Can people and societies really change?

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Image: Clay Banks/Unsplash

I watched Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil interviewed by Vassy Kapelos on CBC this week and found it unusual. He looks and sounds like a TV dad from the 1950s when Father Knew Best. He's played dad during COVID-19, scolding citizens who don't follow the rules. He ran a small business for 15 years, became Liberal premier in 2013, and has said he'll step down soon.

He'd just made an official apology to Black and Indigenous Nova Scotians and set up a process to remake the justice system to purge it of -- his term -- systemic racism. Some community figures were withholding participation till they saw more details. Others were angry at a lack of prior consultation.

The interview felt like it lacked the usual talking points. Kapelos would start to interject a question, then realize McNeil was on a kind of internal roll, and instead of saying, "I take your point but ...," she'd pull back and say, "No, go on."

What was he saying? "This is the moment," to act. Less that it's the right thing to do -- since that was always true -- than now is when to do it. Those who he called "the community" will have to take the lead since "I, a privileged white have no idea how."

Governments imposing solutions "has never worked" but "reaching out" to those who've "experienced the harm" will show "the way forward." He's leaving office but no future government "can honestly stand before you" and say "our justice system or our systems are not racist." If they do, "I don't believe they'll be elected … our children will not let that happen."

Reading that over, and considering the reactions, I think there's no way to know for certain whether it's just the usual drivel. The larger question though is, can people (and societies) really change, contrary to what they've always been? In general, no; but sometimes, maybe?

This is a question that also hovers over the U.S. election -- in a society even more mired in racist imbroglios than our own. The impassioned Black protests against the U.S. injustice system, with support from whites, among others, looked ready to revive Trump's chances despite his COVID fiasco.

Manipulating fear of Black protests worked for Nixon, Bush the first and others. But it's not clear that has happened. White solidarity has persisted, especially among the young. Even many parents (like McNeil) seem to be saying, "Enough finally of this racist garbage. It's time to ditch it."

Yet even if so, will it last? This matters because you can't make deep change across a diverse, non-monolithic society, without wide-ranging support.

There are signs. I happened to be studying in the U.S. during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It relied on backing from white liberals, but they were often fickle and wavering, even though the demands were restricted mostly to the South and to the realm of pretty carefully defined civil rights.

The current movement is national-cum-global. Its demands are more embracing; they encompass, in effect, the entire range of human rights. Those were implied in the '60s, but even Martin Luther King's dream was that it might happen "one day," not here and now -- as Stephen McNeil seems to think.

Does it all still remain in the realm of dreamlife, while our racism-inflected reality deteriorates ever further? My favourite Bolshevik, Victor Serge, knew well the Marxist argument that human consciousness can't outrun the material circumstances that give rise to it. The economic and social realities underpinning and limiting your life also constrain and determine the ideas and beliefs, which you erroneously think you have autonomously created.

Yet in one of his last journal entries, in 1947, from exile in Mexico and in constant danger of assassination by Stalin's agents, Serge wrote that some human possibilities are "simply contrary to the rules of ordinary determinism. Because in exceptional dangers ordinary determinism is no longer an absolute rule. Instinct sometimes finds completely unforeseeable, miraculous solutions."

He adds he doesn't mean miracles in the Biblical sense, but "something that defies prediction and comprehension through its success, due to the energy of an unexpected effort." Happily then, we just can't know the outcomes.

There's a hopeful thought, from an unlikely source, in terrifying times.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star. 

Image: Clay Banks/Unsplash

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