“Politics of cultural despair” was a phrase used by American scholar Fritz Stern to describe the ideological roots of 20th-century totalitarianism in Germany. According to Prof. Stern, such politics are the creation of intellectual and political leaders who “despise the present” and seek “to recapture an idealized past in an imaginary future.”
It is troubling to observe that in certain respects, the current politics of Quebec display some of these same characteristics. A significant number of Quebec intellectuals and political leaders “despise the present” – in particular, Canadian federalism, the Harper government and the market orientation of North America’s economy. There is also the vague longing for an idealized past (Je me souviens) – a politics shaped by the French language and culture but purged from the religious influence of Roman Catholics, Jews, Sikhs and Muslims – all to be realized in the imagined future of an independent Quebec state.
As Prof. Stern has pointed out, the politics of cultural despair can create acceptance of, even demand for, totalitarian measures to achieve the vision of the desired state. Regrettably, the Quebec government’s proposed charter is a step in this direction, since to achieve its vision of a secular society, the government proposes to use its coercive powers to ban expressions of religion from the public square. A government that will use its coercive powers to restrict freedom of religious expression is unlikely to refrain from restricting other expressions of freedom that conflict with its declared vision of the future.
“Cultural despair” may also shape the social mores of a society, with significant biological and demographic implications. One wonders to what extent the province’s low birth rate, its high abortion rate, its growing preference for non-procreational sexual unions and its increasing demand for government-sanctioned assisted suicide are manifestations of this phenomenon.
It is ironic that those who promote and defend such mores among Quebeckers are regarded as “progressive,” while a biologist presented with evidence of these characteristics among a non-human species would see them as regressive – leading not to the preservation but rather to the endangerment and potential extinction of the species in question.
So what is the antidote to the politics of cultural despair? The politics of hope. But from what sources might this arise?
The most likely source is the younger generation of Quebeckers – a generation that is much more libertarian and cosmopolitan than the aging leaders of the Parti Québécois and Bloc Québécois. For this younger generation, the past dominance of the church, the Duplessis and Trudeau legacies, and the fixation on secession are not crippling or distracting influences.
It might even be possible that a younger generation will rediscover that ancient source of hope exemplified by Quebec’s patron saint, St. Jean Baptiste. He engendered hope among a people striving to preserve their cultural identity in trying circumstances by reviving an interest in the spiritual dimension of life without the trappings of institutionalized religion. History is replete with more recent examples, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Martin Luther King and even Canada’s own Jean Vanier.
It is in the best interests of both Canada and Quebec that the politics of hope, whatever the source, soon displace the politics of cultural despair in la belle province.
Preston Manning is founder of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.