Here’s my post for July 4th. Though it’s a little unconventional of a way to talk about the United States, I choose this Fourth to talk about one of the greatest of Canadian leaders, Joseph Howe of Nova Scotia. Howe was a great fighter for Canadian civil liberties – this film from the National Film Board of Canada describes one of his battles for freedom of the press. He was also the Nova Scotian leader who won for his people the right to what countries with Westminster democracies call “responsible government” – the right to ensure that the executive power be responsible to an elected leadership in Parliament, rather than to the Crown alone. This film, a video of which is provided on this NFB website, gives you a good idea of who Howe was and what he was about.
So what has he got to do with the United States, you might ask? Here’s what.
Joseph Howe, when faced with the unaccountable, secretive and corrupt actions of the executive branch of the government, confronted those actions by publishing the letter of a whistleblower in his newspaper. He was promptly brought up on charges of libel against the government and thus posing a threat to the peace and order of the province.
(Hopefully now that I’ve described it that way, those Americans who are potentially reading me have perked up, since that seems to describe something people are talking about today in matters of US current affairs.)
Howe was told – and indeed it was credible to believe – that the fix was in where his trial was concerned, since a lot of the people in the clique running the province were the same people likely to be passing judgment on him in the trial. Lawyers refused to defend him because they too were convinced the fix was in. So Howe defended himself.
However, any attempt to paint Nova Scotia in the 1830s as a land completely without civil liberties were inaccurate at least in one very important respect – the province, as was normal throughout the British Empire of which the “British North America” of the time was a part, had trial by jury. Thus, however much the magistrates and the judges wanted to sock it to Howe, a jury could set him free. There were many respects in which Nova Scotia in the 1830s was not a wonderful place to live, but trial by jury offered a potential correction to the problem short of revolution.
Joseph Howe was a reformer, not a revolutionary. Indeed, he was, as many people in Canada are, a descendant of those who fled from the American Revolution. That didn’t mean that he had no sense of justice, but it did mean he preferred to use means within the existing system to correct injustices – and he was well aware that, as problematic as life in the Nova Scotia of the day was, the British tradition his province had inherited also contained Magna Carta and parliamentary supremacy as traditions, as well as a clearly developing concept of constitutional monarchy.
What I am saying is that he took his chances that his country could change, rather than accept that the “fix” was in.
I bring this up, because America is now a country where people now routinely concede that a fix is in, rather than acknowledge that the country is home to institutions of justice a large portion of the world wishes it had. (Indeed, I often wonder whether an unwillingness to challenge the system from within it has more to do with the lethargy of a people who have not known much suffering compared to the rest of the world and imagine that no one can suffer more than they do.)
There are many places in the world where the “fix” is far more in than the United States, to be sure. But at least one prominent “whistleblower” today will not take his principled stand in an American court of law – his stand isn’t even really about those principles, but rather an extended play argument about how those principles really are dead in America. He speaks of justice and the American constitution, but he clearly believes America can’t take care of its constitution itself. Reform is not his game – he wants people to rebel against something that cannot be reformed.
So here is the upshot of my message to you this Independence Day – oh how I wish that America were, in this respect, more like Canadians.
Happy July Fourth, Americans. Let your patriotic speech this year be simply this: when Americans decide something needs to change, the fix is never in.