The Self-Destruction of Democracy
One of the disturbing signs of the times is the increasing use of violence and law-breaking by aggrieved pressure groups. This summer's stand-off between the authorities and armed native "Warriors" in the Montreal area broke new ground in brazenness and seriousness, but it was a tactic that is increasingly popular—and condoned.
Similarly, picket lines of striking workers have often been accompanied by violence or the threat of violence. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers, well known for its militant rhetoric and practices, believes there should be no restraint on the right to strike. Its constitution includes the pledge to support all unions on strike, "whether legally or illegally."
Some 9,300 employees of Stelco, a major Hamilton-based steel producer, went on strike in early August to enforce its bargaining demands. The striking workers, members of the United Steelworkers of America, held a membership meeting in Hamilton on September 28. Immediately after the meeting some 1,000 strikers went on a rampage, smashing windows in a warehouse containing Stelco products (although the warehouse was not owned by Stelco), starting a fire, and damaging four trucks. Leo Gerard, the Steelworkers's Ontario director, reportedly egged the strikers on by telling them, "We don't need any scabs interfering with our strike, get the g..d... scabs out of the trucks." No one was arrested and no charges were laid.
John Martin, the local U.S.W.A. president, was quoted as saying, "This should bring some stark reality to the steel company." He excused the mob tactics of his members by saying that the strikers are "law abiding citizens" who were acting out their frustration at the company's refusal to settle on the union's terms.
The truth is that law-abiding citizens don't go around acting like hoodlums. No amount of frustration justifies their ignorant and destructive behaviour. We are now hearing ad nauseum that this or that group of aggrieved "victims" has suffered enough and cannot be blamed when it resorts to law-breaking. All too often the media lends a helping hand in depicting the lawbreakers as victims who are justified in defying the laws of the land and all norms of decency. This scenario was acted out over and over again on television reports of the armed native Indians in the Montreal area during the late summer.
When confronted with these situations governments often refuse to act firmly because they are unsure about their responsibilities and intimidated by a sensational and antagonistic media. Politics that is no more lofty than artful social engineering and deal making spawns politicians who lack the courage to withstand the posturing pressure groups that are now flourishing. The latter know exactly how to play the trendy media (fortunately, there are a few courageous exceptions) and exploit our ignorance about our own history and institutions. And hordes of legal "experts" are all too ready to defend even the most absurd and contrived claims.
Destroying the Foundations
No one should have any illusions about the outcome of such behaviour. What is happening is nothing else than the willful destruction of the indispensable safeguards of a civilized society. That's why the most important issue in the Oka confrontation and the Hamilton strike is not the claims of the belligerent actors. The real issue is whether Canada shall be and remain a civilized society in which the rule of law applies or whether it shall be allowed to sink into barbarism and the rule of the jungle. It is ironic that at a time when newly freed nations of Eastern Europe are desperately attempting to rebuild their ruined societies, we are busy wrecking the very foundations of a free and civilized society. Yes, it's a time to weep for Canada.
But, we also need to be clear-eyed about the real cause of the sickness that is besetting us. What we are now witnessing in the events described here is the bitter fruit of the modern preoccupation with self-expression and rights and the rejection of all transcendent norms. This fruit is, in reality, an ugly weed that is choking the fragile plant of civilization.
The fact that our civilization is fragile is overlooked by those who have no respect for history and for the sacrifices made by past generations. They take for granted our parliamentary system (with its stress on the rule of law, limited government, and protection of fundamental freedoms) and all the other benefits of freedom and decency that Canada still enjoys. But we are in grave danger of losing these benefits out of neglect and indifference. The truth is that a decent and civilized society cannot be built on unlimited demands for self-expression and rights. The latter must be balanced by a strong sense of duty, self-restraint, humility, personal responsibility, loyalty, and faithfulness. How old-fashioned these words sound, but the truth is that without practising these virtues, a free and decent society cannot exist.
Loss of Direction
Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a courageous witness to the evil of anti-human and atheistic communism. For that he deserves our profoundest gratitude. But he was equally clearsighted about the sickness of the spoiled and thoroughly secularized Western democracies. In his famous Harvard University Commencement speech of 1978, he minced no words in laying bare what he perceived to be the gravest threat facing the Western democracies, namely, the loss of spiritual direction—"a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries, with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice." Among the symptoms he lists the fact that th western world has lost its civil courage, which is "particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society."
Legalism is Not Enough
Another symptom of the decline of the West, according to Solzhenitsyn, is a preoccupation with law and legal procedures without due regard to any other consideration. He sounds this warning:
I have spent all my life under a Communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society that is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very small advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses.
And it will be, simply, impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure. (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "The Exhausted West," Harvard Magazine, July/August 1978, pp. 21-26)
The few incidents of blatant law-breaking described above are symptomatic of a fundamental sickness besetting Canadian society. We need not lose ourselves in a deterministic pessimism, as if all is lost. It is never too late to turn onto the road of recovery. But such recovery requires in the first place that we are clear about the seriousness of the sickness now afflicting us. That's why we do well to listen to the voice of Alexander Solzhenitsyn who reminds us that the source of our troubles is the age-old sin of human pride.