The importance of being human: Social Mix 2012

Canadian Internet media company Jugnoo (Sanskrit for “firefly,” or light from within) hosted Social Mix at Toronto’s Royal York hotel yesterday, gathering social media notables such as Amber Mac and Gary Vaynerchuk to impart their observations on how things are evolving in cyberspace circa end of July 2012.  One of the best-received speakers was someone who at first glance wouldn’t appear to be a go-to social media guru:  Sgt. Tim Burrows of the Toronto Police Service.  While the talks of the other speakers and panellists focused largely on how to approach social media from the perspective of private business establishing a digital image for itself, Burrows’ challenge was somewhat unique – using social media to attempt to manage the image of an institution that from day one has been defined almost exclusively by others.  In the West, our perceptions of the police have evolved, as Burrows’ presentation illustrated, from the idyllic image of Officer Friendly sharing a soda with a wide-eyed kid at the malt shop, through the steroid, napalm and inexhaustible ammunition-fueled antics of Dirty Harry and his cinematic descendants, to what was singled out as the worst offender in terms of creating unrealistic expectations, TV “reality” shows like Cops and procedurals like CSI.  In his role with TPS, Burrows confronts attitudes forged by hyped-up media reports, Public Enemy songs and overactive imaginations and tries to reassure the community that behind the often contradictory mythology that has grown up around the blue is a group of human beings trying to do their jobs – human beings as prone to failure as the rest of us but expected at all times to be unflappable paragons of virtue – and looking to change the conversation to that level.  It’s an important lesson for any public body looking to take the plunge into the digital space, particularly as the cost of ignoring that space means that it will be filled with exactly what you don’t want out there influencing people’s opinions of you.

Simon Sinek talks about how companies like Apple, even in the era that preceded the digital media wave we are riding now, crafted their brand loyalty not through the selling of a product, but the sharing of ideas and values that could be identified with by the consumer regardless of what product was being offered – why they do what they do.  In his keynote, Gary Vaynerchuk expanded on this to boil success in social media down to a single concept – storytelling.  In one of his many insightful anecdotes, Vaynerchuk described how every first-time customer of his wine business always received a personal follow-up thank you call.  Frequently, he observed, the customer on the other end of the phone would wait awkwardly for the other shoe to drop – for an expected additional sales pitch, which never came.  It was a money-loser and literally nothing more than a personal touch, with no sneaky attempt to generate revenue or leads or any other marketing shenanigans (as an aside, Vaynerchuk remarks with resignation that ultimately marketers ruin everything, as they will eventually ruin social media).  For Vaynerchuk, the idea was to hearken back to the story of the old country general store where the clerk knew your name and could fill your order before you walked in – in essence, crafting a more human experience.  It’s remarkable, although not totally surprising, that as the volume of information flow expands exponentially with each nanosecond and our attention span becomes more and more fractured, we crave that connection even more.  Why else do we post pictures of our children on Facebook and share details of where we go and what we’re doing at every opportunity?  Because it makes us feel human.  And there is nothing so uniquely human as the story.  Nothing else can move, engage or inspire us in quite the same way.  In an era where almost everything is available by download, people still go out to the movies to share the experience of the story in the company of their peers.  Sgt. Burrows is attempting to craft a story for the Toronto Police that establishes them as partners in peace, rather than jack-booted, fear-inducing authority figures; in other words, humanizing them.

What then, is the lesson for public entities looking to create a strong digital profile?  The irony for organizations such as governments is that in a democracy people tend to treat their government like they do their appendix – ignore it unless it’s acting up.  Using social media simply as an additional channel for press releases and official statements is certainly doomed to failure.  The key question is how to create a story – and as any professional storyteller will advise, a great story starts with great characters, that is, the human beings at its heart.  Public servants, like the police, have long been the collective whipping boy for everything that is wrong with government – the archetype of Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister, striving constantly to maintain the status quo and do as little as possible while reaping tax-funded pensions and keeping the people they ostensibly serve baffled by the process.  (The news of former prime ministerial advisor Bruce Carson’s arrest for influence peddling today doesn’t help.)  There is still, however, plenty of opportunity to try to start rewriting that narrative, emphasizing the responsibility and indeed the nobility of service.  Government is uniquely positioned beyond any brand to be able to use social media to help craft a sense of community; for all the ballyhoo that private corporations do everything better, one is hard-pressed to find examples of corporations uniting neighbourhoods and instilling a sense of civic pride in the people who walk those streets. If government can become more personable, if it is able to let its humanity shine through, then the compelling story will write itself.  People will become engaged in their government as everyday partners, not once-in-a-blue-moon voters, because they will care about where the story is going – and want to write themselves in as part of it.  The ROI isn’t clicks and shares, but something far more precious:  a healthier democracy and ultimately a more human place to live.

