History is a record of things changing in that nothing stays the same. Empires and kingdoms rise and fall, national boundaries change, nations cease to exist. I often wonder how many people living through seismic changes in the past realised that they were part of a revolution, or if they had that comforting feeling that things were going on as they always did. That is, until the big explosion shook their world and life changed radically. The big explosions, the fall of the Roman Empire, the French Revolution, the Reformation, and the two world wars of the century did not suddenly arrive unannounced. They were years in the making, gradual, step-by-step moves that prepared the ground for revolutionary change.
Were Roman citizens aware of their growing dependence on slaves and foreign mercenaries before the barbarians appeared at the gates of Rome? Did the average German have an inkling in 1934 of what had become inevitable after the previous year’s elections? Did anyone really understand what that Commodore 64 game module would lead to today? History often takes us by surprise, though it really shouldn’t. We’re definitely in that place today. There are dramatic and fundamental changes taking place all around us, politically, socially, technologically, and we are heading for, even sleepwalking into, a major turning point in history.
That may sound rather dramatic, but look at the facts on the ground. The rise of what can only be called fascist political parties over the past decade, everywhere from Hungary, Slovakia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and so many other countries has been staggering. What were once considered traditional standards of political discourse, social behaviour, honesty and integrity in government, have all been undermined and discarded. Political leadership is now the arena for people who are happy to lie, promote conspiracy theories without foundation, and make statements that are beyond belief. In the UK, the daughter of Asian immigrants had reached the position of Home Secretary, a major position of power and responsibility. Yet she is garnering support for her political future by claiming that multiculturalism has failed in the UK! She gives speeches demanding an end to a “hurricane of immigrants” threatening the UK, and to the Human Rights Act, and decries the dreadful state of the nation’s economy, social strictures, and identity. And this from a member of the party that has been in power for the past thirteen years. Unbelievable, but that’s modern politics.
I could give examples from other countries, not least our neighbours to the south, where lies are taken for granted, and personal political calculus is more important than the fate of the nation and its people. This didn’t start with Trump, who only popularised it. As with all historical phenomena, it can be traced back to the Reagan era, the Tea Party, and the heretical evangelical right, who seem to have completely lost touch with what they claim is their core identity, Christianity. They remind me of something Jesus said about the latter days: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.”
We have to accept something unpleasant about all of this, however: this approach to politics and life in general works. Trump and his ilk gain in popularity the more they indulge in incendiary rhetoric, or give credence to the worst of slurs against others. And the others don’t have to be real, or of one kind; the others are anyone who can be used to foment anger, resentment, fear and hatred. This is an aspect of history that has been a regular part of human society, and we have ignored it in times of relative peace because it comforts us to think that such periods are the norm in our shared story. But they are not.
Canada is not immune to this phenomenon of history. We have a sad record of how we treat those “others” whenever it suits us to label them, whether Indigenous, Japanese, Chinese, those we consider sexually “deviant” (and that definition changes too), or anyone who gets pointed out as a threat to whatever it is we think we need to protect. Traces, and more than faint traces, of what’s happening elsewhere have appeared in our political culture already. Because, as I say, it works, if only in the short term. We compromise in order to enjoy the temporary benefits of authoritarian rule, of fascism. Do you know, just a decade ago it was considered wrong, unfair, rude, to refer to anyone as a fascist. The world is changing. The US and the UK are being overtaken by China and India as world powers. But few seem to have noticed, and the next couple of decades will come as a shock to many. History moves on.