Myodicy, Issue 22, December 2004

Leading a Horse
to the Voting Booth

by Theodore Plantinga

Do you sincerely want to be rich? This question is thrown at us from a variety of angles, as a way to lure us into television competitions, lotteries and other schemes offering a tiny, tiny, tiny prospect of unearned wealth. And it seems not to bother people that if such money should ever come their way, they will not have earned it.

Nowadays, people seem more interested in being rich than in being considered great. But for the minority of us who do have an interest in greatness, it seems there is a significant choice to be made as to how one qualifies for such an appellation. Shakespeare seems to have thought all of this out hundreds of years ago. Through one of his characters he said: "Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them." [Twelfth Night, Act 2, scene 5]

Lyndon Baines Johnson, who served as president of the USA from 1963 to 1969, was well aware of such distinctions. He knew that in Shakespeare's terms, greatness had been "thrust upon" him. He thought of himself as the "accidental president," for he assumed the presidency when JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Johnson longed to be elected president on a ballot with his own name at the top of the ticket. His dream was realized in 1964, when he won an overwhelming electoral majority over the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater. Harry Truman was another "accidental president": he had greatness "thrust upon" him through the death of FDR. Truman also yearned for a mandate of his own, which he achieved in 1948 when he squeaked out a narrow victory over Thomas Dewey.

Are there other supreme accolades which might come our way undeservedly, which is to say that they are "thrust upon" us? It's a question worth pondering. Could love be one of them? An ancient custom in the human community is arranged marriage. The expectation is that the young man and young woman selected for one another by their respective families will prove compatible. After they are thrown together, so to speak, it is hoped that love will blossom, although it is recognized that it might take a little while for the spark of romance to be lit. Bear in mind that in some societies, the bride and groom in an arranged marriage do not meet before the wedding, or, if they do meet beforehand, it is only a matter of days before the knot is tied. Love is "thrust upon" them, even though, like Presidents Johnson and Truman, they may well have preferred to have achieved it on their own.

If the bride and groom in such a situation do manage to live in harmonious marital union, I can't help but wonder whether the satisfaction they take in their love is not tarnished to some degree by the fact that they were brought together artificially. I have been married twice, and in both cases I can say that my wife and I found each other. It gives me a certain satisfaction to realize that the happiness I have achieved in marriage is partly the result of my own seeking and of decisions I made for myself.

Another of those wondrous values that can add so much quality to human life as lived day by day is freedom. And so it is appropriate to ask whether freedom can be "thrust upon" a person -- or perhaps a nation. This is a timely question since something of this sort is what the USA is now trying to do in Iraq -- or perhaps to Iraq. Setting aside for the moment the question whether the 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified (the "weapons of mass destruction" issue), lovers of freedom and democracy around the world cannot help but sympathize with the US hope that freedom and democracy will now take root in that country that has known so much suffering.

But will it work? Can democracy really be "thrust upon" people whose institutions have not prepared them for it? The English are usually given great credit in terms of the development of freedom and democracy, but freedom was not exactly "thrust upon" them either. It took them centuries to develop the stable and democratic political and legal system they now enjoy.

There is an odd situation in Canada's province of Quebec which may shed some light on the difficulties the USA currently faces in Iraq. Quebec is widely known outside Canada's borders as the French-speaking province and is often thought to be the one province where bilingualism is officially entrenched. (The latter claim is untrue: New Brunswick maintains that distinction.) What is also generally known about Quebec is that it has -- some would say had -- separatist aspirations. In other words, many Quebecers want Quebec to become an independent country. This prospect has dominated Canadian politics off and on for decades.

Earlier this year Canada had another federal election. While the separatist threat seemed dormant and did not make many waves during the campaign, the result was the election of a very sizable block -- 53 in all -- of Quebec Members of Parliament (MPs) who are officially committed to separatism. I read some interesting reflection in Maclean's, , which is Canada's leading newsmagazine, about this election result. On the one hand, said the commentator, Quebecers are more content to be a part of Canada than they have been for many decades. He attributed this contentment in part to their opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, which was an issue on which they could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canadians in other provinces. But for the most part, it seems that their national and linguistic aspirations are for the moment fairly well met within the political structures that make up Canada. And so one is led to ask: why elect all those separatist MPs?

It looks very much like an "opt out" situation. Canada currently has 308 seats in its Parliament, and 75 of those seats are held by representatives from Quebec. The separatist party fields a candidate in each Quebec riding. If it had succeeded in its election appeal beyond its wildest dreams by cornering the vote of absolutely every voter in every riding in which it offered a candidate, it would have elected a total of 75 MPs. Of course this would not be enough to form a government, and in the current Parliament it would not even make the separatist party the official opposition. And so the separatists are reduced to sitting in Parliament like unwilling schoolchildren with sullen looks on their faces suggesting that they wish they could be elsewhere. The message would appear to be: we are physically present, but we don't care to participate.

Suppose the voters of Quebec were confronted with a series of distinct, competing visions for Canada's future. In theory, this is what the various political parties offer. Let's suppose, further, that the voters rejected all those visions and looked for a line on the ballot that says "None of the above." In effect, that's the line many of them chose by voting for the separatist party.

Well then, do all those separatists in the nation's Parliament have a political program? The surface answer is yes: their goal is separation from Canada. But they are well aware that such a thing cannot be achieved in the Parliament of Canada, and so they are not there to propose it. When they are asked about these things, they generally reply that they will propose and support measures that are in the interests of the people of Quebec. A safe answer, I suppose. But one cannot help asking as well -- and journalists have indeed put this question to the separatist MPs repeatedly -- whether they will also support measures that are good for the people of Canada in general. The answer is usually a somewhat reluctant yes.

