Political conversation

Shall We Dance?: A Patriotic Politics for Canada

A review of Shall We Dance?: A Patriotic Politics For Canada by Charles Blumbert

Published on April 1, 2003

Shall We Dance?: A Patriotic Politics For Canada
Charles Blumbert

McGill-Queen's University Press

In Shall We Dance? Charles Blattberg proposes what might be called a new model for how political discourse ought to be practised in Canada. This new model for political dialogue Blattberg dubs ‘patriotic.’ He thinks it is needed to replace alternative models of political discourse in order that substantial problems for politics in Canada, the foremost of which is national unity, might be fruitfully addressed.

Blattberg objects to two forms of political discourse in particular. One is monarchism, which includes the demand that there be a “single ultimate, sovereign authority to which all those involved in the most important political conflicts must appeal, doing so, essentially, by pleading (my emphasis) their cases to that authority.” The other is pluralistic ‘polyarchism.’ According to this view, genuine political actors are willing to recognize the right of others to disagree with them, and so of the necessity of negotiating (my emphasis) with them, with compromise being the goal of such negotiations.

Blattberg identifies Pierre Trudeau as the political philosopher most reponsible for the acceptance of monarchism in modern Canadian political life. (Throughout the text, he expresses what almost amounts to contempt for Trudeau, characterising him as elitist, among other things.) The problem with monarchist models for political discourse is that they do not lead to a “genuine form” of political dialogue, since pleading “…has no place for back-and-forth, the real exchanges between, and so changes, to interlocutors, that is essential to it.” Blattberg does not think we are much better off with pluralistic polyarchism, since negotiation requires the making of concessions about what we value, so that any negotiated settlement will be “marred by compromise” and hence lead to disappointment.

But there is an alternative to the flawed models of political discourse criticized above. Blattberg calls this model patriotic, and defines it as follows: patriotic politics assumes a holistic view of political society, which means that even conflicting actors in such a society share a ‘common good,’ one which may be open to being transformed in a way beneficial to all. In patriotic politics, the form of political dialogue meant to deal with conflict is not pleading or negotiation, but conversation. The goal of conversation is not merely to accommodate differences, but to truly reconcile them, “much like dancers striving to move together in harmony with the music.”

After recounting the nature of the different communities which in the past were in political conflict with each other, and doing the same sort of thing in a contemporary setting, Blattberg applies patriotic politics to pressing political problems of the day (in chapter 5, Who We Could Be) including the issue of Quebec separation. He argues that a harmonization of two goods held in common by the conflicting parties can be achieved through conversation, not negotiation. One way to do this is to show, for example, that the idea of ‘equal treatment’ for all citizens may not contradict the notion of special status for certain provinces. Blattberg then suggests that the Canadian state has room in it for at least three ‘nations’: English Canadian, Québecois, and Aboriginal.

More than once Blattberg says that many people might find his view that serious political conflict can be resolved through patriotic conversation to be naive. But since political philosophy is supposed to involve an account of how political matters ought to be arranged, a certain degree of idealism or even naiveté does not strike me as a fatal flaw. What does concern me is Blattberg’s assumption that the locus of politics, and especially political conflicts, resides in groups and not individuals. He constantly speaks of group identities, frequently asking questions about who “we” are, and comes close to hypostasising these groups by speaking as if they could, literally, have hopes, dreams, desires. But Blattberg’s best analogies are ones which involve the problems that friends might face living in the same house. They are about individuals reconciling, not groups. Whatever the deficiencies of liberal individualism, people who are attracted to it, even the much maligned Trudeau, have the satisfaction of knowing that those whom they designate as political actors really exist, and that by taking group affiliation as morally irrelevant they are perhaps lessening one of the notorious possible consequences of such identifications – racism. mRb

Dr. Kenneth Alan Milkman is affiliated with the Department of Philosophy at Dawson College.



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