Tag Archives: politics

The questionable wisdom of electing potted plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the other half of the sky

As International Women’s Day dawns, one cannot help but look back on the events of the last few days, the last few weeks, even the last few years as arguably the antithesis of everything this day is meant to represent.  It is almost as if, societally, we are seeing a hard return swing of the pendulum, a pushback by the men of the world against the leaps forward made by women over the last hundred years – in some ways an all too predictable accompaniment to the collective freak-out over the uncertainty of the future and the resulting rise of right-wing extremism in mainstream thought.  Neanderthal legislators in several states are ramming through draconian measures forcing women to submit to invasive medical procedures prior to being able to legally terminate a pregnancy.  Even the basic freedom to use contraception is under threat, with the gargantuan gasbag of the airwaves, Rush Limbaugh, suggesting that women who use it are asking for subsidized promiscuity.  Fortunately he’s been subjected to a massive backlash because of his remarks, but it’s distressing that the political climate has become so anti-woman that he felt he could say something like that in the first place – it’s from the same line of thought that allowed the President of Afghanistan to pass a resolution declaring men to be fundamentally more important than women.  Some might ask what the hell has happened lately, but the question goes deeper than that.  It strikes at the very heart of our entire civilization, and the basic fact that men simply cannot understand women – and what they can’t understand, they try to control.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian features among its many hilarious scenes a bit where the People’s Front of Judea adopts a resolution that one of its male members can have the right to have babies, despite having no womb – “Where’s the fetus gonna gestate?  In a box?”  The fellow at the center of the bit opines that his interest in women comes from his desire to be one – in a way, a basic expression of men’s inability to figure women out.  Pagan beliefs speak of woman as the triple goddess – the mother, the maiden and the crone, a holy trinity of complexity, a balanced equation of purity, maturity, wisdom, emotion and above all, beauty.  Try explaining that to the guys at the bar on a Saturday night in single syllable words using visual aids and pie charts while the game’s on.  And let me know how it turns out.

There is no way to understand a woman other than being one yourself, and that drives men absolutely bonkers.   Women have a power over men that is inscrutable to men as well as infuriating, because we pride ourselves on our ability to remain in control at all times, indomitable masters of our domain – one glimpse of a beautiful woman walking by and that all goes out the window.  Men’s measurement of their lives, their virility, their achievements, their status, is directly related to how much attention it garners them from women; what women think of them.  Advertisers understand this, which is why you can put the world’s most useless white elephant in the hands of a woman in a bikini and sales will explode.  And it’s why the most confident man turns to an insecure pile of jelly if a woman for whom he feels desire isn’t interested.  His very existence as a man of importance is threatened.  Men don’t like giving up that control to anyone.  To paraphrase Yoda, insecurity then turns to fear, fear turns to anger, anger turns to hate.

Women are insulted, humiliated, shunned, subjugated, beaten, violated, harassed, dismissed and even murdered because men can’t accept that they are different and special – perhaps, in what is man’s deepest, darkest fear, more special or indeed, better than them.  And men have perfected this pattern over thousands of years to the point where women think it’s their fault.  They are made to feel inadequate, to hate their bodies, to crave a fantasy ideal of physical and emotional perfection that is so utterly foreign to what it truly means to be a woman – because that is what a man thinks they should be.  A powerful, intelligent and confident woman – the actual ideal, at least from this man’s admittedly limited perspective – is dismissed as a harpy, a harridan, or a bitch, and sadly still in many countries, put to death.  Every woman held back from achieving her potential is another notch in man’s ever-lengthening belt of oppression, and every time a woman fails in any way because of a man’s bruised ego, we should all be utterly ashamed of ourselves.  Our collective human potential for greatness will never be achieved until every last one of us, man and woman, is permitted to be who they are, utterly free of the archaic constraints of a patriarchal society that men fail to realize holds them back as much as it keeps women down.  In the end, men don’t need to understand women, they just need to accept them – and let them be who they are.  Despite traditional expectation, we might just find that we enjoy the results.

