Tag Archives: government

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?

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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?

A House of Cards Divided

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“Want to know about politics in Washington?  Four words:  Watch your back, Jack.” – Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones), Clear and Present Danger

Having just released its second complete season, House of Cards remains a meal that refuses to go down smoothly, no matter how sumptuous it might appear.  You can admire the artistry in the execution, but afterwards, you always feel like you need a shower – rather like looking at a painting hung in a porta-potty.  For years the optimism and hope of The West Wing was my lifeblood and so experiencing a show like HofC that responds to that philosophy by essentially defecating on it (again with the toilet metaphors, dude) will always be a fundamentally unsettling experience.  You just don’t want to believe that people are capable of that sort of thing, even though grasping the promise of the light mandates the acknowledgement of the existence of darkness.

WARNING:  Massive Season 2 Spoilers follow.  Abandon all hope (of being surprised), ye who enter here.

The sociopathic Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are the focal point of that darkness, emerging from it literally as the first episode of Season 2 begins.  Frank has been appointed Vice-President of the United States following his elaborate scheme in the previous season that saw his predecessor maneuvered into stepping down to run for his old office of Governor of Pennsylvania.  There remain several loose ends, in the form of journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her associates, and call girl Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), both instrumental in Frank’s secret wheelings and dealings.  Rachel is whisked into exile by Frank’s majordomo Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), while Zoe, growing increasingly convinced that Underwood murdered troubled Congressman Peter Russo last season, is dealt with in one of the most brutally shocking twists in episodic TV in years.  (How many other shows have the audacity to kill off the opening credits third-billed lead – played by a rising young actress – in a season premiere?)  Culminating in a closing shot of Frank’s monogrammed cufflinks (that read, unsubtly, “F.U.”), the implication to the audience is that this year, all bets are off.

And yet, oddly, they’re not.

Frank is back to business as usual, getting Jackie Sharp (Canadian actress Molly Parker), his preferred choice for replacement as Majority Whip in place, and driving wedges between the frustratingly naive President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill) and his mentor and friend of many years, billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) by nearly starting a war with China.  Claire works on the First Couple from her end as well, cultivating a friendship with Mrs. Walker (Joanna Going) and motivating her to convince her husband to attend couples therapy – the revelation of which will ultimately prove politically toxic.  As with the previous season, the endgame for the Underwoods is never fully articulated until the closing moments of the final episode, yet there is a sense of inevitability about where the story is going that renders the proceedings a bit pat, and moot.  Compounding this notion is the fact that Frank always wins, and never at any point do we get the sense that he is in any danger of losing.  The only real consequence Frank suffers throughout the season is when his beloved rib joint has to close its doors – and nary more than a moment is spent ruing that.

Half the problem, and this affected the first season as well, is a budgetary one.  Spacey and Wright are major stars and don’t work cheap, and with their salaries devouring the lion’s share of the casting budget, the remainder must be spread around sparingly, resulting in a roster of supporting players who are well-meaning and capable but simply don’t have the raw wattage of the two leads, and can’t hope to outshine (or even strike within a country mile of equaling) them.  Gill in particular doesn’t have the gravitas we’ve come to expect in the portrayal of a President (no Martin Sheen he), and it’s difficult to keep in mind that this is supposed to be a man whom Underwood championed for the Oval Office, and supported without hesitation until being passed over for the job of Secretary of State – let alone one who managed to win a national election.  (Unless he was running against an anthropomorphic sheet of drywall.)

The other half of the equation lies in the writing of Frank’s adversaries, who for reasons of plot necessity allow themselves to be duped, make stupid decisions and side with the Underwoods rather than with the truth.  The animosity generated by Frank between President Walker and Raymond Tusk could have been swept aside by the long-term friends sharing one private phone call, but naturally, this doesn’t happen, and in the end Walker abandons Tusk to a perp walk after one dark-heart-felt personal letter from Frank.  It also strains credulity that a ruling party would be so quick to bring its own President up on impeachment charges, as is threatened in the finale.  Granted, in the show it’s the Democrats doing it (their real-life contemporaries ever ready to cut allies loose in the interest of political expediency instead of walking lock-step into the flames like the Republicans do), but you’d think at least one loyal Walker soldier might be able to assemble the pieces and realize that all the trouble originates from the moment a certain Mr. Underwood stepped onto the stage.  No matter – in the end, all enemies are swept or willingly step aside, Walker resigns, and a duplicitous double-murderer takes the Oath of Office, pounding the Resolute Desk in the season’s final shot in a gesture of either triumph or foreboding, depending on your interpretation.

