Friday, July 08, 2011

Debt Crises and the Stanley Cup

Some time ago I was in a discussion about the various political upheavals we have been experiencing. Riots in Wisconsin (budget cuts), riots in Greece (budget cuts and debt crisis), riots in Vancouver (hockey – Canada has its own version of what is worth rioting for), and on and on. One member of our conversation laid the blame for all our troubles squarely at the foot of socialism. Of course Canadians would riot in Vancouver: We’re socialists!

One is tempted to tune the speaker out. He has (as they say) a bee in his bonnet about capitalism and socialism. Republicans (in the USA) are good; Democrats are bad. America in general is good; Canada in general is bad. International politics buttresses the argument – the United Kingdom is clearly in trouble because it is even more socialist than Canada. (Never mind that Canada and the UK both have Tory governments; when the bee is buzzing it doesn’t look for full facts.)

I’m sure I have misrepresented my friend’s viewpoint, but not by much. It sparks two thoughts for me. One is stated quickly: Resorting to this kind of stereotyping cuts off discussion, which is unfortunate. When I press him beyond his stereotypes, he shows himself to be thoughtful and intelligent, with good reasons for the positions he holds. His positions may be incomplete and a bit arbitrary, but so are mine. I wish that we could have more discussion in which we could both give reasons and leave out the stereotypes: We have something to learn from each other.

The second is the larger, more important point. When one discounts a group of people and all that they say, one tends to mis-diagnose the reasons for – in this case – the riots in various places. In the example I began with, attributing the riots in Vancouver to socialism in Canada is nonsense, but a bee in the bonnet buzzes whenever the enemy is in sight. The result is failure to see real causes, and thus failure to deal with real causes.

What was the real cause? I don’t know. But I contrast the events in Greece and London and Vancouver with the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. If any event should have led to rioting and looting on a mass scale, these events could have. But instead we read reports of Japanese people queueing quietly, remaining orderly under great stress? Why?

I don’t think that the difference between Vancouver and Japan has anything to do with political systems, some sort of socialist-capitalist divide. Nor is it simply a difference between Asians and North Americans – there are so many Asians in Vancouver that one could look for similarity on that account rather than so sharp a difference.

I would locate the difference in the larger Canadian and larger Japanese context. Canada has built a society on individualism writ large. Privacy laws elevate the individual above community. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms serves as a fundamental social and legal document to enshrine the individual as the basic building block of society. Japanese society is more communally-oriented, with politeness and harmony enshrined as the fundamental qualities needed to live.

Canadians are called “polite”, especially in comparison to our American cousins. But we would lose any politeness competition between Canada and Japan. Noel Paul Stookey (of the 1960s folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary) tells a story of performing in Japan. He comments that when they met anyone in Japan, they realized that they could never outdo them in polite behaviour.

When a great tragedy strikes – such as the earthquake and tsunami, or the loss of the Stanley Cup (I know that’s a lesser tragedy, but hey!)– underlying social values are revealed. The Japanese people continued to seek harmony and help each other. The crowd in Vancouver let off steam by rioting. Now Canadians have shown the ability to work together and help each other out in times of crisis. The floods that we experience regularly here on the prairies show Canadians at their communal and helpful best. But what is most clear to me is that social analyses such as my friend’s – it’s because they’re socialist – are badly misplaced.

I am working at this myself (more or less successfully): I want to move past easy stereotypes and avoid laying blame quickly in the various crises we face. I think that certain social and political positions make the best sense, but those with whom I disagree strongly often have significant wisdom for all of us to include in our social and political decisions. And we have a much better chance at solving the problems before us (such as the debt crisis) if we stop blaming each other and listen to each other more carefully.

A simple, almost naive, conclusion, but true nonetheless.

No comments: