Van Herk: Is defiance of authority embedded in the DNA of Albertans? – Calgary Herald

Posted: May 9, 2021 at 11:14 am

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A western farmer comes home one afternoon to discover that a hailstorm has destroyed his crop, his farmhouse has been struck by lightning, his wife has run off with his brand-new truck, and his dog has had a close encounter with a skunk. He shakes his fist at the sky, and shouts, God damn the CPR!

Aside from what that old joke might imply about the Canadian Pacific Railway and certainly not to target agriculturalists, it reflects a trait fuelling Alberta polarization: the blame game. Instead of taking personal responsibility, the now common reaction of many is to locate a person or entity or political party to blame, and then yell, demonize and disobey, as if posturing will relieve the situation at hand. The effect is to escalate disaffection and goad extreme ideological valences.

Although such polarization is not more terrifying than COVID, it merits inspection and consideration.

Increasingly difficult to resist are sweeping generalizations or totalizing comparisons. The temptation to characterize Alberta on the basis of its leanings has infected not only this province but our reputation and our future, which is dependent on global inter-relationality. Tinfoil hat craziness is not Albertas dominant trait, but we are being watched and judged by the rest of the world, from those who take science seriously to those who buy our resources and those who evaluate our credit rating.

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Whose fault is it? asks the wrong question. Its said that a moderate Albertan is an oxymoron. And Albertans are a disobedient lot. At least thats what it looks like from the outside, with rogue rodeos, patio proliferation and mask malfeasance.

Is the mutinous Albertan a premise that we need to reject (our new pass-phrase)? Better to say that we are disputatious, stubborn and over-certain of the direction we think is best, even when the GPS suggests another route to enable us to avoid heading straight to hell in a handbasket. Not a charming trait, and not one to be proud of.

Is defiance embedded in Albertas history, part of our current DNA? Surely pugnacity carried people through subsequent waves of wealth and depression, moments when we needed to survive getting hailed out, flooded out, burned out, or eaten by grasshoppers, riding the boom-and-bust bronc until we bite the dust. Which is, as any rodeo rider knows, inevitable.

Are Albertans subscribers to democracy and the rule of law or have they signed up for some metaphorical wild west and the Deadwood motto of no law at all. We are not South Dakota in 1876. But this is 2021, and Alberta claims to be cosmopolitan, socially aware and innovative.

So, what are the factors behind some Albertans lack of compliance? Is the debate about restrictions key or are they deflections, pawns in an extended political game of prisoners base? Ignorance feeds on blame, finger-pointing, fear-mongering and bad behaviour.

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Step back and examine the history that might suggest where our headstrong recalcitrance originates. Indigenous peoples for centuries figured out to thrive in a challenging landscape and climate and continue to teach us about resilience. Ranchers and settler colonists came to this part of the west packing both optimism and foolhardiness, and while some got discouraged and left, those who stayed subscribed to an obdurate form of survival that although admirable, is not always ideal.

Albertas history is a mixture of intolerance and tolerance, empathy and sectarianism. At the turn of the 20th century, Alberta opened up to a wild proliferation of religions that fed a fundamentalist version of Alberta as a Christian utopia. Such old patterns persist despite contemporary times, much as they are at odds with actual practice.

Augment that history with an economic boom that gave Albertans the idea that we deserve wealth, and we have a population (for all that, we once celebrated a high percentage of post-secondary degrees) dogged by a combination of ignorance and understandable frustration about job loss, insecurity and unpredictability.

We appear to have subscribed to an alluring exceptionalism, a belief that Alberta is special, when surely that myth is except for our stunning landscape baseless. And our forward-looking next year country strategy has pivoted (sorry) to the impatient immediacy of right now country.

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One identifiable problem is that ready access to variant sources of information, some more accurate than others, has fostered the idea that truth itself is a variable. In the echo chamber of social media and click-whipping headlines, it is only too easy to find an article or study that will support the wildest of conjectures. Everybodys become an expert and science is just an opinion, a point of view.

Nor does what-aboutism contribute to knowledge or problem-solving stratagems for moving forward. Comparisons need to have some symmetry. Believe it or not, Alberta is not Israel; Alberta is not Texas.

A propellant too is the anonymity mask, online platforms where people feel free to make wild assertions, whether factual, abusive or threatening. Blame, finger-pointing and ideology do not promote social cohesion.

Mix in the clamour of Alberta Rights, and how refusing to follow the rule of law, whether masking or distancing, contributes to public churn and disquiet, which readily escalates to violence.

Non-compliance ultimately has little to do with freedom or personal responsibility but relies on a radical conception of personal autonomy at the expense of the weak and vulnerable. Dissent as a stance taken by those who believe that any perspective has merit contributes not to freedom but to illness and death, which hurts all Albertans, and not just in terms of public health, but our cultural well-being and our economic future.

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How then to locate this disruptive unruliness? For all the noise, most Albertans are more taciturn than the provocateurs, and most readily obey public health requirements. Those protesting do not represent the majority and most Albertans know that no rights are absolute if their exercise harms others.

But the question remains. Is so-called mavericity a rationale for the lack of compliance that a certain sector feels entitled to engage? Some may choose to believe so, although the situation we find ourselves in now is very different from fire, flood, or drought, those sudden acts of God.

This contest is not against weather, markets or natural disasters that cannot be predicted. This fight is against a wily virus. More than 2,100 deaths in this province certify that fact. It is spread by humans. It is airborne. It is invisible. With every transmission, it adapts, learning how to mutate. A tricky scourge, this virus is outsmarting us by using the very vehicle that humans themselves offer.

Time for a reset, Alberta. Non-compliance is neither heroic resistance nor visionary, but foolish and short-sighted.

We are not in a Monty Python skit where the cry of Bring out your dead is a fine joke.

Vaccines will not save us if we insist on stupidity or we feel entitled to vent our frustrations with a rebel yell. We are in a pandemic, and if we do not work together, casket makers and dirt will benefit most.

Aritha van Herk is an English professor at the University of Calgary and a writer of fiction and non-fiction, including Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta.

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Van Herk: Is defiance of authority embedded in the DNA of Albertans? - Calgary Herald

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