House of Cards has been renewed for a third season, with rumors that it will be its last.  I find it difficult to imagine it could venture any further.  Once you’ve ascended the mountain, the only way to go is down.  I’m mindful though of the comments made by David Chase of The Sopranos, who scoffed at the idea that audiences should crave a comeuppance for Tony Soprano after they cheered on his spree of theft, betrayal and murder for season after season.  What will happen to Frank Underwood?  Like Dexter Morgan, there is no sufficient legal reciprocity for the magnitude of his crimes.  A mea culpa is beyond his capacity.  And it simply isn’t dramatically interesting to watch him keep winning battle after battle – the machinations of an untouchable god, become, after a time, unengaging television.

If you’re looking for clues to his demise, you can see seeds sown in the closing moments of this season’s final chapter, with Doug being killed and left to rot in the woods by Rachel, the end of a somewhat pitiable obsession with her that had developed over several episodes.  (That storyline reveals another intriguing notion about the portrayal of men and women, given that Rachel remains under Doug’s thumb until the split second she realizes that he wants her sexually – then his downfall begins.  A post for another time.)  If season 3 is to be The Fall of Frank Underwood, then the reason for keeping Rachel front and center in the storyline becomes clear.  Those who manage to undo powerful men will never be powerful themselves – they will arise from the unexpected corner, seemingly insignificant and non-threatening.  Not to be forgotten either is the besieged hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) who begins to reassert his independence from the feds and has unfettered access to where everyone’s digital bodies are buried.  The advantage also of focusing on either of these characters is that they remain virtually the only two people in this corrupted universe you can find yourself rooting for – even though they have both committed crimes themselves.

Or, Frank’s undoing will come in the shape of his one indispensable ally:  Claire.  As the Second Lady, Wright seemed a little sidelined this season, particularly in its latter half, as her character’s journey took a backseat to the increasingly complex web spun by her husband.  But apart from one fleeting moment of remorse that when past hardened her heart even further, Claire remains as vicious as Frank and as dedicated to the idea of absolute power.  Two such identical forces cannot remain together forever, as anyone who’s tried to clap magnets against one another is well aware.  They have already shown, in the episode that climaxed (sorry, bad pun) in a threesome with their Secret Service agent Meecham, that either one of them is not enough for the other.  Perhaps the ultimate house of cards to be toppled is the Underwoods’ commitment to each other.

It’s telling about our nature that even in stories about bad guys, we crave the triumph of the good.  And good never wins on House of Cards.  Frank’s manipulations succeed at every turn because he has a gift for recognizing weak points and flickers of evil in others, and like the classic tempter, convincing them to make the wrong choice of their own free will.  The conventions of drama, however, lead us to wonder how this plays out.  Psychological need asks whether good will indeed crawl out from under the bed after taking a pummeling for two straight seasons.  The Sopranos, which chose an open ending with the scales of morality tilted permanently out of balance left an unpalatable taste in many mouths.  As much as TV audiences might relish watching Frank Underwood slice and dice his way to his diabolical goals, Americans as a whole likely aren’t comforted by the idea that such an archetypally evil person could manipulate his way into the Presidency in real life (regardless of your partisan opinions of occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania past and present).  They’ll want to see him go down, brutally, in a spectacular orgy of cathartic release, as charming as that come-and-go South Carolina drawl may be.  It might finally lend that terribly bitter pill a teensy touch of candy coating.

In any case, a question to be left to series creator Beau Willimon and his writing staff.  Besides, if I need my idealism fix, I’ll always have my complete West Wing DVD set.

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?

Fear and loathing: Christmas 2012

stuffychristmas

It’s emblematic of our age that when a major event occurs, we are guaranteed to know what every person with a computer thinks about it, in various degrees of legibility and/or sanity.  The thoughts expressed following the Sandy Hook massacre have been a virtual deluge of sympathy, anger, regret, confusion, disbelief, shattered faith and predictable political posturing, from both prominent public figures and unpronounceable cyber aliases.  There is a compulsion to find sense in the senseless, meaning in the unimaginable.  To ask how something like this could happen and ensure it never happens again.  For many it’s too late for that; a resignation that these mass shootings are an inevitable consequence of the path the United States is on, where the power of the NRA has made firearms regulation a political third rail and attempts at increasing access to proper medical care lead absurdly to mass protests and election losses.

The little bodies were barely cold before the trotting out of the usual canards began – Republican congressman/professional moron Louie Gohmert (the slightly more evolved protozoan who was screaming a while back that “anchor babies” were the latest terrorist threat) wished that the teachers had been packing heat so they could have pulled the Charles Bronson routine against the killer.  He and others of his ilk think the answer to every mass shooting is to increase the supply of guns amidst the populace – the idea, if you can dignify it with that word, being that potential mass murderers will be deterred from carrying out their insanity if they think it’s possible that one of their targets might shoot back.  Setting aside the fact that not a single gun massacre has ever been stopped in this way, what message are Gohmert and his cretinous colleagues trying to send?  That in the Greatest Country in the World™, people, little children even, should be walking around every day scared to their britches that someone’s going to pull a gun on them?  Please define for me how that constitutes greatness – a land where everyone you pass on the street is a potential murderer to be horrified of.  The other day a boy in Utah was arrested for bringing a firearm to school because he thought someone might shoot him.  I have no doubt that Gohmert et al will hold this boy up as a patriotic defender of liberty instead of the terrified little child that he is, who should be playing with teddy bears and Lego instead of Glocks and Smith & Wessons.

