Archive for the ‘activism’ Category

As I write, my native British Columbia is halfway through an election. As usual, pundits looking for a subject to pronounce upon have noticed the increasing decline in voter turn out in the last couple of decades and taken on the task of lecturing everyone on the importance of voting. Apparently, they never once stop to consider that there may be valid reasons for someone not to vote.

Instead, they assume that the only virtuous choice is to vote. Voting, the pundits insist, is a civic obligation. Or, if it isn’t, then it should be, the way it is in Australia. If you don’t vote, they claim, you have no right to complain about government decisions for the next few years. They also like to point out the fact that, in other parts of the world (and usually there is at least one place people can mention) are fighting for the right to vote – all of which they suggest goes to show that non-voters are irresponsible shirkers who don’t deserve to live in Canada.

The trouble with this rhetoric is that it has gone unexamined long enough that no one notices its fallacies. To start with, currently the only legal obligation that a resident of Canada has is to pay their taxes. In World War Two, conscientious objectors weren’t even obliged to fight; they could do public service instead. Voting, so far, is not an obligation of residency. Nor is it by any means certain that compulsory voting makes for better government or anything besides a smug satisfaction at high voter turnouts.

Similarly, telling people they have no right to complain will do nothing to stop them complaining. Complaining isn’t a right; it’s something people do all the time regardless..

It is true that people are fighting for the vote in other parts of the world, but those situations are not particularly comparable to what is happening in Canada. The Arab Spring, for instance, was a series of revolts against totalitarianism, in which voting was only one aspect of the reforms that many sought. By contrast, the voting decline in Canada is about disillusion or apathy with parliamentary democracy – a problem that is the polar opposite of what is happening in places where the fight is to establish democracy in the first place..

What isn’t usually examined is the fact that voting is no longer the only way to influence government actions. Activism, ranging from polite letter writing and rallies to rioting, is a way of life in British Columbia. At times, these various forms of activism can be highly effective, as the protests against new pipelines in the province demonstrate. An activist might validly argue that they have a stronger influence on provincial policy through their activism than they could have through voting.

For other non-voters I know, their choice is a matter of conscience. Politicians, they argue, are only superficially in charge of the province. The real influence is in the hands of non-elected bureaucrats. That being so, elections are a fraud that create only the illusion of democracy. If that is so, they ask, then as people who want to behave ethically, they choose not to participate in an exercise that dis-empowers the members of the public while pretending to empower them.

Another non-voter I know was accused of a crime largely to further other people’s careers. They contracted post-traumatic stress disorder as a result, and to this day they believe that the governments of British Columbia and Canada failed them. To vote, they maintain, would be to support the forces that came close to destroying their lives — to tacitly acknowledge that the government had the right to abuse them.

None of these reasons for not voting are trivial or irresponsible. If anything, they are ethically-based reasons. You may or may not consider them logical or sufficient, but neither are they easily dismissed — unless, of course, you have closed your mind to any beliefs other than your own. Yet such motivations are never even considered when people argue that everyone should vote.

That’s not surprising, though. If such cases were considered, then one of the main causes of voter apathy would have to be addressed – the fact that politicians, on the whole, are out of touch with the public and its concerns.

And if people admitted this well-known fact publicly, who knows? There just might be a call to change the way politics are done. In the end, it’s far easier to blame those who are disillusioned than to suggest how the political process might re-engage them.

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Thanks to the graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta, many members of the Occupy movement sport Guy Fawkes masks. However, while the often-repeated line about Fawkes being the only person to enter Parliament with honorable intentions is good for a laugh, Fawkes is a poor symbol for the movement. In fact, with his plans to restore a Catholic monarchy, Fawkes was a reactionary, and would probably disapprove of the movement if he were alive to see it. Instead, I wonder why no one has looked deeper into some of Fawke’s contemporaries – specifically, the Puritans.

At first, the suggestion sounds ridiculous. Puritans have been the object of ridicule for centuries, from Shakespeare’s Malvolio in Twelfth Night to H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Moreover, at least since the 1960s, to describe some as “Puritanical” has been one of the deepest insults possible. The adjective suggests someone who is humorless and repressed to the point of obsession.

Remember, however, that history is written by the victors – and that, with Charles II’s restoration of the monarchy, the Puritans became the losers. The truth is, our view of the Puritans is about as accurate as an investment banker’s view of the counter-culture of four decades ago.

Yes, many Puritans fit the modern stereotype. But many others did not. Historically, all “Puritan” meant was an extreme form of Protestantism. During the seventeenth century, there were dozens of different schools of Puritanism. The Diggers, Ranters, Levellers, Muggeltonians, the early Quakers – these are only some of the different sects of Puritanism you could find in the early to mid 1600s, and many of them disagreed strongly with each other.

What all Puritans had in common was a deep belief in the essentials of Protestantism: the idea that each person had to work out their own salvation for themselves. This belief led them to question the authorities of their day, both the religious and the secular ones. In fact, since in Anglicanism, the monarch is the head of the church, at the time, there was no real distinction between the religious and the secular (which was one of the circumstances to which many Puritans objected).

The result of much of their questioning sounds very familiar today. Universal suffrage? Votes for women? Communal responsibility for the sick, poor, and the elderly? All these ideas were first raised in the English-speaking world by the Puritans. Some sects went even further, experimenting with communal living and denouncing the evils of property and hierarchy, becoming so much of a threat that less radical Puritans like Oliver Cromwell suppressed them, and called in the troops to disperse some of their experiments with communes.

Admittedly, to the modern mind, their ideas had some strange twists. Living in a religious age in which most people believed that the civic order was ordained by heaven, they did not reject religion so much as reinterpret it. Some Puritans, like the Diggers, recast the Biblical Fall, not as the literal disobedience of Adam and Even to God’s commandment, but as a metaphor for the rise of social hierarchy. Others, like the Ranters, went even further, declaring that all humans were naturally innocent, and that sin was merely the corrupting result of conforming to the social order, which could be removed by everyone giving in to their natural inclinations. The idea that society could do without Christianity seems to have occurred to very few of them.

This religious orientation aside, most of the radical Puritan’s beliefs would sound instantly familiar to most moderns, especially the activists. You could even say with some justification that the shaping of our modern world and its values and aspirations began with movements like The Diggers and The Levellers.

Instead of choosing a figure like Guy Fawkes for a hero, today’s activists might try taking a look at people like Gerrard Winstanley, the intellectual leader of the Diggers, or Abezier Coppe, the prominent Ranter. If their original works are hard to find, you can at least read about them in the works of historians like Christopher Hill, or hear them summarized in some of the songs of English folksinger Leon Rosselson, such as “The World Turned Upside Down” or “Abezier Coppe.” In doing so, you will regain part of the English-speaking world’s heritage that anyone interested in improving society should know about — because, believe it or not, we’ve been here before.

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