As Priceton’s readers will know—as any life form more highly evolved than the amoeba will know–Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms recently turned thirty.
To mark the day (April 17), and for weeks beforehand, there were festschrifts, symposia, features on the nightly news, inserts in the major newspapers, “Law Days” at the country’s law schools (other days during the school year being, presumably, “crime days”), books published on the Charter’s origins, and poems written by primary school children thanking Trudeau for bestowing upon Canadians, for the first time in their history, human rights and equality. (Dear Kim, call your office; you’ve got competition.)
How, one wonders, will Canadians celebrate the Charter’s hundredth anniversary? Hold a military parade with goose-stepping soldiers and a fly-past?
It has long been a national pastime in this country to make fun of American hand-over-the-heart, salute-the-flag jingoism. Yet, from the day that Trudeau came down from the mountain with his rose in one hand and the sacred tablets in the other, Canadians have gushed reverentially over the Charter.
To those whose nativity occurred somewhat earlier than 1982, it is disconcerting to note how completely Trudeau and the Charter have supplanted Sir John A. and the BNA Act in the popular imagination. From the foreshortened historical perspectives of the younger generation, the fact that Trudeau was a contemporary of the Beatles makes him ancient enough to be a Founding Father, I suppose. But our improved and updated patriarchal narrative is also an index of the degree to which the original conception of Canada has been superannuated by a wholly novel one.
A typical encomium arrived during the week before April 17 from the pen of Irwin Cotler, in a column (“Myopic government ignores Charter anniversary”) published (where else?) in The Toronto Star, charging the Harper government with impiety for failing to perform the proper rites:
This momentous occasion deserves commemoration and observance…Regrettably [it] has gone without any remark or notice from the [Harper] government…continues a disturbing trend of the government marginalizing the Charter…Harper…conspicuously absent from the commemorative festivities…
Thereupon Cotler breaks out into all the symptoms of advanced Chartermania:
Under the Charter,…[i]ndividuals moved from being the objects of rights to being subjects of rights, with the full panoply of fundamental rights and remedies that were unavailable in pre-Charter law. Indeed, pre-Charter life and law is often a disturbing narrative of discrimination against, and marginalization, of vulnerable groups, including discrimination against aboriginal people, against racial and religious minorities, against women, against the disabled, against gays and lesbians, against immigrants and refugees, and the like. But, if you go about the country—as I did while minister of justice—and ask Canadians if their rights are better protected now than they were 30 years ago, the answer is invariably yes…in the public opinion polls…the Charter has emerged as an icon of the Canadian political culture.
All right, we get it. Before Trudeau and the Charter ushered us into the Promised Land of equality and human rights, Canadians laboured like the Hebrew slaves in the brickyards of Goshen.
I grant that many legal and moral documents in the history of civilization deserve our enduring respect: e.g., the American Bill of Rights, Magna Carta, the Sermon on the Mount, Solon’s Athenian Constitution, the Ten Commandments, Hammurabi’s Code (in roughly reverse chronological order). Trudeau’s Charter, however, is not one of them. Come to think of it, the principal advantage of living in Canada under the Charter is the right not to be offended by the pinching prohibitions of these formerly revered but now outmoded moral codes. The Charter has made it safe for students and defendants to walk into schools and courtrooms without having the words of such bronze-age survivals as the Ten Commandments glowering disapprovingly down upon them.
The Charter has brought us walk-in abortuaries, human rights kangaroo courts, campus speech codes, “diversity” police, and admission to the lady’s room for men now surgically transgendered at taxpayers’ expense. It has fecundated a pullulant brood of professional malcontents, egalitarian bean-counters, and princess-and-the-pea takers-of-offense, whose pride bruises more easily than a hemophiliac’s shin. At the same time, it has created ex nihilo a whole “panoply” (to use Cotler’s word) of pseudo-rights and special entitlements intended to placate the above, all the while trampling upon rights that have been recognized as fundamental since the twelfth century, and strangling natural human freedoms like serpents in the cradle of Hercules. In 1987, Mme Justice L’Heureux-Dube proclaimed that Canada had “stretched the cords of liberty” more in five years than the U.S. had done in two hundred. Only to a statist like L’Heureux-Dube would “the cords of liberty” not strike the ear as an oxymoron. I don’t know about the “cords of liberty”, but the bands in which Canadian citizens are held by the progressive State have never been tighter.
Under the Charter, government departments have been permitted (say, rather, required) to advertise jobs with the express provision that no males or whites need apply. Members of the same two groups–hopelessly out of favour with the Zeitgeist–have been denied jobs or admission to universities under Charter-approved “affirmative action” programs in both the private and public sectors. (Logic ought to tell us that the State cannot “affirm” one group without denying another. Hitler might have been more politically astute, perhaps, had he called his racial policy “affirmative action for Aryans”, but the consequences would have been no less negative for Jews and Gypsies.) All in all, Canadians now blithely practise racism and sexism (with the Charter’s encouragement) on a scale that the Klan could only have dreamed of.
