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Why do we love hard times so much?

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From the horrors of the Newfoundland and Labrador government’s ‘austerity’ budget, the arts community has sprouted some impressive shoots of ingenuity. Dramatists, writers, and musicians have harnessed their humour, their insight, and their outrage in a way that both entertains and gives vent. Liz Solo’s Facebook posts — for instance big M sign with the message “McBudget 526,977 screwed”— are particularly funny and provocative.

But while some individual artists use their creative powers to engage an unacceptable world, another, less useful, arts-promoted theme is rising from the rubble of self-imposed hardship. It goes something like this: “We’ve survived worse. We’re a hardy people. We’ll come though this too.”

This message must be music to the politicians’ ears.

I know what they mean and I know where this is coming from. Yes, hunger and uncertainty are not strangers to our history. Yes, stoicism and self-reliance have been part of our culture. No doubt this makes us value our various forms of artistic expression more. We fought for literacy. Stories were told and shared for generations before they were written and published. Once it was up and running and valued by society beyond our own shores, our art became particularly precious to us.

You can even see a kind of defiance in the “we’ll come through this” message. But the defiance is one of tone, not of content. The mantra is not helpful for those expecting organization, protest, and change. It even implies that a history of hardship might be a good thing, an inevitable continuation of what made us so creative and so self-reliant in the first place.

And when our language, words like survival and endurance, associates our provincial government’s actions with our pre-democratic past — to times in which no one even pretended Newfoundland and Labrador was being governed in the interest of the people who lived here — we are doing ourselves no favours by using it now.

This is not the ‘winter of the rals’ of 1818, when buildings burned and no ships could enter or leave the frozen St. John’s Harbour. It’s not the Asian Tsunami, the Haitian earthquake, or the London blitz — events that would justify a meditation on the power of the spirit and human endurance. It’s a created economic crisis in a province of one of the richest countries on earth.

We have just played host, with much fanfare, to our Prime Minister and have jostled shamelessly for the ‘selfie’ opportunities his visit affords. But rather than notice the insanity of the two co-existing worlds — the feel-good visit from our supermodel Prime Minister and the grueling reality — we fell into the same pattern of familiarity, the same expectation of hard times.

Part of our collective psyche must think this is the natural course. We know that when Mr. Trudeau returns to Ottawa, pensioners will still be pulling out their own teeth because of government funding cuts, low-income diabetics will still face the added danger of going without test strips, inmates of her Majesty’s Penitentiary already living in an unacceptably overcrowded conditions will also be going without peanut butter and jam, and Waterford hospital patients will still be going to bed without snacks. Since when was withholding food either part of our justice system or acceptable therapy for the sick?

 On some level we must be in love with the idea of noble suffering. We even accept depravation when it is neither necessary nor helpful.

On some level we must be in love with the idea of noble suffering. We even accept depravation when it is neither necessary nor helpful.

Newfoundland and Labrador is not like many other places. Democracy came here a little later than it did elsewhere in the developed English-speaking world. And when it did come, it seems, our representatives fell a little too easily into the ‘patron’ role vacated by our merchants and justices of the peace.

Once they are elected, some of our MHAs are happy to harangue, lecture, and even threaten members of the electorate. As Open Line listeners can attest, among Pam Parsons’ earliest actions as government-side MHA was to advise one of her constituents it was not in his best interests to publicity criticize the government. It clearly didn’t take her long to find her feet in Newfoundland and Labrador’s system of government. While we might seethe about the “stay on the government side, or else” philosophy, we rarely feel empowered to treat it with the contempt it deserves.

Stoicism is great, but it’s a poor substitute for action. And while we think our children and our children’s children will come through the snow once more to use their wisdom, their imaginations, and their creative forces afresh, it’s also possible that by the time they have a chance to do these things they’ll be long gone.

Paul Butler is an author and editor. His website is www.paulbutlernovelist.wordpress.com.

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