The text of the Second Amendment reads:  “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  I’m no Constitutional scholar (nor, I suspect, are 99.9999998% of the people who howl about the sanctity of these words) but it’s my understanding based on my read of American history that this was written in light of the fear that the British might return and civilians needed to be able to fight back if the regular American army wasn’t able to get there in time.  Perfectly logical, one supposes, for the late 1790’s, when the fastest public alert system was a guy on horseback yelling that the British were coming.  But scanning through comment sections on news websites, one finds a different argument, that the citizenry must be able to own and wield guns in case the government needs to be violently overthrown (memories of Tea Party Senate candidate Sharron Angle and her infamous “Second Amendment remedies.”)  The same folks who wail “Support the Troops!” every time they are sent into battle (whether or not the cause is just) think that on a whim these same heroes of unimpeachable virtue will transform into mindless pawns of the Antichrist dictator and begin sweeping through the streets mowing down patriotic citizens.  In the highly unlikely (if not utterly impossible) event that ever happens, quite frankly, the government has the 82nd Airborne and stealth bombers and you’ve got three guys with shotguns in a Dodge Durango – I don’t like the odds.  And of course, the government only has those stealth bombers and an entire range of invincible high-tech weaponry because the same people who cite the above logic of the Second Amendment continue to vote for the party who thinks cutting defense spending for any reason is an act of sedition.  If one feels the onset of a migraine at these unfathomable leaps in logic, one must remember that these arguments are not even in the same stadium as logical reasoning – they come entirely from a place of fear.

Fear is the one emotion common to every creature that walks the earth.  It has been ingrained in our being ever since we were swinging through trees to avoid being eaten by something bigger and stronger.  As our minds have developed across the eons, gaining the ability to reason, we have still never shed this most basic instinct.  Fear can, if properly tempered and managed, drive us to achieve greatness.  In The Dark Knight Rises (ironically, a movie tainted by its association with a mass shooting), Bruce Wayne finds it impossible to escape a prison without the motivation of the fear of dying in the attempt.  But fear run rampant is endlessly destructive, and there will always be those who understand this and prey on fear to make money.  The political lobbying of the NRA and its offshoots, despite repeated publicly stated intentions of preserving freedom and promoting responsible gun ownership, is about the freedom of weapons manufacturers to continue to sell their product, regardless of whether those who purchase those weapons are the slightest bit responsible.  And if you are not afraid of a big scary bad guy breaking into your house or the faceless drones of the evil government coming to drag you off to the gulag, what do you need a gun for?  So it is in the interest of companies who sell guns and by extension advocacy groups like the NRA to keep the masses as scared as possible.  They no doubt revel in the free assistance provided to them by the media who splash every act of violence across newspapers, television screens, websites and smartphones and then conduct weeks-long investigative reporting into every single facet of the event and how YOUR FAMILY might be threatened.  Gun sales explode following gun massacres, ostensibly from the fear of being targeted next but really because somehow the government might actually get off its ass and do something about the absurd ready availability of deadly weapons, and nobody wants to be last to the buffet table.  The government, in turn, rarely does anything because it’s too afraid of the ability of the NRA to swing elections, nor does it want to be labelled anti-business by regulating, sanctioning or otherwise restricting gun manufacturers.  And so the cycle of fear creaks on, until it reaches its bloated tentacles into the one place in the world that should be utterly free of fear – a public school.

The children of Sandy Hook Elementary were not feeling any fear that morning.  They were probably excited about Christmas, writing letters to Santa and helping to decorate the classroom with styrofoam snowmen, popcorn garlands and candy canes and reindeer cut from colored construction paper.  They could never have fathomed in their innocent young minds that someone was coming to take everything away in a hailstorm of bullets.  Why would they?  They hadn’t yet had the chance to be properly programmed by the great slouching mass of fear that oozes from society’s pores unchecked by reason and common sense.  Our collective inability to recognize the difference between vigilance and paranoia and to silence those who would exploit our fear for financial gain.  I have to laugh, sadly, when I hear politicians talking about the necessity of beefing up arms and equipment stockpiles to protect our shores from unseen external threats.  Yet what indeed is all this meant to protect?  In a world where everyone has guns, how can anyone ever feel safe?  Indeed, our very failure to check the expansion of the world’s supply of firepower, while enriching those who make the tools of murder, has only aggravated the foreboding hanging perpetually over every human head; like the famous doomsday clock inching ever closer to midnight, we seem to be willing accomplices in our own destruction, ensuring that we remain drugged with constant fear of our neighbour and ever readier to set off the fuse at the slightest provocation.

