Fear and Control

So far, this campaign has been dominated by the twin demons of fear and control. The problem with succumbing to these demons, which it looks like we are in the process of doing, is that they stifle political and social creativity. Here are three examples from the current campaign.

The first and most obvious is just about anything that escapes the lips of Stephen Harper. His campaign began by stoking fears about a ‘reckless coalition’ and he wants us to believe that abandoning the Conservative brand, or even failing to award the party a majority, will bring ruin to a ‘fragile economy.’ These, of course, are deeply fearful prospects. Or consider how carefully Ignatieff and Harper are handled by their respective campaign teams. Their campaigns (especially Harper’s) are really just elaborately designed show-pieces, political theatre more than anything else. There seems to be a genuine fear that if you give these guys even a little bit of slack they might subvert the cause entirely. Finally, how can we make sense of the decision to exclude Elizabeth May from federal debates? It’s simple. The media consortium, and the big-party politicians who have its ear, have taken this step because they fear Elizabeth May. I don’t mean that they fear her because of her formidable debating skills (though this is no doubt the case), but because her inclusion in these debates changes the political game in a fundamental way. It shakes up the current structure, introduces the possibility that new questions will be asked, brings refreshing spontaneity to a tired procedure, and so on. In short, Elizabeth May’s presence in the federal debates would do for those debates what greater attention to the Green Party would do for Canadian politics generally: democratize it. That, of course, is precisely why the Green Party and its leader are marginalized by the media and the big parties. They fear political novelty.

What these examples show is that the natural reaction to fear is to seek as much control as possible over the object of our fear. The only alternative to such control is, after all, chaos, the breakdown of all order. But this is a false alternative. Allowing for spontaneity, for fresh ideas, for new and sometimes radical challenges to worn-out ideas –these are the things that keep democracy vibrant. In his classic treatise On Liberty, John Stuart Mill bemoaned those who displayed an inordinate fear of what he called “heterodox speculation.” He went on to claim that “there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere, an intellectually active people.” Mill connects the dots nicely: fear of heterodoxy causes people to embrace mechanisms of control, a move which ultimately breeds intellectual and social stagnation. The big parties, and their supporters in the media, are pushing us down this road. This is why we should reject their message of fear wherever and whenever we encounter it. Doing so will help democratize and re-energize the political culture of this country.