Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Rule of the "Best," Ruled By Prestige

We like to believe that the aristocracy is a thing of the past, that in the modern world people ascend to the high strata of government and society based on merit and skill and not blood, and that any one of us can grow up to be the President someday, so long as you're a natural-born American citizen - because, let's face it, "you can be anything you want to be, even Secretary-General of the United Nations" doesn't quite have the same resonance for a kid. Maybe, in some limited respects, it's even true.

Ultimately, it doesn't make a difference. Whether we have an aristocracy of blood, an aristocracy of wealth, or an aristocracy of talent, human nature means they will all act in broadly similar ways - whether it's enriching themselves at the expense of the ordinary people, doing favors for their friends even if society as a whole would be harmed as a result - witness Prime Minister Stephen Harper's championing of a renewed Bill C-61, something the big American entertainment conglomerates love - and generally acting as if their own interests are of more value than the interests of society.

Next month's G20 summit, taking place right here in downtown Toronto, is putting this all into stark perspective for me. I'll admit that the summit organizers are at least dimly aware of and thus somewhat responsive to the city that will be hosting their meeting - witness the relocation of the "free speech zone," itself a wonderfully democratic innovation, from the residential Trinity-Bellwoods Park on Queen Street West to Queen's Park.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that because the world leaders, or the organization coordinating their meeting, are so wedded to "traditional" ways of getting things done, the people of Toronto are going to have a sneak peek at what a police state looks like. From what I've heard there will be three-meter-high fencing downtown, security screenings for pedestrians and drivers entering the downtown core, cameras everywhere, and $1-billion in security spread between Toronto and the G8 summit in Huntsville. Where, I have to ask, is the justification for all this? In what universe is it acceptable to throw down the locks on a city for no other apparent reason than that cities are always where conferences happen?

In the past, aristocrats were always about appearances. They had to be, because otherwise no one would know who was in charge and who was lesser, and who could run a kingdom like that? Take, say, Louis XIV of France. In that painting on Wikipedia he looks, to me, like a laughable fop - that's what three hundred years of fashion shift will do, and I have little reason to hold monarchs in any esteem - but at the time, what he was wearing was stylin'. Mainly because he was wearing it. Today, it's somewhat different - the business suit is a remarkable leveller - but only somewhat. Prestige is still important, and prestige is one of the few reasonable explanations I can think of as to why the federal government would choose to hold the G20 summit in downtown Toronto rather than something more easily secured, like Exhibition Place or a military base.

Whether or not it's a desire to avoid a "loss of face" that would occur if the G20 was held somewhere reasonable and not a major metropolis, or something else entirely, I can only speculate. It doesn't matter, though. The aristocrats will almost always get their way.

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