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The Globe and Mail

Deciphering sides in Canada's 'culture wars'

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

The Globe and Mail

It was only a matter of time, and the time has come. America's culture wars have been imported into Canada. Personally, I'm not sure why they're called culture wars at all, since this isn't about music or dance or literature. Instead, it's just a curious phrase to encompass the values, ideology and convictions over which Canadians have long disagreed. We just never thought of them as wars about culture.

Like the U.S., we can almost divide Canada into two clear-cut political-cultural camps, whose issues include abortion, the CBC, capital punishment, big government, the Middle East, women, guns, gays, welfare, religion, the environment, race, law 'n' order, evolution, big cities and lots of others. By and large, as everyone knows, there's a conservative take on these issues and a non-conservative, sometimes progressive, take. All we really need is a single word - abortion! Israel! - and most of us know the issue and who's on which side.

Down south, the Tea Party militants know exactly what side they're on, and they're not shy about screaming it to the skies. Their president - for those of them who deign to recognize Barack Obama as President - still believes bridges can be built. You wish he was right, but you know he is wrong.

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Canadians have been relatively less bombastic in their championing of one side or another of the culture divide, which is what you'd expect from Canadians. But Michael Ignatieff made a strong speech the other day on the way the Harper government has been methodically escalating the culture wars in Canada. Obviously he hopes that by sharpening the focus on this explicitly divisive strategy, Canadians will warm to his own party. In fact, the large majority of Canadians seem quite aware of which side of the culture wall the Harperites inhabit, which is why some two-thirds of us continue to resist his allure. Ignatieff's real problem is that few citizens are turning to him in their rejection of the Harper values.

The cultural divide is both real and arbitrary at the same time; that's one of its peculiarities. It really makes little sense to lump all these issues willy-nilly into one or another camp. I can never fathom why denial of global warming is a reflexive conservative dogma; I'd have sworn I heard somewhere that some conservatives have kids for whose future they care. Why in the world then should they be pooh-poohing the possible consequences of global warming?

Similarly, the anti-conservative side has its own fault lines as well. Not all treat religion as a cruel hoax, for example, and some conservatives even believe in evolution. And while the conservatives can't resist their dreary old anti-CBC tirades, given the low estate of CBC-TV these days I'm not even sure those who passionately embrace public broadcasting would lift a finger to defend Mother Corp.

Besides, there are culture wars within culture wars, some of which actually unite conservatives and their mortal enemies. For example, our politicians in Ottawa seem to live in an impermeable bubble of their own. The quite extraordinary spectacle of almost all members of Parliament indignantly refusing to make public their expenses speaks volumes about the distance between the political world and the real one.

The fact that the NDP has been the most intransigent in its righteous determination to keep the public's nose out of its accounts has bewildered the faithful across the land. What are they thinking? What are they hiding? Have they learned nothing from the Labour Party's humiliation caught charging the state for personal expenses? Has the culture of "The Hill" corrupted (with a few honorable exceptions) the entire caucus?

It's hard not to see the NDP position on this issue as a betrayal of what the party stands for. Add to this that about a third of the caucus may for the second time vote against the long-gun registry. This would, of course, confuse the culture warriors because the NDP would then be standing with the Harper government and its supporters - Canada's own equivalent of the National Rifle Association. These positions will surely test the loyalty of the 14 per cent to 18 per cent of Canadians who faithfully vote NDP, knowing it will not form a government.

On both counts, frantic efforts are being made to make this rogue NDP caucus come to its collective senses. But the fact such efforts are necessary at all tells its own dismal story.

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Ignatieff is right: Stephen Harper has only just begun his dangerous escalation of the culture wars. There are ominous indications that he has had some surprising success in moving middle-of-the-road Canadians toward his regressive political values. Winning them back will surely be easier if our side doesn't get trapped in its own unjust culture wars.

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