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It Can Happen Here

If You Don't<br>Stand for Something<br>You'll Fall for Anything

Beryl P. Wajsman

4 July 2005

” A sensational event was changing the contents of his pockets from the blue suit to the gray. And he did it with the thoroughness of a mind that reveres

details but never quite understands them.”

~ Sinclair Lewis, “Babbitt”


In 1922 Nobel Prize winning author Sinclair Lewis gave us the quintessential definition of feckless public officialdom when he described George Babbitt, the tower of Mid-western rectitude, in the following words. For George,” A sensational event was changing the contents of his pockets from the blue suit to the gray. And he did it with the thoroughness of a mind that reveres details but never quite understands them.” Harry Sinclair Lewis, whose smile was described as a stretched rubber band that snapped back after using, did not mean to be amusing. He meant to issue a warning.

On this American Independence Day Lewis’ words merit some reflection in this Dominion north of the 49th Parallel.


Over the past month, through the budget and same-sex marriage debates, we have seen what he was warning about. Duplicity, hypocrisy and a general disregard for the tolerance of the governed characterized the actions of all four party leaders in Ottawa. It was a sight that should have brought Canadians into the streets with torches as Montrealers did in 1839 when Parliament was razed to the ground.


Finance Minister Ralph Goodale justified the Liberals use of time allocation to cut off debate on the budget through the rarely used section 78.2 procedure on the astounding objection that the opposition was threatening to filibuster. Well I don’t know where Mr. Goodale comes from, but the right to stand up and speak your piece for as long as it takes, is the essence of liberal democracy. It’s what liberal Democrats are fighting for in Washington right now against a Bush-inspired offensive to end the more than two-centuries long tradition in the United States.


We know that in Mr. Martin’s Ottawa black is white and white is black as he cherry-picks his way through Supreme Court rulings using the one on the marriage reference to buttress his arguments, but rejecting the Court’s decision on private health insurance because it doesn’t fit his purpose. But has he now instructed his Ministers to redefine Parliamentary free speech? Are our large-L Liberals really Bush Republicans in drag? Oh for a “Mr. Smith Goes to Ottawa”.


Tory leader Stephen Harper made so many procedural fumbles that it seemed he just didn’t care any more. He didn’t just take his eye off the ball, he didn’t seem to be anywhere near the playing field. But to add insult to injury he had the temerity to question the legitimacy of the marriage reference vote on the basis that it passed with Bloc support. I guess Harper, like many others of all parties in LaLaLand-on-the-Rideau, assume Canadians’ memories are as short as the last infomercial and they won’t remember the many times the Tories have been in common cause with the Bloc. God help us if he’s right.


Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe thought very much the same thing. He kicked opportunism up a notch in his haste to get back to Québec for the Fête Nationale celebrations. For all the many times he has upbraided the Chrétien and Martin Liberals on the use of closure, he actually voted with the government to limit debate on a budget he opposed – knowing full well that seven opposition MP’s had left the House early thereby assuring passage of that budget - and an hour and a half later he voted with the Tories against that very same budget. Maybe he should spend part of the summer reading Verlaine again and concentrating on that famous line about “Les douleurs qui tombe goutte par goutte sur le Coeur…”


Finally, that champion of the Canadian people, Jack Layton, who espouses undying fidelity to the principles of social democracy and leads his caucus in so many interminable internal debates so that all his MP’s can exercise their freedom of conscience to the point that the NDP never reaches a decision, showed his true face and decided that freedom of conscience was only conditional. Fidelity to the leader was as important to him as it is to his new-found bedmates on the Liberal side. Fidelity to conscience had to take a back seat. So when Bev Desjarlais decided she could not vote for the same-sex marriage bill, Layton threatened her with expulsion from caucus.


What a ship of fools our ship of state has become!


But maybe we’re getting just what we deserve. Too many have for too long abdicated the prerogatives of that most important title in a democracy. That of Citizen. Canadians have become a petty, self-absorbed people running between the raindrops; solidifying a sclerotic national culture that does not dare to care; electing government after government that can no longer tell right from wrong.


The only reason the politicians get away with all this is that they take advantage of the old adage that when you see someone who doesn’t stand for something, rest assured they’ll fall for anything. Canadians have been complicit in their own self-abnegation. They have tied their future to the false security of statocratic fiat.


Our old friend Sinclair Lewis tried to deliver this message to a bleeding world in 1936. As political and corporate fascism ran rampant, he warned of the avarice of the privileged controlling power by playing on the anxieties of the everyman caught in the middle, while mercilessly ignoring the real needs of all. Divide and conquer. A game with no rules. No limits. No restraint of consequence.


He put his message into a book entitled “It Can’t Happen Here”. Yet as his old friend from the Spanish Republican Brigades, Jay Richard Kennedy, said in a lecture on the thirty-fifth anniversary of its publication, “…it almost did, and not so long ago. It can happen here again. In fact, it may already have begun.”



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