A failure of maturity

Published June 1, 2001

Eric Beresford

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It was like entering a time warp. As I watched the images of young protesters clashing with police in Quebec City, I felt as if I had been transported back to my youth, to the days of student activism and political protest. They were heady days, and those of us who lived through them know we did not get everything right. I came in right at the end as the campuses were becoming quieter and more focused on their own interests and concerns. In the years since then, particularly those spent in university teaching, I have often found myself saddened by the loss of that vocal idealism. While we did not achieve all that we might have wanted, I could console myself that we cared. We cared enough to want our voices to be heard, and we believed that if our voices were heard then things might change for the better.

It was therefore impossible for me to miss the irony of what happened in Quebec. Behind an unprecedented security screen, with over 6000 police officers, with tear gas and rubber bullets, many of the leaders who met were of the generation that once had stood outside protesting. How little they or we seem to have learned! Do we not understand that decisions of the magnitude being discussed in Quebec need public participation if they are to sustain the sort of popular support necessary to implement them effectively? Have we not moved from the paternalism that is so confident that it knows best, that it has no need to hear what is being said – at a safe distance and outside the chain-link fence – by those who disagree? No need to listen to those who speak for the voices of people whose interests are not represented at the table? We are told repeatedly that globalisation is good for us and is bringing unprecedented wealth. Surely it is hardy enough to withstand scrutiny from those who have had different experiences of this trend? Can it not expose itself to the questioning of those who would like to see the benefits more fairly distributed?

However, in this column, it is not the concrete issues addressed by the summit that interest me, but the contrast that is presented when we see the protesters from the past, now representatives of the status quo, face a scenario we had all but forgotten – youthful and idealistic protesters with banners and, yes, even flowers! The response that dominated the news and certainly reflects the view of those on the inside, is that they, unlike the protesters, had grown up. The leaders represented maturity attempting to do its work in the face of unreasonable and unworkable idealism. Of course, they had been idealistic once, but now they had simply learned to accept and work with “the way things are.” There are many difficulties with this point of view. In the first place it is the insiders who most often offer us simplistic readings of the success of globalisation. They are the ones who want to point us to economic growth without looking in detail at the impacts of that growth on different sectors of society. More to the point, however, the narrative of youthful idealism grown to mature realism appears too obviously self-serving to be believable on its own terms.

So let me suggest another reading of this so-called realism. I want to claim that rather than represent maturity it in fact represents a failure of maturity. The sixties and seventies were idealistic times. Those of us who were growing up at that time could see all sorts of things wrong with society and we wanted to fix them all, and many things were fixed. We saw gains in civil rights, labour rights, access to public education and health care and many other areas. These gains were of course partial, but they were nonetheless real. We did not solve all the problems, and some solutions brought new problems in their wake. This should not surprise us since the reality of the moral life is often that growth is incremental, incomplete and potentially reversible. Gains are not total and they can be lost. This in turn threatens to undermine our confidence in our ability to control the future. We realize that we cannot make the good life unambiguously accessible and secure. Unless we accept this and recognize risk as a necessary element of the moral life the temptation will be what Sharon Welch has called a cultured despair and the retreat into a pragmatism that abandons previously held ideals as hopelessly unachievable and naive. This response, in turn, devalues or even abandons the gains that have been made. Idealists who wanted to imagine social alternatives become defenders of the status quo.

It has taken us a long time to overcome the collapse of the political idealisms that shaped my youth. However, in the hopes of those gathered in protest at the summit of the Americas, I see hope. This is not because I agree with all the tactics used in the protest, but because the protest marks a new consciousness of the inadequacy of the us-them / insider-outsider models. The protests were about participation, and that is good for democracy. My response comes not out of agreement with all the alternative analyses and solutions they offered, but out of appreciation that those analyses represent the emergence of alternative imaginations and that is good for democracy. Of course, time will tell whether these alternatives flourish or collapse. My point is simply to suggest that, in part, success depends on the maturity needed to recognize and accept limited successes for what they are.

This story only appears in the online version of the Anglican Journal


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