by Bob Rae
March 12, 2017
A mere 47 years ago I was sitting in Sir Isaiah Berlin’s office with a young American political scientist Joe Femia. A little awe struck to intervene much, we would both write short papers and discuss them. In one of our first classes, we were expressing some frustration in “getting Hegel.” Later we formed a study group called “Hegel United” where we would work our way through passages and try to figure them out.
Berlin, a warm, witty, and voluble man, must have felt he was dealing with two young guys with very little “candle power” as he called it. “Mr. Rae, look at the carpet in front of you. What strikes you about it?” I commented on the beautiful design, the fine craftsmanship. “Yes, yes, but the point is not so much that as something much simpler. Everything fits. It’s all within the lines, with answers to every question posed by the design. That’s true for Hegel, and it’s true for Marx as well. Do you think ‘everything fits’?”
I ventured an answer and said, “No, life is too unpredictable, there’s always the human factor ...”
“Life,” said Berlin, “is plural. It changes. Do not believe those who think there’s one big answer.” He then went on a riff about the hedge hog and the fox, one of my favourite pieces of analysis. The hedge hog knows one big thing. The fox knows many smaller and different things.
Some time later I had the opportunity to sit with Berlin at a University of Toronto convocation. I told him I hadn’t forgotten the business about the carpet. He remarked on the remarkable diversity of the student body. “I would probably fit in here in a way I never could in England. I’ll always be a foreigner there.”
Canada’s commitment to diversity and pluralism has become a critical feature of our identity. For many generations we were no such thing — a deputy minister of immigration in the 1930s was asked how many Jews would be admitted that year. His reply was devastatingly simple: “None is too many.” Chinese immigrants paid a head tax. Japanese and others were rounded up and lost all their property and livelihood in the Second World War. The litany of exclusion and discrimination is long — and we lapse into it still today.
A particular kind of brutality was imposed on the indigenous community. Children were rounded up and taken away to boarding schools whose mission was appallingly simple — “to take the Indian out of the child.” This was the policy of the government of Canada from the 1830s to as recently as the early 1990s. The Chief Justice of Canada has called it “cultural genocide.” This is the system a Tory Senator wants to defend and find the “positive parts of this experience.” This mind boggling comment has rightly set off a firestorm.
These past 10 days I have been attending, as an adviser to Forum of Federations, meetings in Myanmar/Burma, and listening to discussions and debates that have many parallels with Canada and other countries.
That Aung San Suu Kyi is now free to move around, and leads a party that has a majority in the National Parliament obscures another reality: the army, which has been at the centre of national politics since the Second World War, controls key ministries, such as defence, policing, and security, and has a block on all legislation and potential constitutional change.
Pluralism is discussed but words are not matched by deeds. Violent clashes with the military continue in many pockets in the country. The plight of the Rohingya people of northwestern Myanmar has captured much attention, but no one should think that this issue is easily addressed, or that it stands alone as an issue. As in Sri Lanka, Buddhist nationalism is a powerful, underlying force, and won’t just go away. The army is close to a half million strong. It continues to see itself as the protector of the unity of the country.
Canada is reportedly considering adding Mali to the list of countries where our soldiers will be providing advice to the local military. But as in Myanmar, and Ukraine, it is not just a tense security situation, it is also a deeply divided and complex political maelstrom. Our military efforts have to be matched by diplomatic and aid work, as we are trying to do in Syria and Iraq.
I doubt if Donald Trump has read much Hegel, or Sir Isaiah Berlin for that matter. But the blustering nationalism he now champions runs contrary to everything America has stood for in the world. Other countries will have to counter what he is doing and saying by insisting that pluralism, openness, and embracing the dignity of difference need to lie at the core of international politics.
“America First” is a dead end, because it will only lead to everyone else insisting on the same protectionism. Everything doesn’t fit.
Bob Rae served as Ontario’s 21st Premier, the Liberal MP for Toronto Centre, and interim Leader of the Liberal Party from 2011 to 2013.