It Could Never Happen Here
25 January 2021, 12h00 EST (UTC-5)
My Article in the Hill Times
Click image for the original newspaper web page
“It could never happen here,” is a comforting self-deception we tell ourselves, to feel superior to societies convulsed by corruption, bigotry, and violence, and to justify averting our eyes from our own societies’ evils.
The past four years have stripped Americans of their illusions. But they have also caused too many Canadians to clasp our own illusions still more tightly to our chests.
Seen from Canada, the storming of the US Capitol by domestic terrorists looked both tragic and farcical.
They called themselves patriots, while waving the banner of Confederate treason. They carried signs praising the “thin blue line”, while bludgeoning a police officer. They proclaimed themselves defenders of democracy, while using force to try to overturn a free and fair election. They cried about their country being under attack, while fulfilling Al-Qaeda’s thwarted ambition to assault the legislature. They shouted their love of America, while screaming hatred at Americans.
Yet, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of that day, was how utterly predictable it was.
Around the world, democracies are under siege by the rise of demagogic and authoritarian movements. These movements claim to be democratic, but they are plainly the losers’ tantrums, desperate responses to the march of progress.
History suggests that these movements could represent either the birth of a new undemocratic era, or the death throes of extremism. Which will come to pass will be decided by our choices as societies and as a community of nations.
During the Spanish Civil War, the vast majority of liberal-democratic states wrung their hands and offered little more than impotent declarations. By contrast, fascist states poured propaganda and military aid into Spain to support their fellow travellers. The result was a dictatorship that hastened the world’s tumble into the Second World War, and that continued to hold Spain in its talons for nearly two generations.
During the struggle against Apartheid, liberal-democratic states played a vital role in wearing-down the will of the racist regime, and in aiding South Africa’s resistance movements. “Your support...sustained us, gave us hope and encouragement, even in the darkest days,” Nelson Mandela would later tell Canada’s parliament.
The lessons of history are stark: there is nothing inevitable about the course of human affairs. The past is littered with nations that went from tyranny to freedom, and others that went from freedom to tyranny. It is always a question of whether societies and states have the wisdom to recognise the right choices, and the courage to take them together.
Today, there are five choices we must make if the twenty-first century is to be remembered as something other than a retreat from the twentieth century’s battles against totalitarianism.
First, we must not dismiss or underestimate the contagion of extremism, of the kind that was on display in Washington DC.
The individuals, state actors, and organisations involved in fomenting violence must be politically and economically quarantined by the international community. They must be refused entry into our countries, and they must have their assets and businesses excluded from our economies.
Second, democratic states must offer more than soothing words on racial inclusion.
A state apparatus that is more homogenous will always take the rise of xenophobic movements less seriously than a state whose leaders feel and understand the menace posed by such movements.
Third, democratic governments must act to reduce the tyranny of economic inequality.
The growing chasm between rich and poor must be halted, if populations are not to be driven to desperation and into the arms of extremists. Hate has no greater allies than grinding poverty and bitter resentment.
Fourth, the mantle of political leadership must be passed to a younger generation of citizens, to have opportunities to build a new world, not just rail against the old.
In Canada, past generations can be proud of having established our country’s creed of “Peace, Order, and Good Government”, but it is the task of new generations to fulfil that promise. Younger Canadians seem to better understand that peace without dignity is just a euphemism for subjugation, that order without justice is a euphemism for tyranny, and that government is only good if it serves the many rather than the few.
Fifth, the community of democratic states must unite to support democracy, inclusion, and the rule of law, within their own borders and across the international system.
We are facing a plague of extremism and intolerance, and individual democracies will not endure, unless they help inoculate one another.
These are easy measures to express, but difficult to implement.
There are many other calls on the attention of governments. There is little political gain for politicians in international affairs. Too few Canadians are persuaded that our democracy could be at risk.
To all those who say that the uprising in the United States could never happen in Canada, I ask you to reflect on this: on Tuesday, members of the US Congress were also saying it could never happen in their country; on Wednesday, those same legislators were hiding under their desks.
We have a choice as Canadians. If we do not make that choice, others will make it for us.