This reluctance on the part of separatist MPs leads me to pose a quasi-Kantian question. Is it possible to be involved in politics, which is, after all, an ethical enterprise, without having goals that can be universalized? Can one legislate for oneself alone -- and not for the rest of humanity at the same time? Is it indeed possible to ignore the other nine provinces when considering -- and even proposing -- measures in Parliament? The separatist MPs seem ambivalent about this question.

On a practical level, it should be noted that some of these MPs must be troubled by the logic I am unfolding in this essay, for they are known to switch parties. The original block of separatist MPs which began to sit in the early 1990s was drawn from the other political parties. They were people who had reached the conclusion that separation from Canada was the only option for Quebec. Since that time, some of the separatist MPs, along with non-elected functionaries and other workers in their party, have switched back to the older parties. By doing so they have returned officially to the path of pursuing political goals for the benefit of Canadians from coast to coast. Moreover, it is safe to assume that many of the sitting separatist MPs are more broad-minded in terms of what they would like to accomplish in Ottawa than their official party affiliation would lead one to suppose.

One way to size up the separatists in Quebec is to say that they are simply a regional block. ("All politics is local.") If this hypothesis has merit, it is logical to ask: could there be other provincial or regional parties represented in Parliament? I don't see any reason to say no. It happens that there is a political party in Saskatchewan called simply the Saskatchewan Party, but it restricts its activities to the provincial level, where, presumably, it claims to act in the interests of all the people of Saskatchewan. Would such a party field candidates in a federal election? It would seem self-defeating, but in principle it could be done. One would then expect that such a party would seek alliances with other parties in order to garner enough votes in the federal Parliament to advance its measures, and that it would even be open to sitting in a coalition at some point.

What about the separatists? Could they join a coalition? Because they are committed to dismantling the country, the prospect of one of the other parties forming a coalition with the separatists frightens many Canadians, and so no other party contemplates it seriously. But on an informal level, a working coalition might involve the separatists as part of an effort to get legislation of a certain sort passed. In the current Parliament, in which the Paul Martin (Liberal) government holds only a minority of the seats, the separatists certainly cannot be ignored. There's a great deal for journalists who cover politics in Ottawa to discuss these days. We live in interesting times.

There's an old saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. It occurred to me that you can also lead a horse to the voting booth, but you can't make him vote. Now, strictly speaking, a horse cannot vote because it doesn't have the level of intelligence that is required to participate in such a process. It's different with a human being, however unwilling he may declare himself to be. Quebecers can be led -- or enticed -- to the voting booth, but can they be made to participate in a quasi-Kantian fashion in the Canadian political process? The clear answer is no. And so it makes a certain sense for them to cast a "none of the above" ballot by electing separatists. In effect they are saying: You can lead us in here, but you can't force us to participate. It appears that they -- or their elected representatives -- have the option of sitting there like sullen children in school who would rather be outside playing.

During the 1995 referendum sponsored by the Quebec government, in which Quebec voters were polled on their willingness to separate from Canada, there was much talk about how the rest of Canada needed to "woo" Quebec. Many romantic and marital analogies were used. Just as love needs time to spring up in a marriage between a young man and woman who have been brought together by their respective families, so time is needed for love to spring up between French and English Canada. Of course some would say that we've already had more than a hundred years for such a thing to happen.

But the people of Iraq have not been free of Saddam Hussein for very long. And so, if they are now forced into the voting booth, is it reasonable to expect them to participate in the democratic process wholeheartedly and with a deep understanding of the opportunities and limitations of democracy? (You don't always get your own way in a democracy.) Such a question can also be asked in connection with an arranged marriage. The marriage might turn out to work, but we might also conclude that it was a mistake.

There's an old song that assures us that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. The song does not settle the issue which comes first: one simply assumes that it's love. Yet much traditional thinking said that marriage should come first, and that love of one sort or another would surely follow. Most contemporary thinking reverses the order.

How about freedom and democracy? Does democracy come first, necessarily giving rise to freedom? Or does freedom first have to be born in the hearts of men and women so that they will demand democracy? I suppose it's a chicken-and-egg question.

But I am not raising these questions because I want to encourage people to sit still and do nothing. The effort to bring both freedom and democracy to Iraq is a noble cause (which is not yet to say that the path into Iraq chosen by the USA is a noble path). Any genuine lover of freedom and democracy will hope, on some fundamental level, that the USA succeeds.

My own conviction is that freedom is a multi-dimensional concept. It does not apply only to the political realm. For relationships to blossom within the circle of the family, freedom must be encouraged. Freedom is needed in the business enterprise, and also in schools. In the Western world, we have a long history of insisting that there needs to be freedom even within religious organizations and worship communities. And so some have argued that the Calvinistic form of church government (often referred to as the Presbyterian system), in which the church is "ruled" by elders who are drawn from many walks of life, is a wonderful school of democracy that teaches people that even in spiritual matters, the views of others must be respected and taken into account as decisions are being made.

Is there any hope for democracy in a country that is all too familiar with religious authoritarianism? Can the development of democratic institutions simply bypass the domain of worship and religion (which nowadays seems to enjoy protection from criticism since we are supposed to revel in "multiculturalism")? Clearly we face a significant problem here, a problem that does not only apply to Iraq. Will it prove possible, in such countries, to persuade people to inject freedom into their families and their businesses and schools, and even into their collective endeavors as worshipping communities? Moslems cannot simply be ordered to turn into Presbyterians. A difficult question indeed. Horses don't get it, obviously, and it may also take some time for people in Iraq to get it.

But we should be hopeful. Perhaps the people of Iraq will look back, a great many years from now, and say that freedom was "thrust upon" them. May God grant it. [END]

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