Professor Ryan Alford captivated the Ottawa audience on November 10, 2022 with the inaugural Diefenbaker Lecture. He quoted from memory the “Diefenbaker Pledge,”
“I am a Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.”
Alford noted that the pledge reveals the nature of the relationship between a free Society and the concept of Rights. It reveals freedom from fear, the right to oppose, the concept of belief and the idea that freedom is consistent with government and being governed if one has the right to choose the people that govern.
The Professor noted that Diefenbaker spoke those words in 1960. Referencing the cliché “the past is like a foreign country they do things differently there,” in 1960 a lot of things were being done differently. It was a time of great upheaval as noted by the poem by Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom Philip Larkin, entitled Annus Mirabilis,
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
The reference was the sexual Revolution and the “expressive individualism,” which coloured the way that we think about Freedom ever since. “When we think about Freedom,” Alford said, “we think, ‘what can I do that I could not have done previously? Am I truly free from all restraint?”
That concept of Freedom was very different than what Diefenbaker talked about “a scant three years earlier.”
When thinking of Freedom of Speech, Prof. Alfred referenced a case in Montreal in 1968 involving a strip club that set up a sound system outside of their club so that passers by could hear ongoing commentary of what was happening in the club. The City of Montreal said it was offensive. “Who are you to say that we shouldn’t be doing this?”
Since 2015 Alford noted that there’s been a very big change in the relationship between not only the concept of Rights but its connection to the concept of a free society as we’ve moved very sharply away from expressive individualism, and it is something entirely novel.
In the 2015 Carter decision of the Supreme Court of Canada that ruled that you cannot have a provision in the Criminal Code that prohibits medical assistance in dying (MAiD). Alfred pointed out that when you see the term “experts in the field of ethics,” your antenna should stick out. Now the experts are saying it is OK for MAiD for severely disabled infants because parents’ consent. The ever expansion of MAiD comes from the judicial expansion of Section 7 of the Charter that was meant to be a criminal procedural right but has now become defined as governing medical ethics. The government is now expanding MAiD to mental illness.
In 2015 the SCC decided the Saskatchewan Federation of Labor case recognised collective bargaining as part of the right of freedom of assembly. Justice Rosalie Abella said the time had come to give the right to strike “constitutional benediction.” The judges elevated themselves to the place where they decide society’s contested values.
“Most of the experts I know,” said Alford, “devote their time to a very narrow field of study and usually what they say is, “I can say something tentatively about this and only this and even that only with many caveats and qualifications.”
Why is our view of politics and Truth and the free Society no longer being derived from the tradition of Freedom that John Diefenbaker pointed to? It has a bit to do with expressive individualism as I introduced it. The notion is what did those people know about anything anyway? Let’s just take Philip Larkin’s poem as a starting point. They didn’t even live in the age of casual sex. I mean their minds must have just been complete full of nonsense that they weren’t doing what we’re doing all the time … if it feels good do it. Then they’d look back at their parents, their grandparents and they see fools. They see people who don’t understand anything about anything. That’s the hubris of Youth. That generation has grown up and unfortunately, it’s never really come to terms with this, because they have the notion that there is nothing to be learned from the past. It’s all just rank superstition. What do we have to learn from John Diefenbaker? The man didn’t even have Facebook!
When you hear that speech and when you read the Canadian Bill of Rights, he’s making his case for why you should listen to him because he’s drawing upon these body of principles many of which are biblical but also in the common law elsewhere. Not that those are watertight compartments but he’s saying that’s where my wisdom comes from. Nowadays truth is not determined by reference to what had been done in the past, it’s not even in reference to the present the way it was in the period of expressive individualism. It is determined by reference to the future. In the future we want to see this, we want this to be realized so therefore this is how things should be interpreted now and if you disagree you are high to bound. We are building this beautiful utopian society one might even say we’re building a tower that will reach to the heavens. We’re thinking that once we complete that we will have achieved the fully automated luxury communism. We’re going to have a wonderful society and we’re not going to have to worry about all of those problems caused by people clinging to the past; by people refusing to let go of their traditions; people refusing to let go of their right to worship God as they so choose. They are obstacles to progress, getting in the way of the future.