Hey you, get your damn hands off her

I was standing in the express lane at the grocery store, waiting to purchase dinner, tapping away on my smartphone.  Three places ahead of me in line was an older couple who were quite exasperated with the cashier, for reasons difficult to ascertain; something to do with the amount of change being incorrect.  The cashier, a young kid no more than twenty, was doing his best to be accommodating – this did not impress the older man, who decided at one point to slam his hand on the conveyor and yell at him.  Giving the older guy the benefit of the doubt just for the moment, he could have reached the end of his tether after a rotten day.  But that was no reason to take it out on the kid, who was not being rude, or dismissive, or in any way belligerent.  What surprised me most about the whole affair was how my stomach turned at the old guy’s outburst.  You know that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex, having undergone the brainwash of the “Ludovico treatment,” starts heaving with nausea at any example of violence?  That was me.  It was this peculiar mix of revulsion and paralysis.  I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks reflecting on this and wondering where it came from, trying to contextualize it in terms of my overall personality.  And the conclusion I have come to is this:  I hate bullies.

Liberals aren’t supposed to be hateful.  We are supposed to be the compassionate and empathetic turn-the-other-cheekers who look at the world in endless shades of nuance and complexity.  Yet I can summon no sympathy or understanding for anyone who preys on the weak; who tries to get their way by intimidation, smears, threats and the perpetuation of hatred and fear.  It isn’t that I just want to see bullies stop bullying, I want to see them humiliated and utterly destroyed.  I am positively gleeful at the thought of the arrogant asses of the world sobbing in the corner.  I see it as justice and fair retribution for the torment they have inflicted on other people.  And it frustrates me that what seems on the surface to be wishing only for karmic just desserts makes me no better than they are.

When the news broke of Andrew Breitbart’s death yesterday, I was appalled at my initial reaction, which was, essentially, good riddance.  This man devoted his life and career to spreading hatred of the things that I believe in.  But at the same time, he was somebody’s father and somebody else’s son – a man with a young family and kids that now have to grow up without their dad, a situation I can understand all too acutely.  Andrew Breitbart’s children don’t deserve that, and at the same time, he doesn’t deserve to not be around to watch them grow up.  Maybe that is what makes liberalism such a challenging philosophy to uphold – the need to be able to look deep into the soul of one’s opposition, into the recesses of the ugliness that repels us and tears at our most cherished tenets, and locate the mutual humanity.  As Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) puts it in The American President, “Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”  And to that say, Namaste.

What did I want to do in that moment in line?  What would have sated those intense feelings of anger and hatred simmering inside my gut?  Did I want to take a swing at the old man?  Did I want to excoriate him in a Sorkin-esque blaze of wit and erudition and Gilbert & Sullivan references?  Which of those options would have made it better?  The answer is, neither.

The perfect illustration of this dilemma, for me, is the climax of the first Back to the Future, when George McFly, thinking he’s playing out a scene to win the affections of Lorraine, realizes to his horror that he is in fact throwing down with his lifelong nemesis Biff Tannen.  Biff is such a detestable character, embodied memorably by Thomas F. Wilson, that everyone who watches the movie can’t help but smile when George finally decks him with one powerful left-handed haymaker.  But the crucial point of the moment is not the defeat of the bully – it’s George’s embrace of the confidence locked away inside him.  Biff doesn’t really learn much of a lesson or even stray very far from his bullying ways – it took two sequels to finally defeat his ilk once and for all – but George is forever a better man.  When we see George at the end of the first movie, he has no trouble dealing with Biff, and again, not because of one bloody nose, but because he recognizes Biff’s failings and pities him.  One can never be threatened by someone for whom you feel pity – it is an irreversible triumph, because it is a triumph of the soul.

Eventually the cashier and his manager were able to address the problems of the old couple and send them on their way – a happy ending for all concerned.  The rotten feeling I had inside, however, lets me know that I still have work to do on myself – I’m not George McFly at the end of the movie just yet.  And it remains ever difficult to find that pity in a time when bullies run rampant in our governments, our banks, our schools, tearing with greed at the very fabric of our civilization.  Yet ours too is a powerful flame, one that should be stoked constantly to ensure that our collective humanity shines on.  Our lasting impression upon history can be exemplified by the best of us, and those are the people I’d rather stand with.

