An old friend of mine has a gift for uttering truths at inopportune moments. These are the best times to utter them, according to me and at least one philosopher. The place to discuss abortion, said the late George Grant, is at a polite academic sherry party.
His view – the not unusual one that “after all, women don’t give birth to cats” – was politely, perhaps even heroically ignored, through many years. My fellow Canadians have a gift for not hearing things they don’t want to hear, so widely dispersed that even our talk radio hosts share in it.
But I daresay Grant’s auditors silently took note, and that this helps explain why the man was: 1.) academically isolated, 2.) ended his teaching career in a remote place and, 3.) was nevertheless lionized for a few conventionally leftish political opinions on subjects he knew and cared nothing about.
My friend John Robson, surely among the most intelligent, perceptive, best-informed and frankly honest journalists anywhere, similarly benefits from our national hearing impairment. In a media discussion wherein low and declining voter turnout was being routinely lamented, he gave it as his opinion that perhaps turnout is still too high.
Perhaps it would be to the public advantage if more people with no idea what they are voting for, or self-understanding of why, simply gave our elections a pass. Although my own views go well beyond Robson’s, it was a point I thought worthy of the discussion, which it did not get.
Americans can hear, and I am consciously writing in an American forum. The populists down here are not necessarily faux; your rightwing Tea Party types are not Tory elitists, and the words “We the People” were written so large, at the top of page one in your founding document, that no one has been able to forget.
Foreigner that I am, I will make no comment on your election this Tuesday, even though the result of it is likely to impact Canadians almost as much as Americans, given America’s size and our intimate relations.
My perfectly orthodox Catholic views on human life should anyway make my bias clear: for it seems inconceivable to me that a faithful Catholic, of average or even somewhat below average intelligence, could fail to distinguish between the background party positions on the life issues that matter most. Those who nevertheless fail I tend to write off as unfaithful Catholics, or otherwise perverse.
Indeed, this is how I have come to view elections everywhere: not as a test of politicians, whose trade is no different from that of other door-to-door salesmen. Some are more skilled, some are less, and very few behave as statesmen, or can afford to do so given ground rules in any broad franchise representative democracy.
Some flourish, and some don’t, in what is indisputably a free market for snake oil. Rather, I use the result to judge “the people” themselves; for an election return gives a statistical indication of whether a people as a whole, or considered class by class or region by region, are in any sense astute.
Has Hobbes won?
Given a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, can they pick the egg that is less addled? For bad as things are, there is usually some choice. Were the ballots anywhere printed with a line reading, “None of the above,” it might be more interesting.
Broad-franchise representative democracy is a modern, even post-modern invention. Though today taken for granted, as the default position for any constitutional order, it was entirely unknown and inconceivable until comparatively recent times – except among barbaric nomads, wandering beyond the peripheries of civilization.
Woman’s suffrage, for instance, was allowed nowhere before 1893, and reached Switzerland not until 1971. Before the Great War, generally, one might say the vote was considered a privilege; after, it quickly became a right.
Protestant countries were decidedly ahead of Catholic countries on this issue, as they had been on most other extensions of the franchise. It will go without saying that the USA once counted as a highly Protestant country.
But Catholic countries were seldom slow in following the Protestant Zeitgeist, just as they had not been slow in assimilating the new principle of national sovereignty after the Thirty Years’ War. It was a boon for rulers, and how little we understand today this universalization of political absolutism.
“L’état, c’est moi,” declared le Roi-Soleil, patron and protector of everything in France, but Louis XIV was only adapting the Protestant principle to a Catholic realm. The original absolute dictatorship was the achievement of England’s Henry VIII, and Sweden’s Gustav I – along with the policy that followed from it.
Every source of authority independent of the State – not only the Church and her counsels, but also the feudal and aristocratic, parochial and municipal, legislative and judicial estates – was collapsed into a single order, radiating from a single place.
The principle was the same, whether that capital was Paris, London, Stockholm, or ultimately Washington D.C. And so it is no wonder that faithful Catholics, in their bones, feel uneasy pledging their allegiance.
Today, via Enlightenment theories on the Social Contract, emerging naturally from Hobbes’s notion of the State as the indispensable protection racket, the arrangement may seem to have been inverted into Proudhon’s “l’état c’est nous.”
But the principle of political absolutism remains intact. It is in a single word the principle of “sovereignty” – of supremacy, paramountcy – necessarily involving the politicization of every aspect of human life.
For Catholics, and Christians at large, it is worth reviewing, on a daily basis, the alternative and necessarily subversive claims of Christ the King. His was understood to be “the sovereignty” in pre-national Christendom; and while Christians live everywhere today under the absolute power of an essentially fascist State, let us pray for deliverance from its mandates.