Category Archives: Our (Ig)Noble Overlords

Governments big and small, domestic and foreign.

In Defense of “Elite”

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There’s a new cabal of supervillains in town, haven’t you heard, and you won’t find them clad in garish Technicolor-hued costumes and cackling about plans for ruling the galaxy, but you might spot them at black-tie parties sipping champagne between lips perpetually curled into a superior smirk, shaking their heads at the calamity that has temporarily befallen their carefully-laid Machiavellian schemes for crafting a horrific utopia of universal health care.

That’s right:  it’s those dastardly elite.

The buzzword for the evil well-heeled liberal left is at the forefront of the discussion that lingers in the wake of the egregious phenomenon that is Donald Trump, with his election described as a rebuke to the ruling elite, and with others just a hair north of the border clamoring to pick up his poisoned torch, as if he were the vanguard of a burgeoning movement that seeks as its endgame the imprisonment of all lovers of Puccini and Dostoyevsky.

The word “elite,” which in its dictionary definition means the best of something, is in the political arena an archetype of snobbery and disdain, a pejorative concocting images of a haughty Illuminati-like cabal whose greatest crime is that they just don’t get what it’s like to be a real, average, hard-workin’ sort of folk.  This is despite the fact that those who hurl it with the most frequency and venom are themselves usually silk-suited, impeccably pedigreed, long-serving elected officials or heavily pancaked cable news talking heads who haven’t had to suffer the indignity of a working-class job since the paper route their corporate partner lawyer father made them get back in the 70’s – you know, elites.

Ironically, absolutely nowhere else is elite a term greeted with contempt; rather, it represents, as the word is meant to, the highest, most desirable caliber of person.  We read books, go to movies and listen to music made by elite artists, we want our kids to be educated by elite teachers, we want our health monitored by elite doctors, we want our houses and cars maintained by elite trades.  Businesses both big and small boast about how they only want elite people working for them, and that in approaching them as a customer you will receive only elite treatment.  When you go out to eat you want to be waited on by elite staff (even the poor kid at Mickey D’s had better be bright and cheerful and fast lest you raise hell with their manager), when you go on vacation you want elite white glove service from start to finish.

And of course, we only want elite athletes playing for our favorite professional sports teams.  I’ve been following the MLB off-season wheelings and dealings, and the Blue Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion remains unsigned after turning down an $80-million, four-year deal from Toronto – a deal which, if you do the math, would result in him making about $150K for every single game he plays – and you see fans who would take four years to earn what he’ll get in one day begging the ownership to please cough up even more to get his name on the dotted line.  No one is saying to please give up on Edwin and sign a busload of mediocrities in his stead; no one wants to watch that team boot the ball about the field.

Simply put, in every other aspect of our lives we not only desire the elite, we expect it; and yet, when it comes to politics, we’re suddenly terrified of them, picturing them as cloud-dwelling aristocrats trickling a steady stream of urine down onto the contemptible masses in lieu of rain.  But apply the same formula to a restaurant and ask yourself the question:  am I going to turn down this perfect medium rare sirloin grilled by the elite, Parisian-schooled chef in favor of an inedible hockey puck burnt by a bumbling hack because he’s the kind of guy who really gets me?

Not for a second.

Fear of the elite as the government is an artificial construction manipulated to win votes by politicians who are themselves of the same class they claim outwardly to despise.  George W. Bush, who ran as an outsider and the politician voters claimed they were most likely to want “to have a beer with” (in my mind the single stupidest qualifier for a candidate for office ever devised – I don’t want to have a beer with you, I want you to be working on growing the economy, fixing poverty, restoring the environment and keeping us out of wars), was the Yale-educated son of a long line of privilege.  Rob Ford was a working-class hero despite having inherited his family’s million-dollar label business.  Donald Trump, it was oft lamented by Clinton campaign personnel, literally shat in gold-plated toilets aboard his private jet and somehow convinced the out-of-work laborers in the Rust Belt states that he was one of them.  The hatred for the political elite – framed as single-handedly responsible for every ill that has befallen every human being ever, and they may have taken the Lindbergh Baby as well – is so strong that a disturbing number of voters are quite happy to overlook the glaring hypocrisy of anyone who steps up to affirm that anger in digestible, repeatable soundbites.

As Canada’s federal opposition Conservative Party prepares to select its new leader, the 14 pretenders to Stephen Harper’s iron throne are likewise bleating about sticking it to the elites a la Trump, despite the fact that all save one are veteran former federal cabinet ministers and most have degrees from prestigious educational institutions and long track records in the upper echelons of the corporate sphere predating their service in government.  You simply do not get to mount a campaign for the leadership of a national political party as a commonplace rube, and trying to pretend that you have suddenly become the standard bearer for people who haven’t the first clue what the letters in all the degrees after your last name stand for, people who you’d never condescend to speak to for a half-second if your public image didn’t require it, is the highest of farce – however, as Trump proved, sadly, it doesn’t mean you won’t still win.

As a word, elite needs to be reclaimed from those who are redefining it into a handy slur directed at the opposite side of the aisle.  Elite means the smartest and the best, something everyone should aspire to, and even if admitting it publicly is somehow seen as immodest, no one is sitting around thinking “I really hope to be the most numbingly bland, average, unremarkable, mediocre, inadequate and woefully subpar ____________ as it is possible in this life to be.”  No, we won’t all get to be President or Prime Minister or otherwise world-renowned, but we can still do the best we can with the life we have, which, surprise of surprises, requires a great deal of hard work, always lauded or used as the first line of defense by the thin-skinned in Internet comment section arguments:  “I’m not one of those elites, I’ve worked hard for everything I have!” – congratulations, that makes you elite, and there aren’t enough Make America Great Again stickers to plaster on your rear bumper to change it.

And while many might rue the notion of being governed by the elite – in the manner as it is defined by pundits – like the business looking for that ideal hire, when we vote we truly do want the best person for the job.  Even the 62 million people who voted for Donald Trump did not really think he was going to suck at being President.  So can we please, for the love of the English language, put the misuse of elite to bed and stop acting like being really good at something is a failing and that ignorance in the ways of governing is in any way a desirable virtue?  Because you can’t be sanctimonious about proudly electing idiots and then complain with any legitimacy when everything goes to pot, which it will.  Everyone who is trying to win your vote by making an enemy of elites knows this.  They simply don’t care, and they are faking that they understand your struggles in order to achieve an office that will allow them to screw you with impunity, to the benefit of their wallets, not yours.  Elite is being informed and thoughtful enough to be able to recognize these purveyors of snake oil for what they are.  Given the alternative, which would you choose?

Canadians Stand With You

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In March of 2003, shortly after then prime minister Jean Chretien stood up in the House of Commons and told the world that Canada would not be participating in George W. Bush’s flight of folly that was to be the Iraq War, two members of the opposition, Stephen Harper (the future prime minister) and Stockwell Day wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal under this same title criticizing the government’s stance and suggesting that most Canadians were in fact in favour of Bush’s chest-beating military escapades.  I’m not sure who Messrs. Harper and Day were speaking for, because to this day I’ve never met a single fellow Canadian who would cop to admitting such a thing.  Rather, coast-to-coast we were proud that our PM showed the gravitas to stand up against what would ultimately prove to be an act of lunacy in which thousands of lives were lost and the perpetrators remain free to deliver $20,000 an hour guest lectures at universities the world over.

As the sobering and saddening event of November 8, 2016 settles and a serial liar, philanderer and proudly racist fool prepares to assume the office of President of the United States, this time Canadians do stand with you, our American friends, neighbours and cousins.  We stand with you in your trepidation at what a profoundly unqualified narcissist with little interest in the nuance of governance beyond what benefits his personal brand, prone to fly off the handle at the sight of a nasty tweet, will do with absolute authority over America’s nuclear arsenal and a zombie army of neo-Nazis goosestepping cheerfully wherever dark place he chooses to lead.  Though some might try to preach a tempered optimism, hopeful that the nobility of the office might silence the instincts for demagoguery, this really doesn’t seem like a glass half-full situation.  For the 64 million (and counting) souls who voted for Hillary Clinton, it’s more like the glass was sucked dry, smashed and then stolen from the tuberculosis-ridden orphans to whom it belonged.  It is deeply troubling when the most progressive imaginable outcome is that the hairdo is swiftly impeached and the balance of his presidency is entrusted to his homophobic VP – the empty shell of a man who represents Grover Norquist’s wet dream of an obedient puppet who will sign whatever government-shredding legislation is placed in front of him.  The American press is already trying its damnedest to normalize this bizarre sequence of events, falling back into its traditional deference to power and the fallacious and harmful “both sides” approach – counting, perhaps, on everyone to go to sleep again and be mollified by the off-camera antics of celebrities as America’s experiment in democracy approaches its most critical test:  whether it can survive the machinations of a sociopathic moron.

