May 2005

by Barry Stagg

The Old Stone Cross

The dilemma of Conservatives in Canada is a classic one, inquired of at length by Yeats in The Old Stone Cross . "'A statesman is an easy man" is a mocking cry to Stephen Harper as the governors of his society gather around him, dedicated to his downfall. The lines of this sublime poem explain the predicament that Stephen Harper endures as the summer arrives in a perplexed Canada.

The middle power status of Canada produces an attitude of neutral complacency. Prosperity, born out of the proximity to the great power of the United States, gives way to a comic book arrogance. The elite convince themselves that their ascendancy is due to their inherent high quality instead of the more prosaic explanation of having a wealthy neighbour with a high demand for Canadian products.

Any effort to disabuse the elite and their followers of this notion is met with derision and quickly enough, condemnation. Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party put forth that the federal government's social and economic arrangements are an inefficient and wasteful contrivance. They say that the existing government is doomed to grow so unwieldy and costly of public resources that in time, fast approaching, the entire treasury will be commandeered to merely run the apparatus of government without the actual provision of services.

It is in the condemnation of Stephen Harper that the allegorical reference to Yeats takes shape. The educated wisdom of Mr. Harper is rejected and he is personally deplored because he dares to question the basic prejudices and biases of a comfortable and prosperous hegemony. In the case of Canada in the spring of 2005, the leader of the Official Opposition is attacked for daring to state that this country cannot endure the self-serving inefficiencies of its ruling classes. When he addresses the obvious evidence of Liberal corruption, he finds himself accused of joining forces with the 'Enemies Of The People'. He is put down for seeking equality between his party and that of the entrenched establishment. In return and retort, the ruling functionaries marshall the media and populist mob to strike down his advances as being essentially unpatriotic.

In the result , at least temporarily, the disgraced regime, morally and intellectually decrepit, is able to survive another day, secure at least in its entirely predictable ability to mobilize the supporters of the status quo in a profane but effective counterattack. The injustices wreaked upon the land by the wielders of power are confirmed as virtues by their sycophantic chorus. In Canada, the scorn of the dominant discourse is reserved for Conservatives.

William Butler Yeat's insights expressed eloquently in The Old Stone Cross ring out:
Because this age and the next age
Engender in the ditch,
No man can know a happy man
From any passing wretch;
If Folly link with Elegance
No man knows which is which

The history of Irish politics, as chronicled by its greatest poet, provide such fine comparisons to the present predicament encountered by the new settlers in the northern half of this continent.

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