Category Archives: Democracy

Veronica Abbass: “Democracy Is More Than Just A Ballot Box”

Brigette DePape is escorted from the Senate during her protest in last June’s Speech from the Throne

Former Senate page Brigette DePape’s silent “Stop Harper” protest on the floor of the Canadian Senate during the June 3, 2011 Speech from the Throne eclipsed the speech itself everywhere it was reported. One of the first organizations to respond to DePape’s gesture was The Council of Canadians. The Council’s chair, Maude Barlow, contacted DePape on June 4, offered her solidarity, as well as the Council’s support for DePape’s report: Thinking Outside the Ballot Box: How People Power Can Stop the Harper Agenda and Create Fundamental Change.

In the Introduction to Thinking Outside the Ballot Box, DePape expresses her gratitude to “the thousands of people who were excited by my action. It shows that people in Canada are burning for change” (3). Throughout the twenty-four  page report, DePape draws upon her own experience and the experience of others to suggest how and why “people power” can change for the better the way Canada is governed (5). She cites former Governor-General Ed Broadbent, who, in response to DePape’s protest, likewise advocates the principle of people as a legitimate form of resistance to unfair and inequitable government policies: “What is the real offence,” Broadbent asks, “silently watching growing injustice, or upsetting the sensibilities of those who should be doing something about it?” (9).

“People power” is a more restrained rallying cry than “power to the people,” and yet DePape’s confidence in it is unshakable.  “People power rises from the bottom-up,” DePape suggests, and goes on to observe that “people are more powerful when they. . . remove their consent.”  Those who possess power, consequently, “become powerless, and power shifts to those” from whom all power proceeds, the people themselves (5).

DePape maintains that “collective indignation is a first step in building a movement to stop injustice,” and asks us to “imagine the movement we can build if we use our collective indignation to create the Canada we want” (10-11).  DePape reminds us that “[d]emocracy is not just about voting every four years,” and asks that those who dissent to join together in protest against the inequitable policies of the Harper government (7).

On November 1, DePape was guest speaker at a Peterborough-Kawarthas chapter of the Council of Canadians event, “Stop Harper: the Arts, Youth, and the Future of Canada.” Sara Ostrowska reported in Trent University’s student newspaper:

There were over 100 people in attendance, of all ages and walks of life, but everyone had one thing in common: they were inspired by Brigette DePape’s small act of civil disobedience.

Near the end of the presentation, an older woman in the audience shouted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Stephen Harper must go,” and the chant broke out, with DePape joining in.

The second chapter of Thinking Outside the Ballot Box is “Democracy Is More Than Just A Ballot Box” (7), which nicely echoes Northrop Frye in “The Analogy of Democracy”: “Law is the expression of temporal authority; justice is law informed by freedom and equality” (CW 176). This is something we must keep in mind every day as citizens of a democracy. The law requires that we recognize that Stephen Harper is, by way of the ballot box, our properly elected prime minister, and as such he has the legal right to govern. However, justice requires that we resist the policies we believe to be unfair, inequitable, unjust as an expression of the people power which is the first and last authority of any democracy.

Occupy London and the Church of England

A report on the conflict between the Occupy movement and the business interests of the Church of England.

Frye in “The Church: Its Relation to Society”:

The society of power is always a close and searching parody of the society of love. So close and searching, in fact, that without revelation it is hardly possible for man to separate the latent heaven from the latent hell in his own society or in his social thinking. In the kingdom of God there is no place for Caesar as Caesar, for there is no respect of persons there; in the kingdom of Caesar there is nothing but the respect of persons, and hence no place for God as God. In such a society Caesar has to become God. (CW 4, 255-6)

Frye in “The Analogy of Democracy”:

People attached to churches often speak of political issues as though the church were withdrawn from the world, waiting for the world to offer it various theories of government and then inspecting them in order to decide whether they are comparable with Christianity or not. No such remoteness exists. Members of the church are in the world from the start: their secular passions and prejudices inform and shape their conceptions of religion at every point: to be persistently wrong about the contemporary world is a theological error. We have reached the stage in democratic development at which we can roundly say that if any twentieth-century Christian sincerely repudiates what democracy stands for, there is something radically the matter with his Christianity. . .

