Michael Bonner joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss the rise of euthanasia in Canada, the prevalence of loneliness in the West, and the meaning of civilization. 

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Michael Bonner. Michael is a communications and public policy expert who served for a decade in Canada’s federal and provincial governments. He’s also a classicist and historian of Iran. His work has appeared in Quillette and The Epoch Times, and he’s been writing for City Journal as well. He’s the author of several books, including In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present, which was published earlier this year. Today, we’ll talk a bit about that, but also discuss the prevalence of loneliness and despair in the Western world and certain controversies that have arisen in Canada. So Michael, thanks very much for joining us.

Michael Bonner: Thanks for inviting me.

Brian Anderson: You wrote for City Journal, an article last month about the rise of assisted suicide in Canada. So, a little less than a decade ago, Canada’s Supreme Court determined that the nation’s constitution protected a right to assisted suicide. And then Parliament soon began passing and amending laws to allow for this practice of euthanasia. Since then, I think the number is over 40,000 people have been euthanized in Canada, and the number seems to be increasing. So, I’m wondering if you could just describe what the state of play is with that? What kind of people are seeking euthanasia, and whether this has proven controversial?

Michael Bonner: Yeah, I would say that, I mean, first of all, it is controversial. I would say that there’s very far from a consensus on the practice as it currently obtains. There’s been quite a lot of coverage in media that I think most people tend to find shocking about assisted suicide being pushed on people or being offered prematurely, even to veterans, to people who struggle to make ends meet, or who have sort of fallen through the cracks of the social welfare system. Canadians often like to think of themselves as having constructed a compassionate and supportive welfare state, and if you think about it, this sounds a lot like an admission of failure if we’ve simply sort of we’re offering basically death to people who are struggling or who are depressed or lonely, and what have you. That sounds to me like an admission of failure that we haven’t succeeded in making the kind of compassionate and a caring society that a lot of people would prefer to think we have.

Brian Anderson: Has the law changed over time? Originally was only available to those who were at the end of their lives, that they were suffering from a terminal illness, so when their natural death was imminent, in other words, but the law seems broader than that now.

Michael Bonner: That’s correct. I believe, first of all, I would say that the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the original ban, I think was illogical. They discovered a right to assisted suicide within the part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees life, liberty, and the security of the person. So, exactly how you get a right to have a physician help you die out of that, it seems kind of irrational to me. But nevertheless, it happened. But the decision had embedded within it, the naive assumption that there would be safeguards and that it would have to be predicated on the idea that a death was imminently foreseeable. The problem came, or I guess you could say it was made significantly worse by removing that provision. That opened the door to all sorts of other abuses, or what I would consider to be abuses—people who are lonely, they just don’t feel that their life is worth living anymore.

Or in some cases, people who are simply unable to afford housing, or in others, patients in old folks’ homes, retirement, long-term care centers who appear on the evidence to have been simply difficult cases, people that the staff struggled to help or to make comfortable and so forth. I think that by any sort of humane standard, I think that that’s grossly unfair and cruel, and offering euthanasia in these contexts seems kind of cavalier. That it’s sort of pushed on people very quickly under the guise of medical advice. And of course, very few people, especially those who are isolated or who feel themselves ill, they would be very reluctant to refuse what’s being portrayed as sound medical advice. And when they go, their families are often very upset, or they feel that they weren’t appropriately consulted. And of course, there are possibilities, which have come up, of false diagnoses.

People were not likely to die, their situations were not desperate, and some other solution could have been found. Now the latest development in all this is that the government appears to be considering opening the door to assisted suicide for people suffering from anorexia or for drug addicts. And again, I mean, that seems really outrageous to me, and it sounds, again, like an admission of failure, that the vast welfare provisions that we’ve put in place, it sounds as though we’ve sort of given up. And I think that apart from everything else that I’ve said, I think that that’s very sad.

