Politics

Strange Brew

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Jeff Riggenbach has written an interesting appreciation of the sociologist Edgar Friedenberg. Riggenbach sees Friedenberg as "a libertarian outsider, one of those independent intellectuals who, usually through a career-long obsession with one particular social or political issue, eventually reason themselves into a version of libertarianism." In this case, the outsider was an antiwar activist who left the U.S. for Canada during Vietnam and soon found himself writing appreciatively of the liberties he left behind:

What would be really awesome is if this were a button for the AMERICAN Communist Party.

Though he lived in Canada for half his adult life, he had found within the first ten years of his residence there that the cultural differences between Canada and the United States were larger than he had previously realized. He saw that what people absorb, albeit mostly unthinkingly, from the culture in which they have grown up and in which they now live is extremely influential in shaping, if not determining, the politics they will later advocate and countenance. It was for this reason that, in the late 1970s, from his new home in Nova Scotia, he wrote Deference to Authority: The Case of Canada.

He began by pointing out the differences, not necessarily evident to the quickly glancing eye, between the political systems of the United States and Canada. In the beginning, he wrote, it was necessary to understand that "the parliamentary system as such provides no specific safeguards to liberty whatever apart from the promise of elections at specified intervals. This is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of political liberty." Yet "it is all Canadians really have." It was true, Friedenberg acknowledged, that "since 1960 there has been a Canadian Bill of Rights, but it is not a part of the Constitution. It is merely statute law and can be repealed in whole or in part at any session of Parliament."…

Friedenberg found that Canadians themselves were well aware of these differences. He noted, for example, that "many Canadians…have become disturbed about the infiltration of Canadian culture by American TV shows; and one of the complaints I have heard voiced most frequently concerns the fact that these programs subvert peace, order, and discipline among the young by leading Canadian kids to believe they have constitutional rights." The problem was, Canadians told Friedenberg, that "American television police programs, though usually fanatically supportive of law 'n' order, still showed that bad guys, deplorable as this might be, had certain established rights: the right to be informed by the arresting officer at the time of arrest of the charges under which the arrest is being made; the right to make a phone call and obtain legal counsel before being interrogated; and later, should the case come to trial, the right to decline to answer on the grounds that the answers might be self-incriminating."

Friedenberg found that the Canadians who spoke with him on this subject "were distressed because young Canadians who watched American television were being misled into thinking they had such rights." They were not "at all disturbed because [the young people] didn't have these rights; they objected only to the fact that Canadian youth were being instilled with an alien and misleading view of social reality."

In 1982 Canada finally added a Charter of Rights and Freedoms to its Constitution. Give Kojak the credit.

Bonus reading: Jeet Heer argues that "Canada's Tory inheritance made it easier for a welfare state to develop in the mid-20th century. Whereas American progressives have always had to fight against their country's distrust of big government, Canadian reformers worked within a polity that extolled the centralized state." Heer also notes that the country has grown more anti-authoritarian in the years since Friedenberg was writing.