The church can mediate between the Gospel and the law only when they have been clearly separated. Failure to separate them is Pharisaism, the legalized bastard gospel. When we look at the way the church uses its social energy and influence . . . we can hardly be reassured about the courage, wisdom, or effectiveness of the church’s approach to society. (CW 4, 274-5)

Frye on the “Crisis of Confidence” in Democracy

FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights

Frye in an interview conducted on 13 October 1976. Four years later we had Ronald Reagan and the thirty-years-and-counting nightmare of crony capitalism. Things apparently had to get much worse. However, we can hope that the expectation Frye articulates here will prove correct in the long run. The symptomology he lays out very accurately describes the general collapse of democratic values, political discourse, and economic opportunity since the scorched-earth administration of George W. Bush:

In this North American complex that we’re in there’s a crisis of confidence perhaps in our own liberal and democratic values, and I think that that’s partly a political and economic thing. It’s almost a repetition of what happened after 1929 when I was a freshman here. There was a great wave of buoyant confidence which was really infantile, based entirely on credit. Then there was a great stock market crash. Then there was a tremendous reassessment of the values of capitalism and out of that emerged the Roosevelt period. I think that something like that is happening now. We’re going through a crisis of confidence not so much in capitalism as in democracy. (CW 24, 322-3)

Nihilists, Cont’d

Frye once observed that “democracy should work as a force for the underprivileged.”

So much for that.

With the “deal” on the U.S. debt ceiling finally laid out, it can now be recognized as a disaster from every angle. It cuts government spending in a depressed economy, which may depress it further. Worse yet, the cuts are borne by those who can least afford it, and, scandalously, there is no provision for tax increases for those who can most afford it. The twisted, know-nothing Tea Party principle of non-creative destruction is now national policy (non-creative in the sense that too-big-to-fail privilege has replaced the sink-or-swim drive of competition). It provides still more proof that the only constituents the Republicans serve are corporations and the richest 1% of the population, whose effective income tax rate is already lower than that of the people who work for them. More than that, as corporate profits soar, job creation is stagnant and can’t even begin to address the millions who lost their jobs thanks to the criminal irresponsibility of Wall Street three years ago. Like a black comedy still in the early stages of laying out the dimensions of its blasted landscape, the Republicans have rebranded the super-rich as “job creators” who should not be expected to face the disincentive of tax increases. Job creators?

Obama might have invoked the 14th Amendment, which does not allow the United States to forfeit on its debts, in order to preempt this calamity. He didn’t. Why he didn’t is for him to explain. That he didn’t may cost him. For the first time he looks defeated and vulnerable as a new election cycle is about to begin in earnest. In any event, not invoking it has set a dangerous precedent that effectively promotes the Republican brand of crazy as the only thing the market will allow.

Frye: “Democracy is in essence cultural laissez-faire”

A perhaps unexpected but delightful inversion of values: Laissez-faire may be anti-democratic, but democracy is culturally laissez-faire. From “War on the Cultural Front,” (written in August 1940, when the war was going badly for the British Imperial forces, including Canada):

Democracy is in essence a cultural laissez-faire, an encouragement in art, scholarship, and science. The list of people tortured and banished by Hitler includes Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Freemasons, homosexuals, and sponsors of rival brands of Nazism like Strasser. No one can be equally sympathetic with all these groups, but in the last century English culture has received contributions from Jews (Disraeli), Catholics (Newman), Protestants (Browning), Freemasons (Burns), homosexuals (Wilde), and a spokesman of potential English Nazism (Carlyle). Obviously there has been some considerable anarchy in English culture, a hopelessly inconsistent inclusiveness about it, and that large inconsistently is the basis of democracy. For it implies the acceptance and practice of the scientific attitude on the part of the people as a whole: the inductive suspending of judgment until enough, not only of the facts and discoveries and techniques, but of the viewpoints and theories and gospels and quack panaceas, are in, before changing the direction of social development. Opposed to this is the crusading religious temperament of the dictatorships working with a partial and premature cultural synthesis. Out of this inclusiveness of outlook springs everything else we associate with democracy, and it is on that basis that democratic countries rest their claim to be more hightly civilized. (CW 11, 186)