As Canadians, we watched the election of Barack Obama in 2008 with tremendous joy, thankful that the progressive values we had long held sacred (and boasted about in our non-confrontational Canadian sort of way) had a real chance to take heart and root in the most powerful country on the planet.  That we would finally begin to see some global leadership in worldwide crises like environmental degradation, poverty and war, and that the laissez-faire types running our government at the time would have no choice but to follow where President Obama would lead.  It is perhaps the most liberal of failings to assume that everyone should share our values because we know them to be right; we are equally prone to underestimating how forceful the backlash from the right can be when those things that they consider sacred – whatever our opinions of them – are threatened.  And so it was that after the prolonged drama that was the passage of the Affordable Care Act – a frustrating exercise in incrementalism for a president who wanted a transformational wave – the 2010 midterm elections saw the Republicans take back the House and bring a decisive end to the President’s legislative agenda, to be replaced by fruitless repeal votes and endless (and equally fruitless) investigations.  Progress, sadly, would have to wait.  It remains on a shelf, and now seems fated to be relegated to a back corner of that warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark as every long-slumbering, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal neo-con rises from the morass to assume a place of leadership in the new administration, determined to take the country back to the bad old days of the 1850’s.

When we elected Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister in 2015, we felt as though it was the continuation of a trend that Obama had begun, perhaps the commencement of a new era of this new breed of statesperson:  charismatic, far-thinking, caring.  The sight of the two of them palling around like old schoolmates at the subsequent state dinner was an episode of The West Wing come to life, and one that seemed destined to continue under safely inevitable President-to-be Hillary Clinton.  Like you, we never thought that in a million years would enough swing-state Americans pull the lever for the loudmouthed candidate whose entire campaign seemed a calculated publicity stunt designed to boost bookings at his hotels and golf courses.  He seemed to like the idea of winning, but not necessarily the work of doing the job after that.  We thought that if trends and polls pointed to a win, he would swiftly drop out, spin it as a victory, and go back to leering at his daughter and stiffing contractors.

When he actually won, Canadians gave ourselves a shake because we had seen this before, and we should have known it could happen, and we shouldn’t have been soothing our panic with promising poll numbers.  Because in 2010 the City of Toronto, thought of as one of the most liberal and diverse metropolises in the world, elected as its Mayor a man who had been similarly dismissed in the beginning as a bumbling, boorish oaf with virtually no chance of winning.  In Toronto’s election, the narrative of the entire campaign was Rob Ford:  love him or hate him, he was all you were talking about.  Ford’s message was uncomplicated and aimed directly at anyone who’d ever been upset with their local government about anything – recognizing that voter anger and the desire for change, no matter what that change might be, is perhaps the most powerful force into which any candidate for anything can tap.  The other candidates might have had some decent and progressive ideas, but they failed to articulate exactly what they stood for other than being against Ford and the dire prognostications of what Ford might do in the mayor’s office.  And it wasn’t enough.  Ford won a handsome victory and despite the rollercoaster of his term looked like he was headed for a second before the illness that ultimately claimed his life forced him to drop out of the race in 2014.

In the flashback West Wing episode “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen,” longshot primary candidate Jed Bartlet chafes at a staffer’s suggestion that he refrain from mentioning his front-running opponent John Hoynes’ name in speeches as it gives him free publicity.  Bartlet argues that not mentioning Hoynes’ name just makes him look like he can’t remember Hoynes’ name.  But in 2016, every Clinton election ad that filtered north of the border did indeed seem to be about her opponent; every terrible thing he had done and the piss poor example he would set as a president and role model.  (I shared a few myself on Twitter.)  Utterly lost in the messaging was what she would do, how she would make things better, that one singular idea that can light a fire in a soul and spread ravenously to others, the idea from which world-changing movements are born.  Instead, with the ratings-hungry media eager to cash in on trainwreck spectacle, the election became Rob Ford redux, and what little time was afforded Hillary Clinton was devoted to the tiresome saga of her emails.  The book The Secret posits the question of why sometimes, in elections, a widely loathed candidate still manages to win, arguing that it is because all thought, energy and attention is focused on him.  Whatever the truth behind the veneer, on the surface he was the dazzling wealthy celebrity with the glamorous supermodel wife and the incomparably lavish lifestyle, the embodiment of “American exceptionalism,” the archetype many Americans feel it’s their divine destiny and right to one day become; the Big Lie of the “haves and soon-to-haves,” and day after day, night after night, he was the full story.

I really don’t mean to Monday morning quarterback; it certainly doesn’t ease the pain of what happened on November 8th.  I offer it only as a caveat for what comes next, because others will look to copy the model of Rob Ford and the walking comb-over in years to come – and we need a solid strategy to defeat them.  Already here in Canada we have a candidate for the leadership of our Conservative Party praising the U.S. election results and saying that we need some of that bad mojo to spread up here – to which I and I think a majority of Canadians respond with a unified gag reflex.  But we don’t dare write this person off or pretend that such views can’t possibly take a toehold and mutate into something larger and much uglier.  When people are desperate, they will latch on to whomever is selling the easiest solution in the loudest voice, and it’s dangerous to dismiss such people as suckers.  As progressives and liberals we need to do better at selling our ideas instead of just defining ourselves in opposition to the heinous garbage the other guys are rolling out.  We need to go into those reddest of red states (and bluest of blue provinces – the red/blue thing is flipped up here) and start the conversation with the most unfriendly of audiences and not stop it until we’ve won hearts and minds.  The cheaper, easier alternative, shoring up the base and waiting for demographic evolution to take care of business, is an errand for fools.

There’s no sense in applying the comforting coat of sugar, my American friends:  you have some hard times ahead.  The monsters you thought you’d driven under the bed over the last eight years are slithering back out to sink their greedy teeth into you, and this time they won’t be the slightest bit subtle about it.  But the good news is that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, and your “small group” outnumbers this gang of robber baron cretins by about 320 million.  The world remembers when your collective effort allowed humanity to walk on the moon; surely you can do it again, after all, there’s even more of you now.  President Obama himself said that progress rarely moves in a straight line.  So don’t let your country slip back into the Dark Ages without a fight.  Don’t let the media normalize this caricature of a man who is about to become your president.  Speak out.  Organize boycotts.  Take to the streets and to the barricades.  Don’t be lulled into complacency by reality shows and celebrity catfights for one precious second.  Raise your voices, sing your songs and spread your words far and wide every chance you get, and you will win the real battle to make America great again.

And know that on this side of the border, Canadians stand with you.

Triumph of a Heavyweight

As a malaprop-prone former U.S. President might have put it, they misunderestimated him.

It’s a dark Tuesday morning, the blue jays (birds, not baseball team) are swiping peanuts from the feeder outside and I’m sipping on my homemade caramel latte, watching CBC Newsworld recap the incredible achievement of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in the 2015 federal election.  The voters of Canada, who at the outset of the unprecedentedly-lengthy campaign had seemed content to muddle on with the same old crew of Conservatives for another few years, turfed them with a resounding choice for positive change.  The Liberals won 184 seats – 14 more than was needed for a majority – in a 338-seat House of Commons, whose recent redistricting was supposed to have favoured the Conservative incumbents.  That’s seven more seats than Jean Chretien managed in his best performance in 1993, and in each of his victories he had been running against a divided right.  Crushed in the red tide was Tom Mulcair and the New Democrats, who will be trundling back to their old, familiar berth of third place after flirting with the possibility of power in early polls back in August.  Departing the political stage entirely will be Stephen Harper, and while the temptation to bid him good riddance and thanks for nothing is strong, to do so would run contrary to the sentiment provided in Trudeau’s inspiring acceptance speech, that “Conservatives are not our enemies, they are our neighbours.”  Fair enough.  Best to focus then on the man of the hour, and the man who will guide Canada for at least the next four years.

For years, Conservative supporters, both from prominent mainstream media perches and flailing at the keyboard in dank basements, have tried to dismiss all criticism of their party’s policies as “Harper Derangement Syndrome.”  Basically, that any legitimate argument one might make against the Conservatives is automatically rendered moot because it must originate from a place of deep, embittered loathing of the popular kid, because he’s just so awesome.  Even before he won the leadership of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau endured a far more acute case of “Trudeau Derangement Syndrome” from those on both the near and extreme right.  All style and no substance was the theme of the more complimentary of the relentless slams against him – some of which are far too ugly to reference here.  The pattern of the intent was to utterly belittle and destroy the public image of a man whom those in power recognized, quite rightly as it turns out, presented a formidable challenge to the rightward tilt they were trying to shove a largely progressive country.  You saw this in the early days of the rumblings of Trudeau’s candidacy for the Liberal leadership in 2012 after interim chief Bob Rae withdrew himself from consideration.  Innumerable op-eds and website comments penned by sympathetic-sounding Conservatives suggested that Justin Trudeau at its head meant the end of the Liberal Party as a viable force in Canadian politics, and the Liberals should really pick someone else if they want to get back to relevance, maybe in two elections or so.  There is a term for this, as you know:  concern troll.

