Monday, February 12, 2007

A proposal to establish the Third Millennium Utopian Party of Canada (At Present a Fantasy)

12 February 2007

Perhaps another way of expressing my views on the topic I addressed at length on February 9 is to state that the left-right debate has become stale to the point of emitting a detectable stench (I could use stronger language here).

We might say that the world – or at least our understanding of it – has changed, and that both the left and the right have lagged behind these changes. It seems that the only area of observable advancement is in the implementation of strategic tactics to co-opt the media to promote the interested party’s spin on current events.

I was struck by a CBC Radio feature yesterday which summarized the new emphasis on sound bites and spin in contemporary political discourse. The central message of the CBC piece is that the media for the most part are now basically incapable of representing, let alone originating, thoughtful conversation on the topics of our day.

The mainstream news media offer only a few seconds for an idea to be expressed, and only sound bites are effective in this environment. The sound bite must be snappy and appealing, or fade rapidly into the ether, to be replaced by the next, and pithier, sound bite on the same or a different subject.

Additionally, public debate has degenerated to the level of the Roman coliseum, with only forceful and argumentative representations of issues constituting sufficient entertainment value to capture the interest of the presumed otherwise-preoccupied or politically illiterate electorate.

The primary marker of “spin” at work is when reporters indicate that an “unidentified source who cannot be named” has commented “in advance” on a topic that a particular politically interested group wishes to present to the public with the intention of gaining initial sympathy to its agenda and interpretation of events. Timing is calculated so that reporters have little opportunity to obtain opposing information, and thus the well-placed sound-bite is reported end-of-day, and stands unchallenged in the spin cycle of 24-hour news.

My thoughts on this bankruptcy of the politics of right and left, and the corresponding failure of the media, are of course only partial, and political discourse is at most a “sometimes” area of interest in my own life. But from another perspective, all of life is politics, and the inability of our leadership on the left and the right to address the issues now shaping our world is a matter of critical – and for many affected individuals, daily – concern.

In my recent post, I addressed the issue of moral courage, and I do believe that such courage has been lacking. It is easier to yield to the strong – even violent – emotions of others which underlie their adherence to “correct” thinking than it is to take the path of Socrates and engage others in dialogue to explore the deeper implications of their ideas (and we all know the consequences of doing this for Socrates).

I think what I communicated in essence on February 9 is that we feel responsible when we take action directly, and absolved of responsibility when actions are taken by others. Thus the politically correct on both the left and the right arrange their thinking and behaviour so that it is not necessary for them to address the unintended (and often injurious – sometimes horrendous) consequences of their displacement of responsibility either through inaction, through avoidance and denial, or through attribution of responsibility for the cause or remediation of the problem to a third party.

Therefore, the problem is not only about the failings of courage – I'm sure that the politically correct can be courageous in arenas apart from their unquestioned political certainties. It is also about the failure of vision – to look beyond the familiar to the unfamiliar, the threatening and the unknown.

Let me say something more about the psychological process that is involved in this process of “revisioning” (a neologism coined by Robert Theobald – a man who greatly inspired my mother – shortly prior to his death, and meaning to reconsider a perplexing issue from a new and broader perspective).

Morality in my view is the process of taking considered but direct action to determine how the inevitable harms associated with difficult decisions should be allocated. Political correctness is therefore motivated by the need to establish and live within a zone of comfortable certainty which spares us the agony of moral decision-making.

Through the very nature of the process by which they are framed, the issues championed by the politically correct seduce us into a distorted perspective on the difficult questions which they are interested in addressing – or avoiding.

For example, with respect to the “embryonic stem cell” debate, the label itself draws our attention to the embryo. Of course, each of us was once an embryo too, and we would not have wanted anyone to tamper with our stem cells during the earliest stages of our formation. From the outset, this pre-framed perspective yields an instinctively powerful response in favour of the rhetoric of the politically correct position.

However, this debate is also about the suffering of mature individuals with genetically-based illnesses, and Michael J. Fox has chosen to make himself a public example of this “less correct” perspective by speaking in favour of embryonic stem cell research In the case of Parkinson’s Disease. Who on this side will stoop to argue, “I was once an embryo too?” Yet that is in fact at the heart of the matter.