Suppose they held an Olympics and nobody came?

One can’t be blamed for having forgotten that the Olympics start this Friday.  News coverage has been non-existent.  Perhaps we in Canada are spoiled, just two years removed from hosting the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where you couldn’t turn around in a store without bumping into some Olympic memorabilia.  But the lack of attention being paid, or, more to the point, the sheer indifference to the two weeks of athletic festivities about to get underway is remarkable.  Granted it’s been a rough month of news for anyone to get excited about – the shootings in the Eaton Centre and Scarborough and the Aurora theater massacre have not only shot a jolt of fear and sadness through our collective consciousness but revealed the ugliest face of the public debate as gun haters and lovers square off in anonymous Internet forums, each side so implacable that the tragedy of the lives lost – and the heroism of those who died protecting their loved ones from a hail of bullets – is abandoned in the quest to score political points.  The U.S. is rending itself apart in election year theatrics as the partisan equivalent of the Montagues and Capulets hurl mud at each other and a wash of unfathomable money blankets the country in negative advertising.  Relentless sun scorches the continent in an unprecedented heat wave and drought, the bankers who caused the 2008 financial crisis walk free and Occupy protesters are ignored or called nuisances by the media.  Governments obsessed with austerity disregard the plight of people in need and focus like soulless accountants on the bottom line.  In short:  people are hot, tired, scared, pissed off and broke.  How unsurprising, then, that the thought of coming together to cheer on the representatives of our countries in athletic competition is about as appealing as having one’s fingernails extracted with rusty pliers.

I loved watching the Olympics when I was young.  I remember leaping out of bed in the summer of 1984 and flipping on the TV to catch up on whatever event was happening in Los Angeles, even if it was nothing but reruns of rowing heats.  I tallied medal counts obsessively and updated my father when he strolled in from work at the end of the day on who won what.  That was the last time there had been a significant boycott by any of the major competitive countries – the Soviets in retaliation for the U.S. refusal to take part in Moscow in 1980 – and the Americans were wiping the floor with the world.  But despite the inevitability of the results in most of the competitions, it was still riveting to watch.  The Olympics have always provided more than their share of human drama, even in my lifetime.  Carl Lewis scoring four golds in track.  Zola Budd knocking over Mary Decker-Slaney.  The Battle of the Brians.  Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards and the Jamaican bobsled team.  Greg Louganis smashing his head on the diving board.  Ben Johnson losing his gold after testing positive for steroids.  South Africa’s return in 1992, and Elana Meyer and Derartu Tulu’s victory lap.  Derek Redmond’s father helping him finish the 400 m.  Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.  The Atlanta Olympic bombing.  Two years ago, Canada’s Own the Podium gold medal triumph in Vancouver, and the tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili.  The Olympics, in both their grandest and lowest moments, have been something of a microcosm of the human experience – as ABC’s famous intro used to put it, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” the duality of what it means to be human.  What has been the most moving and hopeful aspect of the Olympics for me is watching countries that otherwise despise each other and do their utmost to humiliate and ruin each other politically and economically put all the nonsense aside and compete in amity and peace, and hug each other after the buzzer sounds.  It’s somewhat of a cliche, and perhaps not entirely appropriate to call Olympic athletes heroes – perhaps they are not exemplars of what we normally think of as heroism, but they do summon to mind thoughts of how human beings can celebrate their differences rather than using them to belittle and destroy one another.

