With friends like REAL Women, does ‘social conservatism’ need enemies?

Colby Cosh on the least-effective activists in Canadian politics

Keeping things unreal for far too long

Chip East/Reuters

REAL Women of Canada may be the most successful social conservative advocacy group in this country that’s not a church—if you’re judging by a standard of longevity and visible activity, that is. Its national vice-president and public face, Gwen Landolt, has been making headlines with REAL Women and various precursor organizations longer than your grey-bearded correspondent has been alive. As right-wing institutions rise and fall, REAL Women and Landolt keep chugging along, keeping a busy office going in the nation’s capital and continuing to intervene in high-profile appellate cases.

If you doubt that divine providence is on the side of the “Realistic, Equal, Active, (for) Life” crew, consider that they forgo official charitable status in order to preserve their right to engage in partisan activity—as, for example, they did in their slashing Aug. 7 public attack on Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Canada is full of charities that would sooner machine-gun their own headquarters than sacrifice their ability to issue tax receipts. The REAL Women keep things REAL without having to police their every word for partisanship.

Their endurance is more impressive when you consider that they’re pretty much the Washington Generals of political advocacy. Landolt has been at the forefront of the pro-life movement since the late Dr. Henry Morgentaler was no more than a young oddball. She devoted a life’s labour to restricting abortion in Canada, with the result that Canada has no abortion law and no prospect of ever developing one, while Dr. Morgentaler slumbers in a very comfortable niche of the national pantheon. As an unanticipated bonus, we got same-sex marriage along the way. Whee! One has to figure that if the REAL Women are given 30 more years, we’ll have polyamory lessons in kindergartens.

The attack on Baird for “abusing his office” by opposing anti-gay legislation and pogroms in Russia and Uganda comes at a moment of disillusion for social conservatives. Pro-lifers trumped up the issue of sex-selective abortion last year in order to reconnoitre the political scene, and in a pure nose count the Conservative caucus turns out to be about half pro-life. But the balance of genuine power is a 100 to 1 against: Stephen Harper will not even really do his so-cons the favour of opposing or criticizing them.

The emerging so-con party line is that this weakness is all the fault of a structurally over mighty Prime Minister’s Office. One cannot help suspecting the real failure is an intellectual one. The gay newspaper Xtra interviewed Gwen Landolt after her organization issued its press release attacking Baird. The crux of Justin Ling’s questioning was simple: Why the heck shouldn’t a foreign affairs minister use his influence to help victims of open persecution abroad?

This was a foreseeable question, but Landolt quickly found herself making an incredible baloney-slicing case that some forms of international activism are all right because their premises are enshrined in UN documents. Apartheid is bad, sure, because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mentions race. It also says that “men and women . . . have the right to marry and to found a family,” and doesn’t actually specify “one of each”; but since there is no United Nations Magna Carta as such for gays, John Baird supposedly has no business going to bat for them.

There is actually an unadopted UN gay rights resolution floating around, and it has been signed by representatives of every country in the world you would want to live in, but it cannot reach the floor of the assembly because of, well, the Saudis and the Somalis and the Syrians. Landolt, who boasted to Xtra, “I am a conservative so I know how we think,” needed surprisingly little time to manoeuvre herself into tacitly endorsing these countries as supreme arbiters of the one true global human rights standard. She also waxed indignant about “interfering in a sovereign nation,” as if remonstrating with a few Ugandan parliamentarians were the same thing as sending the Air Force to rain hell on Kampala.

There are actual social conservatives—conservatives of the sort who would happily vote for a bit of tough Ugandan-style legislation to keep gays in line hereabouts—who will read the Landolt interview and chuckle. “The United Nations? Really? With friends like these, does ‘social conservatism’ need enemies?” It probably doesn’t. But to ask how Landolt retains her place in the so-con ecosystem is probably to make that most elementary of male errors: thinking that something is for use when it’s only for display.

For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh

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