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Democracy and Canada’s role in the world

January 12, 2009

From Mark Kingwell’s essay “The Future of Democracy” from Canada in 2020, also a book edited by Rudyard Griffiths:

We in Canada often appear to believe, say while contesting a federal election or, still more, viewing a leaders’ debate, that the larger, world-historical tectonics of democratic threat are not our concern. Our worries rise and fall with the state of the GST, disbursement of transfer payments, softwood lumber tariffs, maybe border security. The great fiction of Canadian democracy—a fiction more pernicious than the systemic one at every democracy’s heart—is that our polity can continue on more or less its present course no matter what happens elsewhere. Canadian society, whatever its own intramural inequalities and injustices, is a privileged bubble that floats above a roiling cauldron of human desire and need.

Solution: public spaces and public debates that centre on the transnational obligations of all democrats.

There is a peculiar benefit to our bubble, and here hope enters the picture in positive guise. Canadians enjoy, at their best and most responsible, a political perspective denied, per circumstance, to others. This perspective is not a matter of our much celebrated multiculturalism—in practice, more a matter of rival World Cup flags than anything substantive. It is, instead, a function of Canada’s status as a postmodern democracy in a world struggling with premodern misery and modern domination. Across an unlikely land mass, a varied and shifting populace strives to achieve not simply a hands-off modus vivendi but an ongoing discursive enactment of justice.

The achievement could be an example to the world, but only if we take the world into account. Canadians (including other writers in this series) often lament their loss of a place in global affairs, but they rarely consider the loss of the globe’s place with them. Justice doesn’t stop at the border, and neither does democracy, even if sovereignty and citizenship do. Exporting democracy is democracy’s inner logic: it is, and always has been, a matter of extending the given. How we assert ourselves outside our borders will determine whether Canada continues to deserve the title of democratic nation.

The old rap against democracy was that it encouraged levelling: of class distinctions, of course, but perhaps also of excellence, resulting in a state-wide version of the tall-poppy syndrome. In the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, “if everybody’s somebody, nobody’s anybody.” The new challenge for democrats is not that one, which is much exaggerated. No, the real challenge for Canadian democrats is, rather, to continue extending and extending the promise of justice for everyone—which is likewise justice, indeed life, for ourselves.

Until everybody’s somebody, nobody’s anybody.

I’m only about half-way through the book, but so far I have found this essay and Rachel Qitsualik’s to be easily the most thought-provoking – and by that I don’t mean the most convincing necessarily. What exactly is this postmodern democracy that we are supposed to be (gently) exporting? How does it promise justice? And how does it play out in societies completely unlike our own?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. reneethewriter permalink
    January 15, 2009 10:43 pm

    This is an important, far-reaching essay which i very much enjoyed reading. Thanks – a lot to think about. R

    Thought you might find Robert Bryce’s latest piece on Salon online interesting…would appreciate your views. R

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