At 24, my political beliefs are a work in progress. I lean right on some issues, left on others, libertarian on most. Some of my peers – predominantly the leftists – are pretty opinionated, but most of them, I think, are politically unmotivated, and will never roll up their sleeves to see the results they want. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, I caught the political bug early, and it became my focus in high school, then university. I liken the evolution of my political beliefs to the theory of evolutionary biology known as punctuated equilibrium. Mine was no slow, plodding crawl of development, but rather dramatic changes – revelations, almost – that came about through major global events, books, personal relationships, and travel. For the purposes of this essay, I have narrowed it down to five experiences which have most profoundly influenced my political disposition – so far.
9-11 and the War on Terror
I was 10 years old on 9-11. I first heard about the attacks on a bus that morning, on my way to elementary school. Many of the other children on the bus had seen the first news reports about planes hitting buildings in New York. Their descriptions were at once terrifying and surreal, and even after I saw the smoke, dust, flame, and rubble on television with my own eyes, I could not really comprehend what was happening. Mainly I was worried and bewildered. At that age I had enough trouble dealing with death as a concept; thousands of people dying as buildings collapsed was overwhelming. It took a few years before I could really get a grasp on what happened. Later, as a teenager, I would visit New York and see the haunting, empty space where the twin towers once stood. Only then did I fully grasp how devastating the attacks had been.
The repercussions of those attacks, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been the dominant global political events of the majority of my life. I don’t think of it as Orwellian perpetual war, but I haven’t really known a time when Canada’s military wasn’t abroad fighting radical Islamists, when there wasn’t a terrorist threat, or when the Middle East was not in violent turmoil somewhere.
The unrelenting images of the destruction wrought by suicide bombings or drone strikes illustrated the human cost of war, as did the flag-draped caskets of fallen soldiers. While this prompted a pacifist, isolationist, or blame-America response from some, I came to believe in a capable and prepared military establishment, so that Canada could make meaningful contributions to world security and the destruction of these radical, destructive forces. It seemed to me that the Chretien-Martin era had left our military in a moribund state, woefully ill-equipped for the Afghanistan mission, at least initially. Today I’m convinced that Canada should be spending well over the NATO target of two percent of GDP, and that the Department of Defense should be striving for a dynamic, adaptable and evolved force, capable of meeting a great variety of challenges.
Being online has played such a huge part in how I’ve developed politically, and also in how I get involved, that it’s hard for me to imagine how people did these things effectively before the Internet. My life is organized online, much of my communication happens online, and most of the news I read is online. I’m readily involved in online communities, and the debates I’ve had online played a big role in shaping how I think to this day.
I can’t really comprehend how volunteers could be mobilized and events organized before the advent of email lists and social media, because I’m so used to using these tools. Whenever I’ve wanted to volunteer on political campaigns, as I did a few years ago to elect our current Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, I was able to quickly sign up and get information online. Currently I’m working on the campaign of a neighbour, an Alberta NDP candidate, and much of our organization and outreach is done via online tools. I don’t know what political activism used to look like, but it must have been a lot harder and less efficient than it is today. Anyone involved in politics can access the work of think-tanks, read the reports of groups like the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, and track media reports about your candidates and their opponents, all from home.
The Web has also broadened my knowledge of political philosophy, and sharpened my skills as a political debater. When I was interested in learning about libertarianism, for example, which had never come up in conversation with my family, neighbours, and friends, I was able to go online to quench my thirst. Forums, blogs, and other community driven sites not only provided information; I could involve myself (completely anonymously) in debates and arguments, and have somewhat meaningful discussions. The importance of this debate to me can’t be understated; instead of bothering my friends with kooky ideas I could go online and bother strangers. My ideas develop best through debate, when I can see what others think and hear their perspectives, including new information which might make me reconsider my own views. The convenience, accessibility and risk-free anonymity turned online communities into one of the key incubators of my political ideas, which I think holds true for many others of my generation.
Now that I’m (a little) older and wiser, I can admit that as a teenager I not only willingly purchased Naomi Klein’s books, but also agreed with much of what she wrote. In fact, some of her ideas have stuck with me – I still don’t really trust multinational conglomerates. But there was one thing I never agreed with: her virulent anti-Israel stance. Many of my high school and university peers wholeheartedly believed that it was necessary to dismantle Israel, and I was something of a scorned outsider for not supporting “Israeli apartheid week” and the boycott Israel campaigns. I was told that I supported the murder of Palestinian children when I tried to defend Israel’s right to defend itself. The level of discourse was never very high, and chronically tainted by the overly emotional and reactionary speech.
