Writing in this month's Vanity Fair, Todd Purdom addresses the enormous changes underway, some of them quite possibly
civilization ending, none of which our leaders seem to take seriously. Purdom writes of his United States but most of his observations also ring true for federal and provincial politics here in Canada.
As Barack Obama prepares to take the oath of office for his second term as president, his country and the planet as a whole are experiencing a transformation every bit as revolutionary as the one that shook the world of Renaissance kings and Popes. The scale of that transformation is in some ways deceptive—it’s relentless and yet also quiet, at times almost invisible. But there hasn’t been anything like it in 500 years.
When Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his second term, in 1985, the Human Genome Project was still years away, but the era of genetic engineering would soon be upon us, bringing capabilities we may not want but cannot forestall. Cell phones in the Reagan era were bigger than bananas (if not breadboxes)—it’s impossible to watch the movie Wall Street today without laughing—and the Internet was in an embryonic state, known to few and used by fewer. The rise of the Internet has been the biggest leap forward in communications since Gutenberg; it has changed the nature of information, made privacy obsolete, put vast new power in the hands of corporations and government agencies, and become a weapon of war that anyone can deploy. Money ricochets around the world like so many charged electrons, making a mockery of national borders and undermining the very idea of the nation-state. (China owns two-thirds as much of the U.S. debt as the Federal Reserve itself does.) At home and abroad the availability of sophisticated weaponry has the same destabilizing effect. The migration of peoples from one place to another sparks conflict and violence but also establishes new realities on the ground. When Reagan took office, the United States was 83 percent white; last year, for the first time, more than half of American children under one year of age belonged to a minority group. Meanwhile, the world is run by a new, multi-national global elite that is educated and affluent and owes loyalty mainly to itself, rather than to any cause or country. The Financial Times is its constitution. The “Ambassador” lounges at airports are its embassies.
Today we know almost everything, but can’t seem to act on the knowledge or even take it seriously. As George Orwell famously observed, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Geospatial satellites can tell us—literally—where we are at any moment, but they can’t ensure that we move in a sensible direction. Fixed cameras can capture the melting of glaciers through time-lapse photography, but they can’t quell the doubts of climate-change deniers. We have hard data on the deleterious effects of decades of income inequality—and on the benefits of immigration—but can’t agree on policies that might ease the former or productively manage the latter. When the Congressional Research Service produces a report that shows zero correlation between low income-tax rates for the wealthy, on the one hand, and improved performance of the national economy, on the other—thus undermining one of the central G.O.P. arguments two months before the election—the reaction of Senate Republicans is to force the withdrawal of the report. “The Truth” is seen simply as one more topic for debate—a development that is itself a destabilizing force to contend with.
Virtually every issue in the election just ended has its roots in the revolutionary transformation of our times. If anyone knows this, it’s Barack Obama, the first post-global president in American history. His Kenyan-Kansan heritage and his childhood years in Indonesia make him Exhibit A of this changing world, to the fevered horror of his detractors. But he doesn’t talk about it much, and his re-election campaign consisted largely of small-ball themes and time-tested attack tactics against his Republican opponent. It took the devastation of Hurricane Sandy to put global warming back on the politicians’ radar, if only for a moment. Bill Clinton, that tireless citizen of the world, likes to call this epoch “the most interdependent time in human history.” But even he, for all his skill at making the complex accessible, hasn’t really managed to move the discussion into the political mainstream. Our politics has yet to find sensible ways to talk about our revolutionary times, much less grapple with them.
No one can know how historians centuries hence will view the period that runs from roughly the end of the Cold War up through the next couple of decades. It will be surprising if they do not see it as a turning point. Large forces have been unleashed that are beyond easy control, or perhaps any control. Obama has been mocked for his occasional grandiloquence on the most daunting issues of the day, most famously when he clinched the Democratic nomination in 2008 and predicted that future generations would be able to say that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Even if we defy Orwell and prove capable of acknowledging what’s in front of our noses, there’s no way to riddle out the far-future consequences. Gutenberg did not foresee that his movable type—first employed to print a Bible, after all—would lead to an epidemic of freethinking and ultimately to religious wars and political upheavals throughout Europe.
In Ottawa we have a prime minister who suppresses truth as effortlessly as he breathes. If reality interferes with his pursuits it is reality that must yield. I wish it could all be undone by a change of government, yet I don't believe it for a second. Corporatism has prevailed. Al Gore writes that the forces of corporatism have hacked American democracy, waylaid it to their own purposes.
What evidence is there of a corporatist coup in Canada? It is manifest in many things such as the lowering of our social defences, the rise of inequality, the decline of our health and educational institutions. It is blatant in our government's reckless embrace of environmental catastrophe called the Northern Gateway and in the quickstep measures to accelerate the export of massive quantities of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels on the planet. It is inescapable from the decay of essential infrastructure across the breadth of the country. It is laid bare in the government's relentless assault on organized labour and collective bargaining. It is tangible in the demise of a free press, the watchdog of government, and its replacement by a powerful and concentrated corporate media cartel, the lapdog of a collaborative government. It is spotlighted by the supremacy of globalization and the commensurate decline of our once robust middle class. The commercial sector no longer serves the country. Those positions are now sharply reversed.
So long as our political classes won't even acknowledge the intrusion of corporatism into our Parliament and the quiet manner in which it derails democracy, it's bound to get progressively worse. I don't expect a Conservative to acknowledge it but there's absolutely no excuse for any Liberal or New Democrat to duck the subject. Hell they're the opposition. This is precisely what they are supposed to do. It's what we pay them to do. It's their solemn duty to our people and our nation.
If they won't act it will be up to us or, far more likely, our children to stand against these anti-democratic forces and throw them over. Either that or become a nation of indentured servants.
Update - A timely examination of the role and legitimacy of civil disobedience comes from Sierra Club Canada executive director, John Bennett.