Tag Archives: Mitt Romney

Justin Trudeau’s Next Round

trudeau

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin Trudeau stands on the cusp of achieving that.

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

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

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

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Cat lady economics

"Job creator."
“Job creator.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get Up the Road: Henry Rollins live

Jon Stewart once said about Bruce Springsteen that when the Boss performs on stage, he empties the tank.  Some performers endure with unapproachable intensity, defying their age and it would seem even the limits of physics as they keep the needle in the red long after most of the audience is ready to collapse from sheer exhaustion.  Paul McCartney remains that in his 70’s.  And so does Henry Rollins.  From the moment he walks out on the bare stage and grabs his instrument – the microphone – Rollins seizes his audience by the balls, locks them in a vice and doesn’t give them nor himself a single breath until he’s done, two and a half hours later; at which point he marches off without looking back, point made, job done.  Rollins is a rare breed and like the most fascinating people, a walking contradiction – a master raconteur absolutely without cynicism; an angry, tattooed punk who rages for the cause of hope.  He spits in the face of authority not out of misguided emo angst, but because he’s been to every corner of the world he’s been warned not to visit and has found a common humanity wherever he’s walked.  Rollins is a modern pilgrim and is only too eager to share what he’s learned, to put it out there without judgement and have you decide for yourself whether you think he’s onto something or not.

I’m not going to pretend that I have any kind of penetrating insight into punk rock; apart from occasionally digging the odd Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop or Ramones tune it’s a stratum of society that is pretty foreign to a kid whose chosen muses growing up were James Bond and Star Trek.  But it’s an interesting exercise to compare the sentiments of someone like Johnny Ramone, who admired George W. Bush and opined that punk was essentially right wing at heart, to Rollins, who rejects the absolutism that frames a conservative’s morality (he refers to Mitt Romney as a “feckless douche” and mocks the Republicans’ deep-seeded fear of “le vag”) and understands that people everywhere just want a better life for their kids and are at their best when they work together for the benefit of everyone.  One could hardly find a sharper contrast to the Ayn Randian mentality that characterizes today’s right wing (and contributed greatly to their shellacking down south on November 6th).  What I suspect informs at least some of Rollins’ more collectivist thinking as it applies to punk rock is the ability of music to unite everyone, regardless of background, in a shared experience.  To show that someone else gets it.  Rollins’ spoken word shows carry on that tradition as well.  He admits that he both loves and fears his audience, but one thing is for certain:  he can unite them.

Perhaps atypically for what one (or, more accurately, “the man”) would expect from a punk, Henry Rollins doesn’t believe in anger without purpose; he quotes Iggy Pop, who, when asked why he was so angry all the time, replied that “I work at it.”  We’ve all felt that directionless anger many times in our lives, and rather than throwing up his hands and deciding that humanity is headed to its smouldering doom in the proverbial flaming handbasket, rather than simply stumbling out drunkenly in the night looking for an innocent face to throw a punch at, Rollins channels his anger into positive work.  He relates a tale of bringing soap and soccer balls to a shattered community in Haiti, and laments playfully lifting a child into the air when a line of hundreds of them then formed expecting a similar ride from an increasingly sore back that wasn’t physically up to the challenge.  He talks about befriending the driver of a broken-down tour bus in Cuba who could only manage a few phrases of broken English (among them “baseball”).  He shares a story of meeting a fan who listened to Rollins’ records to gather the courage to come out to his staunchly conservative parents.  He tells of a troubled young girl who sent him an email full of naked pictures of herself asking if he thought boys would like her, and of his response, both fatherly (gently assuring her that she doesn’t need to run at that part of her life when it will come naturally in time) and terrifying (talking about the permanence of the Internet and painting a graphic picture of what might happen should the wrong person decide to take an interest in her).  And he finds the most clever ways to stick it to the man, as in when requesting that his share of the profits from a poster promoting a festival in Austin, Texas be donated to the local chapter of Planned Parenthood in order to give a smirking middle finger to Governor (and Planned Parenthood foe) Rick Perry.  One thing I do understand about punk that many seem to miss is its wry sense of humor, and Rollins could easily be thought of as punk’s happy warrior.  For a guy who looks like he’d just as soon kick your ass as look at you twice, Rollins does a magnificent job of making people laugh – not with puns or punch lines or observations about airline food, but with tales of the richness and the wackiness that is the life available to us if we’re willing to leap at it the way he does – even if we’re not all as eager to throw back two shots of cow urine on camera.

