Ask Canadians about their priorities for government spending, and funding for the arts and culture will turn up near the bottom of their hit parade (it routinely wrestles for last place with foreign aid). Anyone intimately involved in the sector, however, knows that the response of the “average” citizen masks deep differences within the population on the deemed importance of public support for the arts and culture. While the wisdom of funding symphonies, book publishers, museums and their ilk may be lost on the masses, legions of cultural bureaucrats, mavens and volunteers seem to spend their days lobbying policy-makers on the need for more funds for the arts. In fact, while it is rarely in the forefront of public debate, there may well be no single issue that divides elites and the general public more than this question.

The arguments in support of cultural funding, however, are many, varied, rarely coherent and most often revolve around questions as to which constituency within the arts and cultural community is in most need of, or would benefit most from, this support. Rarely stated, but always implicit, is the premise that Canadian culture (at least at this point) is not economically or commercially viable. Not even whispered, however, is the underlying belief that the average Canadian is not sufficiently interested in any of these forms of cultural expression to pay — either through taxes or at the box office — for our creator community, cultural industries or the public institutions that exhibit and host cultural events.

No matter how often, and with what force, our public health officials assure us that we should not panic in the face of the SARS outbreak, their message is bound to fall on skeptical ears. That is because the basis for fear has little to do with rationality or reason, and instead appears embedded in deep cultural anxieties that have become a central part of the modern, Western world.

Of all the questions I have posed in polling throughout the years, perhaps my favourite is: “If someone told you something was safe and someone else told you it was unsafe, which one would you believe?” A very small minority (10 per cent) reported they would believe that this (undefined) something was safe, and 22 per cent had the common sense to declare that it would depend on who was doing the telling and what they were talking about. But the vast majority — fully 68 per cent — would accept the message of doom and gloom. That gives us a penetrating insight into the nature of fear and our reaction to the possibilities of exposure to risk.

The accepted wisdom following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was that Canadians would forge a much closer bond with Americans. Out of the twin impulses of empathy and threat, we would see our common interests aligned and our destiny linked within the boundaries of our shared continent.

What a difference a year can make. Our 2002 year-end poll indicates that, far from drawing closer together, Canadians are expressing a growing desire to chart a distinct path, independent of our neighbours to the south. Over the past year, we have seen the number of Canadians who describe the United States as “family” or “best friends” shrink by a third — to only one in five — as the vast majority have come to characterize our relationship as either “friends, but not especially close” or “cordial but distant.”

Similarly, since we last asked this question in 1999, the percentage who believe we are “mainly” or “essentially” different from Americans has grown to a significant majority of 57 per cent.

We also see a solid sentiment that the United States is acting like a bully and a majority who fear that “we are losing our independence to the United States.” In policy terms, these underlying beliefs have created a population that is unconvinced that Iraq warrants attack; that has serious misgivings about supporting our allies in any assault on Saddam Hussein done outside the sanction of the United Nations; and that is unprepared to follow the U.S. lead in rejecting the Kyoto accord.

When Gross Domestic Product goes up, the media and citizenry have been conditioned to shout hosannas. Yet in the backrooms somewhere, decision-makers could be looking at these same robust growth figures with concern, fearing the economy may be overheating and creating the conditions for higher inflation. At some point, if these signals become too alarming, central bankers will raise their interest rates and — presto! — your mortgage payment just went up. In this way, we use indicators of economic growth to generate a series of non-economic policies and outcomes.

Whether this is good economic policy or not has been debated for decades. What is rarely discussed outside academics circles, however, is whether these indicators of progress actually give us the right guidance to create the society we collectively want. The implications go far beyond mere economics or the arcana of economic measurement. Competing views of the world — each justified by how we measure progress — play a part in the real world of public policy and public choice.

When Marx prophesized the withering away of the state, I doubt he could have imagined the vacuum would be filled by the private sector. Yet as governments have recoiled from their traditional activist role, the private sector has assumed ever more responsibility, not only for economic prosperity but also for “the social good.” McDonald’s is now one of the world’s main providers of playground space. Coca-Cola has emerged among the largest benefactors of scholarships for Hispanics in the U.S. Business figures like Anita Roddick have taken on iconic status as a model of modern-day virtue, by merging the interests of her Body Shop chain with the welfare of Indians in the Amazon rain forest.

