Tag Archives: canada

Canadians Stand With You

Image result for canadian flag

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.

Someone’s Gotta Win, Someone’s Gotta Lose

Ace and Bearemy

This is the indisputable truth whenever two teams step onto the field.  Hardly anyone ever just roots for a good clean game; you’re always hoping your guys make mincemeat of the others.  Before the first pitch flies, when the score is at zero, both squads have the exact same chance to walk off nine innings later with fists pumping the air.  And sometimes you have to swallow that sickening churn in your gut as you watch the other guys do it.  It’s regrettable that the effort and the drama of a 162-game season has to come down to a single pitch, a single swing of the bat, but that is the magic of baseball.  That was how it was in 1993 when Joe Carter won the World Series with his three-run blast to left field.  That’s how it was, with a far more bitter taste, in the heartbreaking ALCS Game 6.

So the incredible saga of the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays ends with Josh Donaldson grounding out to the Kansas City Royals’ Mike Moustakas, with Dalton Pompey and Kevin Pillar stranded at third and second, the Royals victors by a single run achieved by what was admittedly a terrific piece of baserunning by Lorenzo Cain in the bottom of the eighth.  While it would have been wonderful to watch our guys pull ahead and force a Game 7, it wasn’t to be.  The Royals will now take on the New York Mets for the World Series crown.  And you can’t begrudge the Royals for it, either; the ALCS came down to two formidable, equally-matched teams, and while from a statistical perspective you could make a legitimate argument that the Blue Jays were a better team, the Royals simply outplayed them.  They pushed harder, made better use of their scoring opportunities, silenced the Jays’ bats with their world-class bullpen.  The Jays went 0 and 12 with runners in scoring position in Game 6, so you can’t suggest they didn’t have plenty of opportunities to break out a big lead; they just weren’t able to come through.  And that’s not their fault either – sometimes, stats and history can be on your side and yet, plain dumb luck isn’t.  There were a few questionable calls in the game that Jays fans will be wringing their hands over all winter; the waaaay outside second strike called on Ben Revere in the ninth that had him smashing a trash can in the dugout after he whiffed on the next pitch, and a certain bearded young Royals enthusiast who picked what could have been only a double off the outfield wall with his glove and gave the aforementioned Moustakas a dubious home run in the second (I wouldn’t suggest that fan try visiting north of the border any time soon).  Chalk it up to those fickle gods of baseball again; just as often a bad call can break in your favor.  But it is what it is.

As always following a season-ending loss, the temptation to point fingers will be strong.  But just as a man should be remembered for the sum of his life’s achievements and not just how things go on his last day, so too should fans set aside bruised feelings and remember the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays by the sum of the amazing moments they gifted us with throughout a remarkable season, and the goodwill and unity they brought to a city and a country that needed it badly.  For me, there are a few distinct images that will stand out for years to come:

  • The 11-game winning streak following the July trade deadline, when it seemed like the Jays were invincible.
  • The surprise of the mid-summer acquisitions of Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere and David Price.
  • Tulo’s first game as a Blue Jay, including his first home run.
  • Every catch made by Kevin Pillar.
  • Sweeping the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.
  • The sage, unflappable cool of old pros R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle.
  • The mighty Edwing.
  • Ryan Goins’ come-from-behind two-run walk-off home run.
  • Justin Smoak’s first career grand slam.
  • Roberto Osuna’s silent moments of prayer before shutting down opposition bats.
  • The unhittable Brett Cecil.
  • Play-by-play man Buck Martinez calling out “Get up, ball!”
  • Russell Martin’s cannon of an arm throwing out base stealers at second.
  • Munenori Kawasaki’s delightfully weird postgame interviews.
  • The inspiring return of the fiery Marcus Stroman from a potentially season-ruining injury, and his motto that “height doesn’t measure heart.”
  • LaTroy Hawkins’ last pitch to clinch the AL East.
  • The unfurling of the “2015 AL East Champions” banner at the Rogers Centre.
  • Marco Estrada’s flawless pitching in Game 3 of the ALDS and Game 5 of the ALCS.
  • Tulowitzki’s season-saving 3-run home run.
  • Accidental pitcher Cliff Pennington’s fastball strike in the horrendous ALCS Game 4.
  • Chants of “MVP” whenever Josh Donaldson stepped to the plate.
  • And of course, no list of such things could be complete without Jose Bautista’s bat flip to end all bat flips.

