Reading event: Michael Adams

Michael Adams, Could It Happen Here?

BookShelf Cafe eBar, March 7 2018:

The reading was supposed to start at 5:00 but didn’t get underway until 5:30. I hate to seem a grouch, but this really pissed me off. I mean, 5:00 probably wasn’t a good idea, but that was when it was scheduled to begin and it was when I (and almost everyone else who attended) was there. The delay also meant I couldn’t stay late and talk to Adams afterward, which was disappointing because he seemed quite approachable. Oh well.

Actually this wasn’t a reading. Adams was joined by a colleague at the front who asked a few general questions that he then ran with. This probably worked better than a reading anyway, especially as the stage wasn’t set up for any visual aids to be used and Adams likes to use a lot of charts to make his points.

As for the content, I came away unconvinced. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that I remained uninfected by Adams’s optimism. In answer to the question of whether phenomena like Trump and Brexit could happen in Canada Adams thought it unlikely because our democratic institutions are more resilient and we are a more tolerant nation generally. Well, Trump and Brexit were unlikely too, and I think before they happened most pundits would have said the same comforting things about the stability of the political system and multiculturalism in the U.S. and Britain. This made me question how much time Adams spends wondering if he may be wrong. This is something that anyone who speculates about the possibility of future events should do a lot of.

Adams did acknowledge that what has really kept Canada from tottering over the edge into political extremism is that we’ve been “damn lucky.” Specifically, what I think he meant by this is that we haven’t been impacted by a major economic crisis and we haven’t had to deal with anything like the same issues with immigrations as the U.S. and Europe are facing. That is, indeed, lucky, but how long can such luck last? He also observed how Canada doesn’t have any industrial ghost-towns like you see in the state of New York, but his examples of Ontario success stories — Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, and Peterborough — are all university towns. Their economies are anchored by a lot of good government jobs. How stable and sustainable is that?

There’s nothing wrong with being an optimist but we shouldn’t let it make us complacent. Adams, like a lot of older, successful people, just struck me as too invested in the status quo. This appeared evident in his defence of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which he prefers to proportional representation (PR). He gave Italy and Israel as examples of PR gone wrong, and suggested that FPTP does a good job of keeping the crazies out. But the successes of PR are, I think, more plentiful and more telling, while Adams never adverted to the fact that Trump and Brexit both came about in FPTP systems. My own feeling is that people are drawn toward political extremes when they find the current system to be unresponsive and unrepresentative. This is something FPTP systems double down on. Eventually voters just become fed up and vote for chaos.

Overall I thought it was a good event though. I take a much bleaker view of things than Adams, but that’s OK. Now if only he could have started on time . . .

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