I’ve seen Henry Rollins live six times now, trying to make it out to his show every time he’s in the neighbourhood, and fortunately, as the self-professed “work slut” and Canada enthusiast proclaims, that’s often, usually once a year.  The stories change but the message remains the same, and it continues to simmer in the recesses of one’s thoughts long after Rollins has said good night and soldiered back to his utilitarian hovel.  Seeing Henry Rollins is not a passive experience where you let the words wash over you, laugh a few times and then forget it as soon as you’ve left the theatre.  What Rollins wants, and the gauntlet that he lays down, is for each person sitting there listening and laughing to join with him in the spirit with which he journeys through life.  To cast aside the filter of fear erected to obscure the truth of our world by people who are trying to sell us things.  To come together in the common cause of getting everyone a little bit further up the road.  Fundamentally, to find and latch onto that little piece of punk inside that Rollins knows can be harvested to do amazing things.  And if nothing else, to rock out to the Ramones.  I don’t know about you, but that makes me seriously consider getting some ink – or at least cranking up “Blitzkrieg Bop.”

Hey, ho, let’s go.

Following the money, missing the point

 

It really is just a pile of dead trees.

It’s with equal degrees of bemusement and resignation that I read articles speculating on how the real-life breakup of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart may affect the box-office performance of Breaking Dawn, Part II.  Nor is it any stretch of the imagination to suspect that the morning following the Aurora massacre an emergency meeting was called in a studio boardroom somewhere to discuss how that tragedy would impact the ticket sales for The Dark Knight Rises.  The biggest questions in the presidential election revolve around money – how much of it Mitt Romney may or may not have paid in taxes, how much his campaign is raking in from billionaire Super PAC donors, whether or not Barack Obama can become the first incumbent president to be outspent and still secure re-election.  Austerity, whether advisable or not, and deficit reduction dominate the agenda of every government on the planet.  The rich are vilified in one circle for acting like feudal overlords, and praised in another as job creators.  Money is the filter through which we examine everything – we have become a species of accountants obsessed with numbers and the bottom line.  And yet we’re more miserable than we’ve ever been:  impatient, demanding, and more prone to outbursts of rage for the most insignificant reasons.  Something is clearly askew.  Is it perhaps time to undertake the first step in recovery and admit that we have a problem – that obsessing over money isn’t getting us anywhere?

I’m not naïve enough to suggest that the acquisition of wealth is ever going to fade away as a motivating factor in human behaviour; it’s been that way ever since the first Australopithecus looked out with longing at the bigger, cosier cave his neighbour across the way was occupying.  But that motivation is rooted in the biggest lie of all – that having more means being happier.  Marketers and advertisers understand this, which is why every commercial you’ve ever seen is designed to make you feel inadequate and envious, and to suggest, in somewhat the same manner as a drug dealer would, that you just need a hit of whatever is being sold – cars, shoes, cologne or designer jeans – to ease the pain of your unendingly terrible existence.  We all know better, and yet we buy in – pun most depressingly intended – to the lie, sacrificing what we’ve earned for temporary relief, at least until the next ad comes on and we begin to think ourselves lacking in some other area.  It does not have to be this way, and yet we have been conditioned in the same manner to define success in dollars alone – not influence or reach or the fundamental amelioration of our collective humanity.  Somewhere along the way, the virtue of working hard as its own reward transformed into only a means to the end of securing one’s fortune at the expense of the well-being of our peers.  Men of business the world over with less moral integrity than the average cockroach are revered as leaders and held up as ideals to emulate because they have managed to accumulate piles and piles of cash, with little, if any, consideration given to the lives that have been destroyed by their greed.  We are forced to listen to their obscene rants and give credence to their perverted worldviews because we have decided that they deserve our attention based on the size of their bank accounts.  Opinions that would otherwise be dismissed the ravings of lunacy shape policy for billions of people, because money defines the parameters of the conversation.  To our everlasting shame, we have allowed it to – in whom we have voted for and whom we have chosen to place upon gilded pedestals to admire.

Enough is enough.

