October 4, 2010

Who? Who Are You?

Pierre Trudeau at the polls

Pierre Trudeau at the polls

If I were to ask you who you are, what answer would you give? The answer in this case is difficult because of the lack of context.

There are many possible identities that we might have. Some we choose for ourselves and others people try to impose on us. In the recent debate over the long-gun registry, the prime minister has apparently tried make me understand myself as something called an urban dweller. Urban dwellers are apparently fundamentally at odds with people called farmers who live in rural areas who need long guns to shoot rabbits and gophers. I think it quite reasonable for farmers to shoot rabbits. The rabbit who inhabits my back yard wreaks considerable havoc, though not sufficient to incline me to acquire a rifle and send him to bunny heaven.

Speaking of heaven reminds me that Prime Minister Stephen Harper thinks I’m not a God-fearing Christian and basically that I’m someone who is soft on sin. Indeed from a religious perspective, I am a lot of things. To Jews, I’m a gentile. To Catholics, I’m a Protestant. To Muslims, I’m an unbeliever and to Hindus I’m a monotheist. To atheists, especially Richard Dawkins, I’m simply a fool, and to Stephen Hawking, I’m someone who doesn’t know enough physics.

Even when I am fending off the attempt of others to impose an identity on me, I have to choose my own and that is necessarily a selective process. My mother grew up in Hastings County, was United Church and came from a United Empire Loyalist background. My father was very proud of the fact that he had been born in Toronto of Manx ancestry (a small island in the Irish Sea) with strong Anglican roots.

If you ask me who I am, I’ll tell you that I come from a Manx, United Empire Loyalist background and am an Anglican who was born in British Columbia (even though I left as a very small baby). I suppose that I might think of myself in different terms, but I don’t.

I began thinking about the question of identity and social constructs while I was reading a very well researched and beautifully written biography of Canadian sociologist John Porter by University of Waterloo professor Rick Helmes-Hayes. (Measuring the Mosaic: An Intellectual Biography of John Porter, University of Toronto Press, 2010).

Porter (1921-79) was one of the founders of Canadian sociology and his masterpiece, The Vertical Mosaic (1965), was one of the most important books ever published in that field. What distinguished Porter’s work from his predecessors is that he insisted that class played an important role in Canadian society and Canadian politics. Very few Canadians, then or now, think of themselves in terms of their class. I am sure that there are billionaires in Canada and CEOs with million-dollar salaries who sincerely think of themselves as middle class.

Porter saw through this, not quite with an analysis of class, but with an analysis of what he called elites. He noted that Canadian corporations held enormous power, relying on what used to be called “an old boys network,” members of the elite knew other members of the elite, who scratched other elite backs. Government and bureaucracy were part of the system. When Pierre Trudeau, who was a friend of Porter’s, declared for participatory democracy, he was attacking the vertical mosaic Porter had exposed.

Reflecting on Helmes-Hayes’ book makes me conscious that I’m not part of the elite, but participatory democracy may still be within reach. There is an election within a month. It is up to us to decide if we want to play an active role, or let the elites govern for us.

Watch a CBC interview with John Porter.

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About William Christian

William Christian formerly taught political science at Mount Allison University and the University of Guelph. He has contributed regularly to newspapers for over thirty years. His biography of Canadian philosopher George Grant was a national best-seller. He recently published Parkin: Canada's Most Famous Forgotten Man (Blue Butterfly Books), a biography of Grant's maternal grandfather (and Michael Ignatieff's great-grandfather). He lives in Guelph, Ontario. He tweets at @WEChristian.

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