The Olympics have been criticized, frequently in recent years, for commercialism, jingoism and outright questionable taste.  It’s true that watching American coverage of the Games can be a bit cringe-inducing – thank goodness for the CBC and Canada’s “Brrrrrian” Williams – and the use of the word “medal” as a verb continues to give the linguistic purist in me the shakes, but we shouldn’t forget the essence of what they are about:  amateur athletes, regular folks like you and me, only much more fit and skilled, given the chance to carve their names into history in a manner that doesn’t involve killing anyone or embarrassing themselves on YouTube.  These young people are deserving of a scant two weeks of our attention, before we go back to griping about politics and money and the state of the world and whatever our neighbor did with his lawn that is driving us insane that day.  We all seem to hate each other so much lately that it’s a downright miracle that every two years we can set that aside and take the time to appreciate the incredible feats a fully trained human body can accomplish – the pinnacle of the possibilities of physical achievement.  We need to latch onto these sorts of things and cling to them for dear life, because every minute shred of hope – every lingering thread slipping away in the winds of history – is worth saving and celebrating.  It may truly be all we have left.

Let the Games begin.

Paying it forward

For all my pontificating yesterday about our collective duty to be vigilant and responsible in our cultivation of the culture of free speech, I have to confess at being somewhat negligent in another area.  Cecile’s Writers, a wonderful blog I follow and which has been very supportive of my writing, was kind enough to nominate me for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.  Thank you so much!  As I’ve said before, what I believe a writer wants more than anything is simply to reach people, and it’s wonderful to see it happening.  As I understand it the requirements of this award stipulate that you nominate an additional seven blogs and include an equal number of heretofore unknown pieces of trivia about yourself.  Recognizing that one of those is going to be tremendously more interesting than the other, I’ll start with the good stuff, in no particular order:

Nominees I Consider Deserving of the Award:

1.  East Bay Writer

Her blog is subtitled “me and my battle with words,” but she’s winning it hands down.  In addition to her own clever workplace tales and anecdotes about the peculiarities of life, EBW regularly promotes other bloggers and published authors with a selfless enthusiasm and a genuine love of all things written.

2.  Hooked

Lower 48 liberals whose opinions of Alaska have been formed largely by its former governor-turned-reality-TV-and-Fox-News-annoyance need to read Hooked.  Tele opens up a vast, fascinating frontier utterly foreign to lifelong urbanites and reminds us that truth can be found in the farthest reaches of both the seas and the soul.

3.  The Bunny Adventures

I have always had a soft spot – pardon the pun – for both rabbits and stuffed animals, and this photo blog depicting the cross-country wanderings of a tiny toy bunny is sweet, endearing and an infallible cure for a bad mood.  You never know what Bunny will be up to next!

4.  Simply Stephanie

A recent discovery after she liked a couple of my posts, but as I tend to gravitate towards writing that is positive and upbeat, I’ve become quite taken with the way she’s decided to jump into all that is life and give it a huge bear hug.  Her love of Disney certainly strikes a chord with me as well!

5.  Good Evaning

I may be somewhat biased because the author is a real-life friend, but his blog is by turns funny, self-deprecating, insightful and thought-provoking.  One of his most recent pieces is a surprisingly forthright confession of conflicted feelings about his collaboration on a stage show.  It’s not often you find such honesty in an artist’s appraisal of his own work.  Evan brings this kind of integrity to everything he pens.

6.  PMMCC

Again, I’ve known the author personally for over twenty years, but he’s always impressed me with the depth of his intellect and his willingness to expose the sometimes ugly veins coursing beneath the veneer of what we like to call free and open societies.  Really, though, how can you not be a fan of erudite turns of phrase like this:  “The challenge with this formula is that the expectation for [CBC blowhard bloviator Kevin] O’Leary to be controversial appears to trump in this instance the duty to be intelligent.”

7.  Everyone I didn’t pick in 1 through 6

There are so many amazing blogs out there it’s difficult to winnow the list down.  I reserve the final slot for every person with the guts to put their words out there for the world to see.  Writing is one of the most revealing ways in which human beings can choose to be vulnerable – to put part of their soul on display in the hope of making a connection, however tenuous and temporary.  Here’s to you, fellow WordPressers, for taking that bold step in the grand tradition of communication, and sharing with us your most precious resource – your ideas.  You all inspire me.

Okay, now that’s done, here are seven things about me.  Sorry, they are far too boring to be used for purposes of blackmail.

1.  My drink is Bailey’s rocks, or a Vesper martini (three measures of Gordon’s gin, one of vodka, half a measure of Lillet Blanc, shaken over ice with a thin slice of lemon peel, and yes, that’s James Bond’s recipe)

2.  I won an equestrian show-jumping competition when I was nine, largely by being able to wrangle control of a bucking horse four times my size.  Perhaps I was always fated to become a brony in later life.