The suggestion purported by some that every school should post armed guards would be laughable were it not so tragic.  They forget the subliminal lesson the presence of a scary uniformed guy packing an obvious .45 engraves upon the impressionable child’s mind – that the world is a frightening place to be regarded with suspicion and mistrust.  The millions of kids who came home from school safely that terrible day would be full of questions, with parents and guardians struggling desperately for reassuring answers.  It is simply not enough to reach for the usual prayers, platitudes and bromides and change the channel until the next incident occurs.  We often speak about the kind of world we are leaving our children, whether it will be a better, more prosperous life, or something out of the most nightmarish dystopian fiction.  What is needed to achieve the former – beyond the immediate fixes of an increased focus on mental health care and sensible, effective gun restrictions – is a fundamental re-examination of the wisdom of the agenda of fear:  the invisible conspiracy convincing the world that we need to jump at our own shadows, not because shadows are scary, but so we’ll be the first in line to purchase deluxe-grade shadow repellent.  We are hooked on fear like the proverbial junkie chasing his next fix.  And in one area, I find myself in agreement with some of the Second Amendment advocates, in that I don’t think gun control is the panacea, although it will certainly help start the journey.  When we learn to shun the fearmongers, when we evolve away from this notion that we need an arsenal to protect ourselves from the boogeyman lurking in the alleyway, when we celebrate the good instead of constantly giving airtime to the bad, when we reject the concept that safety only comes through deterrence, and when we recognize that the right of children to attend school free of fear should always trump somebody else’s freedom to blow a deer’s brains out, and resolve to do whatever it takes to make that happen, then we will be able to finally crawl out from the iron grip of fear, and into a better future.  We owe it to those dear lost children who won’t be celebrating Christmas this year.  The alternative – the slow, doomed march of the status quo – is simply too frightening to contemplate.

In any event, now you know what this anonymous idiot with a keyboard thinks.  And my hope is that you and your family have a joyful, celebratory holiday season utterly free of fear and loathing.  See you in the next one, and let’s get on with things, shall we?

UPDATE:  The NRA has officially responded and predictably, they’ve blamed everything but guns and suggested the answer is more guns in schools.  Armed guards in every school, which won’t necessarily have to be police but volunteers (because armed guards are wonderful but amateur armed guards would be even better!)  And the taxpayer would of course be the one to pick up the tab for the huge bill the weapons manufacturers would then get to send to the government.  NRA Vice President/Gun Pimp Wayne LaPierre says that “the only thing that can stop bad guys with guns is good guys with guns.”  And while he was speaking, someone shot and killed four people in Pennsylvania, wounding two state troopers in the process, who, presumably, were armed.

Your move, America.

The lasting lesson of The West Wing

The first time I saw The West Wing, I was in bed with a bad cold over the Christmas holidays.  Bravo was running a third-season marathon and while I’d never paid much attention to the show before, for whatever reason (sluggish, cold med-induced trance perhaps) my finger slipped off the remote as Josh and Donna bantered along through the hallways.  It wasn’t two minutes before I was hooked – I had never seen television characters interact like this before, bantering back and forth with sparkling, witty repartee that actually rewarded you for keeping your brain engaged while you were watching (as opposed to almost pleading that you turn it off).  After spending the subsequent seven years evolving into whatever the Trekkie-equivalent of a West Wing fan is (Wingnut?  Westie?) I look back on the role it played at a transitional time of my life in helping to shape my worldview – already pretty liberal, I was still missing a critical element of the equation.  I could never really say why I was a liberal, I just felt more at home in the liberal tent, and progressively disinclined at a gut level towards anything remotely conservative.  The West Wing crystallized it for me.

The missing ingredient was the power of people – that famous quotation attributed to Margaret Mead that cautions us to never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, as it is the only thing that ever has.  One of the challenges to anyone’s governing philosophy is deciding which side of that famous dichotomy you sit on – the nature of mankind, whether he is by nature basically good, or basically evil.  Whether altruism and compassion are our natural state, or if we’re all fundamentally John Galts out for number one alone.  You can find plenty of arguments for and against in the animal kingdom, whether it’s in watching a pride of lions leaving their weakest members behind to the hyenas, or in seeing a herd of elephants gather to bury and mourn their dead.  Yet those same lions will tend lovingly to their cubs, and those same elephants will battle each other with their mighty tusks to win the favour of the most comely pachyderm.  As human beings we are poised so delicately on the razor edge of that question, crawling along it like the snail Colonel Kurtz rambles about in Apocalypse Now (even he calls it both his dream and his nightmare).  We want so much to be the good man that we fight ceaselessly from slipping over the other side.  When there are a lot of us gathered together in that fight, we can do some pretty damned incredible things.