By the nature of the context in which the debate is framed, we think instantly of the sanctity of life of the embryo, the source from which each of us was formed. It is far more difficult – in fact, a strenuous effort – to consider the perspective of the person with a genetic illness. And if we are not a person with such an illness, or do not have a relationship with one or more such people, it will be very difficult to frame the alternative position in this debate. In part, this difficulty is due to the fact that the esteem with which we regard embryos is generalized and universal, whereas the suffering of persons with genetic illnesses is particularized and highly variable.

In its simplest terms, the debate becomes distorted, because it is easy to think about embryos, and difficult to think about persons with genetic illnesses (even if we have considerable knowledge of the subject). The same can be said for the other subjects I addressed on February 9.

That is, it is easier to think about the rights of suspected criminals (whose actions are on public display, and who, like ourselves, might suffer needlessly if misunderstood, misrepresented or even “framed”) than about the rights of their victims (whose stories are complex and rarely fully told, if ever told at all).

Corporations are visible, and they are obviously amassing great wealth through the conduct of their businesses. We forget that corporate wealth is the source of our society’s wealth, and enriches our society at many levels. It only seems fair that this wealth be redistributed, Robin Hood style, to the individuals who have been personally injured through the use of tobacco, asbestos or the unintended side effects of pharmaceutical products.

Similarly, it is apparent that Islamic militants are attempting to cause us harm. It is more difficult to piece together the complex web of relationships within which their aggressive actions represent a settling of grievances with us collectively due to our imperialistic legacy, or alternatively, how their behaviour might serve as a convenient platform for them to displace responsibility for home-grown issues which we bear no responsibility for creating.

Therefore, without further ado, let me now make an idiosyncratic proposal for my fantastical view of a utopian political party for the third millennium that might function differently than the left and the right. Let me address this in the Canadian setting, as this is where I have now lived and made my home for over 35 years. I caution that the following “party platform” is purely a fantasy exercise on my part (at least at this point!). Obviously others might choose to join me, tacking on their issues of concern as well, if they find anything to agree with here, or might propose a party of their own if my ideas don't work for them. (Sorry, I do claim precedence for the title, “Utopian Party of Canada.” Those who choose to create other “fantasy” parties will be required to deploy alternative terminology.)

Let me emphasize that if my central thesis is correct, that the existing parties and ideologies are now failing us, then we literally do not know what should replace them. So we are clearly exploring uncharted terrain together, seeking to find a new way – for Canada, perhaps a “Northwest Passage” through the third millennium….

Here then is my entirely partial and idiosyncratic “fantasy” agenda or platform for the Utopian Party of Canada:

1. Public opinion polls would in most cases be used as contrary indicators, because the party has committed itself to leading the people, not to following them.

2. Discourse on the problems of the day would be lengthy and detailed rather than brief and snappy, and would be sober and reasoned, and free of yelling, interruption, and aspersions on the character of persons representing contrary viewpoints.

3. The party’s broad policy would be to reward desirable public behaviour and to withdraw rewards for directly harmful public behaviour, through incentives where possible and through sanctions where necessary.

4. Our nation’s wealth would be seen to derive first and foremost from economic freedom and thereby from productive economic activity attained by promoting business development at the corporate level, and by promoting business participation at the citizen level.

5. The party would therefore nurture business activity – without distinction as to its capitalistic or cooperative nature – both have been proven over time to work, and both would be encouraged.