Holiday wishes for 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes for a happy holiday season.

Graham

Phase Two

On this, the first day of school, I find myself in reflective mode.  It’s been about a month and a half since I started composing these missives and firing them off into the void of cyberspace as though I were Carl Sagan at Arecibo blasting radio-encoded ones and zeroes at neighboring stars, hoping for a reply.  I daresay my luck has been a little better than Carl’s.  This has been a great experience.  While we’re not changing the world or really doing anything of great cosmic significance, it’s wonderful to see your comments and know that you’re enjoying reading my fractured takes on life – to any writer, that’s the proverbial manna from heaven.

Tomorrow, we’re kicking it up a notch.  I hinted at this a few days ago on Twitter but now the curtain lifts and all shall be revealed.  I’ve been lucky enough to have been chosen by The Toronto Star as one of their “Speak Your Mind” Community Bloggers for the 2011 provincial election.  I’ll be offering commentary specifically on the race to succeed Joyce Savoline as MPP for Burlington.  This is the first race in quite a while where there is no incumbent and while Burlington is traditionally a safe Conservative seat, the local PC riding had some bumps choosing a candidate and as a result, this year all bets are off.  It’s gonna be a lot of fun covering this race and I hope you’ll enjoy reading my updates.  It won’t be all politics all the time of course, I’ll still have lots to say about what’s going on in the rest of the world and plenty of West Wing references for the new readers who found their way here thanks to the awesome Rob Lowe.

In this day and age, writing about politics is difficult without veering over the line into cruel snark.  I have my own beliefs and my own thoughts on the outcome I’d like to see, but I intend to write as fairly and as balanced as I can (unlike a certain U.S. “news” network).  What I want to see is candidates talking up to us, not down; raising the debate, not driving it into the sewer with canned sound-bite, sarcastic answers to complex questions.  I want to see this election as a contest of and for smart people.  If I think someone’s crossed the line, if I think they are trying to cruise into office on a tide of smears, no matter which party they’re in, I’m gonna call them on it.  Above all else, I will remain true to the three principles I outlined in my very first post – humanity, heart and hope.  Our politicians are only partly to blame for the state of the public’s apathy towards government today.  As writers who want to get them engaged again, we have to give them a reason to tune in other than scandals and shouting.  That’s my plan and I’m looking forward to the challenge.  Hope you are too.

Allons-y!

In search of lost leaders

I paraphrased that from Marcel Proust – a name any candidate for office drops at his or her own peril, lest they be labeled an out-of-touch, latte-sipping elitist and snob.  I haven’t read A la recherche du temps perdu – my experience of Proust is confined to multiple viewings of the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  I did however slog my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses earlier this year.  (Spoiler alert:  the last word is “yes.”)  I didn’t read it so I could say I did whilst peering down my nose at the teenage girl devouring her dog-eared copy of Twilight.  I read it out of a sense of curiosity and wanting to enrich myself, and as a writer, wanting to learn from one of the masters.  Will it have any discernible impact on my own writing?  Can’t really say.  But the point wasn’t to reach a definitive goal.  It was to simply add another ingredient to the bubbling stew of my intellect – a concoction of memory, schooling, experience and opinion from which (hopefully) pours forth something of value.

Pardon me as I pause for another sip of my venti decaf mocha hazelnut frappucino.  I mention this as I watch the unfolding of two election campaigns with the memory of a third only a few months old, and bemoan the race to the bottom that each has become.  If there is a singular thread that runs through my handful of postings here, it is a profound belief in the capability of human beings at their best, and an equally profound disappointment at humanity’s choice not to exert its potential.  It’s a bit like watching Superman choose to sit on his porch with a beer just because he doesn’t feel like doing anything today.  Except instead of today it’s been the last 30 years.