In Canada, the CTS network is showing West Wing reruns nightly.  CTS is including segments in each act break called “West Wing Attaché,” where a right-leaning media personality provides “balance” (I suppose that’s what they call it, he sniffed derisively) to the ideas the episode is putting forward.  The comments offered thus far have been predictably insipid.  There has been a question asked many times in many Internet forums over the years as to why there was never a show about the Presidency produced from a Republican or more general right-wing perspective.  The answer to that one is easy – because conservatives at heart do not believe in government.  To them it’s a nuisance that gets in the way of people making money and living their lives.  It is impossible to have a workplace drama where the characters in that workplace don’t believe in what they’re doing, and more to the point, are seeking to dismantle the very structure that provides them employment.  Would ER work if the doctors were always looking for a way to reduce services and ultimately close down the hospital?  Would Star Trek work if Captain Kirk thought the Enterprise was a bloated waste of tax dollars and his five-year mission better handled by private contractors?  Closer to home, you probably know at least one guy in your office who hates being there and bitches constantly about how the whole organization is a joke.  How much time do you enjoy spending around that dude?  (As an aside, this is why I always laugh – and cry a bit – watching conservatives campaign for office, as they claim government is terrible and evil and horrible and ghastly but they want to be in it anyway.  I’d like to try this approach the next time I interview for a job:  “Well, I feel that your company should be reduced in size and finally dismantled because it is a grotesque blight on the cause of personal freedom.  Hire me please.”  The crying is for how often this pitch works at election time.)  CTS doesn’t mind the ad revenue they’re earning from airing West Wing, obviously, but I guess they feel they have to stay true to their viewer base by ensuring that not one of them starts to think seriously about the “heretical” ideas it offers up.  I will wait patiently for the day they offer similar “balance” by giving a liberal atheist a few minutes of airtime during 100 Huntley Street, and in the meantime, thank goodness for the mute button.

The West Wing characters believed in the capacity of government, whatever its flaws, to be a place where good things can be done to help people in need.  Their reward for advancing this philosophy was not wealth, fame or even a healthy family life – it had to be in the knowledge that they had done their jobs well, even if no one else knew it.  As a guiding philosophy for our brief shuffle across this mortal coil, not bad.  Not the selfish whine of the Ayn Rand devotee looking to cast adrift those who have a harder time of it while they gobble up exponentially more than their share.  Not the bottom-line focus of the corporation who cares about people only so long as you keep buying stuff from them.  Instead, fighting to do good for good’s sake – and while they’re at it, pausing to enjoy the fight itself (Josh Lyman’s telling a right-wing Senator to shove a Stone Age legislative agenda up his ass still resonates, as does President Bartlet’s utter demolition of his Bush-clone opponent in their debate with “Can we have it back, please?”)

Warren Kinsella talked about how the staff in former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s office was obsessed with The West Wing and how it proved to him that they were headed for a massive electoral wipeout.  People in politics, Kinsella argues, are never that smart.  Indeed, in some of The West Wing’s more idealistic (and unrealistic, if we’re being fair) moments it counts on the wisdom of the American people to make the correct choice, and again, this is the same country that elected George W. Bush and at this point in 2008 was ready to put Sarah Palin within one John McCain heart attack of the presidency.  Yet it’s not fair to write The West Wing off as an unattainable liberal fantasy.  Perhaps it’s a long game, something to always strive for, with the recognition that you’ll probably never get there – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t still important to try.  It’s ironic that it’s the other side that usually goes on about the importance of belief in those who seek to enter public life, because for a liberal, the pursuit of the greatness a country can attain when the best people lead its government is a true journey of political faith.  You could see faith on The West Wing in every episode, even when the characters were beaten down by political realities and implacable foes.  Communicating that faith to non-believers is the challenge real-life liberals continue to face.  The other side is usually better funded and better at getting its message out, because the other way is just easier – appealing to cynicism and greed and pitting us against them.  No one ever went broke riling ordinary folks up against invisible enemies.  But as I said in a previous post, faith unchallenged is no faith at all, and the path of faith leads to a more lasting reward.  In this case it’s the promise of a better place to live.

Is that the lasting lesson of The West Wing?  Well, it is for this Wingnut.

Rob Ford and political chicken

I’m no fan of Rob Ford.  I find him to be a regressive, rude, bullying, half-witted right-wing douchebag I wouldn’t trust to have my back in a bar fight, let alone as the mayor of one of the most progressive cities in the world.  Yet this uproar over his recent purchase of some fried chicken at a local KFC, dutifully recorded and uploaded to the Internet for the digital world’s derision, is a step too far.  I recall a conversation with a guy I used to work with, when we were talking about Ford and I was relating my less than favourable opinion of him.  This fellow said to me, “I appreciate that you don’t ever talk about his weight.”  My response was, why should I?  He could be a 98-pound beanpole and still advance policies that make my stomach turn.  Ford’s physical condition has absolutely nothing to do with how he conducts himself or how he performs as a public official, which are the only things we should be judging him on.