Some would argue that there is a moral imperative within each soul born upon this planet to leave it in a better state than which they found it.  This is an aim hardly served by pillaging and plundering the earth’s treasures for the benefit of a select few.  What is needed is a reorienting of our values and a new form of currency, one that cannot be tied to the whims of banks:  a currency of ideas, in which the ideas are evaluated on their substance and not on how much cash is flowing behind them.  Do I think this is ever going to happen?  Well, probably not in my lifetime.  The forces of money are too deeply entrenched within the corridors of power.  But we can get the process started – by refusing to grant those forces our slavish attention, and by shedding the ridiculous belief that someone is better than we are because they are wealthier.  By not caring anymore how much so-and-so gets paid for his latest album or her starring debut.  By emphasizing quality over quantity, and evaluating character completely independently of the size of a person’s wallet.  By making “successful businessman” roughly the same estimation of a man’s worth as “frequent water drinker.”  Not going so far as vilifying financial success outright, but making it the very least important of the measures of a human being.  Saying “oh, you’re a billionaire casino entrepreneur?  How nice for you – my kid just scored three goals at his soccer game last Saturday.”

We cannot achieve true fairness in this world until we stop worshipping those things that make the world unfair.  What’s most encouraging is that we still have the choice to do that.  We just have to make it.

Mary Sue Romney and the illusion of leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Pasty Republican Billionaires: Haven’t You Got Anything Better To Do?

Founder of the new Super PAC, “Americans for a Prosperous Tatooine.”

You can’t read U.S.political news lately without seeing a story about a septuagenarian Republican one-percenter with a hate-on for the President pouring millions of his fortune into a new Super PAC.  Thanks to Citizens United, right-wing sugar daddies are emptying their coffers to Karl Rove and ilk to flood the airwaves with ads blaming President Obama for everything from sunspots to the common cold.  Figures like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Foster Friess and most recently, Joe Ricketts, are positioning themselves as the new architects of what is left of American democracy.  You’d think that achieving staggering levels of wealth would be enough, but apparently, multiple mansions and car elevators are not where it’s at anymore.  These oligarchs-in-waiting are determined that the government is destined to be a rich guys-only club, and who gives a damn how many poor people get steamrolled out of existence in the process.  In fact, the more poor are simply obliterated, the better.

Stories about Republican Super PAC funders seem to have one thing in common – the men in question are uniformly old, bloated and incredibly sour-faced, as if their soul has been eaten away by a lifetime of stress, drinking, smoking and rage.  Paul McCartney told us that money can’t buy me love; these characters are the embodiment of that axiom.  These real-life Charles Foster Kanes have conquered the business world, crushed enemies in their wake and accumulated wealth to rival that of the pharaohs.  But love remains elusive for them, no matter how many zeroes in their Cayman Islands offshore holding account.  Nobody loves these guys.  No young boy goes to sleep at night dreaming of being a hedge fund manager and forcing people out of their homes.

Instead, Republican billionaires squirm and twist in a constant state of paranoia, terrified that colleagues, friends, family members and even the postal carrier who slips on the ice in their two-mile long driveway in Aspen are scheming to take everything away.  It’s no surprise, given the path a man has to take to claw his way into mega-millions.  You simply don’t get there by being adored.  How frustrating, then, that others of far more limited means can still manage to find love.  Joe Ricketts’ recently announced plan to dredge up Reverend Wright again centers on trying to make voters hate the President.  Not disagree with his policies; hate him.  So, presumably, the President can then feel as down-trodden and hopeless about life as Joe Ricketts must.  You get the feeling that we could have been spared the phenomenon of the Super PAC had their mothers just hugged these people more.

What Ricketts and the rest of these billionaires despise most about President Obama is that he is everything they are not, and will never become.  Truly self-made; someone who came from nothing and got where he is by working hard and applying himself, instead of being parachuted into accidental greatness by a generous trust fund.  A man with a beautiful wife he clearly adores beyond words and a happy, loving family.  President Obama is a greater embodiment of the American Dream than any of these grumpy old guys.  Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, he has the ability to inspire people across all walks of life, and around the globe.  Hope and change remains a potent campaign slogan because it appeals to our better angels.

For crusty old billionaires, this does not compute.  They believe everyone is as greedy and money-grubbing as they are; that altruism is a fool’s game, that no one ever does anything out of a simple wish to be good.  And it positively bakes their collective noodles that not everyone wants to be rich.  The majority of us just want to earn enough to look after our families, so they don’t have to worry about getting sick or feeding themselves or having a roof over their heads.  Amazingly, you can still do that without millions in a diversified asset portfolio, and working hard at that goal despite difficult odds is far more likely to earn you genuine love than the extra fifty million you’ll earn if Obamacare is tossed by the Supreme Court.