3.  I have performed raps by Pitbull and B.o.B. in a concert venue setting.  It was to 200 colleagues and their significant others in a local union hall, but I definitely brought the funk.

4.  I once stood closer to Johnny Depp than you are to this screen.  He smelled nice.

5.  Spoiler Alert!  The last word of my long-gestating novel is “be.”  Sorry if that ruined it for you, or if those of you expecting something else now hate me with a George-Lucas-raped-my-childhood-like fury.

6.  My unabashed fanboy love for his work to the contrary, I have never seen a single episode of Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night.

7.  I believe that the words matter more than the minutiae about the man.

Thank you again to Samir and Cecile’s Writers for the nomination.  As a signoff, there’s a speech Bono gave when accepting a Grammy back in 1993 that got him in trouble with the TV censors, and it captures my thoughts very well.  To wit:  “I’d like to send a message to the young people of America.  We shall continue to abuse our position and f*** up the mainstream.”  Yeah, baby.

This week in trickle-down theory

Mea culpa – I’m a believer in trickle-down theory.  Not as it applies to wealth, but rather, the preponderance of nonsense in the world, and in particular, that which is inflicted upon us by those who know better and do so strictly for political and/or monetary gain.  In a democracy that pretends to be educated but usually falls short, it is incumbent upon us to remain forever vigilant, and to expose such professional charlatans at all times.  That is one of the cornerstones of free speech that people tend to forget about – the responsibility to respond, to correct deliberate misinformation, and to shame those who lie blatantly.  Or, as I’ve said before, free speech may give you the right to say things that are stupid and hateful, but it also imposes upon me the duty to call you out on it and tell you you’re being a dick.  On this week’s episode of The Newsroom, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) delivered an inspiring opening monologue whereby he apologized for the media’s failure to do just that.  With that in mind, there are a couple of items floating around the news this week that need to be called out in the same spirit.

As you may have heard, there was a shooting at a summer barbeque in Scarborough a few days ago that left two people dead and twenty-two injured.  Canada’s douchiest federal cabinet minister, Vic Toews, never one to miss an opportunity to pimp his draconian views to the nearest microphone, used it as a springboard to attack judges who had struck down mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes, a rant that I’m certain was a great comfort to the families of Joshua Yasay and Shyanne Charles.  It’s a typical reaction of a privileged white guy who has absolutely no clue what it’s like on the other side.  Toews insists that the prospect of longer mandatory prison terms would have scared the shooters straight before they drew their guns – you know, because in the heat of the moment when you’re drunk, desperate, angry and armed, the thought of jail is always just enough to arrest a murderous rampage.  Proponents of mandatory minimum sentences always miss the central reason why they’ve been an utter failure wherever they’ve been implemented, and that is, when you’re going to commit a crime, you don’t think you’re going to get caught.  Who cares if there’s a mandatory jail term?  That won’t matter, because f*** the police, you’re going to be the guy who gets away with it.  Experts the world over have declared mandatory minimums needlessly expensive and ultimately futile, but that doesn’t matter to Toews, who barely waited until the bodies were cold to throw some red meat to the equally closed-minded tools who keep electing him.  Please, Vic, just go away – go get that judgeship you’re lusting after and pass all the hanging, cat-o-nine-tails and public stoning sentences you dream of late at night when the demons come.

Speaking of red meat to rednecks, Peter Worthington and the Toronto Sun decided this week as well to give a nutcase who spews conspiracy theories on street corners a national megaphone.  A self-proclaimed “cleric” who lectures at Yonge & Dundas next to the wild-eyed weirdo mumbling about aliens and the rapture thinks that the answer to the problem of sexual assault is to legislate that women dress more conservatively.  The Sun ran his photo on the front page with a headline warning about the terrifying restrictions on your freedom that this scary man wants to impose on YOUR FAMILY – propagating Islamophobia in the name of ad revenue.  Peter Worthington even found it necessary to blather a self-righteous denunciation of this guy’s out-there rants in a featured column on Huffington Post Canada, assuring us ever so helpfully that the laws this man is advocating won’t ever happen here (although, if Vic Toews gets his way, you never know).  Thank goodness for your sage and learned wisdom, Peter, because I was under the impression based on the Sun’s coverage that this random guy who yells at passersby as they duck into Starbucks somehow had Supreme Leader-like authority over our government, our courts and public opinion, and that as a result we were one precarious step away from the imposition of sharia law across Canada.  Phew – dodged a bullet there.  Regardless, the Sun’s coverage had its intended effect, which was to stir up the blood of its core readership, spur a metric tonne of “if you don’t like it here, go home” comments, and get everybody hopped up about immigration yet again.  Instead of doing what any sane person not trying to get people to buy a fourth-rate rag of a newspaper would have done, ignore the guy.  And be thankful that we live in a country where women can dress however the hell they want, and that Neanderthal opinions that are law in other parts of the world are only the meaningless ramblings of a twit here.