The counter-argument is that Ford made his weight an issue ripe for public scrutiny by politicizing his “Cut the Waist” challenge.  Contrast this with the response to Vic Toews and his infamous “child pornographers” comment.  There were two major initiatives on Twitter:  the @vikileaks feed, which posted publicly available records of Toews’ divorce, and the spontaneous #TellVicEverything campaign, in which users overwhelmed Toews’ Twitter feed with the mundane details of their lives – what they ate for breakfast, what was playing on their iPod, how many pigeons there were in the park and so on.  The former was disgraceful, because it made political hay of Toews’ family problems.  The latter was hysterically funny, because it mocked Toews’ boneheaded political stance.  It made the policy a laughingstock, without belittling the man’s private life.  That’s what the other guys do.

Imagine if Rob Ford were a liberal titan, boldly advancing green initiatives and progressive social policies and vowing to make Toronto car-free and overgrown with trees by 2020 – would we on the left side of the spectrum be so inclined to laugh about a lapse in his diet?  Anyone who’s ever dieted knows how hard it is, how bad the cravings can get, even when you’re not under the 24-hour stress of leading a city of millions.  We’ve all had our weak moments where we reach for the ice cream.  That’s not a criticism of Rob Ford; if nothing else, it humanizes the guy a little, and reminds you that under all the bloviating and bluster there is in fact a very vulnerable soul.  Which I would still never vote for.

The past few elections in Canada, and the upcoming American presidential contest, have brought to the forefront of the public consciousness a hideous scorched earth form of political campaign where nothing is off limits.  Effective government leadership demands that the best people step forward, and how will we encourage those folks to step out into the spotlight when the mere public rumination of a run for office can spark the filthiest invective from the opposition in response?  The silent demographic who do not vote because they cannot abide the cynicism of politics are not silent without cause.  They have been systematically alienated from a public debate that operates on the intellectual level of a high school cat fight.  It’s all too tempting for liberals to want to get down into the mud and fight just as dirty as their conservative counterparts, but doing that only accomplishes two things – it accepts with resignation the premise that government and public service is the realm of savages, and often engenders sympathy for the opponent (and by accidental consequence, the opponent’s argument).  It takes more courage to stand up to a bully with words instead of fists.  But sometimes, a victory won with words – the right words – can be all the more decisive.  Canadian and American progressives may dream of a day when right-wing parties are a nausea-inducing anathema to the voting public, but we won’t get there by calling Conservatives and Republicans fatty-Mcfat-fats.

A comedian whose name I can’t recall once opined that it was stupid to be a racist, because if you got to know the person really well you could find a much better reason to hate their guts.  Likewise, it’s ridiculous to go after Rob Ford because of his weight.  He could be the most drool-worthy, sculpted embodiment of Adonis on the planet and still be a lousy mayor.  Call him misguided, call his policies ludicrous, call his approach to governing positively inept, but if the guy wants a bucket of extra crispy chicken for dinner after a bad day, leave him the frack alone.

The questionable wisdom of electing potted plants

Recently, a member of the Canadian House of Commons,  John Williamson, invoked Martin Luther King Jr. to praise the abolishment of the long-gun registry. Not to be outclassed by his northern neighbor, an American Congressman, Allen West, opined that eighty members of the opposing party were Communists. The frequency of these lapses into idiocy by elected officials in their public statements is reaching critical mass, and so disheartening to the voters of our two respective countries that stupid statements, false equivalencies and comparisons to Hitler are becoming the new normal way of going about the people’s business. But you cannot blame a puppy for making a mess on the floor if he hasn’t been housebroken. The responsibility lies with the ones who put him there. Morons are running the show because we tossed them the job and sighed, “Have at it, oh insipid masses.”

Democracy is the most precious form of government and the most capable of greatness when insightful, committed people are in charge; it is equally the most susceptible to abuse and neglect when the wrong sorts get their hands on the public purse. One of the problems with our democracy is that the mechanism by which one chooses one’s representatives – the election – has for a long time, philosophically, been not about establishing a vision and a set of tenets to guide a nation, but simply about delivering the other guy a resounding whuppin’.

I’m not the first to come up with the analogy that we are treating our politicians like athletes and supporting the parties the way one would pledge undying allegiance to a particular sports franchise. Much as we expect nothing more from athletes in their post-game interviews other than “Yeah, well, we gave a hundred and ten percent out there,” it seems acceptable for politicians to spout inanities and continue winning. In Canada, the opposition bemoans how media revelations of mismanagement, ineptitude and suspected election fraud have done little to move the polling numbers of the sitting government. Yet the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and they still sell out their home games. When you abdicate the responsibility of informed citizenship and become merely a fan, of course you’re not going to care how badly your guys are doing – they’re your guys, thick and thin. The thing is, whether the Leafs win or lose a game has no bearing on your daily life. Who wins elections does.

