Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/11/2016 (1374 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The current crisis in Western democracy reflects a deep popular distrust: we understand it is government of the people, but question whether it is by the people. What is worse, we are increasingly not convinced it is for the people at all.
It is appropriate to evoke this line from former United States president Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as we look south and see the struggle to block the Dakota Access Pipeline, while the U.S. presidential election hangs in the balance.
The Battle of Gettysburg was the high water mark of the Confederacy, the turning point of the U.S. Civil War. Up until that point, it seemed Lincoln’s stand against slavery was a catastrophic mistake. Principles are fine, but at what cost?
Even after the Union victory, it took a hundred years to pass the laws that transitioned the U.S. into a country where justice before the law did not depend on race. Or so everyone still hopes — just as everyone hopes that fair treatment no longer depends upon gender.
But it all traces back to one man, one person, who chose to make a stand because it was the right thing to do.
If we distrust politicians after their election, it’s because that act of taking a stand for everyone because it is the right thing to do — not just for the people who elected you or who funded your campaign — is not a common occurrence.
As the pipeline controversy spreads and the crowds grow at Standing Rock, N.D., American democracy faces a serious threat: so far, these crowds have been peaceful, despite provocation and despite being a focus for growing anger against what increasingly seems like an unjust system. The protesters deserve huge credit and support for this, because peaceful demonstration is allowed under the law. They have the right to be there, to have their concerns heard and to a fair decision in the courts.
At the same time, laws change, for many reasons — and both governments and the courts decide what those changes should be. This, too, is part of the system that keeps a democracy healthy and functioning.
But Standing Rock highlights some fundamental principles of American democracy — the right of citizens to make decisions about the health, safety and security of their homes, their families and their communities. In the case of indigenous people, it also puts the spotlight on a further right to respect their traditional relationship to the land.
If these things are against the law, the law needs to change.
At the same time, issues about race, gender, religion, tolerance, diversity — issues that should be understood in the context of existing laws — have made it onto the agenda for the presidential election. When one candidate embraces the criticisms levelled at what he has said about all these issues — and then raises doubt whether he and his supporters would respect the outcome of the election should he lose, the whole American democratic system is put at risk.
As the waters continue to muddy, contaminated by the spills of information, by the toxicity of racist, xenophobic and misogynistic language and by the growing contamination of the political process, the presidential election looks like the aftermath of a pipeline spill into the political drinking water of the American people.
It is a dual test of American democracy — Standing Rock paired with the White House. Our whole world will be shaped one way or another by the outcome of both those contests.
North of the border, we are not immune. Our federal government approved a pipeline on the West Coast, over the protests of many people, avoiding its election commitments to hold consultations and be guided by what was said. Similar decisions are pending about the Kinder-Morgan pipeline and about the Energy East pipeline.
From economic and technical standpoints, these projects require an absurd and unjustifiable optimism about future markets and environmental risks. Whether this is the result of bad advice or selective evidence, it looks as if the federal government is catering to special interests — yet again.
No government, however tyrannical, survives except by the consent of the people. When people’s lives are threatened, their homes destroyed, and their hopes for the future are dashed, their consent can be withdrawn — with stark consequences.
In a country where government is no longer by the people and for the people, the American experience reminds us of two painful alternatives to peaceful demonstrations and abiding by the rule of law: either revolution or civil war. I pray that lesson does not need to be repeated.
After all, it’s not just about presidents and pipelines. It’s about principles, about doing what is right. It would be wonderful to see politicians consider that choice to be their first responsibility.
Peter Denton teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.
The Winnipeg Free Press invites you to share your opinion on this story in a letter to the editor. A selection of letters to the editor are published daily.
Letters must include the writer’s full name, address, and a daytime phone number. Letters are edited for length and clarity.