THE BLOG

Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives

03/05/2015 12:44 EST | Updated 05/05/2015 05:59 EDT
joseph heath

Joseph Heath is nominated for the Writers' Trust Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for his book Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives. The prize winner will be announced at the Politics and the Pen gala in Ottawa on March 11. For more information, visit www.writerstrust.com.

An excerpt from Enlightenment 2.0:

In the fall of 1970, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau found himself facing a dilemma. Prior to entering politics, he was best known as a forceful champion of Canadian federalism against the rising tide of Quebec separatism. At the time, he had presented the choice between federalism and nationalism as a straightforward contest between reason and emotion. Quebec separatism is, and always has been, driven by the ethnic nationalism of so-called pure laine Québécois -- descendants of the original French colonists, who were conquered by the British during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) and went on to form a French-speaking minority within the Canadian federation. Nationalism of this form is a classic expression of our tribal social instincts; it creates a powerful sense of community and solidarity by drawing a distinction between "us" and "them." Thus the rapid modernization of Quebec society in the 1960s, which brought about substantial collective achievements, came with increased antagonism toward outsiders and growing demands for political independence.

What Trudeau disliked most about this nationalism was its backwardness. "The history of civilization," he wrote, "is a chronicle of the subordination of tribal 'nationalism' to wider interests." And yet he saw clearly that, in contrast to nationalism, "federalism is by its very essence a compromise and a pact." The arguments for federalism were just that, arguments. They referred to political principles or long-term interests; they had no gut-level appeal. "Federalism has all along been a product of reason in politics," as Trudeau put it. "It was born of a decision by pragmatic politicians to face facts as they are, particularly the fact of the heterogeneity of the world's population." Thousands of different languages are spoken in the world and there are more than 800 major ethnic groups, yet there are only 160 full-scale states. Insisting that every group have its own state is a recipe for fragmentation and chaos. What sort of a message would it be sending to everyone else in the world if Canadians, despite enjoying practically ideal conditions for mutual toleration (the country is wealthy, industrialized, with two historically liberal cultures and no history of atrocity toward one another) found themselves unable to live together in a shared state?

2015-03-04-1425488431-6404236-Heath_Enlightenment2.0.jpg

Defending federalism, in Trudeau's view, meant defending the principle of reason in politics. "Reason before passion" became his personal motto. And yet, over the course of his first term as prime minister, this commitment became increasingly difficult to maintain. Throughout the late 1960s, the militant wing of the separatist movement became more and more violent, moving from fairly random robberies and attacks to targeted bombings, most importantly against the Montreal Stock Exchange and the home of the mayor of Montreal. The breaking point came with the kidnapping and killing of the Quebec minister of labour and the kidnapping of the British trade commissioner. Both were taken at gunpoint from their homes -- Pierre Laporte, the minister of labour, had been playing catch on the front lawn with his nephew, and was later strangled to death. After the kidnapping, the group responsible released a manifesto, which among other things, referred to Trudeau as "la tapette," which is often translated as "the pansy" but would be accurately rendered as simply "the fag."

This episode illustrated, in the starkest form possible, the conundrum faced by proponents of reason in politics. Violence is, of course, at the furthest extreme from reason when it comes to resolving political disputes. But what more is there to say when your opponents, given a chance to speak their piece, can't manage much more than to call you a fag? In order for reason to win, you need to have opponents who are willing to engage in national debate. So what do you do when confronted with a movement that relies not upon reason for its central appeal, but upon a visceral sense of blood and belonging?

Early on, Trudeau had in fact laid out quite clearly what the strategy would be under such circumstances. The solution would be to fight fire with fire: "One way of offsetting the appeal of separatism is by investing a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money in nationalism at the federal level ... Resources must be diverted into such things as national flags, anthems, education, arts councils, broadcasting corporations, film boards." One of the peculiar things about Canada was that, at the time Trudeau came to power, it didn't really have a distinct form of nationalism at the national level. The country was instead the home to two rival national identities, French in Quebec and British in the rest of Canada -- the latter based largely on loyalty to the monarchy. For example, there was at the time no national anthem: The French "O Canada" was sung in Quebec, with "God Save the Queen" being sung throughout the rest of the country. The red maple leaf flag had been adopted in 1965 but was still used interchangeably with the Union Jack.

--

Excerpted from Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives, by Joseph Heath, published by HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Heath. All rights reserved.

MORE ON HUFFPOST:

What Is Pierre Trudeau Doing?