Who will bell the country?


Disagreements, rancour, failure to compromise – I suspect there are times when we all wish there were another way to govern, wish there were another system. But our inability to come up with a suitable alternative mirrors the problem. Even if we could imagine other solutions, it’s unlikely we would ever agree on the one to pick. Should it be majority rule; rule of the most influential; a meritocracy, a benevolent dictator…? Who would we trust to decide… and who would bell the cat, to quote an old Aesop’s fable?

Well, to start with, it might be wise to insist that whoever is chosen should be open for reconsideration at intervals in case they prove inadequate for the job; if they’re good -they stay; if not -they’re out. But of course they may not want to go…

And anyway, we all realize that the interval sets the goals; long term goals are unlikely to be considered if, like medicine to a child, it has an unpleasant taste. It has an even different significance for those for whom any significant benefits will not be realized until after they have died -unpopular efforts to mitigate climate change are a glaring example. Still, what is our responsibility to those who have yet to be born -especially if it entails suffering and sacrifice from those of us still here? Surely it’s up to any future descendants to cope with what presents itself -just like we had to cope with what we were left. That does seem terribly selfish, though, don’t you think…?

But wait a minute. Perhaps we’re starting with the wrong credentials: we’ve been assuming most of us act out of self-interest -whether or not we define that as our group, or our political party, the interest can be a relatively narrow one. And yet there are other models we admire: think of the way members of a team think about each other -the All Blacks rugby team for example with their Haka, and their pride in the team: a togetherness…

I suppose what I’m referring to is the social cohesive concept of Asabiyyah. Although often recognized as a Muslim concept, in fact it pre-dates Islam. And it does not necessarily refer to tribalism, or partisanship. As Wikipedia reports, it was popularized by the 14th century philosopher Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddimah, ‘in which it [Asabiyyah] is described as the fundamental bond of human society and the basic motive force of history… Ibn Khaldun argued that asabiyyah is cyclical and directly related to the rise and fall of civilizations: it is strongest at the start of a civilization, declines as the civilization advances, and then another more compelling asabiyyah eventually takes its place to help establish a different civilization.’ As he sees it, asabiyyah is ‘the bond of cohesion among humans in a group-forming community. The bond exists at any level of civilization, from nomadic society to states and empires.’

In other words, there may be something greater that we could be tapping into, although I’m not sure exactly how to characterize it –Pride, I suppose, but a pride that transcends partisan groups and looks to a larger cohesion as its leitmotif. I don’t think it would translate as nationalism per se either, nor any of the ‘isms’ we normally append to largely partisan ideas that usually separate us into discrete sections. Solidarity perhaps comes closer to its meaning.

So, how then do we apply the concept to governing? As Ibn Khaldun might see it, a government could tap into this sense of social solidarity, in the same way a village might rally to help its members: encourage its citizens to believe that they all share something in common. And no matter how else they may identify themselves, they are all Canadians, say, or Americans, or Azerbaijanis -whatever.

Naïve? Perhaps… and yet sometimes we all need reminding of what makes us a country -a world?- that consists of more than individuals each going their own separate way; we need each other in many ways -in fact we are each other. It might pay to encourage that thought from time to time. It’s what a leader can do –should do- if they have the public’s trust…

But, ingenuous and unworkable as that may seem, I think we all yearn for it deep inside somewhere -kids seem to know it right away it seems.

Catherine came home from school late one day, her face beaming even more than usual. She was wearing the new pair of red jeans her mother had bought for her, along with her favourite grey polka-dotted sweatshirt, but she also sported a battered and torn greenish baseball cap that I didn’t recognize. It’s not that I know each and every article of clothing she owns -her mother probably does- but the cap looked distinctly out of place. Cath doesn’t even play baseball.

“Guess what we did today, daddy,” she said as soon as she ran through the door and hugged me.

I pretended I already knew. “You joined a baseball team?”

She rolled her eyes, and put her hands on her hips just like she’d seen her mother do. “No, silly…” She walked past me and into the kitchen to pour a glass of milk. “I hate baseball,” she added over her shoulder as she carefully put the empty glass on the counter. She was an adult now -Grade three does that to kids.

“No, we went on a field trip to a sports club that helps poor kids from another school,” she said, coming back into the room with cold milk rimed around her lips.

“That’s nice,” I said. “What did you do there…?”

She shrugged innocently. “We took them some sports stuff Mister Wilson said they needed. That’s why I’m a bit late getting home.”

“Oh… Mr. Wilson -is he your gym teacher?”

She nodded her head vigorously. “Yeah, apparently he coaches them in the evenings…” She seemed quite blasé about it. “He likes baseball…”

“That’s really nice that he’d do that, don’t you think?”

She shrugged again, this time rather theatrically. “He said they’d do the same for us if they had something we needed… And anyway, they’re kids,” she added with a twinkle in her eye. “Just like us…”.

“Is that how you got your cap…?” I asked, with a little smile forming on my face.

“Yeah. A kid there named Jimmy said he didn’t really wear it anymore, and he thought it looked good on me.” She took it off and looked at it admiringly, and then placed it carefully back on her head. “What do you think, Daddy?”

“I think he’s right, sweetheart… I think you’re both so right…”

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