That smartypants fancypants @Cityslikr is forcing me to put on my crankypants. I warned you youngsters what would happen if you didn’t get off my lawn!
All right, all right, so I telegraphed that one. Indulge me.
The #TOpoli twittersphere / blogosphere / wankersphere (my usual preserve) has been all lit up over the past few days, thanks to John Michael McGrath and his thoughtful essay about legitimacy. We’ve heard from several folks in response, among them Ed Keenan, Hamutal Dotan, John Lorinc, and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, for starters. All worthwhile reads, and I’d encourage you to click on every one of these links.
But it’s today’s post from Cityslikr that’s prompting this grumpy-old-man lecture, admittedly because he’s all but dared me to correct him. Dude may be surprised, therefore, to learn that I agree with most of his argument today (probably because it’s substantially similar to the one I made yesterday). I think we’re all in agreement that while what’s been going on at City Hall over the past few weeks isn’t ideal, it’s a reasonable and workable response to a mayor who can’t or won’t work and play well with others. And it’s important to stress, as Ed and Hamutal have, that this isn’t a case of unworkable dysfunction. There’s a great deal invested, I’d submit, in advancing a narrative which paints all politicians as a bunch of fussy children squabbling in a sandbox, and in prompting exasperated voters to blow off the obligations of citizenship because, what the hell, they’re all crooks and liars.
Indeed, I seem to recall some young whippersnapper taking exception to that kind of talk some time ago. Where was it? Oh. Yeah.
But that’s not what the young scamp’s called me out about. And it’s here that I have to confess, it’s this particular debate that’s fuelled many late-night beer-enhanced conversations.
I’ll admit to a pedantic, perhaps even obsessive focus on the meanings of words. (One of my many annoying qualities, I know. Too much education and not enough wisdom, perhaps? Whatever.) But I fixate on it for a reason: words are the foundation of public discourse, and public discourse is the most basic currency of citizenship and civic engagement. If we’re to converse with each other like rational adults, we have to be able to agree on the definitions of the terms we’re using.
And by the same token, when we allow others to strip words of their meanings and repurpose them for their own ends, we’ve given away the game before it’s even started. It’s why I keep harping on winning back the words.
Which brings us to the term “conservatism.” Cityslikr’s already tried to anticipate where I’m going with this, with his fancy-shmancy Edmund Burke references. (Geez louise. You cite Reflections on the Revolution in France once, and the rest of your life, you’re shlepping around this giant freakin’ statue on your back.)
But I’m not going there tonight, because for the purposes of this argument, there’s no need to get all academic and elitist-like.
What is conservatism, at its heart? The way I’ve always understood it, it’s about identifying the best and most worthwhile parts of our history and our tradition, and working to preserve and enhance them. It’s informed, I’d submit, by a devotion to the principles of stewardship. We want to leave things the way they were when we found them, or preferably a little bit better, for the next group to come along. If that’s conservatism, and I believe that it is, then sign me up.
In Canada (pardon me while I get mythic), that carries elements of generosity, civility, caring, and community spirit. It’s something that we’ve worked for generations to build, to advance, and to extend to as many of our neighbours and our fellow citizens as possible. It hasn’t come without struggle, and it’s sometimes easy to gloss over some of the less savoury aspects of our history in honouring that, but the bottom line is: we’ve got something here – a culture, a national character, a way of relating to and caring for one another – that’s taken years to build, to develop, to foster. This is our identity. This is who we are. You don’t get to come along and sweep that all away for the sake of some ideological or financial agenda.
And that’s why it’s so important to reclaim the mantle of conservatism from those who have hijacked it over the past few decades. Because whether you’re talking about think tanks pushing the austerity agenda and lecturing us about tightening our belts, or tabloid screed-writers fulminating about waste and mismanagement and cultures of entitlement and gravy trains, what’s at work here is a focused and disciplined campaign to dismantle, to tear things apart, and to weaken the bonds of community. If these folks are conservatives, then I’m two steps left of Joe Stalin.
So, while my pal Cityslikr is right about the sort of autocratic bullying we’ve seen from Team Ford passing for conservative orthodoxy, I think he’s wrong in the way he’s set it up. (But he’s such a nice boy. He means well.)
In his opening paragraphs, he gives a vivid description of the anti-democratic impulse, and the bare tolerance of democracy. You can see that at work every day, whenever people complain about how messy and inefficient it is and then vow to keep its practitioners away from their kids’ lemonade stands. Where I differ from him is in his characterization of it as conservative. Disdain for democracy or popular sovereignty has nothing to with liberal or conservative or right or left; fundamentally, it’s about power and privilege. In that context, those are just labels. And it’s because I don’t want to see honourable traditions and intelllectual currents stripped of context and meaning, and reduced to mere labels, that I’m arguing against the misuse and misappropriation of the term “conservative.”
The folks currently losing their shit because Team Ford’s losing its grip aren’t conservatives. They’re not valiant culture warriors, and they’re not courageous champions of Joe Lunchbucket Subway-Wanting Beleaguered Taxpayer. They’re just part of the noise machine, and they don’t merit any more respect or attention than that.