Brian Anderson: I read that the numbers of people having assisted suicide or committing assisted suicide has reached the point that it’s now one of the leading causes of death in Canada, one of the top 10 or something like that. I wonder, you mentioned the very generous welfare state in Canada, but the healthcare system over time has been criticized for inadequate funding, long wait times. I wonder, under the guise of compassion, are you starting to see a kind of incentive to get rid of people who are going to be a burden on the taxpayer?

Michael Bonner: Yeah, I mean there is at least one study. The study that I referenced in the piece for City Journal is from 2017, and the people who wrote it, I think rather cynically argue in favor of the cost-saving element of assisted suicide. And if that’s really the motive, which I think that we have to consider the fact that could be one of the prime factors here, I think that that’s really outrageous considering what a rich country Canada is. And that policy problems or failures to get the health insurance systems of the provinces up to the standard of, say, a country like France or Denmark or what have you, we shouldn’t just simply give up. There’s much more that we could do to work on making those much more efficient, cutting down waiting times, attracting more doctors to underserved areas. There’s lots of stuff that could be done, and I think that simply rushing into this idea that the government can decide whose life is not worth living is a pretty horrific way of trying to save money.

One option that would probably be the easiest, the lowest-hanging fruit, would be to open up more aspects of the healthcare system to private insurance systems or private practice. I mean, there’s no reason why a lot of people should have to, when they go to their GP for a checkup, it’s not always absolutely necessary for public insurance to cover that. A lot of people could pay for it. I could probably do that. A lot of people don’t need to end up in emergency rooms. We could do a lot to take the pressure off. And I’m disturbed having the time that I’ve spent in policy formation as a policy director in a couple of different administrations, it is just disturbing to me that we would sort of give up on some fairly obvious remedies if the cost-saving measure is one of the main considerations.

Brian Anderson: You’ve mentioned the kind of loneliness, and it is something that’s raising philosophical questions—isolation and despair. They’re quite prevalent in the United States as well. You’ve seen marriage rates, fertility, household sizes declining significantly here since the 1950s. Social networks have shrunk. People are spending more time alone. I think the number of men claiming to have no close friends has increased fivefold in the United States over the last three decades. So, the problem is prevalent enough that the Surgeon General of the U.S. released an advisory on the healing effects of social connection in community, recommending people consider joining clubs, associations, this kind of thing to enhance their social ties and hence their personal happiness. I just wonder if there’s something missing from that, if it’s not getting at the core of the problem. Why are we seeing this erosion of community?

Michael Bonner: Yeah, that’s a good question. The advice is in some ways kind of silly. Join a club, join a civic association. Well, how would you do that when there aren’t any, or in a place where social life has been so degraded, those institutions no longer exist? That’s the nature of the problem. I have the impression through popular culture in North America that the emphasis on extreme individualism, sort of go your own way at all costs or you find the source of your happiness entirely in yourself, I think that we can clearly see that that sort of thing is really bad advice. But more broadly, my reaction to all this was that social life is not so much enhanced by these civic associations, or societies, or friendship, or volunteerism and so forth that don’t just sort of add to it, or it’s not like a sort of extra stuff that you do when you feel bored.

It’s more that those are the elements that constitute a functioning society that people get together. They have a natural urge to do so to cooperate on common projects and in small groups on a sort of local level, even if it’s just something like hanging out at the pub or kids playing a game of road hockey or something like that. That sort of aspect of common life has, as you say, clearly deteriorated, partly because we’ve encouraged it to happen. We’ve placed so much emphasis on people sort of doing their own sort of thing that I think we’ve sort of forgotten how to reconstitute these things. I don’t think it’s completely lost. I think that there obviously are places where these kinds of associations or the Rotary Club or local volunteer societies are playing groups. I don’t want to make it seem too trivial, but kind of association where people get together and cooperate.

