The Beginning of the End of Victimary Thinking in Canada?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Rick B. joked a while ago that I would be able to adapt myself nonviolently to an American annexation of Canada. Perhaps it looked to him as if my political values - an emphasis on freedom and decentralization - were closer to the American than Canadian mainstream. Yet what he may not have intuited is that loyalty to Canada is not at root a loyalty to any main or minor stream of political thought, but rather to the prepolitical idea that a constitutional monarchy may be better suited to a certain people's needs and culture than is a republic. Now is not the time to explore this question on which I have competing sympathies. But suffice to say that I am a proud subject of H.M Queen Elizabeth II (though when it comes to her heirs and successors there is some trepidation in my heart).

The oft-noted Canadian complaint that our head of state is not even a Canadian or resident here shows what is to my mind ignorance of a great strength of our system. A distant Queen leaves the centre largely vacant - a little like the Jewish proscription against representing G-D - beyond the grasp of mortals. It thus enforces a certain humility on politicians who might presume to embody the state.

While the brilliant Adam Katz recently had occasion to remind me that it is not the President, but rather the Constitution that occupies the sacred center of the American polity, it is nonetheless the case that the American President and First Lady must do more to embody the state than the Canadian Prime Minister. When Paul Martin, in the heat of the same-sex marriage debate that divided his party, recently made the statement that he must defend, as Prime Minister, the rights of all Canadians (i.e. he was asserting the right of homosexuals to marry), I was outraged when he also said that he was the person who had to stand for all Canadians, however divided his party. What he said was a lie, because according to our constitutional conventions, the Prime Minister represents only his government and his party. He does not represent all Canadians, especially not on the scenes of domestic politics. Only the Queen and her Canadian representative, the Governor General, represent all Canadians in all our diversity. I was not surprised when this constitutional issue was ignored by all and sundry. There are other such conventions that the Canadian MSM and the Liberal Party have chosen to ignore.

Anyway, the larger point is that the Canadian head of state is not a political figure but rather a representative of all Canadians, of society as a whole. She embodies the universal truth that there are universal truths that centre the human and that must have emerged prior to our political and social divides. Faith in this truth is an essential bulwark against postmodern nihilism. Diversity could only ever have emerged from an original human unity and is best understood and defended in this light.

Any satisfactory representation of this truth must make it seem a rather abstract and minimal truth; as such it is well served being represented by a distant head of state who visits us only occasionally. And every seven years or so, we get a new Governor General who attempts to communicate his or her personal synthesis or vision of Canada - the universal truth that all national high cultures, in their literature, music, etc., have claimed to articulate, through the lens of a distinctive national experience - as envisioned and represented through the individual's unique lived experience.

Yesterday, Canada was blessed with a new Governor General, Her Excellency, Michaelle Jean. I admit that when Jean, a CBC-Radio Canada personality was first designated as our future GG, I brooded that the last thing we needed was another (third in a a row) CBC type as our figurehead. I consider centralized national high cultural institutions to be largely an anachronism that need to give way to a more decentralized culture. The pro-Liberal, or at least anti-Conservative, party bias of the English CBC testifies to this point. That the taxes of hard-working Canadians should be used to pay the salaries of often smug broadcasting elites who think their politics is somehow more sophisticated and, well, liberal, than many of those hard workers, infuriates me; the CBC has never had high ratings.

However, Madame Jean was largely associated with the French-language Radio Canada (though she was one of those rare talents at ease hosting tv programs in both official languages) whose reputation is less pro-Liberal party as pro-Quebec separatism. Such a bias may now be fading along with interest in separatism among Quebec's elite, but it was nonetheless quickly revealed, once Jean had been designated the future GG, that her husband had made a documentary film in which both he and Jean made statements that, while not categorical, could well be read as sympathetic to separatism.

It had appeared that Paul Martin, in the heat of trying to find a GG - always a tough job - had fallen too easily for the appeal of a beautiful black immigrant woman to appeal to the many immigrant groups to whom the Liberal Party panders, and not least to the Haitians who are key swing voters in Montreal-area constituencies. He had not done his homework and had chosen a closet separatist (or maybe he had done it and was attempting some kind of cynical end-run around the separatists). This was quickly denied by all concerned. What also worried me was the further revelation that Jean's husband was a fan of Michel Foucault, and made him a frequent topic of dinner conversations at the Jean-Lafond household. It's not at all surprising, given the popularity of Foucault among our lefty elites. Still, the thought that the most talented conspiracy theorist and mystifier of the historical process in recent times was to be an influence on the conversation of those representing the apex of Canadian polite Society was a tad depressing. Furthermore, the Liberals' rhetorical positioning which implied that the Canadian experience was typified by the immigrant experience was a bit insulting to Canadian nationhood which is in various respects older than most nationstates on this planet.

So it was with great happiness that I read about Jean's inaugural speech today, a paean to our most important human value - freedom. It soon became apparent to me that Madame Jean's incredible radiating beauty is, as is all great beauty, not to be simply explained as genetic good luck. No, there is a great soul and spirit behind it, and it is giving every indication that it will not be pandering to the victimary thinking that has had a strong foothold in Canadian public discourse in recent decades. God save the Queen and bless Michaelle Jean.
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Rick Ballard said...

I hope that Madame Jean lives up to her speech. As refugees from Papa Doc she and her family certainly are familiar with the opposite of freedom.

How often and in what venues does the Governor-Generals appear? Is she expected to comment on politics as opposed to policy at all? I must say that I cannot recall anything at all about previous Governors-General. Of course, my ignorance encompasses a sense of wonder that Queen Elizabeth's representative is chosen by the Prime Minister. I would hope that the Queen has right of veto over such an appointment.

chuck said...