When I was fortunate enough to visit Israel (and some surrounding nations) I found my views vindicated. I found it a modern, democratic and prosperous nation. I was especially impressed by the Israeli people, who in the face of terrorist attacks and neighbouring states calling for their destruction, had built an amazingly successful, open, and free homeland. Around Israeli cities I saw the ruins of buildings destroyed by suicide bombers, and the memorials to victims of terrorist attacks.
I think if my pro-Palestine peers in high school had seen the sites where Israelis were killed simply because they were Israeli (and to provoke Israel into retaliating), they might have changed their minds. I know the Palestinians have suffered terribly from retaliatory actions by the Israelis, but to me the weight of evidence clearly indicates the Palestinian political leadership – especially Hamas – is the main roadblock to peace and therefore the primary cause of Palestinian suffering.
Sometime during my mid-to-late teen years (likely around sixteen) I got my hands on copies of two new (for the time) bestselling books, God is not Great, by the late Christopher Hitchens, and The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. This isn’t the place for a debate on the merit of these works; suffice to say that the books made a massive impression on someone who had never really taken to the lessons we were taught in Sunday school. I and many of my friends read these books, and as impressionable teenagers, anti-theism became an easy outlet for intellectual rebellion, with the religious right the main target of our scorn. I came to fear the fundamentalist Christian right as a group who would impose strict moral codes across society based on their own narrow beliefs.
Then I met an actual right wing Christian. Frank Heinrich, a former Salvation Army officer of strong faith and conviction, is a member of the German federal parliament for the Christian Democratic Union. Through an exchange program administered by the University of Alberta, he generously offered me an internship on his team. I wasn’t there very long before I started re-evaluating my absolutist views demarcating faith and politics.
I had thought nothing good about the influence of religion on politics, but during that time I was working with someone who was among the most caring and dedicated people that I had ever met. With Frank, and other members of his team, I never experienced a crusade, moral policing or intense social conservatism, but a desire to help humanity, create a stronger community, and work towards a better world. There was no “eureka” moment, where I realized I had been wrong for so many years, but rather a dawning realization that I had become somewhat bigoted in my adoption of the atheist movement. Being around Frank showed me just how important it was to have people of strong faith in politics, and the value of their perspective.
When talking to people who had lived in East Germany, under the communist regime which fell apart along with the USSR, it seemed that everyone had a story about the overbearing state. The father of a friend recalled when, not yet a teenager at the time, he was strictly disciplined at school for doing something perceived as disrespectful during an anthem. The police would later make a few visits to his parents to check up on their “loyalty.” The extremely stifling climate was such that even though people would regularly listen to West German radio and watch West German television, they could never speak about it for fear of punishment. I found some older Germans from the DDR to be less than forthcoming with personal information; they had been conditioned against free expression by their fear of secret police informers or agents.
Both the communist and Nazi regimes in Germany used surveillance as one of their key domestic weapons. Thus it disturbs me to see government in Canada continually expanding its information gathering apparatus. Although I don’t believe our (current) government has authoritarian leanings, wiretapping, data-mining and other electronic surveillance programs, justified in the name of copyright protection, anti-bullying, and public security, are in my opinion serious intrusions into our lives by government.
Someone who had lived in communist East Germany told me that “we didn’t know how bad it was until after it was over,” referring to the scale of the state’s secret surveillance and domestic intelligence programs. I saw thousands of Germans out protesting when they learnt from Edward Snowden, in 2013, that their government had been secretly cooperating with the U.S. National Security Agency to generate massive amount of intelligence without any transparency. I wholeheartedly agree that this was government overstepping its bounds. The German experience with authoritarianism has made me increasingly wary of how our politicians and governments often conceal processes and block transparency initiatives, and how our own surveillance and intelligence agencies are continually expanding their powers.
If I’ve learned anything from roughly a decade and a half of political questing, it’s that I should never be too set in my ways. And I don’t think I am: While a trip to Israel reinforced my positive bias toward that nation, my opinion on the role of religion in politics drastically shifted after I worked under a person of strong faith. One constant has been my belief in the importance of political involvement – from signing a petition to serving in public office – in pursuit of trying to make a positive difference in the world.
Jeremy Cherlet, a writer based in Edmonton, is a recent graduate of the University of Alberta. He has studied overseas and interned at the German Bundestag and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a leading European think tank.