Finally, Howard Stern, struggling to stay relevant, decided to turn his sad sarcastic guns on the attendees at last week’s BronyCon, sending his staff out to interview fans of My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic and using both ambush and out of context quotes to make them seem like creepy loners one step removed from the guy in the rusty panel van with “FREE CANDY” scrawled across the side – a line gleefully parroted by one of my colleagues the other day.  I’ve talked at length about MLP: FIM and bronies before, and why I think the show’s popularity beyond its target demographic of young girls is a wonderful thing.  When the majority of acclaimed programs on television regularly feature spurting blood, decapitations, drug overdoses, chopped up bodies and any number of variations of grisly deaths, not to mention a general attitude of “drama” being people behaving horribly to one another, why is it considered deranged that audiences are gravitating towards a show that promotes friendship, tolerance, kindness and understanding – and one that manages to do so with a clever sense of humor and without being treacly or preachy at the same time?  Honestly – in whose company would you rather spend an hour:  Walter White or Rainbow Dash?  We are living in the most cynical era of human history and it is not the slightest bit shocking that people are still turning towards hope, and a reminder of what human beings can do when they are good towards each other.  If Howard Stern wants to make fun of that, then he’s welcome to, but it just reinforces how bitter he must be deep inside.  Twilight Sparkle and friends would probably feel sorry for him, but they’d still offer him a big hug and a cherry-changa.

I’m not under any illusion that what I’ve written here will convince its subjects to change their ways, or that it will even reach their eyes.  What’s important to remember is that this is all a grand discourse, meaning that it’s not just sitting back and accepting what is shovelled in front of us, lapping it up with a grin and asking for more, please.  It’s responding to rants with reason, attacking bias with facts, countering ideology with logic and a sense of fairness.  Calling out the bullshit.  And in particular, it’s ensuring that the small minds don’t continue to set the rules, and by consequence the level on which our discourse is to take place.  We need to raise the debate, and it’s not something that you can do once and then forget about.  It’s like the lat press at the gym – the weights are always going to want to fall back into place, and you have to keep pulling down on the bar.  That’s how you get stronger.  That’s how a society gets stronger – by not letting the weakest minds continue to trickle their inanities down over everyone else’s heads without due response.  As the old saying goes, don’t tell us it’s raining.

Varying degrees of greatness

The City of Calgary, wallowing in its greatness.

At the Stampede last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper got up in front of his adopted hometown crowd and proclaimed Calgary the greatest city in Canada.  This being the political climate where no off-the-cuff comment goes un-deconstructed en masse (and Harper being the veteran politician who says nothing that hasn’t been poll-tested), cries of favouritism erupted from his opposition.  In my best mood on my best day I’m hard-pressed to say anything positive about the guy, but this is one instance in which critics just make themselves look silly by raising a public ruckus.  The man is standing in front of a crowd in Calgary – he’s hardly going to tell them that “well, you guys are pretty awesome but Whitehorse totally rocks my socks.”  Does anyone believe that when Bono drops the name of the city U2 is playing in he’s doing it out of a genuine conviction that his time spent in this metropolis has been the most rewarding of his life, or do they recognize that it’s merely an applause line?  I’ve been to Calgary once, for a weekend, and what I saw of it seemed very nice, as did its people, but I’m not sure that it would qualify for this ambiguous concept of greatness anymore than any other Canadian city, town or backwater burg it’s been my fortune to pass through.  The problem isn’t a lacking on Calgary’s part, it’s more a general unease about how to qualify something as great.

