The Americans, said Jack Granatstein this week, are suffering one of their periodic bouts of madness. And this Saturday it’s coming to Canada, with its message of dissatisfaction with whatever it is that’s gone wrong lately.
In Ottawa, no doubt, protests will be staged on Parliament Hill. In Toronto, the Bay Street district will see some action. And in Vancouver, the Vancouver Art Gallery will earn their ire. We may have finally come to the place where protestors have left the disciplines of public life so far behind, they’ve genuinely mistaken artists for power brokers.
There was a time, before the twentieth century, when general populations in now-developed countries were so uneducated and so abused by the aristocracy and monarchy that revolts of peasantry were common place. Like these occupations, such revolts also offered no tangible policy alternatives. How could they? Their voice was actively suppressed and education was a privilege of the wealthy few.
The good news today is we don’t need pitch-forked revolts against poorly understood grievances, because we are, I’m told, educated and (eve more audaciously) directly invited to participate in the process of governance in a system called democracy. Even more incredibly, we have a system where the most ridiculous and offensive opinions can be heard: freedom of speech. That system is a hard fought virtue of Western culture, one which ideally protects smart, constructive if inconvenient opinions. It also protects the rights of occupation zealots to protest without consequence or even discernible cause.
This asinine activism should not inspire us to abandon freedom of speech. By all means, bring on the occupations and show the world again what makes countries like Canada and America great. It should, however, shame us into the recognition that we are squandering our inheritance of free speech on empty gestures with incoherent messages. Just when trenchant, constructive criticisms could be—perhaps must be—offered to the powerful governments of the world, we its citizens are capable of offering nothing more than mewling discontent. Gone are the days of the hard work of forming an intelligent opinion based on the long obedience of study and facts. An entitled generation is entitled to its discontent, whether it understands why or not.
We could do worse than copying the American tolerance for this movement. But we could also do much, much better. We could offer our governments at all levels intelligent criticisms and constructive policy alternatives which they are not only prepared to receive but actually actively fund the development of. We could nudge this passion for nonsense activism into a conviction for studious expertise, pushing the door ever wider for democratic sentiment which reaches beyond the one-sided catharsis of placard-waving picketing and toward the industry of serious policy.
America and Canada have serious problems. Some of those problems have been haltingly highlighted in these occupations. But if this movement is going to be taken seriously by anyone, it needs to move beyond being the Tea Party of the political left and toward the judicious practice of public politics that many have been hard at for years. No one is saying they’re not invited. But if they do show up, they better make sure they’ve actually got something to say.
Free speech, sure. But let’s not demean ourselves with this incoherent rabble like the Americans seem content to. We have freedom of speech to protect something to say, not flighty young people too lethargic to form a hard opinion, but hot and bothered enough about whatever to demand they damn well have a right to sit around and wonder. We already fund Universities for that.