Simply put, a heart that is rotting cannot lift others.  The Koch brothers may have helped the Tea Party become a ground-shifting political force, but no one would ever accuse David and Charles Koch of being inspiring men.  They and those like them don’t inspire with words and ideas; they push with threats and cattle prods, because they don’t know any other way.  And they come to envy and hate the ones who do.  Whenever you see Karl Rove’s picture, this pudgy, balding sinister figure without a kind word to say about anything left of Genghis Khan, you can’t help thinking that he must have been the fat kid who was always picked last for the team, and is continuing to take his revenge on the popular kids forty years on to satisfy some long-simmering Freudian dysfunction.  And it is all so futile.  Mitt Romney could sweep all 50 states and half of Australia and these people will still be stewing in their self-loathing and cursing their inability to feel any better.  No one will love them any more.  They’ll feel even worse if they blow all this cash and President Obama still wins.

So here is my modest suggestion.

Take the money you had intended for your Super PAC and found a charity instead.  Build a school.  Refurbish a hospital.  Fund cancer or AIDS research.  Erect a nature preserve.  Start a new business and hire some people, for god’s sake.  Then go visit one of these places anonymously and look for the genuine joy in the eyes of the people you’ve been able to help.  Just stand there and soak it in – the sense of gratitude, of warm feelings.  Let your heart quicken.  Feel the love.  Then think about how you can do even more.  How good it will feel when a child whose life has been saved because of an initiative you backed mentions you in their prayers before going to sleep at night?  Wouldn’t that be amazing?  Don’t you like the idea of being remembered, like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of the story, as “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world”?  Or would you rather spend your money on TV ads demonizing the President of the United States, ads that will be as forgotten as swiftly as you will be the day your rotten heart finally croaks its last beat?

Ball’s in your court, Super PACs.  I know I’m sleeping fine tonight.

Fun with words: Brief is best

The odd time when I come up short of new things to write, I find it fun, to stoke the muse, to forge a new post by a firm law – thou shalt not use this word or that word, that sort of thing.  This time I opt for a rule whose form I leave, as is my wont, to you to solve.  The sport, or the art, if you will, is in the need to keep the tales sound and full of flow, and the bane is in how few themes of sense and worth can be talked up thus.  It’s by no means the first time this has been done – I just think it’s neat and worth a go of my own.

What, pray tell then, has the news for us on this day?  A globe on the brink (as per its wont).  The price of gas.  The death of the man who wrote “Feed the Birds,” “Step in Time” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”  Mitt, Rick and Newt.  Rush and his big mouth.  And here at home, more phone calls made to squelch votes.  The reign of the mad, the romps of the rich, the plight of the poor.  Far more, it seems, than can be scribed in just a few brief words.  In a sense, there lies the rub – our Earth and the lives of those who have walked it and walk it still are too big to be shrunk to sound bites, to be dumbed down for mass ears with the truth not then lost in the noise.  I wish we were not as keen on fast news; that we took the time to probe, to ask, and in the end to judge with our own minds, and not on the “facts” of the loud.  Why are we so prone to cede the right to choose our way to the guy with the big bucks – and the brash voice?  We are, each of us, free to think on our own.  To look at each new day with our own eyes, and to not be swayed by the rants of the mean guy next door.  To give up this great right is to say, in fact, that we don’t want to be who we are – we want to be sheep, we want to be led, we don’t want to be forced to pick our own fates.  It is so sad.  You wish you could scream this at the folks you pass on the street.  But it seems that this too is a truth to which we each must come in our own way, in our own time.

But in spite of this, there is still cause for hope.  The good do wake if they are nudged.  Mean old Rush has lost scores of ads and fans in the past week thanks to his slurs.  This could be, one craves, the start of a trend.  Most of us do not want to hate; we just want to live life, to love and be loved.  We want things to be great.  I have faith, crazed some might say, that at some point quite soon, the scale will tip, and there will come a flood of good men who will say, “No more.  I am my own man, I walk my own path, and lies shall not slow me, make me sad or make me hate.  I choose to go forth.”  That’s how we make it up the next step.  Shall we walk there as one?

(Hint to those who still want to guess:  The last word there is a clue.  As to if this post is a win or a loss?  That’s your choice to make.)