In June 2012 I wrote a piece about it.  I suggested that these sentiments were appearing because the Conservatives were afraid that they couldn’t beat someone who had the capacity to inspire hope and a desire for positive change the way Barack Obama did.  The morning after I published it, I was dropping my wife off at the train station when my phone began to buzz and ding and buzz, over and over again.  I opened it and discovered this tweet:

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Needless to say, I was as bowled over as it is possible for a neophyte, unknown writer to be.  I got almost 3,600 hits on my site that day (it had been averaging a mere 20), a whackload of new Twitter followers, and a plethora of comments agreeing with me and hoping that what I had written about would eventually come to pass.  Not too long afterwards, Trudeau declared for the leadership, won it convincingly, and set about rebuilding the battered Liberal Party and getting it into fighting shape to contest the coming election.  I’m not going to pretend I’m a soothsayer or that I had any influence whatsoever in what followed.  That credit goes entirely to Trudeau, his family and his incredible team of supporters and volunteers who battled with him for three long years, under the interminable assault of Conservative war chest-funded attack ads highlighting out-of-context quotes, and a compliant corporate media all to eager to jump on everything that might be interpreted as a gaffe given the proper spin – anything to reinforce the meme that had been established to keep Trudeau out of contention, to force his support down into the low teens so that the election would come down to a fight between the veteran, battle-hardened Conservatives and the untested NDP with its roll of accidental MP’s left over from the 2011 Jack Layton surge.

But it sure is nice to be proven right.

Not long after he won the Liberal leadership, Trudeau disappointed a few of the old diehard politicos by publicly declaring that he would not resort to negative attacks.  Surely, they argued, the game has changed, and if you’re not willing to punch hard then you risk being defined before you can define yourself.  When the Just Not Ready campaign fired into gear, it looked as though it was Dion/Ignatieff all over again.  Initial response suggested that the ads weren’t working and that there was even some backlash, but as they lingered and repeated ad nauseum ad absurdum, the effectiveness of the Big Lie began to seep in to the Canadian consciousness, abetted by media overreaction to off-the-cuff comments.  Maybe he wasn’t ready after all?  Eventually, Trudeau’s numbers started to sink.  When he supported the loathed Bill C-51 (which everyone forgets was going to pass even if the entire Liberal caucus spent the day of the vote in the Bahamas, and that Trudeau was able to get some of the more odious language removed through amendments because he offered public support, i.e. political cover, hence him making the best of a truly rotten situation) and the NDP surprised everyone by winning government in deep blue Alberta, the Liberals plummeted to third and progressive Canada turned its lonely eyes to Mulcair as its only possible salvation.  It was a rough time to be sure.  But faith untested is not true faith.  And as the Toronto Blue Jays have proven time and again this year, real fighters are never down for the count.

One of the most execrable yet pivotal moments of the campaign came when smug Conservative spokesperson Kory Teneycke (he who failed utterly to establish Fox News North) sneered that Trudeau could exceed expectations for the first leader’s debate simply by showing up wearing pants.  It crystallized what Trudeau was up against:  a party drunk on its own press releases, bulging with establishment bloat, so enamored of themselves and so contemptuous of anyone who dared question them that they were practically begging, like a political Biff Tannen, for a good old-fashioned solid left hook to the jaw.  Which Trudeau promptly delivered.  Not a knockout, but as Trudeau the boxer would certainly explain, a much more effective solid series of jabs, over and over again.  Debate after debate.  Event after event.  Rally after rally.  People listened.  People got on board.  Trudeau turned “Just Not Ready” to his own advantage.  I am ready, he declared, and set about proving it.  The other established media meme, that the Conservatives were brilliant campaigners, was wiped out, as true to form, they could not seem to answer what Trudeau was offering voters, their collected intellect unable to compute why Canadians wanted to hear more than just promises of tax cuts and overwrought head scarf hysteria.  But, they cried, we balanced the budget!  We sent you all free (not really) cheques!  But a country, Trudeau said, in words echoing the great statesmen of the past, is far, far more than how much money you have in your pocket at the end of the day.  A country is an idea, formed by the hopes of its people, greater than the sum of its parts,  and much stronger when unified in a bold vision than when stymied by exaggerated regional differences for the sake of a few swing votes.  Canadians want something positive to believe in together; exemplified best, perhaps, by the excitement of the Blue Jays’ 2015 playoff run.  We were thirsting for it so badly and didn’t even realize it.  And Justin Trudeau was giving it to us.

As numbers for the Liberals began to climb, the concern trolls bounded back into gear.  The polls are wrong, they bleated.  Look what happened in the UK.  Conservative support is always underestimated, the youth won’t come out to vote, seniors love the Conservatives, “shy Tories” will ultimately turn this election in favour of Harper.  It’s all going to collapse, and such a shame, we would’ve voted Liberal if only you’d picked the astronaut.  Okay, fine, whatever.  The Conservatives’ cash register stunt, hysterical warnings of legalized brothels and the dragging out of the Ford brothers in the final week showed the flailing desperation of a side that knows they’ve lost, and most telling of all were Harper’s visits to what had been thought of as safe Conservative ridings in the final days.  “Just Not Ready” kept running on TV, but Trudeau’s numbers kept rising, and the NDP fell away as the large progressive Canadian majority pledged its troth to the man who had defined himself in the long, long campaign that was supposed to have bankrupted his party.  A last ditch attempt by Postmedia ownership to swing support back to Harper by having all its newspapers endorse the Conservatives was fruitless, and probably did more to insult the intelligence of the Canadian voter than it did to move numbers to Team Blue.  Still, we were warned, the best Liberals can hope for is a decent minority.  Harper might even be able to cling to power if he gets a small plurality of seats.  We’ll be back at this in six months.

As Troy Tulowitzki smashed another three-run home run last night in what would become an 11-8 victory for Toronto over Kansas City and a cutting of KC’s lead in the ALCS in half, the returns started to come in, heralded by Atlantic Canada with its complete Liberal sweep.  Then came Quebec, shrugging off most of the 2011 NDP wave and giving the Liberals the highest total of seats they’d earned in the province since the first Trudeau won his final election in 1980.  Ontario shut the Conservatives out of The Six and most of the 905, and as polls closed in the west and Canadian political junkies flipped back and forth from Game 3 to Peter Mansbridge, the unexpected, the undreamed of, became reality.  You had to just stop and soak it in for a long moment.  1-8-4.  A freaking majority.

Wow.

It is not possible, I think, to overstate the accomplishment of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party in this election, coming back from the doldrums of a little over 30 seats to a solid mandate to establish a new and uniquely hopeful and very much Canadian tone of governance for the next four years.  Coming back from being written off only a few months ago as a lightweight with a famous name, unsuited to step into the ring with the big boys.  It’s difficult not to compare the tone of this moment to the election of Barack Obama.  In Trudeau’s victory speech, he invoked Abraham Lincoln (and The West Wing) in referring to the better angels of our nature, before reminding us again, as he had many times on the campaign trail, that in Canada, better is always possible.  Many of us knew this all along.  And now we have the right person with the right team for the right time to make better happen.  I won’t lie.  It feels amazing today.  Today has more promise than most of the yesterdays in the past ten years, and we can look to tomorrow with excitement and anticipation, as we just watch him.

I don’t write about politics very often anymore.  My focus has changed as I’ve grown older, become a father, diverted my interests and attentions.  But I think often about what I wrote about Justin Trudeau three years ago, how it connected with him that day, and how generous he was to share my thoughts with the people who supported him.  (And I’m just a little bit proud that he still follows me on Twitter.)  But I couldn’t let today pass without writing the words that I hoped I might be able to one day, when I first clicked “publish” on Justin Trudeau vs. the Concern Trolls and sent it out into the world:

Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister.  And thank you.

Memo to Rand Paul: Free Health Care is a Moral Imperative

No picture included today because I’m not having that dead weasel on his head clutter my pretty blog space.

A statement made a few years ago by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, now running for the Republican nomination for President, has begun circulating again, presumably so anyone who might be inclined in supporting his 2016 candidacy might be reminded that the interests he is looking out for do not align in any way with what would actually be best for the overwhelming majority of the country.  Here it is.  Try not to vomit.

“With regard to the idea of whether or not you have a right to healthcare, you have to realize what that implies… I’m a physician, that means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me, it means you believe in slavery.  It means you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the assistants, the nurses… There’s an implied threat of force, do you have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away, and force me to take care of you?  That’s ultimately what the right to free healthcare would be.” – Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

How does one even begin to deconstruct a statement of such careless, asinine, take-my-ball-and-go-home nincompoopery?  The slavery allegory, deserving a Godwin’s Law of its own, is especially offensive coming from a son of privilege with a Southern accent.  Dwelling on the image, one imagines a ludicrous scene of an army of sick people coughing and hacking as they (weakly) kick in poor gosh-darn put-upon Dr. Paul’s door and demand at the point of a crutch that he hand over the antibiotics.  If there weren’t so many people suffering because they can’t afford to even get into the same room with the elusive golden chalice that is American health care, it would be worthy of a laugh.  If I didn’t know someone personally who was going through a rough time because her access to care is limited by her financial means, I might cluck my tongue as I look down on high from my enviable Canadian system.  But no, Rand Paul, you’ve pissed me right off, and your apparent unfamiliarity with the Hippocratic Oath alone should be cause for you to lose your medical license (the status of which I understand is dubious at best).