6. I actually think the government should stay out of the right to life debate as much as possible, so I am modifying the position I originally published on this topic on February 12, 2007. The right to life is too important and sensitive an area to entrust to the government, except with respect to the most obvious protections for those already living. For example, developing fetuses whom mothers are planning to carry to birth should have legal protections equivalent to those afforded the already born. To avoid government over-involvement in this extremely sensitive area, I favour strong permissive policies with respect to obvious life-favouring initiatives. What do I mean? If there are a group of citizens who wish to prevent abortion by promoting adoption, the Utopian Party of Canada might encourage and aid them. Similarly, if another group wishes to enhance the quality of life for the already-living by assisting potential parents to practice better birth control, that is great too. (That is, taking sides on this controversial issue is none of the government’s business!) Let me go even further. The issue in embryonic stem cell research as I understand it (I am not a specialist here) is that fertility enhancement requires the production of multiple embryos whose parents do not plan to give birth to them. If some group were to take action to provide alternative host mothers for these “surplus” embryos, and if the biological parents do not object, this also could be permitted or even aided. But if the biological parents do not want these embryos to be born, and if the biological parents also consent to proceed with stem cell research using these embryos, then that is between the parents and the scientists. There are some issues that are just too sensitive to leave to governments to solve. Excessive government involvement in such issues will almost inevitably make matters worse for everyone concerned. In principle, I prefer leaving morality to the involved individuals, rather than to regulatory bodies, because I believe that citizens acting freely (within reasonable limits) are almost always better problem-solvers than governments. Let me go another step further still. Let’s say a citizen group argues that embryos should have an ombudsman so that their voce can be heard. That is great, but let the citizen action group fund it, not the government. What is the role of the government? To permit and encourage citizen initiatives that are obviously not anti-life and that might in some arguable way enhance life, even in difficult and complex areas. Governments should leave moral decision-making to the citizenry, and occupy themselves with things that they can do better than citizens acting independently, such as developing and maintaining infrastructure and enforcing a code of laws and rights. (Edited: 20 February 07)

7. The party would seriously address issues of the carrying capacity of the earth, and incentives to encourage citizens to regulate both population growth and environmental damage naturally and voluntarily would be considered.

8. All young citizens would engage in two years of modestly reimbursed public service at age 18, not unlike the Swiss (or an extension of the former Katimavik Program), though there would be much freedom of choice as to the form of the service, and in addition to military service, the international component would also include reconstruction and citizen service teams as well as soldiers. By policy, individuals of diverse background from across the country would be grouped together for the explicit purpose to relationship-building. Further, citizens of all ages could volunteer for such service to their country, whether to return at a later point in life, or as an extension to their prior period of duty.

9. It would also be Canadian policy that for every soldier on the battlefield, three Canadians (or more) would be actively involved in reconstruction, citizen services and relationship-building activities in the countries or regions where our military intervened.

10. The criminal justice system would refocus itself from criminal services to victim services, and where possible, convicted individuals who are not dangerous offenders would play a primary role in redressing harms done to other citizens.

11. With respect to criminal prosecution, three questions would be asked: (1) Is this person innocent or guilty – and extensive resources would be available to those charged, based on the principle of the presumption of innocence; (2) Is this person dangerous, destructive and/or determined to re-offend – again, considerable resources would be required; (3) If this person is dangerous, destructive and/or determined, then how can the safety of any and every prior and potential victim be assured – and it is at this point that the balance of resources would begin to flow in the direction of those whose needs are invisible to the public – to prior and potential victims rather than to services to determined antisocial offenders

12. Everybody wants to reform the schools. What would the UPC do? We would try to get out of their way so they can have at it! Let different groups who have different ideas about what is important organize themselves to offer their programs through public schools (through negotiation - yes, public schools would still exist) or though private schools (if they really care that much). There would still be universal standards. Reading, writing and arithmetic still matter, and there would be provincial exams. After all, we'll have to make some effort to keep up with the Japanese and the Chinese, and some Canadians should still write books and practice science. What would my school teach? The three R's for sure, and what else? Long-term planning (how to get from where you are now to where you want to go). Collaboration (how to cooperate with or stay out of the way of others while you're going there). Inner skills (how to get along with the single person you can never escape - yourself!). (Added: 20 February 2007)

13. Issues of public concern which do not submit easily or directly to the profit motive in the world of business would nonetheless be delegated to private enterprises, with the role of government being to provide incentives to cover “start-up costs” until such new initiatives became economically viable or otherwise self-sustaining, for example:

a. The government would act strategically with respect to economic policy, and would take action ahead of rather than in reaction to global trends. At present, this would mean anticipating the coming global alternative currency and commodity boom attributable to the rise of Asia in the post-war “excess liquidity” environment (in my view, Asia's advantaged position derives from the capacity of Asians, through long-range strategic thinking, to capitalize on the capital flow “bubble” originating in the west, whereas the nations of Africa have been largely incapable of mounting an effective response, and the Middle East and Muslim world have been thrown “off balance” by excesses of opportunity).

