Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Civilisation


Visiting Seattle for the last week, I've taken long walks through the city, meeting new people, making new friends. In a habit going back many years, I stop every so often, usually at a street corner, and breathe in the air. The air is fresher here than in St. Louis, in a way that makes me smile. It is not the smell of it, but the feel of it that I enjoy. I love the way it fills not only my lungs, but fills me, fills me up, heart and soul.

In St. Louis, in Chicago, in many cities, I become aware of my discontent. The air, rather than nourishing, instead suffocates. In Seattle and Vancouver, Edmonton and Montréal, I breathe free again, as if liberation were strictly a function of geographical latitude. It is not geography, though, except possibly as described by John Ralston Saul in Reflections of a Siamese Twin and Voltaire's Bastards. I understand the origin of my discontent, and its nexus is not geographical, but cultural.

Just as a dog will sniff at the air, detect a rotten odour, and walk away from its source, so too, I have become aware of cultural odours I find less than attractive. I have walked away, too. Why not? My nose has led me to clean, fresh air that nourishes me, body and soul. It is air to make me strong and free, glorious and free. Why not, then, choose this air, this delightful air found only in the true north?

My discontent is simple, explained in seven words: Civilisation is incompatible with indiscriminate personal autonomy. That's it. These seven words explain why the air is sweeter north of here, in British Columbia, sweeter in Alberta, sweeter in Ontario and Québec. These words explain why the US "red states," like Missouri and Texas, exude a particularly putrid odour.

Many good people make their home in these noisy states south of the 49th parallel. I have many friends here. I have met heartless, unkind citizens of True North in Calgary and Edmonton, Barrie and Toronto, Sherbrooke and Montréal. A few people here in the states I would trust with my life.

And though I breathe fresh air in my favourite northern cities, I do not view these cultural citadels with rosy-coloured glasses. Canada has deep problems, some unique to the modern world. How does one stuff a nation of eight million souls into the geographical boundaries between Ontario and the Atlantic and ask it to integrate fully with a second nation surrounding it on both sides, and then close it all up into a bag labeled "Sovereign Country" and pretend that it is one nation, not two? Then there is the problem of north and south, which can be characterised as First Nations v. Europeans, the problem of the "have" provinces v. the "have not" provinces (compounded by strange predictions, such as the one claiming Ontario will be a "have not." Ah bon). Je comprends, mais je ne comprends rien. I understand, but I do not understand anything.

I've studied this most wonderful land, the country I hold most dear, intensively for over ten years. Studied it, really, as if my life depended on it. Because in the end, I think, my life does depend on it. Canada, with all its deep, centuries-long problems and new problems every day, is life. In Auschwitz, the code word for freedom was not "America." If you've read your history, you know what that word was. You know it. And it's true. With all her problems, Canada is that word: Canada is freedom.

Civilisation depends on the recognition and embracing of the Common Good. Canada, with all its problems, was founded on that principle. Civilised humanity attains to greatest freedom by fulfilling the basic needs of all, by celebrating Joe's peacekeeping, not policing, diversity, not assimilation. And absolutely, positively, it is pronounced 'zed,' not 'zee.' Zed.

Pearson
Seattle, WA
(200 km south of civilisation)

2 comments:

Flick said...

Interesting article, Pearson, speaking from a zed point of view.Oh to find a perfect country. My little England has so many problems and I love to escape it and them for a while but it's home and always draws me back. We've had a few chances as a family to consider the possibility of living abroad and there was always some reason why it wasn't right at the time - ailing parents, kids at the wrong stage of schooling etc. I often wonder how different life would have been if we'd had to courage to make the jump. But I do love my country. I love the freedom here, the scenery, the culture, the differences. I don't like greed, unfairness and selfishness and sadly they are not limited to England. We can only do our best in our own little way- personally and in the way we influence our kids and those around us. I, of course, am a paragon of virtue. (snigger)

Kate said...

Hello Pearson, stopped by to take a look at your blog. Looking forward to seeing how it develops.