Rand Paul’s problem is that fundamentally, he does not give a rat’s furry arse about anyone but himself (the opposite of the concept of “public servant.”)  He seems to genuinely believe that having to share space with other people unlike himself is an irritant.  I have always found libertarianism as a philosophy to be a giant crock of donkey doo-doo, given that aside from those guys who proclaim their own kingdoms on ranches in the middle of nowhere and usually find their utopias promptly ended by the FBI, no libertarian truly wants to live free of all government.  I mean, surely Rand Paul isn’t in favor of having to pave his own streets, treat his own drinking water and dispose of his own sewage when he has to take a dump, right?  And when Kim Jong-Un finally sends his crack troops to invade Lexington, does Rand want to be out on the front lines at the head of a hastily cobbled militia?  No.  Libertarians like Rand Paul are for all the conveniences of government, they just don’t want to have to deign to pay for them, or obey the laws that they personally do not like.  When it comes to the idea of socialized medicine, for Rand Paul (who is rich, of course), the idea that he might have to sacrifice a few of his pennies so that a single mom working three jobs doesn’t have to sell her furniture when her child develops pneumonia, is toxic anathema to be fought to his dying breath.  Obviously, to him, she just hasn’t worked hard enough to be able to have her child breathe properly, and doesn’t deserve the sparsest notion of help from the rest of her fellow citizens.

“Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?”  Even Dickens would have found Rand Paul’s point of view hyperbolically cruel.

Choosing to live in civilization instead of out on the fringes is by its nature accepting a social compact with our immediate neighbours and our countrymen as a whole.  We come to accept that there are certain things we are not permitted to do in exchange for other privileges.  I’m okay with the fact that I’m not allowed to lounge bare-ass naked in the middle of the street in front of my house if it means that my weird neighbour across the way can’t do it either.  We also accept that there are certain public goods and services to which we must each contribute a modest share.  I’m also totally okay with the tiny percentage of my total property tax bill that ensures that my garbage and recycling is collected each week without me having to set up an individual account with and survive three credit reference checks by the ABC Trash Removal Company, and my same neighbour’s potential inability to afford it won’t mean I have to fight off the gulls picking away at the stench wafting from the mountain of used diapers and doggie waste bags piling up on his lawn every time I step outside.  The Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Republican, famously said that “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”  The notion that free health care is not included as one of the core tenets of that civilized society is morally reprehensible.  That a significant segment of the American population fights as hard as it does to ensure the system remains in its crushing, inequitable state is a testament to the brainwashing power of significantly monied interests controlling the message – look no further than dirt poor red staters screaming “socialism!” when the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare) is mentioned in casual conversation.

Since there are copious misconceptions about what socialized medicine entails (furthered naturally by those same monied interests noted above), it is probably incumbent on me as a Canadian to dispel them to my American audience by providing a few examples from personal experience.  Here’s how it works when you get sick in the province of Ontario, where I reside:  you call your doctor and make an appointment.  If the doctor can’t see you soon enough for your liking, you can go to a walk-in clinic or, if it’s much more serious, the emergency room.  When you arrive you hand the receptionist a government-issued Health Card, which has your provincial insurance number on it.  That’s it.  You never get a bill, no bureaucratic middleman (or Sarah Palin boogeyman “death panel”) evaluates your claim, nothing.  Your medical records are a confidential matter for you and your doctor.  Nobody else.  If you’re required to be admitted to hospital overnight or longer, you might pay extra (on a willing basis, it’s not mandatory) if you want an upgrade to a semi-private or private room, or if you want additional services like a TV or a phone at your bedside.  But you will never be charged for your health care.  The government pays for it.  And Canadian doctors are not exactly working for slave wages, either.  A 2012 survey found the average family physician making $328,000 a year in Canada.  Even in our system which Rand Paul likens to slavery, no one expects doctors to work for free, and they are most certainly not.

About fifteen years ago I was hospitalized for a collapsed lung.  I was not working at the time so I had no health benefits or insurance.  The cost for my week-long stay was $12, for said phone.  I wasn’t charged for the painkillers or the sedatives or the tube they had to drill into my side or the electric pump draining the blood and pus from my pleural cavity.  In the likes of Rand Paul’s mind, I should have just died of it and/or gone bankrupt to pay for getting better, instead of burdening millionaires with an extra few dollars on their taxes.  Would that have improved life for everyone else?  Would it be better that my wife never would have met me, or that my adopted son would never have known his father?

Screw you, Rand Paul.  Screw your privileged pelvis to a rusty cake stand.

The Canadian health care system is not perfect, and unfortunately important things like eye and chiropractic care that were covered when my parents were alive have been stripped away as the years have gone on and voters have demanded lower and lower taxes.  Dental care has never been covered, which is just stupid as the last time I checked, teeth were part of the body and rotten teeth can impact your entire system.  But no Canadian worries that if they ever have a heart attack, the paramedics will demand to see a bank statement before they apply the defibrillators.  Getting cancer doesn’t mean having to hock the house to afford the chemo.  In fact, our socialized health care system is so deeply ingrained into our cultural identity that our governing Conservative Party, while full of Republican sympathizers who would love to see us embrace a fully privatized health care system – including our prime minister – dares not even approach that third rail lest they face a complete electoral wipeout.  It seems to be understood for the most part among Canadians that we are in this together and we owe it to each other to ensure that illness does not lead to complete ruin.  Part of the problem is that while it has not been as bad here as in the States, we too have felt the effects of the systematic attack against the government social safety net through the insane machete-slashing of corporate and higher-income tax rates that has been going on since the election of Ronald Reagan.  Just make it better for the rich guys, we’re told over and over again, and they will shower the rest of us with prosperity.  I’ve already gone on at length about how fanatically and fatally stupid that argument is.  It makes even less sense to claim that getting the government out of the health care system will lead to its improvement.

Government is the means by which we pool our resources to provide for the needs that we cannot fulfill on our own.  Individually we can’t afford police or water treatment plants, but we all need to drink water and we need someone to stop the bad guys from stealing our stuff.  And because we collectively pay other people to do this for us through our taxes, we can stretch and contribute to the maximum of our potential in other areas.  The same thinking should apply to health care, and I’m always stymied as to how ostensible economists can’t see the benefits of taking health care out of the personal expense stream.  I don’t know what the going monthly rate for an American health insurance policy is, but I’m guessing if it’s several hundred dollars on the cheap end, that’s several hundred that isn’t going into discretionary spending, you know, the kind that actually boosts the economy.  Cutting a rich guy’s taxes might mean that he can afford a few more flatscreen TV’s for his beach house, but he’s still only one man with a limited ability to make use of multiple televisions, so he’s only going to buy so many.  But if three hundred million people have the cost of health care taken off their monthly balance sheet so that they can now afford a new TV, well, that’s a positive boon for the manufacturers of flatscreens, and that’s a lot of new jobs and economic growth in the flatscreen television industry alone.

“But a socialized health care system will be too expensive!  We can’t afford it!” cry the Grover Norquists of the world.  Nope, I don’t buy that, pun intended.  The United States is spending $700 billion a year on its defense budget and most of the right wing wants that budget increased.  America has the money.  Gobs of it.  A great deal of it being pissed away on weapons systems that the military doesn’t even want, and in tax breaks and loopholes for dirty energy companies and the like who are quite literally laughing at how easy they’ve got it.  America is awesome at coming up with ways to kill people and pollute the planet (making us all sicker in fact) – not so much at taking care of the inhabitants of the “greatest country in the world.”  Again, that’s by design, and until its people cease swallowing the lies being spoon-fed to them and voting against their own interests, nothing will change.  The American Dream should by its definition include the idea that freedom should also be freedom from the financial burden of illness – the understanding that sometimes, people fall through no fault of their own, and that helping them stand up isn’t coddling them, it’s letting them walk again under their own power.  I do not see how anyone could argue with that, unless they were the sort to derive a perverse joy in watching others be hurt.  (Is that you, Rand Paul?)  Finance shouldn’t even be part of the equation when it comes to this.  Some things are more important in this life than the bottom line.  Any government implementing extreme austerity at the expense of the welfare of its people needs to take a hard look at what exactly it is they’re trying to govern – a great-looking spreadsheet for a realm of ruined faces?

I could not look that hypothetical single mother in the eye and tell her that she should suck it up and get used to the street with her sick kid because it’s more important that we balance the budget.  If it is, then you know what?  Address the revenue side of the equation.  Raise the taxes.  Make the rich pay more; they’ll survive without that extra flatscreen.  Punish the companies who are offshoring their profits and hoarding their cash, or whining about needing to lay people off because of health care costs (or worse, Hobby Lobbying about what health care they will or won’t cover).  They’re lying.  So long as lives are being destroyed by the unavailability of proper health care, no one who thinks of themselves as moral should rest easy.

Why isn’t that what’s keeping the Rand Pauls of the world up at night?