We’ll remember the disappointment, too, the swings and misses and the lost promise of a World Series crown that will have to wait until October of next year.  But if nothing else, 2015 will be remembered as the year that the Blue Jays shut the door on 22 years of mediocrity and transformed into genuine, fearsome contenders, unable to be dismissed any longer as that average Canadian team that used to be great.  Specific feats cannot be denied:  they won the brutal American League East division and came back from the brink against a tough Texas team to claim the ALDS.  But we saw it too in the way those 25 roster members embraced each other, young and old, newcomers and veterans, and dedicated themselves to the pursuit of a singular goal, collected egos set aside.  R.A. Dickey said that “it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”  For a team with only three native-born sons, the attitude was somehow uniquely Canadian of them.

And Canadians responded.  As their oft-trending hashtag urged, we came together.  The Blue Jays became Canada’s team.  We unleashed a pent-up emotion that was searching all these years for a floodgate through which it could burst.  We finally forgave the hurt that festered from the 1994 strike, we forgot about hockey and filled the stands again to share in the glory and the occasional agony.  There will be kids in tiny Toronto jerseys who will grow up remembering the 2015 Blue Jays as “their” team, and comparing every year that follows to this – just like those of us who came of age with 1992 and 1993.  While the roster will change next year as new faces arrive and old favorites move on, there will always be something particularly special about this iteration of the team, and we’ll look back at them with a reverence that they truly deserve.  In the end the World Series or lack thereof doesn’t really matter.  The Blue Jays have already won victories that can never be taken away.  This was the team that made me a fan again, that made many people across this country fans, either again or for the first time, and as far as I’m concerned, things can only get better from here.  The boys in blue are back.

Thank you so much, 2015 Toronto Blue Jays.  See you in the spring.

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:

trudeautweet

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?

My Canada

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Patriotism is a word that seems to be more ill-defined than defined of late.  What is ostensibly a concept of some nobility is usually hurled in a threatening manner, to suggest that one is lacking in it if one does not support without reservation whatever controversial policy is being advanced by the government of the day – often the call to arms.  The redoubtable Oscar Wilde called it the virtue of the vicious.  I’ve always thought of patriotism as loving your country more than you love the dolts who are running it – a sentiment most pertinent when the party you support is out of power.  Yet what does it mean to love a country?  We can love a song, a great work of literature, a beautiful painting, our life partner, our children.  What are we saying when we say we love our country?  Since we’re going at this from the point of etymology, apparently, what is it that constitutes a country insomuch as something capable and worthy of being loved?  Is it a mere delineation of territory, is it a system of self-governance, is it the character of the people who inhabit its boundaries and the society they have crafted for themselves?  What is it I’m saying I love when I say I love my homeland of Canada?

As is true with almost any place on the planet, most of the stereotypes about Canadians aren’t true, as endearing as they may be or as useful to the creation of soundbites.  And I’m not talking about the lazy “y’all live in igloos, don’t you?” redneck view of Soviet Canuckistan.  Are we unfailingly polite?  No more so than anywhere else I’ve chanced to visit, and I have in fact encountered some stunningly rude Canadians in my time, folks who’d just as soon deck you as look at you, and not apologize for it afterwards.  Are we peacemakers, honest brokers to the world and friend to any and all to the point of effusiveness?  Again, not really – Canadians fight just as hard in wartime as anyone else, and lately our record of living up to our international obligations has been sullied by ideological maneuvering.  What about our pristine environment and our unflinching need to protect our natural resources?  Hmm… have you chanced to look at the moonscape around northern Alberta recently?  Or the rate at which we’re paving over our arable land to build strip malls, big box stores and cookie cutter suburban neighborhoods?