Frye: “Laissez-Faire is Anti-Democratic”

The trillion dollar bailouts of just three years ago demonstrated that we now have a “too big to fail” oligarchy who fleece citizens by whatever means necessary. It has nothing to do with democracy; it is kleptocracy

Laissez-faire is as anti-democratic is as it is “anti-Christian“:

The geopolitical America, unlike the European countries, was able to add its colonies to its own body, and hence was a kind of proving ground for all the expansionist energies of its age, economic laissez-faire, political liberalism, and religious individualism included. The belief that men can be and have a right to be equal and independent is the growing point of this expansionism and the source of everything vital in it, and that belief, rather than any political modus operandi, is what is usually implied first of all by the word “democracy.” As the conception of democracy has matured, it has separated itself from its vague background of Utopian optimism. Many Americans still believe that laissez-faire is the economic aspect of democracy, but there is a growing realization that laissez-faire by itself does not lead to democracy, but to oligarchy, and thence to managerial dictatorship. Laissez-faire by itself is antidemocratic: all progress in the conditions of the working classes has been wrung from it in a kind of cold civil war — not always so cold, as it has included lynchings, sadistic beatings, systematic starvation, and an occasional massacre. (CW 11, 251)

Frye: “Laissez-faire is Anti-Christian”

Today we end the tease and roll out Frye himself on the issue for which we’ve been laying the ground work the last little while: the witch’s brew of Christianity, Amercian Exceptionalism, and laissez-faire.

Here is Frye painstakingly analyzing American ideology as part of a United Church commission to study modern culture and its points of conflict with Christianity. The aim is to determine “the role of the church in the redemption of culture” (CW 11, 237). The report appeared as The Church and the Secular World (Toronto: Board of Evangelism and Social Service, 1950). It was a collective project, but Frye wrote the Tenets of Modern Culture section, from which this excerpt is taken.

1. The oldest civilization in the modern world is the American one, which was established in its present form in 1776. Modern France dates from the French Revolution; Great Britain began to assume its modern form with the Reform Bill of 1832; Germany and Italy entered the modern world in 1870; China in 1912; Russia in 1917, and so on. The party now in power in America [Democratic] is the oldest political party in the world, and the Stars and Stripes is one of the world’s oldest flags.

2. The axioms of this culture are essentially those of eighteenth-century Deism. There is no real world except the physical world and the order of nature, and our senses alone afford direct contact with it. Religion can provide no revelation of another; nature is red in tooth and claw; we must look to God only in man, and in nature to the extent that it is subdued by man. The essence of religion is morality, dogma and ritual being parasites that settle on it in decay. The chief end of man is to improve his own lot in the natural world, and the essential meaning of human life is the progressive removal of the obstacles presented by nature, including atavistic impulses in man himself. This is done chiefly through the advance of science, by which is meant the increase in the comfort of the body, of which the mind is a function.

3. The problems of American civilization are connected with the facts: (a) that these absurd notions, however inadquate to the modern world, form part of an unofficial established church in American society, are taught in schools, and are impressed on American children at their most impressionable age; (b) that the real churches have been too deeply contanimated with such ideas themselves to make much effective resistance against them; (c) that they form part of the ideology, not of democracy, but of laissez-faire, and yet have kidnapped and secularized the democratic spirit in American life, so that many Americans regard democracy as inseparable from laissez-faire.