All the Mayor’s Men

atpm

The Rob Fordpocalypse unfolding this week is a vindication for the forces of investigative journalism, a welcome throwback to the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, when the news was granted unwavering trust.  In the modern age of political polarization, Rupert Murdoch and Fox, every story is treated first with skepticism, with immediate questions about the legitimacy and bias of the source.  Such questions aside, the problem is that it’s often the media’s job to say things about people that those people are not necessarily going to like, and those people are going to fight back with every resource they can muster.  But before the Internet, if you disagreed with a reporter’s take on you, you had to attempt to return fire on their turf, and few could dent the veneer of infallibility possessed by Murrow and Cronkite et al.  The notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy tumbled from grace largely due to Murrow’s relentless attacks on him.  When instead those traditional media outlets find themselves on an equal playing field with every wag with a laptop and a WordPress account (not unaware of the irony am I), the old adage about refraining from picking a fight with folk who buy ink by the barrel no longer applies.  A breaking news story is no longer the last word, it’s the start of an extended argument of attrition, as confirmation bias leads people to avoid reading what doesn’t reinforce their worldview and doubting with venom anything that challenges them.  Rob Ford’s supporters don’t care that he has a drug problem or that he associates with characters under criminal investigation.  He’s keeping taxes low!  He’s fighting the gravy train!  Na-na-na-na-I-can’t-hear-you!  They repeat the meme ad nauseum and haul reporters in front of the Press Council for being mean to their standard bearer.  Hammered relentlessly, the press soldiers on, the truth their dim light in the fog, wondering if they’d be happier filing fluff about quilting bees.

Hmm.  Where have we seen this movie before?

All the President’s Men (1976) is one of the finest cinematic portrayals of the kind of crack (pun intended) investigative journalism that led to this past week’s revelations – a gritty, non-glamorous depiction of the work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as they worked to piece together the scandal that began with the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate hotel and eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  It is a thriller that eschews thriller conventions but remains gripping from start to finish simply because it is all true.  The movie begins, appropriately, with the tremendously overamplified sound of typewriter keys striking blank paper – a metaphor for the rifle-like ability of a big news story to upend the world.  And what follows would be unlikely to make it out of the scripting stages today – extended scenes of Woodward and Bernstein working the phones, probing reluctant sources with skilled questions, cracking under the pressure of editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) to bring him something he can publish.  (One can imagine a modern studio executive demanding more car chases and perhaps inserting a plucky office assistant character with big boobs for the duo to leer at.)  The dialogue is ripe with lasting tropes like “follow the money” and “non-denial denials,” terms that remain as applicable in 2013 as they did nearly 40 years ago.  Indeed, the image of Toronto Star reporters sitting in a car with drug dealers to view the famous Ford video evokes Woodward in his parking garage waiting to meet up with Deep Throat.

After Gawker and the Star broke the Ford video story back in May, “Ford Nation,” like Nixon’s silent majority before it, went to work trying to discredit them, with comment boards flooded with enough vitriol to embarrass a Klan rally.  The Star, like the Post before it, stood by its story, even as time wore on and the fabled video failed to materialize, leading even the most ardent Ford opponents to believe that perhaps there was no there there.  (A common rumor suggested that Ford’s people had acquired and managed to destroy it.)  All the President’s Men winds to a conclusion as Woodward and Bernstein “shoot too high and miss” – implicating Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman in the Watergate coverup without solid proof and perhaps fatally jeopardizing the reputation of their newspaper.  They are ultimately able to correct their mistake, but not before a dressing down on Bradlee’s front lawn in the middle of the night, where the cynical old newsman remarks, “Have you seen the latest poll?  Half the country never even heard of Watergate.  Nobody gives a shit.”  Forum Research released a poll indicating that since Toronto Police Chief Blair’s fateful announcement, Ford’s popularity had risen five points.

There is no future, only the past happening over and over again.

Woodward and Bernstein get back to work, typewriters hammering away over the sound of Nixon triumphant in his re-election, before a series of teletype headlines reveal the fate of the major players, with one Nixon confederate after another sentenced to prison or forced to step aside before the big dog is finally brought down.  Mayor Ford’s mea culpa of yesterday, offered with a determination to stay in office in the face of every major Canadian daily calling for his resignation, can be seen as a calculated move designed to wait out a fickle public whose attention span is only as long as it takes to click over to a story about Miley Cyrus and sideboob.  But we’re seeing the same story play out in a repetition of subconscious themes ingrained in our collective memories that would impress Joseph Campbell.  And we know how it ends – or at least, how it’s supposed to end.  The only difference is that Robert Redford is too old now to play Robyn Doolittle.

Bursting the bubble

Bubble Rain.  Source:  Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons license.
Bubble Rain. Source: Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons license.

Reza Aslan has had an interesting week in the limelight.  A few days following an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, he became the newest viral video sensation when an “interview” he did/was subjected to on Fox News garnered an impressive level of coverage, for both the stupidity of the questions he was being asked and his unflappable calm in responding to them; akin, as some have observed, to a teacher instructing a babbling child.  As he mentions in the clip, Aslan is an impeccably credentialed academic who has made a career of studying and writing about religion, and so, to be interrogated repeatedly by a person whose education beyond fourth grade is dubious (at least based on this clip), “why does a Muslim want to write a book about Christ?” is probably the intellectual equivalent of being asked who he’s wearing on the red carpet tonight.  The embarrassing affair veers further of the rails when she begins badgering him about why he hasn’t revealed that he’s a Muslim before (he has, on multiple occasions), as she panders to that sizable portion of the Fox demographic that presumes Muslim = al-Qaeda.  The blatant anti-intellectualism would be galling if it weren’t so unsurprising, if one did not have to assume that the interviewer’s questions were prepared and approved enthusiastically (with frat boy giggles, in all odds) by a cynical producer seeking to perpetuate an insular, terribly biased view of the world for the benefit of Fox’s ratings.

Bill Maher is fond of pointing out that conservatives live in a bubble where they cannot accept anything that challenges how they choose to view the world.  It is quite possible the person conducting the interview with Aslan was so committed to this mindset that why a Muslim would write a book on Christ simply would not compute.  When you sacrifice the scary world of the unknown for the comforting confines of dogma, of course the curiosity of others becomes impossible to understand.  That’s why you get members of Congress (on science and technology committees, of all things) claiming defiantly that we don’t need to worry about global warming because God promised Noah he would never flood the world again.  But this notion that one should stay inside the lines, refrain from asking questions about things we don’t understand and (horrors!) actively explore topics that interest us despite their seeming to have no relation to our own lives, goes against the very notion of human progress.  If we don’t venture out of the cave we don’t discover fire.  If we presume that the earth is flat and there is nothing beyond the ocean sea, I’m writing this post in England right now (actually, I’m probably scrawling it in ink on parchment).  If we accept that the moon is made of green cheese we don’t have Apollo 11.  We have to ask questions about things that are foreign to us.  We have to examine viewpoints that contradict ours.  In the case of persons of faith, it’s what strengthens that faith – for unchallenged it is not faith at all.  For those of us who choose not to walk the religious path, it’s gathering those elusive nuggets of truth that help us sort out our own thoughts on What It’s All About.  And that sometimes means examining religion too, even if Fox News can’t understand why we would do it.  Curiosity is a trait borne of hunger, from a dissatisfaction with the distasteful notion of accepting things as they are.  Being unwilling to accept limits.  Curiosity is what makes us smash through those limits with an iron fist and reach for what’s hidden on the other side.  You never know, it might be something good.

We are fortunate to be living in this time, when the world has geared itself like a finely-tuned clock toward the indulgence of curiosity, when information is readily available to those who seek it out.  The human thirst for progress has led us here, centuries from the era when the Fox News illiterati whom we now laugh at with millions of snarky voices were once those who would have had us burned at the stake in a heartbeat for uttering a single syllable against their ridiculously narrow view of the cosmos.  Millions of opinions on just as many issues are published every single day and we are free to sort through the noise to find the songs we want to add to our ever-expanding repertoire.  Why would a Muslim want to write a book on Christ?  Because he can.  And we should want to read it for the same reason (in a happy ending for him, Aslan’s book Zealot has hit #1 on Amazon’s rankings this week).  That’s how we learn.  Which, one supposes, is the real danger to the folks like the purveyors of Fox News who rely on closed minds to replenish their bank accounts – fill a bubble with too much knowledge and it bursts.

Sorry, you’re out of the club

Wendy Davis.
Wendy Davis.

The United States heads into today’s Fourth of July celebrations consumed by anger at its women, as one state legislature after another attempts to enact laws that remove a woman’s right to manage her own body.  Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis of Texas recently became a national figure when she staged a twelve-hour filibuster to kill SB5, a bill that would have shuttered the state’s Planned Parenthood clinics, an event that exposed some truly ugly anti-female leanings from her right-wing colleagues (and a swift decision by chromosome-challenged Governor Rick Perry to schedule a special session to pass the bill anyway in a manner that won’t be able to be filibustered).  Ohio’s budget bill recently signed into law by Governor John Kasich contains language that redefines the concept of when pregnancy begins.  And it appears that North Carolina has also followed suit by slipping anti-abortion wording into an unrelated bill.  Medical decisions that should belong only to women and their doctors are being shoved down throats (or, to put it more bluntly and accurately, up vaginas) by old Bible-waving men whose medical expertise is limited to having seen every episode of Trapper John, M.D.  It’s abhorrent and nauseating to imagine the damage that will be done by these draconian measures, and the mind simply reels at the idea of a country where a vagina must be strictly regulated but doing the same to a lethal firearm represents an infringement on freedom.

