Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Singing in the Cathedral

Yesterday morning, standing in a pew at my parish, I sang a hymn with five hundred other parishioners. I do not sing very well. The man standing next to me could not hold the tune. I imagine that most people in the sanctuary were not singing in tune or on key, especially so early in the morning. Yet, the sound that we made collectively was beautiful. There was complexity in the Cathedral, in voices that could not agree on the notes to be sung. If some of the voices had not been present, the sound would have lacked the depth and clarity that made the hymn a vibrant affirmation of our faith in something greater than any one of us.

The thesis of John Ralston Saul's "Reflections of a Siamese Twin" is that "the central characteristic of the Canadian state is its complexity." This statement must have considerably more weight and truth for those who have spent appreciable time in other countries. The complexity of this land must be a reflection of our historical willingness to accept the truth of another recent thesis, that of the Dalai Lama, who wrote in "Ethics for the New Millennium," that "every one of us has a responsibility to act as if all our thoughts, words, and deeds matter. For really, they do. Our lives have both purpose and meaning."

If what I think and do has meaning, then surely what my neighbour thinks and does also has meaning, and the country has value and complexity only to the extent that we recognize and act on the dignity within our own hearts and the hearts of our fellow citizens.

Citizenship, it seems to me, must carry with it the somber responsibility and happy task of seeking the common good. Otherwise, I discount the importance of my neighbour and her thoughts and actions, and I help to tear down the country that I love so dearly. We stand on guard for something greater than any one of us, for something that has been and will be a unique expression of what it means to be a human being, a simple citizen in a great and beautiful land.

Civilisation is possible only to the extent that we cooperate with each other toward some set of commonly-held goals. Perhaps these goals would include such things as discovering and even implementing mechanisms intended for the alleviation of suffering, or inventions that would permit the more efficient manufacture and easier availability of necessities, or the propagation of information, education, and entertainments that stimulate the creative faculties. Civilisation demands that I act so as to further the common good. "It's what our fathers taught us," as Leo McGarry said in "West Wing."

Although it might seem clear to most people reading this that cooperation is a necessary component, or perhaps even the foundational element of civilisation, there exists a large minority who insist that cooperation is a myth. Some argue, rather convincingly, that self-interest is the only factor in cooperative projects. I think that Ayn Rand is the most authoritative proponent of this kind of philosophy. She is certainly the best equivalent to John Ralston Saul south of the border, for her philosophy really captures the U.S. trend toward capitalism/libertarianism just as Dr. Saul captures the current Canadian trend toward the peculiar brand of Canadian socialism we are discussing.

I approach the discussion from the standpoint of singular identity. I define myself in terms of my relationships to the world: I am my wife's husband, I am my daughter's father, I am my father's son, and so on. I keep the discussion somewhat at a distance. For although I can say, in continuing with the identity argument, I am a Christian, I am a Liberal (or Socialist, or Democrat for those to the south), I am a Roman Catholic, and so on, I do not include in this rambling definition my national identity. Not that this is not somehow important to me, for it is very important. But the question of national identity does not figure into the way I define myself. The question that has greater relevance to me is, "How can I best participate in building up the character of my community and my nation?"

You need only pick up the Globe and Mail or any other newspaper, or watch CBC or any other news outlet, to see the concrete manifestation of the Randian (libertarian) approach to life. Nearly 30,000 people per year die as a result of handguns in the U.S, in murders, gun battles, drive-by shootings, and the like. The U.S. rates of suicide, drug use, embezzlement, and just about any other social ill, are far higher than those of any other "civilised" nation. There is a real war going on down there. It is an ideological war, an attempt to preserve the "American Dream" of financial and social independence. It is the natural outcome of the selfishness that is masquerading as an enlightened philosophy of "self-interest" or "libertarianism." The natural culmination of this trend must be the eventual disintegration of the republic in its current form, and a reversion or evolution into some very unhealthy society and government.

Many people have well-founded reasons for conservative or Tory sentiments. I do not wish to argue that conservatism or self-interest is always wrong. I will argue, though, that at our very core, we define ourselves in terms of relationships to others, and that because of this, we can only find the complete expression of our identities in the service of others.

There are poisonous philosophies and doctrines out there. I count Ayn Rand's "Virtue of Selfishness" (the title of one of her books) as one of the worst poisons available in the ideological marketplace. For this reason alone, some form of nationalism might indeed be necessary. In preserving and strengthening the Canadian Experiment, we are perhaps helping to ensure that poisonous philosophies do not begin to tear apart the very fabric of civilisation.

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