For the past three decades, global politics and religion have moved relentlessly toward an increasing conservatism, and in many cases, to the extreme far right. This is true not only in Canada, the U.S., the European Community, Israel, Australia, and New Zealand, for example, but also through most of the developing world, including many Arab and Muslim nations.
Today, centrist and left-of-centre political parties and policy making are almost non-existent. And with a correspondingly high concentration of international media in the hands of a powerful few, news and editorial resources in both developing and developed countries have also taken an extreme turn to the right. Where liberal or moderate reform movements once held the high ground in politics and religion, dangerous fanaticism and extremism are now the order of the day. These changes are not making our world a better place and should be of great concern to all who care about the meaning of civil society and basic human decency.
The mounting influence of the extreme right has been particularly evident in the U.S. and all across Europe — Italy and Austria being obvious examples of a swelling regional neo-conservatism. Even in the U.K., the once-activist Labour party is sliding fast to the right.
Similarly, in Europe the influence of the extreme right has edged its way to centre-stage prominence from the political fringes, fuelled by a recent wave of hostility toward immigrants, particularly those from the developing, or Third World. Among them, Arabs and Muslims have been singled out for growing negative attention. Extreme right political parties have cynically blamed rising European unemployment on all non-Caucasian immigrants.
As well, right-wingers have been working overtime and at astonishing speed, to marginalize indigenous and aboriginal people everywhere, along with the poor, the needy, the sick, the disabled, the elderly, the uneducated, and the unskilled. With each passing day, there seems less and less room in society for old-fashioned virtues such as tolerance, acceptance, and compassion. Full-blown tribalism is back and it is not a credit to modern humanity.
In our so-called democratic West, right-wingers use propaganda, expensive public relations firms, intimidation, coercion, and even outright lies, to achieve their goals. The political right, which continually invests in refining its multi-media image, is bolstered every time a centrist critic is silenced and “cleansed” out of the system.
Why has neo-conservatism developed such an appeal among the influential middle and upper-middle classes? It has been simply by cutting taxes to lure support in the short term — even at the expense of greatly increasing government deficits, as has happened recently in the U.S. The conservative far right has even drawn in working class people and poverty-liners by blaming immigrants for their low income and unemployment conditions.
Take one serious national issue facing both Canada and the U.S., as a potent example — the future care of our steadily aging, longer-living populations. You’d think that public health care would be enhanced and the immigration of young, skilled workers promoted as a logical investment in everyone’s future. You might even ask why there is no proactive immigration policy aimed at doubling Canada’s skilled working population over the next two decades when the boomer “age crunch” is sure to hit. Yet in both health care and immigration, powerful right-wing politics have resulted in regressive measures.
In the U.S., care of the elderly is left for the most part to charities — despite the fact that the majority of donated American dollars do not go into direct services for the country’s poor and needy. American churches receive about 43 per cent of all national charitable contributions, which in 1999 totaled $190 billion. A surprisingly large proportion of those funds are spent on traditional (some would say outdated) evangelism — trying to convert countries like Iraq to Christianity, while neglecting the work of Christ among nominally Christian American inner-city neighborhoods.
Immersed in the individualistic and competitive gospel of “the American way,” the political and religious right are proud that in the coming century, the U.S. government will no longer take responsibility for providing quality elder care, economic assistance to the impoverished, or basic shelter for the homeless. Tragically, the selfish and elitist myth of “the American way” has attracted a growing number of right wingers, even within historically liberal Canadian politics.
The neo-conservative right rejects any government mandate to provide basic economic security to its citizens through the models of the social safety net or the universal provider (welfare state). In the U.S. today, the role of government is increasingly restricted to that of providing material security, both economically and militarily — not for the individual citizen, but for rich and powerful multinational corporations. American right-wingers worry far more about rising Social Security, Medicare, and environmental costs, than about the vastly greater costs of the country’s escalating national defense budget.
These neo-conservative trends must be reversed before it’s too late. The dangers of the political and religious right to the well-being of all North Americans must be exposed. Our collective apathy, especially among young adults (both Canadian and American), cannot continue. Only 2 per cent of all Canadians belong to a political party; the percentage is even lower among the young. Among Canadians who do not practice any religion, many more will have to become active in helping to manage and support religious institutions that care for the most vulnerable and needy members of society.
It is up to centrist Canadians to act in preserving every liberal party and government policy in this country from the relentless onslaught of the right. The battle will be daunting and long, for the right-wingers have money, media and influence on their side. But it can — and must — be won, for the good of this country and its future.
Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.