Jimmy Carter was crushed in his bid for re-election by a guy who galvanized America with a bold, inspiring message.  The message wasn’t about the incredible things that America had done when it pulled together and shared sacrifice, like winning the Second World War or landing men on the moon.  No, it was that their government sucked.  (It remains frustrating to me that anyone can win election to office by decrying the office itself, but there you go.)  Ronald Reagan preached that government needed to be reined in, cut off at the knees, drowned in the bathtub.  This message resonated so deeply, coupled with the other side’s failure to articulate a decent rebuttal, that it has informed the political discourse in the U.S. ever since.  It’s disappointing to see even President Barack Obama buy into Reagan’s fallacy as he describes his battles with a Congress full of people who literally hate his guts.  The debate has moved so far to the right that those of us on the other side feel like we’re a yard from our own end zone with 15 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter.

The rebuttal should be that government works when the right people (pardon the uncomfortable pun) are running it.  And that is, subliminally, something that most people do agree with.  People want leadership.  “Strong leader” is one of the most important factors when pollsters take the temperature of the electorate’s attitude towards candidates.  Yet the atmosphere has become so trying that truly great leaders won’t even make the ballot, let alone win.  Television and 24/7 media scrutiny played on endless repeat with panel discussions, five-day-long specials and exclusive interviews has made it so that only the blandest folks can survive the onslaught.  An email used to circulate a few years ago where you were given three biographies and asked to pick which you thought would make the best leader – only after you’d picked were you given the names.  I don’t remember the exact details, but basically, the first was a drunk, the second was a cripple and the third was a squeaky-clean vegetarian customs clerk.  Based on the bios you always went for the clerk, only to discover that it was Hitler – while the former were Churchill and FDR respectively.

We’ve seen plenty of prospective leaders undone by the smallest gaffes.  Howard Dean, the progressive governor of Vermont who was leading in the early 2004 Democratic presidential race, was finished off by media overreaction to an exuberant scream he gave during a rally-the-troops speech to his supporters.  Not a sex scandal, illegal nanny or even a misfiled income tax return.  A scream.  Michael Ignatieff, the highly-regarded writer, educator and public intellectual, led Canada’s Liberal Party to its worst-ever defeat after being hounded in attack ads and the press for having lived several years abroad.  Again, he hadn’t fathered a kid with the maid or been caught snorting cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  He was attacked for having lived outside the country.  No one can say what kind of leaders these guys would have been had they won.  But the circumstances of their undoing merely reinforced the meme that safe and bland is a winning strategy.  In fact, you don’t have to be a strong leader at all – you just have to say you are over and over again and people will start to believe it, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, or lack of any evidence of leadership qualities at all.

If we are defined by our mistakes, and our character shaped by our reactions to them, what can be said of people who don’t make any?  How is someone who grew up in comfort and was parachuted into his career by his country club father, someone who has never had to take risks and has never experienced the ache and disappointment of loss and personal failings ever supposed to empathize with the plight of drug addicts or the homeless, or the simple working man who has to scratch for every dime to feed his family?  How is that person supposed to unite the differing interests of a vast country and guide them into a new and better era?  When you occasion to wonder why we haven’t gone back to the moon, or to Mars, or really progressed very much further in our evolution, you have only to look at the mediocrities we’ve entrusted to lead us – people with no imagination, no soul, no capability of looking beyond the end of the spreadsheet.  Politicians cruise to landslide victories on promises of nothing more than tax cuts.  We then act surprised when they don’t deliver anything else.

If someone is capable, if they are intelligent, if they are curious, if they have lived a learned and compassionate life, if they have a sense of humor, if they have experienced the world beyond their borders, if they believe in the ability of government to unite and do good, if they are driven to challenge and enrich themselves, and if the cruelties of regret have forged the gravitas of statesmen, then quite frankly, I don’t care if they have snorted cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  I’m more likely to admire them for admitting that and making light of it rather than succumbing to the papal-like finger-pointing of the media and the opposing party.  We need to remember that the best of us are broken in some way, and that by demanding perfection in candidates we won’t get leaders, we’ll only get managers – those guys who in the private sector become terrific assistant vice-presidents but never really impact anybody’s life but their own.  I hope to be more than that, and I hope we are one day again led by someone who is more than that.

So maybe I will pick up that copy of Proust after all.  And hopefully, a future leader is doing so right now as well.