Freedom of Speech? Of religion? For members of Wicca, perhaps, but hardly for mainstream Christians. Canadians should certainly rejoice that witches can now cast spells without fear of being burnt at the stake (a regular occurrence, presumably, until 1982), Sikhs can carry daggers, and aboriginals can legally smoke peyote; but shouldn’t we repine that Christians are forbidden to express or live by the age-old teachings of their Faith? Under the Charter, an Evangelical pastor has recently been fined for calling homosexuality a moral disorder in a letter to the editor of his local newspaper (merely repeating, that is, a longstanding Christian doctrine, not to mention a standard diagnosis in the psychiatric manuals) and forbidden to ventilate any further “hateful” opinions on that subject. (In atheist circles, there is a creeping movement to ban the Bible and other traditional religious texts as “hate-speech”—book burning for liberals.) A few years ago, a printer was forced by Canada’s guardians of Charter rights to accept a job, in violation of his own Christian religious conscience, producing a pamphlet of homosexual propaganda; and the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic charity) were compelled to rent their hall to the celebrants of a gay “marriage”. In Canada’s public schools, children have long been taught that pre-marital sex is a healthy form of self-expression (so long as pubescents use school-issued condoms), and that all religions and “lifestyles” are equally valid. Meanwhile, parents (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim) who have tried to shield their offspring from such relativist shibboleths have been told that their religious sensibilities are obnoxious to the Charter’s progressive ethos. On campuses, in deference to the “rights of women” as defined by a permanently aggrieved feminist sisterhood, pro-life student clubs have been legally harassed or banned. (Compare their treatment to that of Ontario Catholic school students, whose “right” to establish so-called Gay-Straight Alliances has recently been guaranteed by the Ontario Government.) Note also that the hallowed freedom to engage in peaceful protest–protected even when protests become violent and criminal, so long as they are mounted by aboriginals (as at Caledon) or anti-capitalists (as at the G-20 or currently in Montreal)–is licitly denied to the opponents of abortion, who are forbidden on pain of imprisonment to pray within sixty meters of an abortion clinic. If pro-life protesters had torched a few police cars, camped on private land, smashed a few corporate windows, and looted some chain stores, they’d surely get more respect.
In each of these cases (similar examples abound), the Charter’s equality provisions might as well have been written by the egalitarian pigs on Orwell’s Animal Farm. Orwell’s pigs at least had no illusions that their grossly inequitable apportionment of equality to the diverse species on the farm was anything but arbitrary and self-serving. Canada’s ruling class, on the other hand, imagines that it is fostering progress in advantaging certain groups (whom they regard as natural allies in the benignant cause of egalitarianism and “social justice”) while discriminating against others (whom they regard as its enemies).
In the pre-modern era of monarchy, theocracy, and aristocratic privilege, the arbitrary determinants of human value used to be class, religion, or race. Little seems to have changed in the modern democratic Welfare State, except perhaps the winners and losers. When in the name of human rights, governments deny Christians their fundamental freedoms of religion or speech, or White males their right to compete for jobs on colour-blind merit, our society is in principle no fairer or more just than any of those in that antediluvian epoch when women or certain racial or religious groups were denied the rights and liberties that accrued to everyone else.
Rather more dispositive than any founding document or legal code (however venerable), these days it is the progressives’ familiar victimological narrative that decides which group is in or out. That narrative conceives of history teleologically, as a grand Manichean struggle between oppressors and oppressed, rich and poor, nativist majorities and alienated minorities. Like all teleologies, it is a crude simplification of historical actuality. In any case, its principal effect is merely to invert the old hierarchy, making new oppressors out of former victims and vice-versa.
Real victims and oppressors are, like prophets, never recognized in their own time (else there would be no injustice), but are identified only retroactively, through such anachronistic mechanisms as “affirmative action” and “reparations”. The seemingly noble idea of “repairing” historical injustice demands that the surviving members of a group that had once been ill-treated be compensatorily advantaged today: i.e., that living persons who themselves have never suffered from prejudice or discrimination be belatedly benefited merely for the achievement of belonging to the victim group. Members of the historical oppressor group must then, willy-nilly, be penalized, even if they have never in their lives entertained a racist or sexist thought. In all such schemes, one ought to recognize the reassertion of a repugnantly primitive ethos, according to which the miasma of sin is passed down the generations through the channels of race, religion, or gender, so that accidental group characteristics once again override the autonomy and dictate the moral valency of supposedly free individuals. We used to denominate such ideas with words that end in ‘ism.