No, we’re not the hosers you think we are.  In fact, we’re not entirely sure what we are.  For a long time we’ve started our national identity conversation from the point of “not-Americans” and latched on to the quick and simple traits – hockey, Tim Hortons, bilingualism, universal health care – to try to distinguish ourselves on the world stage.  Remember those “My name is Joe, and I am Canadian” commercials that were so popular back in the 90’s?  While it was amusing to poke fun at the silly questions we’ve all coped with at one time or another while abroad (my personal favorite, my wife being asked about Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding plans while at Disney World three years ago, as if she and Kate were BFF’s), the ads still ended with the same laundry list of “Canadian” traits, packaged into five seconds for easy digestion.  They made me restless.  Surely being Canadian is much more than that.  Does my not caring about hockey and preferring Starbucks mean I have to turn in my membership card?

I wanted to write something for Canada Day and I’ve been struggling with it, turning over the question of what it means to be Canadian in my mind all day.  It occurred to me, in one of those lightning bolt moments, that I was missing the mark – because the answer lay within the question.  Our current federal government has been earnest, if not obnoxious, about pushing symbols of national identity onto the populace – playing up the importance of hockey and Tim Hortons and the monarchy to “honest, average, hard-working Canadians,” positioning the idea of their party and their party alone as the arbiter of Canadianness.  Encouragingly, the reaction to these moves, at least from what I’ve seen, has been one of collective indifference.  Canadians refuse to be defined; not by their government, not by foreigners, not by anyone.  We define ourselves.  Because figuring out what it means to be Canadian is, in fact, what it means to be Canadian.

There is no “Canadian Dream,” at least not like its American alternative.  Put rather basically (if not overly simplified), the American Dream is about financial success in the capitalist model:  starting from nothing, working hard, becoming rich and famous.  Does your average Canadian dream about being rich?  Sure, a great many do, but the acquisition of massive wealth is not a universal motivator. What does a Canadian want?  That is left up to each of us to decide for ourselves.  I think about my list of Facebook friends, most of whom are people I went to high school with.  From that level playing field they have each followed in some cases wildly divergent paths in life.  Some run their own businesses.  Some are devoted to charity causes.  Some are academics, some are artists and musicians, some work in the trades.  Some work for the government, or in health care.  Some are attorneys, police officers, computer engineers, teachers, some are stay-at-home parents raising wonderful kids.  Some love hockey and follow with religious devotion the trials and tribulations of the Leafs, the Canadiens, the Canucks, the Senators.  Some could not care less.  They are as diverse a group of people as any random focus group you could gather together, and I would defy anyone to say that a single one of them is any less Canadian than the others.  They are the epitome of Canadianness, because each of them is discovering it on his or her own, without feeling any compulsion to conform to a standard.  And there’s no group of folks I’d rather stand up and be counted with.

Canada is not without its challenges.  We are 37 million people of probably just as many different cultural backgrounds clinging to the border we share with a sometimes very noisy neighbour, one whose influence permeates our daily life (and even our spelling, as my father-in-law would doubtlessly remind me).  Often the folks on one side of the country are peeved at the folks on the other (and almost everyone is either peeved at or in love with Quebec at some point).  The reason why this grand experiment continues to work, in my humble opinion, is that there is no single destination that can be pointed to as the ultimate objective.  Each Canadian is free to follow his or her own path.  The objective, as it were, is to discover who you are and make that your Canada.  And that is an idea I can get behind and fall in love with.  I love this country for allowing me to find myself within it.

Happy birthday, Canada.  Bonne fete, Canada.

Justin Trudeau’s Next Round

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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?

The American politics of Canadian health care

Scary! Screen cap from the ad featuring Shona Holmes blasting Canadian health care.

She’s back.  Shona Holmes, the Hamilton, Ontario native who became a poster child for the American right wing in 2009 as the debate over health care reform roared to life, is starring in a new Koch Brothers-funded Super PAC ad warning voters about the pitfalls of socialized medicine – and not only that, she’s hanging around the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte all week and available for interviews.  Given all the talk about the tidal influx of corporate money into the American electoral process since the Citizens United decision, if the best spokesperson the Kochs can come up with to star in their $27-million fear-mongering campaign against the ACA is an outsider whose complaints about her native land’s health care system have been thoroughly debunked, that’s some pretty weak-ass sauce – or, dare I say it as I put on sunglasses, unhealthy?  YEAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!  Can you imagine the reaction on the right if an Obama-supporting Super PAC ran an ad featuring Canadians demanding higher taxes on the rich?  Cries from the Fox News cabal about filthy foreigners tampering with the sacred trust of American elections would be positively deafening.