b. The Canadian government would continue to utilize the income trust structure for the development of energy and mineral resources (an area of concern of particular interest to Canada, both now and historically) and for other business ventures as deemed appropriate.

c. Transportation across the county by all methods would be encouraged, including the twinning of the TransCanada Highway across the length of the country, but also including the fast-tracking of the TransCanada Trail for hikers and other users of non-motorized transportation – both here and abroad (in my view, this would be a potent attractant for international eco-tourism), and we would also rehabilitate the railways and the airways (primarily through regulatory incentives).

d. There would be broad incentives relating to the development of businesses to enhance both environmental quality and quality of life.

e. Considerable subsidies and incentives relating to start-up costs would be available to developers of alternative energy and energy conservation strategies. These would ideally be repayable where possible.

f. In the provinces, a small-scale business incentive program modeled on the Grameen Bank would replace welfare and “make work” programs for those living at the margins of society, including those living in urban and rural areas as well as in the First Nation territories. Everyone, including in particular those with severe disabilities, would receive incentives for working and contributing to the national economy to the greatest of their personal capacity.

g. On a related note, I would eliminate restrictions on the accumulation of personal savings for the poor (our contemporary version of debtors' prison), and replace them with incentives to save. As my calculations have shown, it is realistic to expect that even an impoverished Canadian could accumulate in the multiple millions of dollars in savings through saving and investing early and consistently. Thus it is realistic to expect that at least some of the poor might be able to be self-sustaining in later life through this policy.

h. Taking this idea one step further, we might establish a national investment program for Canadians who are not sophisticated in the world of investment, and this program, established perhaps as a very large (or series of) income trust(s), would target growing industries based on analysis of broad secular trends. This program might then provide some of the incentive funding for the government-mandated programs which I proposed earlier.

i. In the First Nations, homes and property would gradually return to individual ownership, and there would be temporary economic incentives to those who improved their home and property on their own initiative, enabling them to increase the value of their personal as well as their tribal holdings over time.

I could say much more, but this is the real world (not utopia yet!), so that is all for now!


  1. I'll put an election sign in front of our house ...


  2. "Item 6 then to the greatest degree possible, for the unborn who might join us in life if we can but organize ourselves and our resources to welcome them into this sphere of contradiction and perplexity which we are pleased to inhabit."

    This is open to interpretation about to what degree we are each willing to welcome them.

    "Item 12. Issues of public concern which do not submit easily or directly to the profit motive in the world of business would nonetheless be delegated to private enterprises,..."

    What about Hwy 407 which has the potential to cut down on traffic jams creating pollution which is to the common good of the world. The cost of it is so great, with profits leaving the country, Canadians gain nothing and it's use is limited. Thus it actually increases green house gases!

    Check out the party policies of the CHP. I'm sure you will find you agree with many of them! :-)

  3. Item 6. You have in fact captured my thinking precisely. What I am trying to avoid is to say what others SHOULD do. Our ability to promote life returns to our freely-chosen desire to do so, for example, to adopt an unborn child so as to avert a possible abortion, or to give of our own wealth and time to promote the treatment of third world illnesses. I think these decisions are far better left to free and unhampered individuals than regulated by governments.

    Item 12. I am too far away from Highway 407 to comment on that specifically. I am quite confortable with governments managing infrastructure. I am less comfortable with governments managing businesses. A case in point is Kenora, where I live, erected a wonderful fitness centre that is competing with (and closing down) private fitness-oriented businesses. It's a great place, but it's also operated by a government bureaucracy, and I'm uncertain how much it will be able to grow with the needs of the community.

  4. WIDGET:

    It would suit me more, if you endorse the concepts of the Utopian Party of Canada, that I sponsor YOU to run for Prime Minister. The job does not appeal to me.

  5. Further note to Vicki:

    I hope that the revised platform principle #6 statement at least clarifies my position, so that it is not so open to (mis) interpretation. I agree that the original statemnt missed the point, and so I have rewritten it.

    "The UPC: Serving you better to serve yourself."

  6. I would love to become an active member of your party but I am not a Canadian citizen. Perhaps we could merge Canada, Mexico and the US into the United States of North America.