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Commentary :: Human Rights
Civil Society by Stephen Hume
18 Apr 2008
Improvements in people's lives often have come about whensociety listened to voices on the periphery, not just the political and economic elites.
Stephen Hume
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Li Wei Ping and his granddaughter Cecilia Li gathered with the Chinese community in June 2006 to watch the broadcast of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology for the head tax. Li Wei Ping's father was forced to pay the head tax. It wasn't until 1947 that Chinese-Canadians were given the right to vote.
CREDIT: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun
Li Wei Ping and his granddaughter Cecilia Li gathered with the Chinese community in June 2006 to watch the broadcast of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology for the head tax. Li Wei Ping's father was forced to pay the head tax. It wasn't until 1947 that Chinese-Canadians were given the right to vote.

Visit the Vancouver Sun's Civil Society web site for videos, sound-offs, and a full collection of related "civil society" stories.

Can we construct a truly civil society in British Columbia? A society in which we don't abandon the mentally ill to their fates; in which we actually trouble ourselves to discover how many homeless there are; one in which places like the Downtown Eastside do not exist; women are not forced into the sex trade; elderly Sikhs don't fear being beaten to death simply for being Sikhs?

Can we build a province where one child in five is not condemned to grow up in poverty? One in which the past injustices of dispossession are not perpetuated by leaving pauperized aboriginal peoples on the brutal economic margins? Can we banish the insidious cultures of racism, sexism, religious, ethnic and class-based bigotry?

Or is this just a fuzzy romantic dream for idealists whose proposals amount to renewed flirting with the kind of well-intentioned social engineering that brought us the eugenics movement, the Soviet collectivization of agriculture and the interminable and apparently lost war on drugs?

There's no denying that some high-minded social engineering has an ugly legacy. Most recently, it brought us the con job that permitted a small group of arrogant neo-conservative zealots to march the United States into the vast quagmire of Iraq simply by manipulating the country's fears. This tiny self-righteous cabal led a lazy, compliant media around by the nose and through it manipulated attitudes toward the war with leaks of bogus evidence about weapons of mass destruction and glowing promises of greater national security.

The American public is bedazzled by the brilliant competence of its military machine -- as concocted by Hollywood special effects teams. In Iraq it got the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, thousands of slain American soldiers, civil chaos and violence, religious and political murder of a like and magnitude seldom seen in a "pacified" state and a hemorrhage of national treasure that threatens to bankrupt future generations.

Anybody who recalled the short, sputtering arc from Benito Mussolini's success in making the Italian trains run on time to the madness of trying to reinvent the grandeur of imperial Rome on the coattails of Nazi monsters should have been smitten with doubt.

Indeed, the most wretched excesses in the sorry annals of human evil are progeny of deluded social engineers. The Holocaust itself was the end result of Nazi plans to reconstruct Europe in their own image, ruthlessly sanitized to reflect the perfect model society -- one from which the "unfit" had been eradicated and in which racially pure Aryan women would be breeding machines for a Hitler Youth where the future warriors of the Waffen SS would be indoctrinated by the likes of Joseph Goebbels.

With legacies like that, it seems entirely reasonable to question any and all plans that promise to make things better if we'll only adapt our morality or adjust things this way or that with a view to modifying social attitudes.

And yet, as with all human endeavour there is an important upside to social engineering and its ideals that we should also bear in mind. Deliberate attempts to alter the assumed ground rules of the social contract, to, in effect, re-engineer social attitudes with a view to improving things, also have a record of profound success and gave us the much improved society we now enjoy.

There are still women alive today who were once non-persons under Canadian law; citizens of Chinese, Japanese and aboriginal ancestry who were denied the vote; Jews who were denied employment or membership in social clubs; people who suffered open discrimination because of their religion, skin colour or ethnic origins.

It's important to remember, too, that most often the "improvements" in these peoples' lives, the civil values in which we now take pride, arose not from the guidance of the religious, social, political and economic elites who profess to be custodians of public morality and to shape policy for the common good. They were the work of dissenters, apostates, radical social activists and those frequently portrayed as traitors to their class.

Public education, public health, high levels of literacy, intellectual freedom, participatory democracy, the eight-hour day, workplace safety, the rule of law and concern for fundamental human rights, all these are products of their attempts to engineer changes in attitudes and assumptions in the pursuit of civil society.

Consider slavery, for example. For most of human history, slavery and its analogs were a fundamental component of the economy. It was practised everywhere. The great civilizations of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Central and South America, even here on the West Coast among aboriginal societies as recently as 1900, all based their wealth, stability, status and power on the acquisition and exploitation of slave labour. Slaves, of course, were merely the extreme of workers who could produce at the lowest possible cost, and if they died from malnourishment, overwork or abuse; well, there was always another military campaign to provide more.

Today, some forms of slavery still exist. Bonded labour, forced penal labour, the sex trade that buys and sells women are all examples. In some shadowy places, even the kind of chattel slavery we associate with the worst excesses of the past endures.

Despite this, all nations formally condemn slavery as a moral and legal crime under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The reason for that is because two otherwise unprepossessing men supported by a few members of what was then considered a radical and dangerous religious cult, the Quakers, took it upon themselves to change -- socially engineer, if you like -- the prevailing social and political attitudes that gave permission to slave ownership.

The British Empire was the United States of its day, a rich, globe-straddling military colossus with a huge vested economic interest in maintaining a status quo from which flowed a torrent of wealth. Nevertheless, William Wilberforce undertook to change the political and economic culture; Thomas Clarkson undertook to change popular attitudes with a campaign of mass organizing and propaganda. Wilberforce exhausted himself financially and physically challenging entrenched British merchants, planters and King George III, who equated the anti-slavery movement with radical anarchy. Nevertheless, in 1807 Wilberforce persuaded the British Parliament to abolish the slave trade. Not until 1834, one month after his death, did Parliament free all 80,000 slaves in the British Empire.

By then the change in popular attitude brought about by Wilberforce and Clarkson was so powerful that the Royal Navy's fleet deployed up to 25 per cent of its warships to interdict the slave trade off West Africa.

So, can we realize a truly civil society by providing incentives and disincentives whose intent is to achieve those goals?

Yes, we can. Carefully. By listening not just to the prevailing conventional wisdom and "common sense" assumptions we take for granted. By listening also to the voices of those who question our dearly held values and who challenge us to a different way of thinking about ourselves. Just as Wilberforce and Clarkson did when they set out to hold their society to a higher morality than economic self-interest and wound up changing the whole world.

shume (at)
© The Vancouver Sun 2008
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