But there we are: racists, sexists, and anti-Christian bigots all–and with the Charter’s good-housekeeping seal of approval, besides. In the case of White European males, the historical enormities of patriarchy, colonialism, and slavery evidently continue to pollute them, even centuries after these practices were abolished. As inheritors of the collective guilt of their forbears, Christians today are treated as if they are still tainted by the crimes of the Crusades and the Inquisition, and thus reflexive targets of progressive indignation and abuse. (That the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind were perpetrated by such militantly atheist states as the Soviet Union does not fit well into the canonical narrative; accordingly, there is no enthusiasm in progressive circles for seeking “reparations” from today’s militant atheists or “affirming” Christians in compensation for the communist holocaust they recently suffered at atheist hands.)
Historical “oppressor” groups are thus under general suspicion in progressive societies, while official victims enjoy the unique right of accusation. For the past generation, racial hucksters such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Jeremiah Wright (in the U.S.), self-appointed human rights watchdogs like Richard Warman (in Canada), along with innumerable organizations including the B’nai Brith and Anti-Defamation League for Jews, the NAACP for Blacks, NOW and NARAL for women, EGALE for gays and lesbians, and the ACLU for everyone else, have been part of a standing constabulary of moral vigilantes–a human rights Stasi for sniffing out of racism, sexism, or economic inequalities. The totalitarian implications of these permanent snooping agencies, and the pall that their ubiquitous presence casts upon freedom of thought and speech, ought to be alarming in a supposedly free and democratic society. It is hardly a cause for rejoicing that there is as yet no Gulag for “racists” or Christians in the West. We already have human rights tribunals which operate outside the normal rules of evidence or the presumption of innocence; and citizens have either been imprisoned or threatened with imprisonment for such thought-crimes as underestimating the numbers of Jews who died in the Holocaust or making fun of homosexuals. More important, whether guilty or not, the mere charge of racism, sexism, homophobia, or anti-Semitism brands the accused with the indelible mark of Cain.
It tells you something that you’ll never hear White males, property owners, businessmen, the “rich”, or conservative Christians celebrating when some new human rights legislation has just been passed. They know intuitively that, with the promulgation of each new entitlement or equity measure, their own rights and liberties are about to be further curtailed. The mere survival of these vestiges of the old White European order creates an atmosphere of malignant expectation. That’s what liberals really mean when they allege that the West continues to be a “systemically” racist, sexist, or “classist” society. There is no need for any empirical evidence to support such a claim (the actual evidence is entirely contrary); the mere presumption is enough to justify the progressive State’s never-ending campaign to silence offensive speech, or diabolize capitalist greed and excess.
Such efforts are, by both nature and design, unsuccessful: there are always more offended minorities to appease, and more wealth to redistribute from the avaricious rich. Affirmative action, you may recall, was first advertised as a “temporary” remedy. But then, its eternization follows the immutable pattern according to which all temporary government programs, once inaugurated, become permanent. The imperial Welfare State and its bureaucracy are like Patton’s Army: it is a matter of honour for them never to surrender a beachhead once it has been captured.
With affirmative action still in full force after a quarter of a century, the late Joe Sobran once quipped that there were currently 1.6 officially accredited victims for every man, woman, and child in America. Sobran’s unofficial census was confirmed by a grad school colleague of mine, who confided that in applying for an academic position, he once checked off a handful of the two dozen preferential categories on the affirmative action form that invariably comes with such applications. Having represented himself as a “transgendered, homosexual, paraplegic of mixed African, Latino, and Aboriginal ancestry”, he promptly won one of the rare interviews to be had in an otherwise impossible job market. His new problem, as he lamented, was hiding the fact that he was a white heterosexual male long enough to display his qualifications and win over his prospective employers. I advised him to go to the interview in a burka.
It should at least strike the apparatchiks of the new human rights regime as mildly ironic that the human community is now more racially conscious and sectarian than ever before. Progressive governments have succeeded in re-defining society as a “mosaic” of discrete interest groups in competition with one another for the same State-allocated spoils. This has reduced civil life in Canada (as in most other social democracies) to something akin to Hobbes’ state of nature, and certainly made a mockery of the 1960s civil rights ideal of “colour-blindness”. Even the benighted ancients abhorred the parochial tribalism to which humans are already prone by nature—needless of the State’s official encouragement of ethnic or gender consciousness–, arguing (as did the Stoics, for instance) that beyond the accidental differences of ethnicity, nation, and cult, all men are unhyphenated members of the same universal fraternity of humankind. Naturally, it has not been lost on those with even the most tenuous connection to one or other of the groups currently in ideological good odour that membership has its privileges. (In the U.S., a prominent Democrat recently demanded special consideration because she was 1/30 Native American.) Whereas in the racist past, citizens pleaded to be treated as individuals (i.e., not to be pre-judged on the accidental basis of their membership in certain groups), now it is an open secret that group identity confers its own benefits and powers.