They haven’t gone completely extinct, but they’re no longer taken for granted. And in big cities it’s really hard to get them started, persuade people to fund them and so forth. So, I guess what I would say is that I found that report really disappointing. I guess it’s better than nothing that the Surgeon General has turned his attention, and the government is willing to think about this problem. But at the end of the day, it sounds as though policymakers, they’ve sort of forgotten what the solution is. And just one final point on that, I didn’t like the report’s suggestion or sort of insinuation that common life, volunteer associations, family formation, keeping touch with your neighbors and so forth, that those are options to choose from when it comes to living the good life. I don’t think that they’re options. I think that we should feel more responsibility to others. I think it’s more of an obligation, really, and we should just take a little bit more interest, a little bit more care in how we talk about it.

Brian Anderson: In closing, I’d like to just talk briefly about your recent book, Michael, In Defense of Civilization, because it certainly ties into some of these themes. I wonder how you define civilization, simply, and why, in your view, does it need defending?

Michael Bonner: Oh, deep question. Well, I can’t give you an abstract definition, and I sort of have to admit defeat there. But I think the question of being able to recognize it, being able to know what it is and also know what it isn’t, I think is very important. And it’s also important to grasp sort of what causes it, what its roots are. I wanted to challenge the kind of Progressivist and the Marxist idea that there’s some kind of technological basis to it. We are not civilized because we have any particular kind of technology or particular economic conditions. Whatever your attitude is to technology and whatever economic system you prefer, those things arise from civilization and it’s not the other way around. Civilization comes out of the human need for stability, permanence, rootedness, and a connection with the past.

That our earliest ancestors who decided to settle down after most of their history kind of wandering around, they did it because they must have developed some sense of time, being connected with the past, living in a present in which the past was still meaningful and in which people could look forward to a future. And you find expressions of this in art and in material culture and so forth. And if you look at the material culture that comes out of the earliest civilized states, say the early Mesopotamian city states or dynastic Egypt, I infer three qualities, and I call them clarity, beauty, and order. Just think of the interior, a well decorated Egyptian tomb or an early Mesopotamian artifact. You find that they are presenting a vision of the world that is clearly intelligible, it can be explained and interpreted by others, even we can get a sense of what life was like back then by looking at it. The figures and the artworks are drawn with a sense of proportion, and they are what we would call beautiful.

Not in the sense that they’re attractive, but in the sense that they adhere to a sense of harmony and proportion. And then the idea of order, that there’s a kind of observable order in nature where animals and plants and human beings will have our place and so forth. I think that it comes across very clearly in the works of all the great civilizations in human history. Those principles though, don’t come across in say, the art of the Paleolithic Time, in cave paintings at places like Lascaux or Altamira and so forth. They’re lovely, astounding, very impressive works of art, but they reflect a very different vision of human life and our place in the world. The lesson for us now is that the constant emphasis on renewal of, let’s say the West, recognizing that something isn’t wrong or things are not quite as good as we had hoped, or that there’s kind of social dissolution. The emphasis there is we can’t really place any faith in some new piece of technology or economic system to make us right.

We need a fundamentally different outlook. We need to value different things instead of constant disruption. We need to think more about stability and continuity and sort of renewing that sense that the past still has significance for us. And of course, you could go further and you could say, well, actually, there are elements of technology and there are elements of what we still might call material progress that can achieve very impressive results, but which actually undermine our sense of connection with the past, connection with other people, and are actually very disruptive to us. And of course, a very obvious example of this would be something like mass communications or the internet, and the belief that we should all live separate lives unconnected with one another. So, deep subject, but that’s the basic message.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much, Michael. All very, very interesting. The book, again, is called In Defense of Civilization and came out earlier this year. Don’t forget to check out Michael Bonner’s work also on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org. We’ll link to his author page in the description, and you can also find him on X at MRJB. You can also find City Journal on X @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_ MI. As usual, if you like what you’ve heard on this episode of 10 Blocks, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Michael Bonner, thank you very much.

Michael Bonner: Thanks for having me.

Photo: Yaraslau Saulevich/iStock

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