Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Pox On Both Their Houses

Like most people who watch politics, I've been paying a lot of attention to the recent chaos surrounding street protests. Death, riots, mayhem, and a lot of ugly debate over whether one group is "really" Nazis, or the other is "really" Communists, or a hundred other issues.

Honestly, I'm almost past caring whether one group or another is acolytes of one long-discredited totalitarian murder cult or another. What I see is two bunches of people who are both, in their own ways, undermining the free and democratic society that we live in. Neither means to - both groups think they're defending freedom. But I don't care what they think, I care what they do. And right now what they're doing is brawling in the streets, trying to prevent anyone who disagrees with them from being allowed to speak, and killing people. 

We don't praise democracy because it's a perfect system. It's clearly not. But those of us who know our history know what the alternatives look like. We praise democracy because any other alternative - feudal monarchs, theocracies, totalitarian socialism, you name it - is invariably horrifying. We stopped fighting religious wars because Europe got torn apart for three decades fighting over doctrine. After a death toll rivaling World War One, they decided it wasn't worth it and that they should let others live with the religion they wanted. After centuries of succession wars, we started setting up systems to transfer power peacefully, and after millennia of revolts we let people participate in their own governance. It's not perfect, but it stops a lot of wars when people know they have a chance to get what they want without war. 

This system only works with certain ground rules in place, however. In order for someone who lost an election to eschew violence and work within the system, they need to believe that they have a fair chance in future - that elections are honest, that they have a chance to persuade voters, and that they can organize and work towards their preferred future without being unduly harmed for it(whether by laws banning them, workplaces firing them, or people on the other side of a protest punching them). 

Almost as important as those ground rules, however, is an understanding on the part of society as a whole that this system is legitimate, fair, functional, and important. Democracy requires placing trust in the great mass of humanity. I may worry about a Nazi in a car running me over, but I don't worry about ten million Canadians going to the polls and marking their ballots with a swastika. It's just not going to happen in any plausible future. Because I trust my countrymen, I don't worry about these evils taking over our society. 

I think a lot of people lack this trust, and because of it they see this as an imminent threat requiring all possible efforts to stop. And it results in the same reaction as every other crisis situation provokes in people: "There's no time to worry about all those abstract rules of democracy - I see Nazis, and I'm going to punch me some Nazis!". If they were actually on the verge of taking over, I'd agree with them - WW2 was a virtuous fight, despite the fact that it involved a lot worse than fists. But if Nazis are a sad little cult who couldn't fill the stands at a highschool basketball game, never mind Parliament, then this is a gross overreaction. And this overreaction has costs.

The ground rules underpinning democracy are more fragile than many people think. Democracies have fallen before, and they will again - when people stop believing in the system and stop working within it, the centre cannot hold. Democracy isn't words on parchment in the national archives, democracy lives within the minds of the citizens. When we stop respecting the rules, the rules stop protecting us. When we stop allowing people to disagree with us peacefully, they'll disagree violently as soon as they feel like they can. This is incredibly dangerous

Thing is, it's easy to talk. And talk matters, but there's a lot of other things that matter too, and it's time to start acting on some of them. So, the next time one of these street rallies is in my neck of the woods, I'm going. And because I frankly don't trust any of the existing protest groups to be something I could support with head held high, I'm going to be starting my own. 

The manifesto for this group is simple:
  1. We favour democracy, freedom, and individual rights for all. 
  2. Everybody has the right to express their views through speech. Even people we hate.
  3. We do not initiate violence over speech. Ever. 
  4. Anyone who doesn't follow the above rules is our opponent. We deal with opponents the same way a good democrat should - by discussion, argument, organization, and protest. 
We let them speak, we let them march, and we let them organize. And we let them do all these things secure in the knowledge that we're better at it. Our arguments are far better, our supporters are vastly more numerous, and we're the ones promoting the principles that built the modern world. 

I'm not going to make a big difference alone. Even if this group succeeds beyond my wildest dreams, we're not going to fundamentally change the world. Idiots on all sides will still exist, and people may still be talking about how silly those Nazis are after we're all dead. But I'll be helping, and everyone who joins me will be helping too. That's all anyone can really ask of us, in the end. So I'm asking. Because when this issue is put on the back burner, whether that's in a month or a year or a decade, I want to make sure I was working with all of these guys: 

And not any of these guys:


  1. I've long thought that we need to "redraw the battle lines", putting everyone who cares about peace, about lawful resolution of issues, about being understanding and kind, and about accepting other people on our side, regardless of who they are, while leaving to the other side the violent, the lawless, and the deliberately divisive. I think we need this now more than ever.

    If you're going to make an earnest attempt to start a movement of this kind, you should make a name for it. People need to know what to put on their flags.

    1. I was thinking that, but I couldn't come up with a good name. Any suggestions?