In early January, I saw a photo of Winston Churchill on Twitter. An anniversary of some sort? No. It was posted by Rudyard Griffiths (co-founder and moderator of the Munk Debates) along with this tweet:
Is it just me or is it odd there is no one in this “dark hour” that has the means or wherewithal to genuinely comfort Canadians? From premiers, to the PM and GG, to the media or any public figure, we are bereft of an authentic, credible voice of moral authority and succor.
– Rudyard Griffiths on Twitter, 2022 Jan 06
I think Griffiths is right: We don’t have any one person who is “an authentic, credible voice of moral authority and succor” with the “means or wherewithal to genuinely comfort Canadians” as Churchill and King George VI did in WWII. But I’m not sure it’s odd.
Let’s look at the structure of our polity. Our federation (with only occasional con-ness) aggravates our tribal tendencies so that we can end by identifying as much or more with our province as with our country. That gives us a whack of leaders, but the ones we most identify with don’t speak for (or to) the whole country.
Let’s look at the unelected players. Our current Governor General is a decent and accomplished woman who might have taken on the role played by King George VI, but she is a short-timer: a stranger. It was ever so in Canada. Five-year appointments are the norm: Governors General are then hidden under a bushel of official duties and gone before we get to know them or the light they might bring.
Let’s look at the elected players. Our Prime Minister is currently taking flak, even internationally, for calling unvaccinated Canadians anti-science, misogynist, and racist. Each Premier plays more to their local audience/voters than to the national stage. I see no one who can be Churchill to our need. I see no one who is even inclined to try.
Let’s look at our popular culture. Not surprisingly, it’s about celebrity, not gravitas — dignity, seriousness, or solemnity of manner — and this is a situation that calls out for a serious manner and a reputation for service and duty. Some celebrities might speak to niche groups, but I see no popular figure who could carry it off, culture-wide.
Let’s look at pandemic experts. Some public-health officials have carried some moral authority and offered some comfort for some of this journey. Some have not. But I think even the best are limited by their necessary focus: To my eye, they lack a whole-of-society perspective.
Finally, let’s look at that supposedly “whole” society. We are fragmented, if not fractured and fractious. We count ourselves French and English and BIPOC. (Some identify just two groups: First Nations and settlers.) We have no common religion: Indeed, we have less religion now than ever. We are woke and decidedly non-woke, city cats and country mice, young and old, rich and poor, male and female and LGBTQIA2S+. Now we’ve added vaccinated and un. And on it goes.
So, I don’t think we can look to a single Canadian figure for leadership that transcends partisanship or self-interest or occupational bias/blinkers or self-identity or identity assigned by others. Instead, I think we have to take leadership where we find it, and wherever we can get it.
Working with retired military officers I learned about the concept of an informal leader. There is a formal hierarchy, for sure, but often what really makes things work is the influence of an unauthorized leader at the group level. Someone who steps up.
We can all be that leader. In small ways, we all likely already are.
In a rare smart-aleck moment I responded to Griffiths’ tweet.
I’m not too busy . . .
Go for it! You have 280 characters.
OK, I will. Using this venue I have way more than 280 characters. If I could, what would I say to all Canadians by way of comfort or inspiration?
We have been forced into a conflict:
we did not choose this virus or all the death and distress it has brought.
We did not choose this uncertainty:
we did not ask for medical experts to disagree among themselves,
or for self-serving charlatans to lie to us,
We did not choose this destructive positive-feedback loop:
oppressed by 24/7 coverage seemingly designed to foster our fears
and to make money from those fears.
We did not choose this divided government structure
or the apparently irrepressible impulse of politicians
to divide us further for partisan advantage.
We did not choose this astounding science,
in which an almost unprecedented vaccination rate is still not enough.
We did not choose to live in pandemic times,
but no one chooses their times.
Now we can only choose how we will live. How we will be.
We can choose to be patient with others and with ourselves,
while we persist in doing the right as we see the right.
We can choose to be humble in our opinions,
knowing that what we see as right may be different tomorrow than it is today.
We can choose to focus more on helping those who have been hurt
than on blaming that hurt on those with whom we disagree.
We can choose to set aside our special interests.
We can choose to be a band of brothers and sisters,
standing calm and firm and united.
We can choose to bear ourselves so that if Canada lasts for a thousand years,
Canadians to come will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
With thanks to:
- William Shakespeare (Henry V, circa 1600)
- King George VI & speechwriters (radio announcement of war with Germany, 1939 Sep 03)
- Winston Churchill (speech in House of Commons, 1940 Jun 08)
For another take on this, check out Jen Gerson’s column here. In a post script she addresses the question of fostering the institutions of a civil society.
In other words, we’ve responded to this pandemic with more of an authoritarian mindset than a liberal one. Yet we lack the capacity to act as an authoritarian regime, to actually enforce the requirements and restrictions being dictated for our own safety. So our governments vacillate, trapped between cracking down and easing off, demanding compliance yet being unable to coerce it. This gives everyone the justified sense that our leaders are flailing and incompetent. We’re left with the worst of all systems: we lack the will to crack down and the cohesion to come together.
We’ll emerge from this pandemic not a more resilient, more unified nation, but instead one that is increasingly embittered and distrustful of our neighbours and our institutions.