God save Sam Seaborn

In the absence of compelling summer television and a firm disinterest in whomever The Bachelorette picks, we are engaged in a repeat viewing of the entire seven seasons of The West Wing.  Assaulted by news feeds of corporate-backed Tea Party lunacy and the fiscal axe falling on libraries, it’s good to step away for an hour or two each night into Aaron Sorkin’s erudite exploration of the virtues of public service and the triumph of liberalism.  When TWW was originally airing during the height of the Bush administration it was a welcome salve for wounded progressive hearts and a source of hope for better days ahead – showing what it could be like when the reins were held by people who genuinely believed in government as a meaningful force for good rather than some nebulous beast to be starved lest they not be able to buy another yacht.

No character better exemplified this than the Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe in an arguably career-defining role as a fast-talking, pure-hearted and paradoxically handsome nerd, able to translate his unassailable convictions into elegant turns of phrase for the President to deliver just as smoothly.  Where Toby Ziegler was the moral conscience of the senior staff, and Josh Lyman was the warrior determined to win at all costs, Sam was the idealist, the dreamer, a bottomless well of hope never tempered by politics as usual.  Originally intended to be the focus of the show – he was the first character to be introduced in the pilot episode – Sam began to fall off the radar as the seasons progressed, usurped at the center of the series’ main plots by Josh and Toby.  As a writer, it’s not difficult to see why this may have occurred for Sorkin – a character of such upstanding value and with so few apparent flaws as Sam is very hard to write.  Usually the approach is to test the limits of their values and morality by challenging it from every angle, daring the character to retain their hope against the creeping ennui of human failings.

We saw this articulated in Sam’s best episode, Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.  Sam is struggling with the revelation that his father has been cheating on his mother for 28 years when he is asked to look into a pardon request for a man who had been accused of espionage for the Soviets during the Second World War.  Determined at the start to reverse what he feels is a mockery of justice, Sam ultimately discovers that his pet cause was, in fact, a traitor, the revelation of which combined with his father’s infidelities nearly crushes him.  In a touching scene where he breaks down in front of Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), he confesses the need he feels for certainties in life on which to hang his hope, like “longitude and latitude.”  And yet at the end Sam makes a difficult phone call to try and begin reconciliation with his father.  He has found his certainty – and his hope – again in the faces of his friends.

One always got the sense that Sam was driven to prove that hope could triumph cynicism.  After a soul-flattening career using his intelligence and skill with the law to protect oil companies from litigation, working at the White House was his chance to redeem those mistakes.  It would have been nice to see the hinted-at wounded part of his character explored in greater depth had he stayed a few seasons more.

Rob Lowe’s and Aaron Sorkin’s respective early departures from the series after its fourth season left a huge question in what the plans for Sam Seaborn ultimately would have been.  Yet a tease was dropped in the third-season episode Hartsfield’s Landing.  Discussing the intricacies of a standoff with the Chinese over a game of chess, President Bartlet comments to a stunned Sam, “You’re going to run for President one day.  Don’t be scared, you can do it.”  A flicker of reaction crosses Sam’s face, both sheer terror at an incredible notion that he might not have ever considered, replaced swiftly by a quiet confidence that if he has inspired that kind of hope in someone he admires so deeply, he might just succeed.  The currency of hope remains potent, and we are grateful that it is – making one agree with Toby’s final line to Sam as he walks out of the series in the fourth season episode Red Haven’s On Fire – “God save the United States of America… and Sam Seaborn.”

Caveat elector

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

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

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

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

Irony, thy name is the Conservative Party of Canada

So, does anyone remember that last year when the Conservatives were making all the noise about killing the mandatory long-form census, their chief rationale (repeated ad nauseum) was that Canadians shouldn’t be threatened with jail time for not filling out personal information on the long-form?  It sounds on the surface like a perfectly rational point.  We won’t get into the fact that not once has anyone actually been imprisoned under this law.

Here’s the thing – every morning I’ve been hearing these ominous radio ads that start with creepy percussion (a bit like the Law & Order “chunk-chunk” noise) followed by a serious voice saying “By law, all Canadian households must complete a census form.”)  Let’s break it down again – we have the musical homage to a show about crime and punishment and the first words of the ad are “By law.”  Basically, subliminally threatening people with jail time if they don’t fill out the census form.

Kinda writes itself, doesn’t it?