The message of the ad is essentially that because the Canadian health care system allegedly failed Ms. Holmes, Americans should run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.  This one Canadian (out of 34 million) claims she had a bad experience, so let’s stick with the disastrous version we have now rather than pursuing a model that is so treasured by the Canadian people because of its success that no party dares broach the subject of changing it lest they suffer massive electoral blowback.  I find the right wing’s approach to attacking programs they don’t like (read:  they haven’t figured out a way to make money off) amusing in that it’s always the all-or-nothing gambit.  They’re always looking for the insignificant opening into which they can bludgeon the moneyed weight of their angry wedge.  A single slip-up, to them, warrants the dismantling of an entire organization – just as the appearance of a couple of bad apples in a malicious, heavily edited, out-of-context amateur video was grounds for taking apart ACORN (the real reason being that ACORN was instrumental in getting a lot of Democratic voters to the polls).  It’s as facetious and flimsy a position on which to build an argument as suggesting that if a single brick in the Great Pyramid of Giza cracks, the entire thing might as well be dynamited.  But it’s all you have when the only reason you can offer for being against something is that you don’t happen to like it very much.

It’s telling indeed that Shona Holmes is the only Canadian the Kochs could find to speak against Obamacare, and that she would be dragged out again three years after her initial appearance on the scene.  They probably couldn’t find anyone else.  For Canadians, what is almost as universal as our health coverage is our pride in our system – and our gratitude that getting sick in Canada doesn’t mean a financial death sentence.  Several years ago I was hospitalized for a serious lung condition, requiring X-rays, painkillers, and finally an intercostal tube drainage treatment.  My total bill for my week-long stay:  $12, for the optional phone at my bedside.  Everything else was covered by the program I pay into with my taxes, and nothing required was withheld because it wasn’t on my plan or whatever other spurious reasons the private companies invent to deny care in the U.S.  And my experience is not unique.  As to the myth of Canadians dying as they wait for needed surgery, it’s just that.  The Canadian system is based on triage – urgent cases go to the front of the line and everyone else is placed in priority sequence.  Decisions about who goes first are made by medical personnel (with apologies to the ex-Governor of Alaska, not once has any Canadian been forced to file a request with their local Member of Parliament before calling their doctor).  In the case of Shona Holmes, she was diagnosed with a benign cyst and panicked, and rather than waiting as recommended by a doctor she chose to cross the border and pay over $100,000 to the Mayo Clinic to have it removed immediately.  And with respect to her complaints about being attacked for expressing her opinion, if you are going to become a shill for U.S. corporate and political interests by spreading specious half-truths to every camera in sight because you didn’t get your lollipop right when you wanted it, you can’t be that shocked if more than a handful of folks decide to disagree with you.  Free speech goes both ways – that’s how the concept works.  (People shouldn’t have been calling her home to yell at her of course, but that’s just more proof of how passionately Canadians support and believe in their system of health care.)

It took an incredible effort on the part of President Obama, the Democratic Party and its supporters to overcome the blockades thrown up by Republican obstructionists, corporate lobbyists, lawsuit-happy state attorneys general and Tea Party zealots to get the ACA passed, half-baked half-measure as it may seem to many liberals and progressives who were longing for something more transformative.  Building on this act to craft a truly fair health care system where no one ever needs to fear getting sick in America ever again is going to take even more, and unfortunately the political damage borne by the Democrats for taking it on has made the issue something of a third rail.  But it should provide some comfort to those Americans dreaming of a single-payer program like Canada’s to know that the side fighting to keep the status quo has no real argument to make.  They may have more financial resources, more members of Congress in their pocket, but at the end of the day, it’s all smoke and mirrors – their hand is empty.  They just don’t like health care, and if you’re looking to win the conversation with the people, truth and facts are a much better starting point.

The importance of being human: Social Mix 2012

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

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

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

This week in trickle-down theory

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

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

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

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

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

Varying degrees of greatness

The City of Calgary, wallowing in its greatness.

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

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

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

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

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