The U.S. is not alone, but merely the latest world player to climb aboard the bad ship Misogyny.  We look aghast across the ocean at nations where women are forced to veil themselves head to toe and walk ten paces behind their husbands, and cannot even ride bicycles, let alone drive cars.  It is the most bizarre of pendulum swings that as women become more independent, successful and (gasp!) powerful, the old guard reacts by trying to legislate them back into submission.  By suggesting that women aren’t intelligent enough to manage their own bodies, and that it falls to Big Strong He-Man to pat her on the head and tell her boys know better while ushering her back to the kitchen to make him a sandwich and fetch him a beer.  Oh, and to have unlimited sex with him whenever and only exactly how he wants it.

That kind of backward attitude can only come, it seems to me, from a place of pure fear, fear of the mystical and irresistibly compelling unknown that is the lady parts.  What continues to elude me though is why all these men are so afraid.  What do they think is going to happen?  Truly?  Perhaps it’s the terror of the eternally insecure, the paranoiac who forever walks in worry of being exposed as a complete fraud, a construct of paper with no purpose to his existence.  An excellent depiction of this fear can be found in Ksenia Anske’s upcoming novel Siren Suicides, where the heroine must deal with an abusive father who insists that women are made only to “haul water.”  Papa frequently belts his daughter across the face to “remind her” and keep her controlled.  As the story unfolds, we discover that the seed of this hatred of women lies in his betrayal by one woman in particular.  It is not a stretch to imagine that much of the world’s misogyny originates in a man’s frustration with one specific woman from his past – projecting her perceived “sins” onto her entire gender.  “You’re all a bunch of feminists,” Marc Lepine railed infamously as he perpetrated the Montreal Massacre.  You’re all.  Woman is all women.  The so-called failings of one are the failings of the collective.  They must be controlled, regulated, kept down, lest… well, that’s the question, isn’t it, and that’s where you’ll find the fear.

I’m sorry, but I don’t get it, and as the politicians say, let me be abundantly clear.  I’m goddamned tired of it.  Because as men, we can do so much better, and yet we’re letting the standard be lowered daily by mouth-breathing troglodytes who can’t handle the funny feels that spring up (pun intended) in their groins when a woman walks by.  Who resent the notion that anyone could have power over their manly manliness and who try to prove it by essentially wrapping vaginas in red tape (or shoving ultrasound wands inside them, as the case may be with some of these recent laws).  Is this really what men want to be known for when the history of the 21st Century is written?

The aforementioned Neanderthal types need to take a hard long look in the mirror and ask themselves if this is what they signed up for.  If they want to perpetuate the cycle of hatred for another generation.  I have little optimism at this point that they will do so, however – the proverbial road-to-Damascus conversion is just that, the stuff of proverbs.  So it is incumbent on the rest of us – and I’m speaking to my fellow men here, the ones who shift silently and uncomfortably in their seats when their best friend’s douchebag cousin makes a crude remark about the waitress instead of telling him to shut his filthy mouth and get the hell out.  We need to be louder, and announce that not only do the Rick Perrys and John Kasichs of the world not speak for us, but that we’re kicking them out of the club, effective immediately – do not pass Go, do not collect $200.  That’s it.  Their “man card” is revoked.  They will no longer be welcome in gatherings of real men, nor will they earn a single one of our votes come election time.  We won’t drink with them, we won’t talk sports with them.  We’ll cross the street to avoid them.  We’ll shun them without pity.  They will be condemned to peer longingly in the window from the cold street at those of us who know that a woman’s place is wherever she wants to be.

A man who demeans a woman or women in any way does not deserve the honor of being called a man.  He’s an amateur, a lightweight, an utter joke of a waste of otherwise usable DNA overcompensating for what nature saw fit – justifiably so – to deny him.  It’s time the rest of us men started treating him accordingly.  Like how he treats women.  Hopefully he’ll learn something and change his ways.  Until then, forget it pal, you’re outta here.

Kicking stupid to the curb

There’s a person in the U.S. who thinks abortion should be banned because fetuses masturbate.  There was another one a few weeks ago who claimed that yoga was a gateway to Satanism.  Are these the random ravings of a guy on a street corner with a cardboard sign proclaiming the imminent arrival of the apocalypse?  No, they are statements made in seriousness by elected officials.  People who have managed to convince a sizable number of other people to entrust them with a position of real power and influence.  On last Friday’s Real Time with Bill Maher, one of the panelists, herself a Republican (oh yeah, the aforementioned remarks were both made by Republicans, as if you needed to guess) thought the “masturbating fetuses” comment represented a tipping point, and that sanity would begin to reassert itself on the right wing.  What has become abundantly clear over the last decade where politics is concerned is that there is no such thing as a tipping point anymore.  Every time we think we’ve reached the limit of the pendulum swing towards “the crazy,” someone else doubles down.  And someone else doubles down again on that someone else.  Forget tipping points – we’ve fallen off the cliff, and we’re competing to see who can scream loudest on the way down.

Last year’s comedy The Campaign was supposed to be an absurdist take on an escalating battle of nutbars for a congressional seat, and as star Zach Galifianakis observed, they found themselves out-absurded by real life.  Birtherism, “You lie,” the 47%, “legitimate rape,” Sarah Palin, anchor baby terrorism, unborn self-pleasure and Downward Dog apparently now being a reference to Cerberus, absolutely none of this meme-ready dumbassery, enough to cost any one of us regular folks our jobs and our friends were we to utter them in public, has been able to persuade the general public that something is rotten in the state of our discourse.  Rather, ideology has been entrenched in cement.  In the past I compared it to how fans support sports teams with unfailing devotion, but that may have been inaccurate.  Even the most dedicated fans will criticize their team from time to time, and the most zealous will go at their chosen squad with profane hatchets if they are dissatisfied with how the season is going.  Not so in politics.  Usually, an elected official who gets rightly excoriated for saying something inane and insulting will do the “I misspoke” non-apology apology routine and turn the incident into a fundraising plea by complaining that the big bad mainstream media is picking on them.  The lemmings will duly empty their wallets in response, and the rest of the world will shake its head at the same old story playing out again and again.

Living in a democracy means that theoretically, any citizen should be able to step up into a position of leadership so long as they have been properly elected by a majority of voters.  (The role of money puts the lie to this basic assumption, but let’s just go with it as a key principle for the sake of my argument here.)  That does not mean, however, that everyone living in said democracy is capable of governing, just as the guy who sits on his bar stool bitching about the Leafs does not actually possess the skill set to coach them to a Stanley Cup victory.  The canard that “the system is broken” is repeated ad nauseum to justify a cynical attitude toward public institutions.  Even those in power rely on the “everybody does it” excuse – see the Canadian Conservatives trying to deflect justified public outrage at their Senators’ grotesque abuse of taxpayer-funded expense accounts by flinging blame back at the Liberals (who have been out of power for seven years).  Justin Trudeau had it right when he said that the solution is not abolishing the institution, it’s choosing better people to populate it.  I feel like I say this a lot, and yet, it bears repeating – why is the bar set so catastrophically low for what we expect from the people we choose to govern us?  If our only qualification for electing someone is a suit, a flag pin and a series of poll-tested sound bites, why do we then act surprised when things go wrong?  It’s government by the lowest common denominator, and it keeps rolling along with the inevitability of the seasons and the tides.

Here’s a thought experiment.  Imagine going on a job interview – it doesn’t matter what the job is – and whatever question is asked, just pivot to how important family values, faith, low taxes and supporting the troops is to you.  Which outcome is more likely – landing the corner office or never hearing from the interviewers again?  Let’s delve deeper into this situation.  What are you usually asked when you’re being interviewed?  Questions about your experience as it pertains to this new role, ability to function as part of a team, aspirations for your potential future with the organization, your general character.  When one considers the lofty esteem with which the private sector is regarded (as compared to the piss poor reputation of the public sector), why should its standards for hiring not apply equally to choosing from a slate of candidates for office?  If you want the best government, should not those selected to take part in it boast the deepest, most relevant resumes, and a corresponding depth of character and empathy for one’s fellow human being?  If governing is supposed to be serving the public, you would think that a general like of the public would be a critical qualifier for taking part in it, which seems rarely to be the case.  We are inundated with angry elected faces spewing hateful rhetoric against everyone and everything that is wrong with this country, but of course, it’s the greatest country in the world and it’s perfect and infallible and hooray for freedom and support the troops.