Using your freedom responsibly now means that you use them for the benefit of the utopian vision. This is much the same way communist countries would interpret their constitutional rights. When the people exercised them they were put on trial for doing so because they used them inappropriately. Such failure meant you were insane and put into psychiatric hospitals.
Professor Alford recommended Darkness at Noon by Arthur Kessler because Kessler accepts all of that logic at face value, being a former communist, and he takes it to its logical terminus. “It is absolutely chilling,” Alford notes, “we haven’t quite gotten there yet but we’re starting to accept this logic that people’s freedoms can be judged by whether or not they are being used in the service of the public good. Frequently on social media I’ll see this retort floating around, freedom is spelled, ‘f-r-e-e-d-u-m-b’. Basically saying, ‘look at how stupid they are in the way that they use their freedoms well this person isn’t trying to do this for the purpose of some sort of idiosyncratic self-expression, they’re attempting to be part of the political process.”
The point is that the utopians know before they hear your argument that “I know that you’re stupid because the experts have told me that that you shouldn’t be using your freedom in that way. That’s irresponsible and we put that on the scale of proportionality analysis we can see how wrong it is, so dangerous.”
This kind of thinking has led to many rejecting the wisdom of some of the great academics who spoke out against the COVID-19 narratives. For example, Joseph Epstein, of the University of Chicago was pilloried for challenging the methodology that the “experts” were prognosticating. Yet, as Alford pointed out, “if anybody qualifies [as an expert] it would be Professor Joseph Epstein but nevertheless he was cast out very quickly. He was thrown under the bus.… Of course, he wasn’t 100 correct but he never claimed to be he claimed to be advancing a discussion about how we could determine truth he was using his freedom of speech to help us to have a political determination on a question that’s not really subject to balancing. That question is this: how much of your Liberty are you going to abandon to prevent the spread of a deadly disease? If you ask that question or if you point out that these things can’t be balanced no matter how well credentialed you are, you will have labels affixed to you. All I said is those things can’t be balanced. I didn’t say at the end of a political discussion that you would necessarily come out to one position or the other.
Alford referenced Norman Rockwell’s famous The Four Freedoms paintings during World War II. One of the four is called “Freedom of Speech”. “It’s not about a loudspeaker of a strip club,” noted Alford, “instead what you see is a town meeting of the kind of town meeting that is typical of New England, and you see someone who looks a little rustic who looks perhaps not as wealthy as his neighbors he’s wearing a flannel shirt he’s wearing what looks like a very worn leather jacket. He’s standing up in the meeting and he’s grasping the Pew in front of him. It’s obviously a church and he’s standing up and he starts looking up perhaps at the diocese and he’s speaking his mind and he’s just saying it without fear and the people around him are interested in what he has to say. They are according him respect despite the fact that they’re mainly dressed in jacket and tie.”
Alford notes that the audience in the painting recognizes that the gentlemen is saying something worthwhile. It is a depiction of freedom of speech and political participation. It says a lot about the nature of rights.
Things have changed said Alford. The concept of Truth has now become consumed within the concept of expressive individualism.
Until recently we understood that the search for Truth was bound up in the process of disputation. Truth is discovered by allowing everyone the opportunity to speak and challenge ideas. It goes back to Socrates – the wise man who was wise enough to know that he did not know everything.
Models of Truth that led us to the scientific method that even if something is made in an argument based on the opinions of the wise it must be tested through dialogue. It must be the subject of a process in which it is rigorously tested by being challenged and only then can you even tentatively accept it as something to which you should pay heed.
Sir Andrew Wiles solving of Fermat’s Last Theorem, for example, is not based on one’s opinion. Rather it is several hundred pages of very dense mathematical wort subjected to an incredible amount of testing and determined to be completely seamless and without flaw so we now know that for any natural number greater than one, the sum of any two cubes will not be itself a cube.