Thanks for the report. I believe that Australia also has a Governor General. Do you know if any other members of the Commonwealth have them?

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Congratulations on an excellent first post and a promising new Governor-General.

I am myself a fan of Foucault.

There have been only two republics in history that were able to thrive for an extended period and we all know what happened to the first one. Long ago I became aware that there probably is great value in separating the head of state from the head of government. So, yes, a monarch who is properly controlled by the constitution can be a tangible boon to the society. In theory. In practice, there hasn't been a political system created yet which can't be perverted by the machinations of politics as practiced by politicians. Which your story about the Canadian Prime Minister serves to illustrate.

Although a reasonable argument can be made for monarchs, I have never been able to see any reason for the existence of the nobility except the appeal to pure tradition. Their ancestors defeated my ancestors in acts of violence.

Problems can occur to monarchies as well. The "monarchy" in the UK seems very close to becoming a dictatorship under the Prime Minister. When the monarch's powers are too severely circumscribed he becomes in effect the non-monarch. Yet there is always a monarch. The idea since the English Revolution was that the King would be the monarch and have his ultimate authority confirmed by Parliament. But the present day system seems to be that the British Prime Minister has usurped the King and has in effect completely unchecked power as a result; this particular Prime Minister seeks more power all the time.

In any case, we've known since ancient times that there's a cyclical pattern in forms of government. Pure Democracies give way to dictatorships, which become monarchies, which become oligarchies, republics, democracies, etc. Many Americans continue to hope for some sort of dictator to solve all of our problems. I peronally view this as a death wish, a desire to escape the unavoidable trauma of life. I see the state-worshippers as being of exactly this same state of mind. It may be that we are preparing for a turn back to dictatorship.

truepeers said...

Rick, to answer your questions:

-the GG job is not one I would want. You have to appear often at all manner of ceremonial events, as a kind of chief patron for the philanthropic and cultural institutions of civil society. You mark major anniversaries, open new institutions, support various programs.... You hand out various awards, most notably the Order of Canada, and host many other formal and informal functions at your home, Rideau Hall.

Your constitutional role, representing the Queen as the third house of Parliament, is generally limited to opening each session of parliament with a throne speech (written by the government), signing off on legislation passed by the other two houses, and, most importantly, taking the Prime Minister's advice on when to dissolve parliament and call an election. This can become tricky in a situation of minority government, because you may on occasion need to choose between calling an election and asking another politician if he can lead a government in the House of Commons after the standing Prime Minister has notified you that he cannot govern and has requesed an election. When and how much latitude the GG has in this respect is often debated. Australia had a constiutional crisis because of such a situation in 1975; Canada had one in 1926. Since we now have a minority government that is pushing the limits of constitutional conventions in governing the country, there was some doubt expressed about appointing a new, young, and politically inexperienced Governor General at this time.

She is not expected to comment on specific policies to be sure, other than perhaps tangentially in terms of general admonitions that we become better citizens and a better country in face of our obvious shortcomings. The same could be said for comments on politics more generally.

The Queen has a formal right to veto, or ignore and fail to ratify, the Prime Minister's choice, but it would be unthinkable that she would ever do so, unless perhaps the PM were a complete and obvious nutter. Here you point to a grave problem with our system. The flip side of the PM not being a very powerful symbol of the state is that he has great powers of appointment, on behalf of the crown. The Prime Minister does not just choose the GG, but also, when seats are vacant, the Senators (a great outrage in this day and age that we haven't been able to modernize the constitution because, largely, of the Quebec problem - Quebec and the four other oldest provinces enjoy great over-represenation in the Senate). He chooses the Supreme Court judges and a host of lesser officials. He chooses his fellow ministers of the crown and other jobs in the parliamentary process, thus enforcing party discipline. He is, in short, head of a great patronage machine, which sets the tone for the often centralizing smugness and going along to get along mentality of Canadian elites. No one pretends to contest the great symbols of the state - as in a Republic - but, if ambitious politically, people rather fall loyally in line behind the norms of institutional life and the party system, waiting patiently for their turn at the trough.

truepeers said...

Chuck, I think New Zealand has a GG; I'm not sure if others in the Commonwealth do, but I wouldn't be surprised if some do. All those small island nations, it's hard to keep track. India and Pakistan don't, nor do I think any of the African states, if I recall correctly.

truepeers said...


One of us is going to have to post on Foucault one of these days so we can have it out! I don't like the big state either, but there is much to be said for learning to love our institutions than seeing them as some conspiracy of knowledge and power.

You are right about the problem of the Prime Minister becoming a dictator, as I noted in my previous reply to Rick. The one thing that saves us in Canada is that we are a federal state, with ten provincial dictators fighting for their share of power. And then we have an activist court trying to control the politicians. But all this only saves us so much. We have a lot to do in the way of democratizing and decentralizing power in Canada.

I'm not sure how cyclical forms of government can be in modern times. Modern commercial systems and technologies demand a certain level of democracy - decentralized decision making - or at least rule of law to work. The US republic seems pretty strong to me, though you are right about the death wish of many. If the republic does break up, it will surely break up into many smaller republics, and war zones, and maybe a few dictatorships, rather than into a single dictatorship, don't you think? The terrorists and those who aid and abett may be able to destroy our states, but they can never govern us without killing most of us westerners first. And I can't see them succeeding at that.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Modern commercial systems and technologies demand a certain level of democracy - decentralized decision making - or at least rule of law to work.

One of the great tests, probably the great test, of the Twenty-First Century will be to see how true this is. China is the great counterexample. Will it win?