Thursday, December 14, 2006

Covenant Zone: Why Bother?

Some of the people who visited our blog over the recent furore concerning an Iranian-Canadian professor who attended the Holocaust Deniers' Conference in Iran might wonder why I feel a need to spend my time attacking such people. People have a right to free speech, to free association, and to attend conferences where they disagree with everything being said... (though I'd note that one should not have to think twice about accepting an invitation to a global propaganda stage in service of the present Iranian regime, if only out of respect for the Iranians oppressed by this regime).

Do I spend my time blogging because I want to distance myself from guys like this professor? (It's probably obvious to any regular readers that I hold grudges against academe, though I do hope one day to let the grudges go because healthy universities are a fundamental requirement for a free and open society...) Do I have something against immigrants, people of colour, non-Jews or Christians? No, I don't think I do in any general way. In fact, in a love-resent-love kind of way, I actually think I want to get closer to the people I criticize, especially the Canadians among them. I want to assert that we have a better choice than the multicultural ideology that, though basically incoherent, nonetheless dominates public rhetoric in much of the West today.

I want to suggest that we, especially public figures like university professors, have an obligation to use our freedom not just to assert our differences but to devote time and energy to covenanting, to coming to an understanding of the developing basis for the unity on which any forms of social or cultural diversity that can be sustained in the long run will depend. Freedom positively requires some assumption of unity in any community that would allow for its members' freedom.

And for me, a bottom line in all of this is respect for that part of Western culture that gives us the very idea of people covenanting in order to rule themselves through partnership in an unfolding human-divine creation. This is the model of nationhood and constitutionalism that comes to us from the Biblical history of Israel and from Jewish-inflected Western thought and culture more generally. This is a history that I feel continues in the modern state of Israel, which is a nation the majority of whose people, I believe, want to enter into honest covenants with their neighbors, if only the neighbours could aspire to the kind of self-ruling nationhood that will provide a basis for the democratic accountability and responsibility in leadership that makes nations transparent and trustworthy to neighbours. But it is the very idea of nationhood - deemed "exclusionary", when it is quite the opposite - that is under attack in much of the Muslim world and in the universities and bureaucracies of the West.

So, I believe a sense of shared nationhood is essential to the growth and health of any democracy where people can hope to rule themselves, and also hold their leaders accountable to maximize reciprocity among nations. I criticize my fellow Canadians who act and think in ways that I believe undermine the national idea. It is not because I want to alienate them, though this is no doubt what they often think when they hear people criticizing multiculturalism.

To give evidence of our good intent, every Thursday night, from 7-9 pm, the Covenant Zone bloggers meet in the atrium of the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library to discuss our ideas about covenanting nations. We extend an open invitation to all Canadians to join us, in front of Blenz Coffee. We usually wear blue scarves to identify ourselves. Please join us if you can.

We feel that conservatives, as we generally are, labour under a Hollywood stereotype of the reactionary hate monger. But, we believe, serious conservatives are people actually more open to "the other" than are the kind of postmodern leftists who dominate our universities. I argue that multiculturalism makes a fetish of differences and sets up various rituals and ideologies to defend a few basic markers of difference in a way that actually demands a fair degree of conformity while eroding certain meaningful and useful differences. On the other hand, conservatives of the kind I relate to, seek to relate people only to pragmatic, open-ended, categories needed to create a basis for shared membership in a historically evolving discussion about what it means to grow as a person and share in the responsibilities of governing this particular society. We reach out to our various others as our fellow citizens, first and foremost. We ask, what do we need to share together in order to cement a bond of common citizenship? Instead of asking first what makes us different, we enquire into the shared human, universal, basis for any meaningful understanding of what is same and different. And from this we move on to recognizing the distinctive sacredness of each and every free individual.

A fellow at the swimming pool recently told me about his experience growing up in our working- and middle-class suburb of Vancouver. He is about sixty years old and he said that in his youth there was a lot less prejudice than there is today. Now that is a statement contrary to common understandings. It's not hard to find in the historical archives frank and often demeaning understandings of racial and gender differences. Still, he insisted, in his day people talked a lot to each other. They were sociable, they knew everyone on the street, they shared a common understanding. And they could thus be brutally honest about their sense of differences, to good and ill effect. Today, he says, Canadians don't know their neighbors, they don't talk to each other, and they give each other bad looks. They are not supposed to express prejudice publicly, but you know they are full of it by the way they treat people.