Sorry to get off on a rant there for a moment, but I’ll bring it back to earth again.  There has been a confluence between the world of reality TV, which bases its revenue model on attracting viewers with displays of stupidity, and the world of politics.  The ensuing treatment of the stupid in our civilization, where it is better to make noise than speak substance, leads to tolerance, expectation, and finally glorification and celebration of stupidity.  Will the “masturbating fetuses” congressman apologize, resign in disgrace and spend the rest of his life asking his customers if they want fries with that?  Nope, he’ll be re-elected, handily, and continue to give the world the benefit of his inexperience and ineptitude.  And people will suffer, directly or indirectly, because of it.

Unless, as the Lorax said.

Never before in our history have we been so equipped to take stupidity head-on and kick its drooling, mouth-breathing hindquarters to the metaphorical curb.  We walk around with repositories of infinite knowledge clipped to our belts, packed with tools to root out willful ignorance.  We don’t have to be spoon-fed with what the self-propagating media machine is serving us in the name of getting us to buy things – we can become active pursuers of truth, and exposers of the foolishness that left unchecked will lead our civilization the way of Rome.  When we complain about congressional gridlock, or free-spending senators, we must accept the blame for gifting such unworthy persons with the responsibility to make decisions for us, and the resulting course of our country.  We need to vet these people better before we decide to trust them, and to hold even the most noble of souls rigidly accountable once in office.  And we have absolutely no excuse not to do it anymore.  The resources are at our fingertips.  It has never been easier.  It takes only the will to use them.  One click to start to make the world a better place.  Is the status quo really preferable?  Are we just morbidly fascinated to see what comes next, what new Caligula or Nero will dare present himself for our appraisal?

How well did that work out for the Romans?

Justin Trudeau’s Next Round

trudeau

When I wrote this last summer it was just talk.  Rumour, speculation, wishful thinking perhaps on the part of defeated Liberals nostalgic for the glories of bygone days.  I wrote it with a sense of hope and optimism and something of a knowing smile after watching both seasoned, professional political pundits and anonymous Internet hacks (or is it seasoned anonymous pundits and professional political hacks) fall all over themselves concern trolling Liberals over their potential leader-in-waiting, who hadn’t even declared his intentions at that point.  It seems so long ago.  But last night it became reality.  Justin Trudeau is the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Not that the concern trolling is going to stop.  In fact, it’s been going on through the entire Liberal leadership race.  Charges that Trudeau is nothing more than a silver spoon-fed famous last name with good hair and no policy experience.  We’ll just see it ratcheted up a thousand degrees now that things are official.  The jumped-up frat boys of the Conservative war room have been squirming giddily for months now with dozens of attack ads ready to saturate the airwaves with the same message:  He’s too young, he’s not ready, and Canada desperately needs the seasoned economic stewardship of Messrs. Harper and Flaherty – those same guys who boast to any available microphone that Canada’s economy is doing better than anywhere else in the world but is also, paradoxically, apparently so fragile that it will collapse in a heartbeat if they’re not allowed to keep running Economic Action Plan commercials (which, as you file your taxes this month, you should remember that you’re paying for) every two minutes.

Liberals worry about the coming onslaught.  (The first ad has already been released, but I’m not dignifying it by providing a link.)  But they won’t be as effective against Trudeau as they were about his predecessors.  Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff were unknown quantities – the former a lesser known junior cabinet minister, the latter almost completely unknown outside academia – and vulnerable to being defined before they could define themselves.  Most Canadians’ opinions about Justin Trudeau have been more or less cemented at this point.  If you already like him, you’re not going to be swayed by what the nasty Conservatives say, and if you’re still holding on to an NEP grudge, you were never going to vote for him anyway (and fortunately for Liberals, that’s a diminishing constituency).  A few veteran Liberals were surprised when Trudeau announced a few weeks ago that he would not go negative, and they rued a repeat of Dion-Ignatieff where taking the high road meant progressively less seats in the House.  But as usual, they were oversimplifying what Trudeau meant – anyone who saw the Brazeau fight knows that he’ll never refrain from punching back.  Saying that he won’t go negative is about the vision he intends to offer the country.

Ever since their election in 2006, the Conservative Party of Canada has governed as though they were still on the opposition benches.  Forgetting that being in power means more than just fancy titles and bigger offices, and that you actually have to, you know, do some stuff, they have never shaken the mode of perpetual critic – devoting the majority of their efforts to scaring Canadians about the members on the opposition benches and blaming them for not being able to get anything done.  The truth is that Conservatives don’t actually want to do anything.  They are a party utterly bereft of a vision, unless that vision is enriching an already wealthy few.  The Prime Minister, a passionless zombie, has never seemed as though he even likes his native land very much, quick as he is in attacking the patriotism of his critics.  His record proves it.  Even George W. Bush played at being a “uniter, not a divider;” Harper said famously that whether Canada devolves into a loose association of provinces and territories is secondary in his opinion.  It’s all about tearing down what has been built because… I don’t really know.  It’s there, I guess?  He’s never said otherwise.  When Harper does talk about where he sees Canada in the future, his answers centre entirely on economic progress, i.e., money.  Get rich or die tryin’.  For him, empathy doesn’t compute.  That’s why Harper can’t fathom that there could be something more, something greater, running through the experience of what it means to be Canadian other than hockey and Tim Horton’s and a 200-year-old war no one cares about.  Stephen Harper is the model of a man who has lived his entire life feeling like he has never belonged to anything, and thus spends his time finding ever more inventive ways to promulgate the same loneliness and misery in everyone else.  He is the perpetual kid looking up at the treehouse where the meeting of the “No Stephens” club is being convened.  I suspect I’m not alone in believing that his national therapy session at the taxpayer’s expense has gone on long enough, and that it’s time for him to retire to a bunch of corporate boards and hundred-thousand-dollar lecture circuits while the work of rebuilding Canada begins.

In the wake of nearly a decade of Canadians being pitted against one another in the name of electoral math, Justin Trudeau has an opportunity.  He recognizes that it is not enough for him, nor the Liberal Party, to expect to coast to victory because people don’t like Stephen Harper.  It was why I could never get behind Joyce Murray’s push for an anti-Harper electoral pact with the NDP – voters would be more likely to lean Conservative or not vote because they would feel their right of choice was being taken away.  Additionally, Mitt Romney proved somewhat definitively that you can’t win an election by simply not being the incumbent; he also showed that a campaign bereft of positive ideas for people to latch onto, a campaign devoted entirely to the failings of the other guy, is doomed.  And we need to tune out the pundits and amateur critics howling that Trudeau has no policies, no plans.  Let’s state firmly and understand that plans do not win elections.  The idea that they do is a fallacy perpetuated by political writers trying to prove they’re smarter than everyone else.  I hate to keep repeating this same quote of Simon Sinek’s, but it applies as equally to politics as it does to creativity, or entrepreneurship.  “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  The why – the vision – is what will carry Justin Trudeau forward, through attack ads, through op-ed hit jobs, through every gaffe and misstatement gleefully dissected in five-part exposés on right-wing media and in their echo chamber of angry bloggers.  Being able to say that Canada is a great country and a light in the world, and here’s why.  Join with me to make it even greater.

Barack Obama’s first campaign for the presidency was about Hope and Change – notice that hope came first.  Hope resonates through fear and anger, no matter how loud or well-funded the voices of the latter.  Even at their worst, human beings have an incredible capacity for optimism and are amazingly receptive to positivity.  Justin Trudeau senses that this primal need is going unfulfilled by the cynical jackalopes on the government benches who never miss a chance to spread fear and xenophobia instead.  His chosen course is to give Canadians a vision of a government and indeed a country that is far more than tax cuts and deregulation and policies drawn from the Book of Leviticus.  There will be the hard and tedious work of rebuilding riding associations, boosting fundraising, recruiting candidates and getting the Liberal Party into fighting shape for 2015 (or whenever Harper decides to break his fixed-election date law again).  But none of that matters if the message is not there.  Merely having a famous surname, as his critics allege, doesn’t generate the kind of enthusiasm that Trudeau has been seeing at his rallies.  What he is saying – his why – is connecting with people and inspiring them.  When you reach that point of critical mass and explode into a movement, as Obama did, suddenly everyone wants to rush to jump onboard.  It’s important to stress also that this sort of phenomenon is not about a particular candidate’s individual level of celebrity or indeed even who he is as a person – he instead becomes the lightning rod by which a collective excitement is channeled into sweeping, grassroots change.

Justin Trudeau stands on the cusp of achieving that.

Stephen Harper has dreamt of, but never touched that kind of appeal.  At his best, he has always been a “least of the worst” option.  Against a genuine movement, he has no chance.  Against the younger generation finally motivated to come out and vote en masse to shape their future, he has no chance.  Against the offer of a Canada that demands the best of our nature and rewards us accordingly, he has no chance.  He can go finish his hockey book and look back longingly at Parliament Hill and the “No Stephens” sign in the window of 24 Sussex.