In a properly functioning democracy, the people deserve a true debate, where points of view are considered, argued vigorously, and evaluated on their merits. I have my ideological leanings, as we all do, but if it came to a choice between a reasoned and intelligent advocate of the other side versus one of my guys brainlessly reciting talking points and breaking Godwin’s Law, I’d choose the former. I want a functioning, curious and logical brain hard at work for my community, because they truly want to make it better and not because politics comes with a sweet pension. A person of true principle, not an empty suit who only understands every third word of the legislation we’re entrusting him to vote on; a seat-filler who last had an independent thought sometime in the summer of 1985.

Every hockey coach knows that one strong forward won’t make up for a bunch of guys who can’t skate. In politics, even the best leaders need a strong bench. We need to stop filling out the ranks of our representatives with twits and thugs we wouldn’t trust to wash our cars just because we might like the guy at the head of the pack, or the team they happen to play for. We deserve better than that. Our democracy deserves better than that.

Governing is not easy. It requires the best of the best. And yet, every political party in existence has its safe ridings or districts; areas where the loyalty to a team is so entrenched that little attention is ever paid to the caliber of the individual acting as the standard bearer, nor must much of a case be mounted to ensure that loyalty. It’s said of such races that the incumbent party could run a potted plant and still win. It should come as no surprise then when the winner shows in his or her representative career the kind of reasoned and nuanced approach to governing possessed by the average fern. (No offense to ferns.) Otherwise sane parents who would not for one moment tolerate their child throwing a tantrum and calling Uncle Frank a Nazi are only too eager to install like-minded infants into elected office because of party worship. And unless that stops, unless we choose the best of us and not the loudest, we’ll never get the government our democracy needs. We’ll only get Wrestlemania in suits and ties – and last time I checked, I’m not sure The Undertaker had much of a fiscal policy.

Holiday wishes for 2011

I don’t want to believe that on the whole, people are stupid.  As I get older and grumpier though I’m finding it more difficult to reconcile my liberalism and my faith in the eventual betterment of humanity with the evidence.  We are a week and a half away from closing the book on a year that saw the merits of wealth and greed extolled over the virtues of altruism, self-sacrifice and the understanding that we are all in this together.  We have seen science demonized, facts ignored and truthiness become the guiding principle of government – as Asimov feared, brazen ignorance treated at the same level as expertise.  Being right is not enough.  Loud, not love, conquers all.  And the worst part is, we all know better, but we let the bad guys win anyway.  Why?  Are we just too lazy?  Has humanity just collectively decided to not give a rat’s hind parts?

Dennis Miller, with whom I agree on absolutely nothing, had a great line on one of his specials back in the 90’s, the last time I remember when optimism ruled the day.  He asked, “Why have we become so quick to exalt the banal, and so begrudging of the truly consequential?”  Who’d have thought that fifteen years later, it would only get worse?  The most famous family in the world right now is so not for their charitable work or their noble contributions to their fellow citizens, but because they are vapid, shallow and fundamentally useless seekers of celebrity.  It would benefit us all if we paid greater attention to the tribulations of our own families (which, ironically, has no financial cost) than forking out cash and felling acres of forest to keep up with the talent-bereft Kardashians.  And ridding ourselves of this scourge can be as simple as tuning them out and asking a friend to do the same.  If countless videos of adorable cats can go viral, why not also a campaign to raise our collective intellect?  As a start, I promise that this is the last time you will see that name on this blog.  They will no longer take up rent-free space on Graham’s Crackers.

What else can we do to step up our game in 2012?  Why not make this the year that we cease endorsing bullies or the use of bullying tactics in any form, be it in the high school halls, the pursuit of elected office or government itself?  If repeated viewings of The Karate Kid have taught me anything, it’s that nobody really likes the Cobra-Kai douchebags or wants to see them win.  Similarly, we should stop rewarding the political equivalents of Johnny and Sensei Kreese with our vote and consequently the right to mooch off the tax dollars that we entrust to them to ensure we are healthy, safe and free of fear.  Let’s demand maturity, tolerance and intelligent debate from all parties and stop electing or otherwise supporting hormone-juiced frat boys who honed their diplomatic skills playing Call of Duty while high on Red Bull and vodka coolers.  Our governments, like our schools, really can Get Better.

