Tom Paine was mad.
The English writer and polemicist had considered Edmund Burke a supporter and friend. In his writings and from his seat in parliament, Burke had championed the Americans in their struggle for independence. Paine, while living in the United States, had written Common Sense
, the bible of that revolution.
Now there was another revolution, in France, but this time Burke was vehemently opposed, arguing in Reflections on the Revolution in France
, “A perfect democracy is the most shameless thing in the world,” in which the masses exercise “an unnatural, inverted domination.”
was published in November 1791, Paine read it in a day and started writing his rebuttal the day after. He finished Part One of The Rights of Man
the following February; the publisher had it out in March.
“What are the present Governments of Europe but a scene of iniquity and oppression?” Paine thundered. “ . . . [A] general revolution in the principle and construction of Governments is necessary.”
Burke versus Paine. We’re still sorting it out.
The Rights of Man
was a best-seller, and perhaps the greatest of an extinct literary genre, the political pamphlet. From the mid-seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, these quickly written and published polemics thrived wherever a reasonably free press was permitted, to be read and argued over in the ubiquitous coffee houses — at one point in the 1700s, London alone had more than five hundred — where everyone and their friends met to exchange gossip, get the news, and debate the folly of the powers-that-were.
By the mid-nineteenth century, pamphlets were in decline, eclipsed by newspapers, which were cheaper, more timely, and more reliable. Today, the political pamphlet is the last refuge of the to-the-ramparts! youth activist or the grim anti-abortionist on his determined corner.
Bloggers often argue that their postings are the new political pamphlet, and the Internet, the coffee houses of our time. But there is a profound difference between the daily — or hourly — musings of a political blog and a sustained argument of several thousands of words swiftly composed, and swiftly — by conventional standards — published, that seeks to draw lessons from the great events of the time.
Which is what I’ve set out to do with Open & Shut.
This book is an argument and an invitation. The argument is political. Canada and the United States each held federal elections in late 2008. The United States had been through eight years of calamity and mal-government. The administration of George W. Bush handled the worst terrorist attack in history, Hurricane Katrina, and a financial panic with even-handed incompetence. The forty-third president left his country in a shambles.
But America is the most resilient of nations. Just as it has produced disastrous presidents, so, too, it has responded to those disasters with great presidents. Right after taking office, President Barack Obama moved swiftly and emphatically to prevent a crippling recession from sinking into depression, while retooling the economic fundamentals of the federal government, seeking to curb America’s contribution to global warming, launching landmark reforms in health care and education, and reversing the restrictions on stemcell research. The opening days of his administration rivalled Roosevelt’s.
Three weeks before the American election, Canadians went to the polls. The result of the fortieth Canadian general election was as flaccid as the campaign itself: a strengthened Conservative minority government, accompanied by the dispatch of what is turning into the annual leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
But excitement was soon to come, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, misreading both the economic and political times, ignored the financial slough the nation was falling into and instead tried to hobble the opposition parties’ fundraising abilities. He almost lost the government as a result. Now he faces a new challenger, public intellectual Michael Ignatieff, who shares with Obama more than a name with many vowels. Once again, instability is the order of the day.
The elections and their aftermaths tell us two things. For all its many faults, both structural and cultural, America’s political fundamentals remain robust and renewable, allowing the nation to shake off the worst of its own excesses and put itself back on the right track. But in Canada, something has gone wrong. The always-fragile national will has atrophied, revealed in a political culture that, at the federal level, smells of decay.
Predicting the breakup of Canada is like predicting Armageddon. Every generation, febrile zealots take to the street corners, shrieking themselves hoarse with their prognostications of doom. But the appointed date for the end of the world, or the country, passes once again without incident, and the prophets shuffle home as a new batch takes their place on the soapboxes.
Canada, however, has had a few close calls with the apocalypse in recent decades: the 1970 FLQ crisis, the rise to power of René Lévesque in 1976, and the near-death referendum of November 1995. To stave off Confederation’s oblivion, the federal government, under both the Conservatives and the Liberals, has steadily devolved many of its powers to the provinces. For the main, this has been a good thing: Ottawa is notoriously incompetent at managing social programs; the provinces needed the mandate and resources to do their job.
But things have gone too far. Ottawa is in the midst of a crisis of competence. The political class is a wraith of its former self. There is not a shadow of the statesman left in our politicians, nor much notion of public service in our public servants. The federal power is steadily weakening, losing legitimacy, surrendering a national vision to parochial interests.
After the inauguration, Michelle Obama visited various departments of the federal public service to thank the workers there for their efforts and to explain her husband’s plans and priorities. At every gathering, the reception was rapturous. The wife of the president mingled with an enthused and rededicated public service. At the same time in Ottawa, a demonstrably incompetent government — or so the events of November and December 2008 suggest — huddled resentfully in the catacombs of the Langevin Block, while a moribund and hostile public service waited for someone to come along who could give it something to do. This is a really good way to wreck a country.
That may not be how you see the state of our nation. It may not be how you see it even after you have finished reading this little book. Maybe you have ideas of your own about where we are, how we got there, and where we should go next. That’s where the invitation comes in.
The Globe and Mail
has partnered with McClelland & Stewart to host an Internet forum for Open & Shut
readers. At the end of this book, I’ll explain how you can become part of a discussion based on the ideas and questions raised in the following pages. The goal is for you to advance the argument, or maybe to reshape it. I’ll be reporting the results in an article for the Globe
. Together, let’s show the world that the art of the political pamphlet hasn’t been lost after all.
We’ll be looking together at what last fall’s elections told us about the political cultures of Canada and the United States. We’ll track the deterioration of both the political parties and the bureaucracy in this country. We’ll examine the sorry state of the Canada—U.S. border. And we’ll consider the shape of our cities and our schools, where the Americans also have something to teach us.
One of the most effective, if hypocritical, Canadian strategies is to criticize the United States with smug superiority and then steal its best ideas. It’s time to repeat the exercise. Canada needs to strengthen its national government and renew its political culture by borrowing from some of the better angels of the American political nature. And we need to do it now, before it’s too late.
Excerpted from Open and Shut by John Ibbitson. Copyright © 2009 by John Ibbitson. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.