Conventio Semper Reformanda

“The conventional institution is always in need of reform.”

“Man”, said Aristotle in the 330s BCE, “is by nature a political animal”. If this is so — and I have no reason to believe it false, given that politics is the morality of operating as a group — then almost by definition our human nature is at odds with the desires of the political class, their chattering hangers-on, and the like.

Why this would be so needs some explanation. Can’t the political process work for us?

If I am a political animal, then I take an interest in the governance of my community (be that my neighbourhood up to my nation-state and beyond). That interest will tend to be expressed in terms of issues and strategies surrounding them. Those who are “political professionals”, or commentators around the political realm will, on the other hand, be more seized with power, its acquisition and retention, and with the tactics that surround that. They will see the situation, at any point in time, in terms of tactical advantage and disadvantage. My concern is with the subject at hand, but theirs is an interesting mix of their own advantage and the advantage of their institution.

News media will focus on visibility (personal attainment) and viewership/readership (institutional strength). Party activists will focus on recognition (personal attainment) and future growth in polls, membership or attention (institutional strength). Politicians support the institution of the party over the institution they are elected to (Parliament, Congress, etc.). Talking heads for interest groups look for personal visibility by being called upon, and institutional influence as “the outsider close to the inside”.

Meanwhile, what happened to the issue or to governance? Well, if we’re lucky, some of this will give us a little bit of “the right thing happening for the wrong reasons”. Mostly, though, what we expressed our interest in is subverted. When, for instance, the citizens of Scarborough indicate they don’t want surface LRTs on their streets — “give us subways” — it’s really a cri de coeur for relief from endless driving for all purposes, and neighbourhoods not really worth caring about (because they are seldom seen on foot). The issue is the transformation to a new urban environment that is known to be needed, not which transit “plan” to adopt. But the first requires long leadership; the second serves immediate needs … guess which we get?

Or, to put the whole thing another way, a citizen is concerned with what Thomas Langan, in Tradition and Authenticity in the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom, called a “tradition of association” — and those who are “in and around” the system are concerned instead with the institutions that have been given life within that tradition, such as parties, political offices, media outlets, blogs, etc.

As Langan noted, institutions tend to diverge in their purposes from the purposes of the tradition that gave rise to them. We can see this any day in our Parliament or Legislatures. Members of Parliament are sworn to the institution of Parliament, and to acting as representatives of their constituency in that setting. MPs, instead, actually serve the party whose banner they are nominated under, and are whipped to support the party and its leader regardless either of the views of the citizens in their constituency, or their own moral compass. Their actions are reported in terms of their “points scored” in the tactical games of media coverage, good sound-bites, etc., and not in terms of the service they are performing for their communities.

Today, it is no wonder that the largest faction — which, if we recall the worries of the framers of the American Constitution and the first American President, saw the term “party” and the term “faction” as both interchangeable and equally worthy of disdain — is that group of citizens who find politics to be a complete waste of their time and attention. They do not participate, not even to vote. The news is of little to no interest to them, no matter how persistently, stridently and directly pushed at them. These are the ones who have seen the hypocrisy involved in putting tactics ahead of issues; short-term thinking ahead of long-term directions. Whether these “register” as Independents, or simply ignore the whole process, the point is taken: Party Games alienate citizens.

Mind, since the power of parties, their hangers-on, influencers, reporters, etc. stems precisely from reducing the number of citizens of independent mind and action in the “game”, this alienation is seen by those who put their position in the institution above the Institution itself, or (even more deeply) the Tradition upon which it draws, as a good thing. Better a few who will take orders — even better, a few who will follow them without actually having to issue the orders! — than the many who are constantly tugging power away from their “betters”.

Recognizing this point does make political blogging suspect, even the writing of small papers such as this one which you are now reading!

We are in urgent need of reform. (All institutions are in constant need of it, of course, for human beings will put self-interest ahead of their responsibility to steward an organization or institution through history at least some of the time.) It is a long time since this has been undertaken in most of our societies. But that something hasn’t been done recently, or would be difficult, is no reason not to get to work on it.

Indeed, knowing it will upset all the cognoscenti, political operatives, elected politicians, senior civil servants, chattering class members and the like to have the citizens take back their political institutions sounds, to me, like one of the greatest incentives to do it!

Such a “take-back” has to begin close to home. This probably means at a scale even smaller than the city (although, for a smaller town, it may be possible to see the town as one community). Such neighbourhoods are organic: they make sense because of relationships within them that exist.

An example may help: my own neighbourhood has been (by realtors) appended to “The Beach” as “the Upper Beaches”. The reality of the Beaches is that they are south of Kingston Road and east of Woodbine Ave. over to Victoria Park Ave. The Upper Beaches run north from Kingston Road, perhaps to Gerrard St. E. Crossing the railway line really is pushing the community far too far for anyone other than a salesperson. The replacement of Greenwood Racetrack with housing does allow for a “New Beaches” between Woodbine Ave. and Coxwell Ave. to emerge — south of Queen St. E. down to Lake Shore Blvd. (The neighbourhood west of Woodbine Ave. north of Queen St. E. has always been “its own place”.) Being north of the rail line, and just east of Coxwell, as am I? A completely different place!.

But neither is our neighbourhood “Danforth Mosaic”, as the Business Improvement Area on Danforth Ave. would have it. Segments of Danforth Ave. served different communities as a shopping (“High”) street. A few blocks north of Danforth Ave. was the old City of Toronto limit, with East York beyond it. East Yorkers in that part of the old Township were connected to the Danforth: they might also use stores and facilities on Woodbine Ave. or Coxwell Ave. (or further west, on Donlands or Pape) but going to “the Danforth” was as much a part of daily life as it was for those in the City on either side of it. (My own family — great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and now me and mine — lived first on one side then the other repeatedly, in a zone that transcended the boundary between “Toronto” and “East York”, but stayed within two blocks west of Coxwell Ave. and two blocks east of Woodbine Ave., and never south of the rail line or more than ten blocks north of Danforth Ave. (within 15 mins. on foot even when elderly, or with small children).

Such is a neighbourhood: this is the natural starting place for those who wish to work to take things back.

George Grant, the Christian Platonist Canadian philosopher, talked of loving as layered. We start at home, then to our community, then further up through the structures, to come to the love of the Good in and for itself. One needn’t be Christian, or Platonist, or even Canadian, to see the wisdom in that. As distance from the institutions increases, it becomes harder to avoid dealing with things “in the abstract”. The opportunities for what Langan called hypocrisy to grow and fester, not out of ill will, but out of desires to do rightly conjoined to the human desire to do well leading the institution slowly but surely astray, are less likely to be seen early, when correction is the matter of a word or two, not the need for wholesale renovation and restoration.

Indeed, where else but locally will those we send — as policy staffers, as representatives, as media watchdogs and reporters, and as activists — learn how to test their own positions, weed out (as best they can) using the institutions entrusted to their care for personal advantage, learn how to stand in public and say “I have learnt this, and now I am changing my mind”, and so forth?

We need not give up on our society; we do need to stop ignoring it, or moaning about it, and certainly stop being parrots for a party line (be that a political party or an issue advocacy group). We, too, need our communities to learn. Even as we engage in building them, we, too, will be learning what it is to be a moral actor in a group — the “political animal” Aristotle spoke of.

It is something we will eventually have to do, as the centre does not hold. Why not start now, when much that will be bad — perhaps even evil — could still be avoided?

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