Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Myth of Inevitability

Thirty years ago I sat in a Canadian history class at the University of Manitoba. The class was taught by Gordon Rothney, one of the finest scholars and teachers I have known. He and I shared a place in common. He was born in, and I taught high school in, the same little town in the Eastern Townships. During the course of the year we, of course, discussed Quebec's place and future in Confederation. Rothney had no sympathy for the nationalism espoused by Rene Levesque; but he understood where it came from. And, more importantly, he was of the opinion that the nationalists would eventually win the day -- not because they had justice on their side, but because of what, he felt, were the inexorable tides of history.

He believed that the history of the twentieth century was the story of how power was being consolidated into geographic blocks. That consolidation began with economic pacts, like NAFTA and the European Economic Community. Eventually it would erode international borders and national sovereignty would be a thing of the past. He was quite confident that the growing influence of the United States would eventually hold sway over North America, and that the flow of power from North to South would, in the end, dissolve the historical east-west bonds which held Canada together. I remember arguing that, despite what Tolstoy said, history was not about unstoppable movements of people and resources. It was about wisdom -- or the lack of it -- as expressed in the choices which people made throughout time.

I must admit that, over the past thirty years -- particularly during the last Quebec referendum in 1995 -- I have sometimes thought that he was right. But, as of today, Canada has not disintegrated. Some -- myself included -- would argue that the present government's take on the federation makes that dissolution easier. But, for the present, it looks like we will hold the family together.

I thought of Rothney this week as I read John Ralston Saul's excellent book, The Collapse of Globalism. Saul claims that in the thirty years since I sat in Rothney's history class, the so called best and brightest among us have been in the thrall of an ideology of economic determinism. The result, in the 1980's and 90's, was public policies which were presented to us "with the force of declared inevitability." But, says Saul, there is nothing inevitable about our situation. Instead of being trapped by the tides of history, we are in an "interregnum," an era characterized by "a vacuum of economic thought, which adds an element of even greater uncertainty, because economics is a romantic tempestuous business, rather theatrical, often dependent on the willing suspension of disbelief by the rest of us." And, ironically, in the midst of this vacuum, we have come to see all of existence through an economic prism.

Having willingly suspended our disbelief, we have forgotten that we have choices, that "we have the power to choose in the hope of altering society for the greater good. . . The conviction that citizens have such power lies at the heart of the idea of civilization as a shared project." For, Saul writes, "To believe in the reality of choice is one of the most basic characteristics of leadership. Curiously enough, many individuals who think of themselves as leaders find this reality very difficult. They believe that their job is to understand power and management and perhaps make minor corrections to what they accept to be the torque of events."

We have substituted management for leadership. It is worth remembering that the current President of the United States holds an MBA from Harvard; and the current Prime Minister of Canada holds a Masters degree in Economics from the University of Calgary. One should not be surprised that they espouse what is, for the moment, the conventional wisdom. Thus, this week Mr. Bush vetoed a bill which would begin the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, arguing that such a bill would inevitably lead to chaos in the entire Middle East; and the Harper government claimed this week that its Green Plan was modest because anything more demanding would inevitably do untold damage to the Canadian economy.

What is so appealing about inevitability is that it relieves us of moral responsibility. We believe in financial accounting; but we work hard to sidestep any accounting for the long term consequences of our actions. Asked this week if, knowing that the intelligence his organization had on Saddam Hussein's nuclear capability was -- at best -- unreliable, he had argued against President Bush's decision to go to war, George Tenet answered that it had become clear to him that the decision was inevitable. To this assertion, former CIA analyst Michael Scheurer, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, wrote that Tenet faced a choice -- to go along or to resign: ". . . Tenet's resignation would have destroyed the neocons' Iraq house of cards by discrediting the only glue holding it together: the intelligence that proved Saddam Hussein was guilty of pursuing nuclear weapons and working with Al Queda."

When you have a mortgage and a family, it's never easy to make that kind of decision. But as Tenet's decision illustrates, the consequences can be disastrous. The potential to avoid disaster, despite what I learned in Gordon Rothney's history class, still resides in our power to choose.

1 comment:

I Am The Russian Queen said...

Hello and happy canada day, one day late. Gordon Rothney was my godfather! I was just thinking about him today and googled his name and found your site with your reference to his scholarship. Cool. great post.

I write a "diversity matters" column at http://canadasworld.wordpress.com