As Justin Trudeau begins his first day as Leader of the Liberal Party, let’s not get lost in the background noise, in the minutiae of policies and platforms, and the dissection of the inflection of each word by his opponents looking for find chinks in the armor.  Let’s instead answer the call to participate in building a Canada that stays true both at home and abroad to the principles we value most.  Let us reward those who advance a positive vision of our true North, strong and free, and let us send the cynics home to whine about it on the Internet.  That’s the Canada I’d like to see, and the one that I believe Justin Trudeau has a chance to make happen.  With our help.  A black man did not win election to the Presidency twice just because he was a great speaker.  And Justin Trudeau will not be elected Prime Minister on the reputation of his father.  In the end, the why will secure the win, just as it would if his name was Justin Terkowicz.

And so, as a famous fictional president would often opine, what’s next?

Cat lady economics

"Job creator."
“Job creator.”

P.T. Barnum would be so proud:  One of the biggest con jobs ever successfully sold to a maddeningly enormous percentage of the masses in Western democracies, particularly in the United States, is that “tax cuts for the rich create jobs.”  It is dispiriting to see this nauseating mantra repeated as fact by low-income individuals who have bought in to the false promise of a country of “haves and soon-to-haves” – that is, the outright lie that everyone can be rich if only they work hard enough (shouted loudest by those who have usually fallen into their fortunes through accidents of birth).  (It was also fascinating to watch conservatives sit stone-faced on their hands as the President promoted the diametrically opposite view in last night’s State of the Union.)  I’m not an economist and I don’t intend to fog up the essence of my argument here with a lot of facts and figures, because the premise gets lost among the spreadsheets and pie charts.  It’s a more basic question, one that goes to the nature of human beings and their capacity for materialism.  Yet it proves just as solidly that supply-side economics will never, ever work.

The presidential election in 2012 offered Americans a stark choice of an incumbent president who had come from a poor family and worked his way up to the highest office in the land – the prototypical American dream, if you will – versus a natural born plutocrat with a silver spoon wedged firmly in his nether regions who dismissed almost half of the public as irredeemable and irrelevant moochers; and, thanks to unprecedented advertising spending and voter intimidation in key states, they came very close to picking the latter.  A remark from President Obama about successful businesses needing to use public infrastructure paid for by the collective taxes of the people was taken out of context and used by the GOP as their rallying cry.  Mitt Romney’s entire presidential campaign, characterized best by the video in which he railed about the “forty-seven percent” to fellow travelers, was trying to assert that the wealthy and successful were singular paragons of virtue, economic growth and American spirit, forever being harassed by a tyrannical, over-reaching government determined to claw away every preciously earned penny and spend it freely on undeserving deadbeats.  (Hardly a rousing “we shall overcome” or even “I like Ike.”)

Basically, Republicans tried to claim that Democrats were demonizing success, sort of a “don’t hate us because we’re beautiful” whine from the country club set. What’s ironic is that on any list of the most admired people in the world, it’s rare to find someone whose net worth is anywhere south of at least a few million.  Rich and famous celebrities are worshiped.  You’re hardly seeing a climate where the likes of Brad Pitt and Katy Perry are dragged from their mansions and paraded naked through the streets by the bedraggled masses.

Even in the aftermath of Romney’s humiliation at the polls and in the new congressional term, Republicans and their sympathizers insist that if we just keep giving rich people more money, well, I don’t really know what the endgame is supposed to be other than giving rich people more money for its own sake.  Perhaps the thought is that if they have $400 million instead of $300 million, that extra $100 million will simply fall from overflowing wallets like proverbial pennies from heaven, as opposed to being stashed in an offshore tax haven.  Even if we try to apply some logic to this argument and suggest that a more-rich person will be more inclined to use his windfall to start a new business that will hire some other folks, who’s to say that business will be successful and produce a product that will resonate and guarantee that these new jobs endure for decades?  It’s lining up all one’s fiduciary chips on a single roulette number and trusting in the decency and intentions of the person you’re enriching.  Communism never worked as Karl Marx intended it to because it failed to account for human nature – if you read The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s ideal state sounds utopian, but it can’t function unless everyone is really, really, REALLY nice to one another – a point lost somewhat on every oppressive Communist world leader ever, which is pretty much all of them.  One might overdose on the irony of capitalism failing for the same reason.

See, here’s the thing with wealthy people.  They may become wealthy because of hard work or, more cynically, because they have a famous surname, but they stay wealthy because they don’t spend their money.  They hoard it with the same obsession and zeal as the sad cases you see every week on A&E who have houses overflowing with old magazines, pieces of broken furniture and used diapers.  And the reason why they hoard it is because they are paranoid – scared to the depth of their bone marrow – that the unwashed barbarian hordes at the gate are coming to take it all away.  Perhaps they’re mindful of the tragic tale of Jack Whittaker, the West Virginia Powerball winner whose prize of $315 million led to him being sued over 400 times by greedy opportunists, the loss of his daughter to drugs and the last of his money to her dealers.  (Whittaker is apparently now broke and wishes in hindsight that he had torn up his ticket.)  But it’s the quintessential human problem of attachment to material things that renders the “more tax cuts for billionaires!” argument utterly unworkable in the real world.  Giving more money to a wealthy man and expecting that act to benefit the economy is like giving a crazy cat lady more cats.  Is the cat lady going to take her new surplus felines and hand them out to deserving orphans who’d love a little kitty of their own?  You can judge the chances of that based on the smell of her house.

We do so love our possessions, and it is against our human nature to share them.  Sure, we donate to charity, we give away old clothes – but we keep the really nice stuff for ourselves.  We’re programmed to.  Buddhism correctly equates attachment with unhappiness – it even turned Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader.  How else can one explain the legions of sour-faced billionaires like Joe Ricketts, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers who decided to open up their overflowing coffers not to improve the lives of their fellow Americans but instead into endless ad buys for the party that was promising to make things even easier for the likes of Joe Ricketts, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers?

It’s estimated that trillions of dollars in cash are missing from the global economy because they are being hoarded by corporate entities and others who are waiting for… well, it can’t possibly be the Rapture or the Mayan apocalypse since those both happened last year and we’re all still kicking.  This is the result of over thirty years of tax reductions by conservative and centrist governments clinging to the ideology of supply-side economics and still claiming despite a repeated pattern of failure that tax rates for the top should be reduced even further – since the growth they anticipate from cuts already in place isn’t happening (roughly the equivalent of saying that my house hasn’t caught fire yet so I should keep trying to light the carpet).  We also see pushes for right-to-work laws in multiple states and even Canadian provinces to cripple unions, force wages lower and boost corporate take-home higher.  This is not a plan for economic growth; it’s a plan to concentrate wealth into the hands of a rarefied few so they can continue their hoarding ways.  They forget the lesson of Henry Ford, who knew that his employees needed to be able to afford to buy the cars they were making in order for his company and indeed America to prosper.

“I never got a job from a poor person” is one of the most common retorts – as if one expects Uncle Pennybags and Scrooge McDuck to stroll down Main Street handing out employment contracts while bellowing like Oprah, “You’re getting a job!  And you’re getting a job!”  Lower and middle income workers are actually the people who generate these jobs.  Their spending is economic rocket fuel.  They’re the ones who buy, on a consistent and ongoing basis, the products that other workers make, necessitating that those jobs endure.  And when you earn less, you save less.  Because a higher percentage of their income is devoted to basic necessities, they can’t afford to stash it away, to hoard it in the Caymans and consequently away from the world’s economic engine like the world’s Romneys.  And they spend that money in their hometown or close to it, not on weekend jaunts to France on the private jet.

It continues to absolutely boggle my mind that any free-market conservative would be opposed to socialized medicine, given that absent the need to divert a huge chunk of their take home into monthly medical payments, people are more likely to spend that cash on clothing, furniture, new tech gadgets, you know, stuff that stimulates economic growth rather than the economic dead zone of a bloated insurance company’s bank account.  The same goes, and perhaps even more dramatically, for Social Security, as seniors aren’t likely to put much of their income into savings given they are in the autumn of their life.  They are more likely to spend that monthly cheque on things that require other people to work to make them.  What would “stop the motor of the world,” as the misguided Ayn Rand put it, would be a massive majority of the population unable to afford anything – not a bunch of billionaires throwing hissy fits and going away somewhere to sulk.

A rich guy may have vast reserves of cash, but he still has limited individual needs.  He is still only one mouth to feed and can only drive one car at a time (and can live in only one house at any given moment, even if he might decide to purchase six or seven more for kicks).  Is it not better to have a nation of millions who can all afford to buy food and a car and a home, thus ensuring robust employment for those who produce food, manufacture cars and build houses?  They’re the ones who need their tax burden reduced.  They are the real job creators – a rich man can start as many businesses as he likes, but if lower and middle income people aren’t buying what he’s selling, the businesses will fail and the jobs will disappear.  Ultimately, there will never be enough rich people to support the global economy on their own, because the one percent have no interest in doing so – they’ve proven that they want to keep the treasure for themselves, eternal Buddhist misery be damned.  And that’s why giving them more and expecting them to turn into Mother Teresas, and consequently expecting the economy to become a roaring prosperity factory, is a fatally stupid idea.