“Great” is a word we’ve tossed around so often that it’s become meaningless.  “What a great movie.”  “She’s such a great girl.”  “These are the greatest cookies I’ve ever tasted.”  Yet despite its overuse, the concept of greatness is one that we value greatly.  I remember reading a book in Philosophy 101 called God, the Devil and the Perfect Pizza.  I may get the details wrong – I wasn’t quite the seasoned thinker I am now (snicker) when I first ploughed through it and was distracted by the gorgeous blonde in the very short black miniskirt seated two rows ahead of me.  But the concept was basically a more plain-spoken rehash of the ontological argument that one could prove the existence of God through logic, if one accepted the premise that God was the greatest conceivable being, and that existence being a necessary component of greatness (the idea that a God who did not exist would not, in fact, be the greatest conceivable being), God must therefore exist.  Where the book has fun with this is twisting the argument around to prove by a similar method, the existence of the Devil (hypothesized as the worst conceivable being) and the greatest conceivable pizza.  I don’t think I ever quite grokked the logical twists that validated this line of thinking – I suppose if you’re religious and looking to disprove an atheist it could come in handy.  But the idea of the greatest conceivable anything stuck with me.  “Greatness,” like beauty, is so totally subjective – one man will vomit up in disgust the meal the gourmand thinks is the greatest thing he’s ever eaten – that who I picture as the greatest conceivable being will differ completely from yours, and the next guy’s, and the next guy’s after him.  (Mine might look like that blonde.  I swear, her toned legs in that black mini were a wonder to behold.)

We see this daily in the critical sphere:  endless top ten lists recounting beloved movies, music, literature, artwork, key lime pies.  Quality can be agreed on universally to a point – certainly few can put forth defensible arguments that Plan 9 from Outer Space is a better movie than 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But beyond that point lies the uncanny valley where opinion takes over and cements the final determination, as individual as the person offering it.  It’s also why people usually react badly to self-proclaimed greatness, like when folks who haven’t ventured over their county line announce that America is the greatest country in the world.  Opinions about one’s own greatness are the least valued, especially when one cannot walk the walk, as it were.  Muhammad Ali’s boasts are the stuff of sports legend, but he could back it up in the ring.  How though, do you determine the relative greatness of a more abstract concept like a city, especially if you’re predisposed to bias because you live there (or represent it in the House of Commons)?  Do you base it on hard statistics, like crime, transportation, wealth, homelessness and pollution, or on the equally abstract idea of character?  How do you say with certainty that one city’s character is better than another’s?  The people are nicer, there are more interesting restaurants, the tourist attractions are less cheesy, you can always find a place to park?  Woody Allen once observed that the primary cultural advantage of Los Angeles was the ability to turn right on a red.  It seems that any judgment on the relative greatness of anything is fated to be equally pithy, given that ultimately, the criteria used to make this determination are so esoteric as to defy classification.

Or, in English, there is no such thing as “the greatest.”  There are things that are great and things that are even greater than those first great things.  But “greatest” is forever elusive.  And that is probably great in itself, because it will force us to continue to aim for it.  Declaring oneself the greatest is admitting that not only can you go no further, you don’t even want to try.  You’re entirely satisfied.  You’re done.  And lack of ambition, of aspiration, of the dream of progress, is not a quality associated with greatness in any way.

Besides, everyone knows that the greatest city in Canada is <404 error file not found>

Mary Sue Romney and the illusion of leadership

Sleeves rolled up? Check. In front of flag? Check. Pithy podium slogan? Check. All glory to the Leader!

Mitt Romney’s campaign out-fundraised the re-election campaign of incumbent President Barack Obama again last month with over $100 million in donations taken in, to say nothing of what is going to the various Super PACs supporting his candidacy (with naturally, no coordination whatsoever, fingers crossed, honest to God, swear on his baptized father-in-law’s grave).  A seemingly unending reservoir of money dedicated to pushing a man with no convictions he will not abandon, no principles he will not set aside and no lingering shred of integrity he won’t compromise in a heartbeat of expediency into the powerful office in the world.  A man so utterly mediocre and lacking in empathy and imagination, indeed, in personality, that in a logical world he should barely register in the single digits of political support, stands a dishearteningly good chance of taking over in November – and who knows what happens then.