Is this just a fanciful notion or could there be something to it? Could he be right that we are more prejudiced today under the reign of official multiculturalism and human rights? Is it possible that we don't have a proper outlet for discussing our differences, secure in the knowledge that our arguments over differences are ultimately in the cause of building a nation which enjoys democratic self-rule, not rule by the imperial arbiters - bureaucrats and judges and public relations people - who are necessary to settle differences among people who don't share a common understanding, a shared sense of responsibility with which they can independently negotiate their differences and govern themselves? I mean we all know of stories where personal resentments and prejudices that are common to human interaction go unresolved by parties in conflict and get fed instead through bureaucratic forms of mediation where they are blown up and extended into something much bigger than they need to be.

I came across an editorial in the Australian conservative journal, Quadrant, that makes an argument along these lines. It is not the most thorough argument but its conclusion that it is time for Australia to drop the incoherent idea of "multiculturalism" might interest readers. The editors conclude:
In a society based on citizenship there is an assumption, says [Philosopher Roger] Scruton, that I am committed to the strangers who surround me. “This is how citizenship is, and must be, understood, and it is one reason why massive and unprepared immigration of people with no sympathy for the traditional customs can blow a society apart.”

Over the coming months, as Andrew Robb addresses the pragmatics of immigration, he will cop his share of resentment and silliness. Like the following, from The War on Democracy by Niall Lucy and Steve Mickler:

“According to the brutal logic of conservatism, if you’re not on the side of the right you must be a communist sympathizer … and of course “communism”, as everyone is supposed to know, is code for “Stalinism”. There could be no better illustration of this point than the Alec Baldwin character in the adult puppet movie, Team America: World Police (by ... Matt Stone and Trey Parker), who is nothing but a conservative caricature of a liberal. Because the real-life Alec Baldwin has spoken out, like other Hollywood liberals against the invasion of Iraq, then according to the brutal logic of conservatism he must be a militant, un-American, anti-democratic extremist. And that’s exactly what Stone and Parker turn the Baldwin puppet into in the film—a machine-gun toting “red”-lover, fighting side by side with the puppet of North Korean “commie” dictator Kim Jong-il against the puppets of Team America, a clandestine squad of God’s own patriots whose utter disregard for difference is a product of the jingoistic hogwash they speak and the power bestowed on them by their state-of-the-art weaponry. Conservatives don’t get the joke, of course, failing to see the Baldwin figure as a projection of their own strategic fantasy.”

But it is the conservatives and the pragmatists who are committed, as citizens, to the stranger, or “other”. Or as Andrew Robb might express the same thought, new arrivals from the Middle East and Africa need time to get some understanding of what makes us tick.
At Covenant Zone we are providing our time to help others see what makes us tick. Join us some Thursday.


Anonymous said...

It's probably obvious to any regular readers that I hold grudges against academe, though I do hope one day to let the grudges go because healthy universities are a fundamental requirement for a free and open society...

I do sense some academe-envy in your writing. Perhaps the lingering bitterness of a failed academic?

truepeers said...


I have many failures in my life, no doubt. But I try to learn from them as necessary and to some degree inevitable events. One thing they suggest is that a certain amoung of resentment and criticism of what goes on in the academy is necessary among serious citizens in this day and age, and is not to be confused with some self-indulgent bitterness. If I get this relationship wrong at times, I hope readers will hold me to account.

dag said...

Failed academic? If that hadn't been petty we might have had something to discuss, the nature of the failure of the Acandemy, for a start. Who would wish to succeed as a failure? Iranian junket-man obviously doesn't care how dirty he is so long as he gets a free trip home, but some have values that go beyond price. The university world of the West isi so vitiated today that it's nearly impossible to discuss the weather with anyone who ever set foot in one. Yeah, global warming comes up. Good grief. Today's p.c. conformists are little diferent from yesteryear's Scholastics. Who laughs now?

In spite of that, I'm a reasonably friendly guy and look forward to meeting you at VPL in the atrium. Coffee's on me. (Small, no cream or sugar.)