Other things to do in 2012 to enrich yourself and stem the tide of dumbing-down:

  • Read books that do not have vampires in them, and at least one that is over 100 years old.
  • See more live theatre and local musicians.
  • Go for long walks amidst the trees.
  • Instead of just posting what you’re doing on Facebook, ask your friends what they’re doing.  Make plans to see them more often.
  • Unfollow Charlie Sheen, Snooki and any other famous-for-being-train-wrecks on Twitter and encourage a friend to do the same.
  • Try more local restaurants.
  • Never use LOL or OMG again.  Learn a few phrases in Latin to pepper your status updates with instead.
  • Support your local conservation authorities by exploring your neighbourhood parks.
  • Listen to music made by people who are not supermodel-attractive.
  • Write something – a blog, a book, a haiku, it doesn’t matter which.
  • Don’t vote for the guy who’s angry all the time.  He has issues, and none of them involve making your life better.
  • Do something friendly for a neighbour you barely know.
  • Don’t buy Us Weekly, People or any other tabloid magazine devoted to celebrities.  If you must, then plant one tree, bush or shrub for every issue you just can’t live without.
  • Hug a puppy, kitten, bunny, lamb, pony or any suitable baby animal.
  • Make your own list of suggestions like this and pass them on.
  • Keep reading Graham’s Crackers!  (Sorry.)

Start with the little things.  You’ll be surprised how much you like them and how much you don’t miss the other noise.  Maybe together we can start, very slowly, turning this behemoth called civilization away from the shoals of ignorance and back toward the heights of what it is within our capability as human beings to achieve, absent only the decision to realize that potential.  I promise it’ll be worth it.

Best wishes for a happy holiday season.

Graham

Caveat elector

You can’t blame an un-housebroken puppy for making a mess on your living room floor.  Nor should anyone, in a democracy, feign shock at the actions of the stupendously incompetent who ride into office on waves of voter discontent and proceed to wreck the place.  As I’m writing this, the United States Senate has just passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling, avoiding by the narrowest of margins a default brought on by the extreme right-wing elements of the Republican Party who were swept into power in the 2010 midterm elections.  The Brothers Ford are threatening to balance Toronto’s books by… cutting books (i.e. libraries), as it turns out that all of the city’s fiscal woes cannot, in fact, be cured by eliminating the “gravy train.”  You can’t really blame these people for being unskilled and unfit to govern.  They didn’t put themselves in office.  We should blame ourselves for buying what they’ve sold without thoroughly kicking the tires first.

In politics, the simplest message is the most successful.  “I Like Ike.”  “Yes We Can.”  “It’s the economy, stupid.”  “Stop the gravy train.”  “He didn’t come back for you.”  So too does it often seem that the simplest people have the simplest time getting elected – for the simple reason that running a campaign of pandering is the simplest path to victory.  Tell people what they want to hear often enough and you’ll convince them.  Why?  Because democracy is a pain in the ass.  In a democracy, the governed are meant to stay informed, learn about issues, examine all sides of a problem and keep their representatives honest.  The problem is, nobody really wants to do that.  The majority of us are perfectly happy to leave governing to anyone who wants to, so long as we don’t have to.  The least we are asked to do is vote and many of us can’t even be bothered doing that.  Those of us who do bother are usually seduced by the infamous simple message.  “I don’t like taxes and this guy says he’s going to cut them, that’s good enough for me.”  Imagine interviewing someone for a job at your company – you have an applicant who has no prior experience, no qualifications for the position and just keeps repeating the phrase “Hire me and I’ll save you money.”  You’d be showing him the door faster than you can say “hard-working families.”  Yet politicians use the same strategy to find their way into highly-paid positions of authority where they can affect thousands, even millions of lives.

George W. Bush came from a legacy of failed business ventures and could barely pronounce half the words in the English language and he was placed in charge of the nuclear launch codes for eight tumultuous years.  I choose not to believe it was because the majority who voted for him were stupid.  It was the widespread laissez-faire attitude I’ve described above that favored his simple answers over the more complicated solutions Al Gore and John Kerry respectively were offering instead.  The irony is that governing is complicated.  Anyone who says it is simple is lying for votes.  Good governing is a dance of nuance, intelligence, curiosity, respect, and compromise when necessary.  Not everyone can do it and it demands minds that are sharp and inquisitive and not chained to ideology at the expense of reason.  A four-year-old who’s heard a slogan on TV can repeat it ad infinitum, but you wouldn’t consider putting him in charge of the Ministry of Finance.  You wouldn’t even put him in charge of a lemonade stand.

So let’s set our standards higher – if we do not demand more from candidates, if we continue to let them get away with pandering, pat answers to complex questions, if we continue to vote by picking the least of the worst – we should not be surprised when it turns out that the people we’ve elected are completely unsuited to handle the complex questions that will arise in the course of governing.  Because whacking the puppy with the newspaper after the fact isn’t going to do much to clean up the steaming pile lying in the middle of the floor.  Better yet, instead get a cat – they are smart enough to know to use the litter box in the first place.