In fact, over the past two decades, we have witnessed the systematic blurring of the traditional roles of the public and private sectors. Today, governments are primarily consumed with facilitating initiatives needed to spawn more private-sector productivity, competitiveness and expansion. In the process, the public becomes convinced of government’s irrelevance as it seems to be little more than the handmaiden of business.

Any poll I might care to conduct would find that Canadians, virtually to a person, say they want homelessness eradicated, theenvironment protected and disparities between the richest and poorest reduced. How then do we explain the continued presence of the homeless in our midst? Or the systematic degradation of our environment and scarce resources? The stunning accumulation of individual wealth in the face of Third World poverty? Even more curiously, if this is the kind of society the public truly wants, why is there no hue and cry over the persistence and deepening of these problems?

The answer, it appears, lies in a disconnect that has developed between those things we value and the world we are prepared to tolerate. While huge majorities may give these call-for-action responses in polls, they rarely raise these sentiments in public debate or translate them into direct demands for action. Rather, what we find is a public that has come to accept that the homeless are just “there,” that the deterioration of the environment is part of the normal course of events, and the the wealth gap is just, well, something that exists.

In the three months plus since the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, much has been written about how the events of Sept. 11 forever altered us and the world we live in. There is no question the terrorist attacks traumatized Canadians. They brought us closer to our families; made us recognize that Canada cannot shirk its military responsibilities; forced us to look beyond the comforts of our borders; and drove home the fact that the world is, and for some time will continue to be, a dangerous place.

For some, this trauma also has lent new importance to religious beliefs. Others are questioning the wisdom of pursuing the holy grail of more material possessions. Cynical for decades about government’s ability to forge a common good, we now fully support Canadian and U.S. initiatives in the war on terrorism and, while we worry that the hostilities could escalate, we’re prepared to back a long military effort and, if necessary, see it expand into other regions of the globe.

If politicians are sometimes slow to learn from their mistakes, they almost always learn from their successes. Nowhere has this been more true than in the case of Jean Chretien. The Prime Minister assumed the highest office in the land in 1993, fully formed and developed as a politician. In his 32 years in office, he has assimilated a deep understanding of the inner workings of government and a keen sense of Canada and Canadians. This tutelage has taught him that the electorate he serves eschews extremism and instead values order, calm and stability. Over the years, he has adjusted his style and approach to government accordingly.

In a period of growing cynicism about politicians and diminishing expectations of the ability of government to solve problems, he has chosen incrementalism over vision. He does not anticipate problems; he nibbles away at their edges, as they arise. He may rattle his sabre at his enemies in public, but then will bend over backwards to find consensus behind closed doors. His ministers and caucus, who owe their position and victories to him, have marched in time with his slow, tempered drumming and adopted this style as their own. Three successive electoral wins have reinforced the wisdom of his approach.

Few who have observed Mike Harris would describe him as inspirational, charismatic or visionary. The Ontario premier, who announced last week that he will step down as soon as his Progressive Conservative party chooses a successor, is a common, straightforward man of solid middle-class stock who takes pride in a no-nonsense, practical approach to problems. Yet, over a six-year tenure, he changed Canada’s most unchangeable province in a way it hadn’t experienced in five decades.

When Harris assumed office in 1995, his government inherited a $10-billion deficit and an electorate who believed their affairs had been badly mismanaged by Liberals and New Democrats for eight years. While voters were looking for little more than stability and good government, Harris had campaigned on a right-of-centre platform that included a pledge to keep every promise he made. In stark contrast to others who have made similar promises, he did precisely that.

While the details of my activities on Sept. 11 may have differed from those of other Canadians, I doubt my emotions did. Disbelief turned to despair, fear for loved ones and finally a morbid desire to know more — to make sense of a senseless act. The natural response to uncertainty is a desire for closure. Our first-blush instinct of disorientation turned to a hard, cold demand for finality, for retribution; if those who had committed this crime were punished — better yet, annihilated — then the source of our disquiet would be removed and we could return to our previous, blessed lives.

Over the past few weeks, we devoured any morsel of information we could lay our hands on, in the process learning more about the world around us than ever before. And, as we waited for war, we discovered that there was not going to be any quick and easy solution to our unease.

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