary North American politics.
We just had an election in which the social media was filled with blogs urging young Canadians to “resist” the Harper government, with a lover of words leading the Liberal Party parroting Bruce Springsteen with the cry: “Rise up, Canadians.” In the United States, George Romney, a management consultant and front runner for the Republican nomination claims the free market is within inches of being crushed. Factions pray not for enlightenment, but for better weapons.
Using extreme language increasingly seems to be an alternative to fresh thinking. Is postmodern politics merely an entertaining substitute for the politics of change?

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