Mathematic logic on the one hand and rhetoric on the other. For one there is absolute Truth for the other is everyone’s opinion is as valuable as everyone else’s.
The process for truth requires a political process allowing vigorous debate to arrive at that which is valuable. “We have seen so many instances where we shortcut this process,” notes Alford, “and things go very, very, wrong but increasingly we’re seeing this at the end of the period of expressive individualism. We now have a period where we’re now told, ‘well it’s very easy to determine what the truth is and it’s not what you hippies say, no, it’s about what the experts tell you. Listen to ‘The Experts’, they know the truth.’ You can almost hear when it’s spoken aloud [they are referring to] the capital letter. You can almost hear the capital “S” in the word “Science”, sometimes with the definite article, “The Science.””
Now if you know anything about this concept of truth that guided us for literally Millennia it was the notion that even in science things are not conclusively proven true because science is not mathematics and it’s not logic. Science at its core – the method involves the rejection of the full hypothesis. Which is to say based on an experiment you know something to be false. Scientific theories if they are to be accepted are falsifiable. They are not true and they’re not trueifiable. The paradigms that we create out of them last until a more sophisticated Paradigm comes along.
Unfortunately, when we hear experts tell us what the “truth” is and how truth works that’s going to have a very strong impact on the concept of rights. We are beginning to see that manifest now as it is introduced out of step with expressive individualism.
There is a great discrepancy between what was going on between 1963 and 2015 and what’s going on now when you’re being asked ‘Are you using your freedom responsibly?’ That was not asked of those who were at Woodstock.
We’ve come a long way from the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960. We got the Charter in 1982, “fantastic document almost immediately ruined by its interpretation.” Section 1 called ‘the limitations Clause,’ says the rights are subject to limits consistent with the free and Democratic Society. It does not say how or in what conditions they are limited. The way the judges immediately began interpreting this was radically at variance with the Canadian Bill of Rights because they introduced a proportionality test.
There are two key problems with this. If you’re saying it is my right to worship in my own way, and we say, ‘Well, that’s subject to reasonable limitations.’ You tell me if it’s reasonable that we tell Orthodox Jews that they cannot hold a minion at a funeral because they do not have enough adult males under the social distancing guidelines. How can we determine whether that is reasonable via purportedly a test of proportionality where we will put on one side of the scales some sort of epidemiological risk?
Alford closed his talk with this anecdote:
I was talking to the cab driver when I drove in here and he said that cabinet ministers could be seen walking throughout Ottawa during the Freedom Convoy. He saw minister Freeland walking on Sparks Street.
That hasn’t always been the case. Did you know that a Cabinet member was shot to death, assassinated on Sparks Street? In 1868, Thomas Darcy McGee was walking down Sparks Street and he was shot dead by a Fenian. McGee was born in Ireland. For a long time, he was a radical republican, but he came to believe that despite all the prejudice against Irish Canadians and Catholics in the 19th Century that [Canada] was still his best chance. All he had to do was to convince the powers that be to live up to their own words He didn’t believe in the kind of future that the Fenians had in mind which involved a revolutionary uprising in Ireland that was going to bring Ireland back to a strange Utopia where people no longer spoke English.
McGee’s funeral in Montreal was the largest funeral in Canadian history because people understood the pathos of someone who had been excluded all of his life from all of the guarantees of freedom who nevertheless saw the value of the heritage of freedom and said, “I am going to say that we should be able to speak our minds that we should be able to participate in the political process and I believe in that process. I’m going to hold people to that promise that is the core of political power not saying I feel ashamed of all these rights that I’ve inherited.
Finally, freedom, truth, and the free Society, is maintained by two simple things: one, realize that as a citizen you have the right to speak, to believe and to oppose; and second, no one can tell you that you’re not doing that appropriately.
My advice to you would be to see those ideas outside of the frame of expressive individualism and put it in the frame of political participation because if you don’t do it, and more importantly if you feel shamed into not doing it freedoms that you abandon today will be the freedoms that your grandchildren never knew that we even had because history itself is now in the balance. Thank you. [Applause]