Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
February 28, 2000
Citizens now responsible for the common good
"A century from now," wrote Lillian Smith optimistically in her 1954 The Journey, "men may think it strange that we so long spoke of our times as the age of anxiety; that we let the greed of ordinary men and the power lust of dictators and demagogues get out of bounds even for a brief span of years; for parallel with the anxiety and terror and the inquisitors and exploiters and the awful poverty and ignorance there is another way of building firmly, steadily, swiftly on scientific facts and techniques and on men's newly-discovered humility and dignity and on their concern for each other."
We cannot live without hope, for in despair the seeds of death are already present. We know there has to be a better way and all our lives are spent hoping for what is not yet.
Weary of a war-filled, inflation-ridden first half of the century, humanity was anxious to believe that human suffering could be abolished with advanced science, modern technology and political will. Surely, peace with justice would finally become a reality.
And indeed, from the ruins of war emerged a deep desire to create a more humane world.
Disparity was identified as the main cause of conflict. Society found the means and political will to diminish the gap between rich and poor through the welfare state, so brilliantly conceived by John Maynard Keynes.
Technology eased our reliance on hard physical labour. Science discovered new ways to cure debilitating diseases.
Medicare, a new way of being responsible for each other, made health care universally available. In Canada this hope-filled social gospel was preached by the irrepressible Tommy Douglas.
Internationally, new norms were being formulated which, if implemented, would go a long way toward eliminating the need for war. Respect for human dignity was defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
What Keynes did for the nation state, he tried to accomplish on a global scale. Before the war had even ended, the nations of the "free world," gathered in Bretton Woods to institute the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Whatever we think of these institutions now, it is well to remember that the original objective was "to create greater equality between North and South through development and short-term trade finance." The world was going to be a better place to live.
Or was it?
What Lillian Smith could not envision in 1954 was the tyranny of global finance, the power lust of mega-merger monopolies and the terror of privatization for profit. Ever since the Second World War, western capitalism has been in a constant process of attempting to regulate international trade and investment through multilateral agreements favouring the investors.
This process has widened the gap between rich and poor and threatens the survival of the planet itself. It has also threatened democracy in a way Smith could not foresee.
"In a great many cases," according to the 1999 Hague Appeal for Peace Conference, "the world's governments have manifestly failed to fulfill their responsibility to prevent conflict, protect civilians, end war, eradicate colonialism, guarantee human rights and create the conditions of permanent peace."
"This historic mission and responsibility," the document continues, "cannot be entrusted solely to governments." It therefore proposes a Citizen's Agenda for Peace and Justice for the 21st century.
When governments sell out to self-interest then citizens have to assume responsibility and defend the common good. It is already happening.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.