4. The axioms and postulates of laissez-faire as the above indicates, are anti-Christian, and lead in the direction, not of democracy, but of managerial dictatorship. Such a dictatorship may be established in either of two ways: (a) through the consolidation of the power of the oligarchy (Fascism); (b) through the seizure of power by a revolutionary leadership established within the trade unions (Communism). The preservation of democracy thus depends on a balance of power held by the state and its elected representatives against the threat of a coup d’etat coming from either end of the economic machine. But Fascism and Communism claim to be the logical forms of true democracy, and both claim to be fighting, not democracy, but one another, for each maintains that democracy merely the propaganda facade of its rival. (CW 11, 237-8)

(Graphic from the article “Is Jesus a Socialist?” in, which is worth reading)

Frye on Democracy and Religion: “An open mythology has no canon”

Continuing with Frye on religion and democracy, here he is in The Modern Century:

[D]emocracy can hardly function with a closed myth, and books of the type I have mentioned as contributions to our mythology, however illuminating and helpful, cannot, in a free society, be given any authority beyond what they earn by their own merits. That is, an open mythology has no canon. Similarly, there can be no general elite in a democratic society: in a democracy everybody belongs to some kind of elite, which derives from the social function a particular knowledge or skill that no other group has.

The earlier closed mythology of the Western world was a religion, and the emergence of an open mythology has brought about a cultural crisis which is at bottom a religious crisis. Traditionally, there are two elements in religion, considered as such apart from a definite faith. One is the primitive element of religio, the collection of duties, rituals, and observances which are binding on all members of a community. In this sense Marxism and the American way of life are religions. The other is the sense of a transcendence of the ordinary categories of human experience, a transcendence normally expressed by the words “infinite” and “eternal.” As a structure of belief, religion is generally weakened; it has no secular power to back it up, and its mandates affect far fewer people, and those far less completely, than a century ago. What is significant is not so much the losing of faith as the losing of guilt feelings about losing it. Religion tends increasingly to make its primary impact, not as a system of taught and learned belief, but as an imaginary structure which, whether “true” or not, has imaginative consistency and imaginative informing power. In other words, it makes its essential appeal as myth or possible truth, and whatever belief it attracts follows from that. (CW 11, 67)

This is not what we’re seeing from the highly politicized religious right: it tends to be aggressive and exclusionary, and the agenda seems largely driven by intolerance of secular values as well as resentment of the freedoms they promiscuously provide irrespective of belief, gender or sexual preference. Issues relating to these areas, at any rate, always seem to be top-of-the-list targets. Want to make a religious conservative group resolutely committed to political action? Just raise the issue of gay marriage or the rights of women over their own bodies. It never misses.

I will be posting a list of agencies and organizations that have already been defunded by the Conservatives. Those no longer worthy of government assistance unmistakably have the “wrong” set of priorities: women’s organizations, agencies offering various kinds of assistance to the poor, including immigrants and children, and organizations promoting gay rights, among a number of others with a recognizable progressive mandate. It is a persistent pattern of behavior.

Frye on “the separation of church and state”

From The Double Vision, which aptly anticipates the increasingly intrusive religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism into politics:

In the course of time the movement begun by the Reformation did achieve one major victory: the gradual spread throughout the Western world of the principle of separation of church and state. Something of the genuine secular benefits of democracy have rubbed off on the religious groups, to the immense benefit of humanity, and depriving religion of all secular or temporal power is one of the most genuinely emancipating movements of our time. It seems to be a general rule that the more “orthodox” or “fundamentalist” a religious attitude is, the more strongly it resents this separation and the more consistently it lobbies for legislation giving its formulas secular authority. (CW 4, 174-5)

I’ve expanded an earlier post to provide some sense of how and why that is already happening here.

Quote of the Day 2

Further to Bob’s earlier Frye quote, here’s Rick Salutin in today’s Toronto Star:

We now live in a permanent state you could call the tyranny of the minority. You could also call it the tragedy of the majority. We’ll have had 10 years of a government desired by 40 per cent of the voters, while 60 per cent, who largely agree on what they’d like, will get zero representation. Everyone played by the rules of the game, but it’s a stretch to call that game democracy.