Tag Archives: politics

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?

Triumph of a Heavyweight

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

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

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

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

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

But it sure is nice to be proven right.

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister.  And thank you.

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?

Justin Trudeau’s Next Round

trudeau

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin Trudeau stands on the cusp of achieving that.

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

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

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

Cat lady economics

"Job creator."
“Job creator.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The road from ideology to idiocy is paved with tanks

A patriot defending against tyranny.
A patriot defending against tyranny.

So this morning, I’m following this Twitter exchange between Van Jones, former advisor to President Obama, and some mostly anonymous American gun lovers who are blowing collective gaskets (or is that muskets) over measures announced by the President this last week to try and curb armed violence in America.  The righties are coming at Jones with the suggestion that ever-more-powerful arsenals are needed by “the people” to combat government “tyranny” (the latest buzzword, like socialism, used to define a paranoid’s impression of some indefinable monster lurking in the shadows:  “I sure don’t know what it is, but I’m damn sure agin it!”)  Jones counters by asking what would be enough for these same people to be able to successfully subdue U.S. soldiers acting on behalf of this hypothetical tyrannical government – chemical weapons, nukes even – and calls what his opponents are suggesting, i.e. firing on American servicemen and women, treasonous.  At which point one individual says Jones is being ridiculous and in the event of this prophesied calamity of Biblical proportions, “the soldiers will be on our side.”  To which I’d say, please see Square, Tiananmen.  But it got me thinking about the course of the entire discussion, where no minds will be changed, no needles will be moved and no one will come away with anything but a heated temper and a more intractable position on the issue.  We act like this is a phenomenon unique to the era of Fox News and infinite blogs and talk radio shows, but the power and the rigidity of belief, whether it is political or spiritual, is one of the defining aspects of humanity.  We’ve seen in countless examples how it is both our greatest gift and our greatest curse.  The noblest accomplishments we have ever achieved have come from strong beliefs, and sadly, so have our greatest evils.

As a liberal humanist, I’ve chosen my spot on the spectrum and have as much of an ideology as the next guy.  Yet I temper my beliefs with reason and my own personal notion that faith unchallenged is not faith:  one must question everything and back up one’s claims with concrete, scientific, provable evidence.  And one shouldn’t linger in the comfort of one’s own “side,” as it were – you owe it to yourself to look at what the opposition thinks and try to figure out the reasoning behind their points of view.  As I mentioned in my piece a few weeks ago about the Newtown shooting, the obsession with guns comes from a place of fear – as does a great deal of the conservative mindset.  Fear of the untrustworthy, the indigent, the other.  Bad people. Bad people are coming to hurt you, so you need a gun to protect yourself.  Bad people want to steal your money and spend it on other people, so you want taxes cut.  Bad people overseas want to blow you up for reasons you can’t understand, so you want a huge military arsenal to defend your shores.  Bad people want to force you to sleep with men.  Bad people want you to stop going to church.  Bad people this, bad people that.  There seems to be a need to collect all this fear and focus it against a single, identifiable target, hence the evil liberal menace, stoking this fear into the hatred that naturally follows.

Fear, of course, isn’t unique to conservatives.  Liberals fear plenty of things – the devastation of our planet due to wars, environmental pollution or outright greed, religious extremists forcing antiquated and in many cases physically harmful doctrines on the masses, losing our democratic voice to an ever-encroaching corporate plutocracy.  The major difference I see in how a liberal approaches the world is that for liberals, there are no absolutes – and we are more willing to admit that we might be wrong.  On Real Time with Bill Maher a while back, someone, I can’t remember whom, was sparring with a climate change denier and made the argument that if he was wrong about global warming, no big deal, but if the denier was wrong, everyone and everything on Earth would die – so why not try to mitigate the problem anyway?  But a conservative will cling to the same tenets no matter how many times he is proven to be in error; for him, flexibility is weakness.  There was a story a few months ago how Senate Republicans suppressed a study that proved conclusively, through decades of evidence, that tax cuts do not spur job growth.  Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, during our 2011 federal election, kept insisting that corporate tax cuts were desperately needed or this hazy figure of “400,000 jobs” would be lost.  The meme was repeated, unquestioned, ad nauseum by friendly media and likely helped throw more than a few votes his party’s way.  Less than a year later Flaherty was out begging corporations to please oh please if you wouldn’t mind sir, kindly use your hoards of cash we just gifted you to hire a few folks, y’know, if it’s not too much trouble.  Yet you won’t see Flaherty calling for his tax cuts to be repealed, no matter how much red ink is generated, how much proof he is shown that said cuts are as helpful to the economy as fairy dust.  Night after night conservatives yell the fallacy that “tax cuts increase revenue!” as government after government that follows their approach spirals down into deficit and debt (see:  Greece).  Either it’s a massive conspiracy to “starve the beast” – personally, I don’t think most people are that clever – or these folks genuinely believe the fiction they’ve been sold, and like all conservatives, won’t change their minds no matter how often their approach flounders in the practical world.

Ironically, there is a singular example of a near-universal experience of a belief being undone by reasoned analysis.  Nearly all Western children grow up believing that Santa Claus delivers gifts to them every Christmas Eve.  Yet as they age, cracks begin to appear in the story; perhaps some wisenheimer at school brays snottily, “You know it’s just your mom and dad, right?”  (I still remember the name of the kid who did that to me – thanks a lot, Chris Campbell, wherever you are.)  Perhaps they start to do the math and realize it’s physically impossible for one man with one sleigh to deliver billions of toys in less than 8 hours, and they’re less and less satisfied with the explanation that it’s because Santa is magic.  How many adults, even conservatives, still believe in Santa Claus?  But the same method of examination and deduction fails for almost everything else, resulting in decade after decade of the same flawed ideas being offered up regardless of how badly they’ve gone in the past.  It’s like how in Ontario, Conservative leader Tim Hudak has reignited a debate on privatizing the LCBO (the government-owned corporation that manages the sale of alcohol throughout the province and generates loads of income to fund our social programs), despite the utter financial shambles that was his party’s decision to sell off our only toll highway to a Spanish corporation for a song when they were in power, and which we’re still paying for.  And just like how for the National Rifle Association, the answer to the problem of guns in schools is more guns in schools.  Part of this, as I’ve pointed out, is their executive looking out for sales opportunities for gun manufacturers, but this absurd notion would still be defended to the death (or to the cold, dead hands, as they like to put it) by regular rifle-lovers with no financial interest in the outcome.  Apparently, to admit one’s logic is perhaps flawed is to expose a chink in the armor – to risk the entire house crashing in on top of you.  Perhaps that’s the ultimate fear.  Fear of the shell being stripped away to reveal… absolutely nothing.

So long as we’re speaking about shells being ripped away, it’s an interesting happenstance of linguistic evolution that the words “ideology” and “idiocy” both begin with “id” – Freud’s concept of the impulses of the inner self unleashed, at their wildest, with none of the rational examination of said self needed for it to function within the framework of a civilization.  Likewise, beliefs – and indeed, faith – cannot function to the betterment of ourselves and those with whom we share the planet without critical examination.  Be open.  Be open to being wrong.  Those who enter into a debate should entertain the possibility that their beliefs may be changed by the discussion that follows, as much as you are attempting to change the beliefs of those you’re debating with; otherwise, you’re left with people hurling abuse at one another for no perceptible reason other than getting one’s rocks off by being an idiot.  And we all remember the last time being an idiot worked out toward the improvement of the human condition.

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.

The American politics of Canadian health care

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

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

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

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

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