As the days shorten with the coming of the holiday season many of us find ourselves more reflective and philosophical about our place in society and the possibility of personal salvation. It is a great time of year, but also a hard one for others as its themes of family and giving bring into focus conflicts with the way we, as a nation, treat some of our own citizens and the sense among so many fellow Canadians that they are powerless to influence even their own lives, let alone the fates of others.
Despite the obvious central message of self-sacrifice that lies at
the heart of the story of Jesus, his name is used so often to purvey a
message that holds this same selflessness in contempt.
In response to the progress of the '50s, '60s and '70s, the right in
North America countered with a clever commingling of "individualism"
and its antithesis, social conservatism. A toxic yet highly successful
dialectical brew which rewards all forms of self-justification and
self-indulgence by disguising them in a cloak of "personal freedom"
policed by "family values".
For over 25 years worldwide we have witnessed the massive assault by
the right on the post-war social compromise. We have seen the
dismantling of social programmes and social safety nets with the active
participation of centrist and social democratic parties. We have seen
the destruction of the political idea of community and the notion that
corporations and the wealthy actually owe something to those that they
employ and that they sell products to. We have seen the rush to the
bottom where jobs are outsourced and political parties of all stripes
participate in the game of cutting services, budgets and taxes. We have
watched as the corporations of the West turned from production to
speculation, and as the disparity in income increased in lockstep with
the cutting of the "tax burden" and the reckless and foolhardy
deregulation of the economy and undermining of union rights. When the
so-called left has had a chance to undo this... they have more often
been partially or fully complicit in its execution. We live in a time
where the economic platform of the Trudeau Liberals in the '70s would
appear almost unimaginably radical now. And, it was not even radical
Meanwhile we are confronted by the problems of climate change, a
growing and very real undereducated, volatile and angry permanent
underclass, the supposed decline of a middle-class that is now at war
with itself and that is often one pay cheque away from destitution and
that lives under the stress of terrifying debt, and the death of the
traditional working-class in the first world. The stations of social
stratification are becoming daily more extreme and more disparate and
are aided by the media's gleeful vilification of public sector and
Buoyed by the seemingly endless prosperity of deregulation and the
free market, enabled by the usual pillars of apathy, indifference, and
middle-class ignorance, this "vision" of the world has predominated for a
quarter century of neo-liberal hegemony.
In the background were its underpinnings. The self-help crazes. The
Anthony Robbins. The Dr. Phils. The TV preachers and the millions who
sought personal healing and satisfaction in materialism, tokenism and,
Adopt a starving child. The song remains the same.
Above all, accept that things are as they are and that while God
wants you to do what you can to love your neighbours he never meant the
poor, gays and lesbians, the peoples of the third world or even your
friend down the street losing their home.
In fact, it is always tough "love". This rightist brand of
theological politics, accepted and embraced by large segments of the
non-religious, claims that all suffering is self-inflicted. The poor
are lazy. Minorities fail not due to oppression but their own
inadequacies. Behind every welfare case is a fraud and a limousine.
Unions are expressions of privilege and of elitism.
A world of people accepting no responsibility for their own lack of action.
Where has this led us?
To hundreds of thousands of broken lives, to mass poverty through
much of the world, to the soulless pursuit of self advancement, no
matter the cost.
We have seen the Gilded Age of massive "economic growth" built on the
backs of nominal improved general material prosperity but with huge
inequality, social instability, a lack of a proper social safety net, a
lack of safeguards over banks and corporations, a reckless speculative
economy, and an increasing social incohesion before. And it did not end
Hopelessness creates a sense of impending apocalypse in the minds of
many and desperation breeds anger and hate. Solutions are often found
in violent and totalizing ideological fictions. It is as if we are
drawn, as moths to flame, to the social apocalypse itself.
We can, however, give ourselves and others a seasonal gift of real
magnitude. We can save lives and make the day-to-day of so many much
better. We can seek to find a measure of genuine salvation and an end to
In the final analysis, we exist only as a reflection of our ability
to effect the lives of others, for better or worse, and in our yearning,
regardless of class, race, ideology or any other indicator, to be
remembered, somehow, even if ephemerally or incidentally, as an agent of
something of some significance.
This may be our children, our charitable work, our writings or our art.
It may even, in rare cases, be through what we produce, though most
of us get lost in the workings of the wider capitalist machine.
But it will always come out in our actions as members of a broader
tapestry, a true coalition, a general sorority and fraternity of people
standing together, united yet not identical, and pushing, striving,
aching for a better future through the ending of injustices, large and
small. It will always surface in the backs of committee rooms, on picket
lines, in church hall basements and in the countless courageous and
largely forgotten moments of personal sacrifice by so many in so many
From those who will no longer sit on the back of the bus to those
who will no longer deny their love. From those who stand down tanks with
nothing other than their righteous anger to those who rise up in the
face of unacceptable oppression. From those who have all too often died
in the realization that they did it out of a love for humanity that
stirs us all, to those who live to create a real thousand points of
light, the thousand points of light that connect us to each other.
Malcolm X or Joe Hill. Rosa Parks or Oscar Schindler. Bishop Romero or The Bandit Queen. Rosa Luxembourg or Harvey Milk.
Jesus Christ, son of God or not, alone on Golgotha and the crucifix.
Chief Teresa Spence.
They all stand as a tribute to the triumph of the human.
And we all can too.
There is, in fact a road to the real spirit of this season. It is
the road of re-engagement in politics. It is the road of expanding one's
bubble beyond bank account, job, business or balance sheet. It is the
road that turns, at long last, away from the embrace of the individual
and toward the pursuit of common goals.
The politics and politicians of today tell you that there are only a
very few possible outcomes and that "realism" dictates that essentially
all points on the spectrum will bring the same basic result.
But this anti-democratic notion of an inevitable future is not true.
And it can be stopped. We can stand up for union rights, worker's
rights, social ownership of the means of production, public banks,
"economic growth" that include everyone, tax increases to pay for
programmes, social inclusion and many of these other ideas...and the
proof that we can do so lies in the fact that we have, here and
elsewhere, done so in our past.
It is never too late to write the future. And it is never too late to turn the tide.
But if we do not, we need to heed James Baldwin's warning:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!