Yet Mitt Romney epitomizes how our notions of what constitutes leadership have been distilled, diluted and dismantled.  In the darkest archives of fan fiction we find the concept of the “Mary Sue” – the flawless new-to-canon character who saves the day repeatedly with a combination of irresistible charm, unfathomable skill and perfect breasts.  Mitt Romney has neither charm, nor skill, nor any breasts that I’m aware of, but he does share one notable trait with Mary Sue:  they are both as dull as dishwater.  “Mitt Romney” in a novel would be rejected by a publisher for being bland, unappealing and unbelievable, but in real life he’s perilously close to winning the Presidency.  The problem is, bland is the new black.  Bland is the new leadership – a trope which has been drilled into our heads by seeing too many Romney types waving to the crowd in TV ads as a faceless voice repeats “strong leader” as many times as the 30-second spot will allow.  See enough of these, as Goebbels would note, and the message starts to seep in, regardless of how antithetical it may be to the nature of the person being described.  In Canada, enough of us believe Stephen Harper is a strong leader not on any evidence that he’s shown in his actual style of governance, but because four successive election campaigns have said that he is (and more to the point, that whichever Leader of the Opposition he’s been facing isn’t).  This proroguing, speech-stifling, attack ad-funding, shameless crony-appointing former oil company mailroom boy with a massive inferiority complex rates first in all polls of the Canadian leadership scene.  And the rest of the world asks, with 34 million of you to choose from, that frickin’ guy’s the best you could come up with?  Just like the rest of the world is looking at the U.S. race and saying “Look, perhaps President Obama hasn’t been perfect, but really?  The guy who strapped the dog to the roof of his car?”

Romney locked up the Republican nomination not because he was a singular, inspiring figure, but because he was less insane than the other pretenders to the throne – Newt-Tiffany’s-Gingrich, Herman-9-9-9-Cain, Rick-Old-Testament-Santorum, Ron-I-don’t-believe-in-Social-Security-but-I-still-collect-it-Paul and Rick-What-planet-am-I-on-anyway-let’s-just-shoot-it-Perry.  Faced with the prospect of any of those characters with their fingers on the nuclear trigger, Romney sounded like a much safer bet, beliefs in magic underwear, baptizing dead relatives and Planet Kolob aside.  His blandness enabled him to emerge from the pack of the weakest contenders the Republicans have ever fielded.  And blandness combined with money enables him to pose a serious challenge to a President who has struggled with the worst economy since the Depression and an opposition Congress determined to see it stay that way in the cynical expectation that voters afflicted with Guy Pearce’s illness from Memento will turn to them to right it.  This somehow translates to Romney being perceived, against all sense, as a leader. U.S. progressives hope that the presidential debates will be Obama’s chance to demonstrate for good how empty a shirt Romney is, but they forget that John Kerry wiped the floor with George W. Bush during their three sparring matches in 2004 and still lost the election.  Proof of leadership is unnecessary; the appearance of leadership is enough, even if it’s all smoke, mirrors and flight suits.

David Letterman has famously said of Mitt Romney, “He doesn’t look like a President, he looks like the guy who plays the President in a Canadian made-for-TV movie.”  For many, that’s a dream candidate.  The guy who takes no stands that might possibly make him the slightest bit unpopular, best expressed by Marlee Matlin’s pollster Joey Lucas on a first-season West Wing:  “There go my people, I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them.”  Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney once observed cannily that he and three of his contemporaries in the office reached the highpoint of their popularity before they had done anything.  Mitt Romney is at his best right now; there is no evidence whatsoever that he has it within him to “rise to the challenge of the office” and become a man of destiny.  One does not even get the sense that anybody particularly wants him to – infamous anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has said publicly that he doesn’t want a President who thinks, just one who signs whatever Congress puts in front of him.  As long as Mitt Romney can spell his name, Norquist and his supporters think he’s leadership material.  A bar set so low it’s hovering near the earth’s core.

For the majority of the right, it’s enough that Romney is not Barack Hussein Obama.  But let no one labor under the illusion that leadership and gravitas is acquired just by not being someone else.  An orange is not a pineapple just because it’s not a pear.  Romney has no vision, no plan, and fundamentally no real belief in the nobility of the office he aspires to.  The evidence is overwhelming:  Mary Sue Romney should not be President, and hopefully it doesn’t require four agonizing years of a Romney presidency for America to realize that.