Countries that forget history become easy prey for demagogues

Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, The Globe and Mail
‘Be prepared, that’s the Boy Scouts’ marching song …” That’s how singer Tom Lehrer began one of his satirical ditties in a more innocent time. Mr. Lehrer’s borderline naughtiness appealed to the adolescents of my generation; now, as the world teeters on the edge of transition, his Boy Scout advice is even more pertinent.

No one can predict what Donald Trump will set in motion once in office. Will he disrupt Canadian trade and our basic economy? Will he wall off Mexico? Will he create a registry of Muslims? Will he reintroduce torture?

The writing may have been on the wall for years, especially since the financial crash of 2008 called into question the economic well-being of Western countries, precipitating unemployment and its attendant social stresses. The creeping nativism that has overtaken the West, culminating in Brexit and the election of Mr. Trump, also has been visible for decades. In the 1980s, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s National Front, alluded to Muslim immigration on large billboards that proclaimed, “Le Pen says aloud what everyone thinks to himself.” Today, the self-control Mr. Le Pen lamented has been breached at the highest levels, with unknown consequences for societies that depend upon accommodation for social peace.

The liberal triumphalism of the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union may partly account for our inattention, but there may be a more pertinent cause. Few in the world today were reasoning adults when the Second World War ended in 1945. We matured in the postwar era, as the international community created a multitude of protective institutions such as the United Nations. Hope underscored the trials of war criminals in Nuremberg and Tokyo, the birth of the International Criminal Court and the creation of the European Union.

The postwar liberal order was a rational global response to the events of the early 20th century. And if we assumed the 70-year status quo would endure, it is because we collectively forgot that irrationality is a core human attribute. In addition, few among us were trained to recognize warning signs. In Canada, the study of contemporary world history has not been mandatory on most high school curricula, a lacuna that has lessened our aptitude for awareness.

Which brings me back to Tom Lehrer and his pithy advice. Be prepared.

Economic well-being is a central indicator of social peace, and since Canada’s economy is dependent on trade with the United States, the government of Justin Trudeau has wisely attempted to position itself with the incoming administration in positive ways. The Prime Minister also shuffled his cabinet for similar reasons.

But there are other ways to be vigilant. It is worrisome that Conservative Party leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch opportunistically admires Mr. Trump and thinks his “exciting message” needs to be delivered in Canada. Stephen Harper thankfully failed to inspire voters with his anti-Muslim provocations, but the Conservatives haven’t yet chosen their new leader, and those tea leaves, with their capacity to threaten our core acceptance of multiculturalism – the driver of Canadian social peace – remain unread.

As for long-term preparations, I hope ministries of education across Canada will create mandatory courses in critical thinking and human rights studies at the secondary level, possibly assembling elements of current social studies and history programs with a new focus. Such courses should have both historical and contemporary content. Young Canadians need to understand how, and why, pluralist societies have failed in the past in order to be vigilant about preserving their own. As “fake news” threatens the media, young people will need the tools of critical thinking in order to differentiate sources of credible information from propaganda.

Organizations such as the Global Centre for Pluralism, based in Ottawa, might consider making public preparedness for what lies ahead a priority. So might the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, an entity dedicated to the basic principles of belonging and diversity.

Without these defences, we will become easy prey for demagogues. An unpredictable historical juncture is upon us, and we must pay attention.

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