Tag Archives: President Barack Obama

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?

Advertisements

Cat’s in the cradle

A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.
A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.

Most men first find out they’re going to be fathers when a little plastic stick turns blue.  While the mood swings and crazy demands that often accompany the pregnancies of their partners may give them the vaguest sense of the responsibility and adventure to come, realization doesn’t strike them until they first hold their little wriggling, blanket-swathed miracles in their arms and recognize that they’ve been thrust into an irrevocable new job with absolutely no sense of what to do next.  My journey to paternity has followed a different path; after struggling with fertility and even the question of whether we wanted to be parents at all, my wife and I decided that our family would expand through adoption.  That was well over a year and a half ago; between then and now came extensive training, invasive interviews, traumatic phone calls, a few thousand miles logged on the car, hopes both raised and dashed and a thorough exploration of every single point on the emotional spectrum.  Was it worth it?  Listening to my new son laughing when my wife chases him up the stairs after he’s stolen her slippers should be evidence enough.

Fatherhood was never really on my radar.  In fact, the very concept of the father and the son has been something that  I’ve thought and talked about largely in theoretical terms, relating it to imagery found in literature, cinema and religion.  In a way, that’s all I’ve had to go on.  My father died when I was eleven, and strong, positive and consistent male role models were largely absent from the years that followed.  Like President Barack Obama, I’ve had to rely on dreams of my father, the images growing cloudier as the years slip away.  And it doesn’t feel that long since the days of the smoke-filled dance clubs (back when you could still smoke in them), sharing crude opinions on the hotness of the assorted females with no greater aspirations for myself than a night of physical fun with a nameless partner.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning incredulous that I even managed to get married – how in the hell did I suddenly become somebody’s father?  Yet there he is, playing on his laptop and asking if he can watch Star Wars again.  Every time he calls me “Dad,” I have to stop myself from turning to see if he’s talking to the guy behind me.  Even after a mere three weeks together I’m humming the lyrics to Harry Chapin’s melancholy anthem about fathers and sons and wondering if we’re losing out on oh-so precious time.

My son was one of the thousands of older children living in foster care waiting for a forever family, because a large swath of potential parents looking to adopt, if not the majority of them, insist on babies.  They want to give their child his or her name, witness the first steps and first words and other milestones they can photograph and post for their Facebook friends.  However, fewer and fewer babies are available.  If you don’t have the financial resources to look privately or overseas, or you’re unable to take on a baby with a lot of special needs (and heaps of praise are due to those who do), you’ll likely see retirement cheques before you find an infant in the public system.  And as the years go by and so many of these kids linger on in foster, it’s almost as though they pass their “use-by” date.  Couples start to think that if no one has adopted them by now, there must be something seriously wrong with them.  But there isn’t.  Of course there will be emotional trauma that needs to be addressed with patience and love, and perhaps even a few minor medical issues, but for the most part these are kids like our son – a good boy who’s had a rough start to his life and just wants a mom and dad to love him.  And not to diminish the hard work of the many giving foster parents out there, but according to the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, 40% of kids in foster care don’t graduate high school, and only 3% of them go on to any kind of post-secondary education.  These boys and girls need more than parents; they need relentless, even to the point of being obnoxious at times, bullhorn-wielding advocates who will scrape and claw for every precious inch of progress. They need a family who will never give up on them no matter how rocky the road gets.

Is that me?

There’s an exchange between Peter Facinelli and Kevin Spacey in The Big Kahuna that comes to mind.  Facinelli’s character, a junior salesman about to experience his first convention, says that it’s time to throw me in the water to see if I can swim.  Spacey retorts that no, we’re actually going to throw you off a cliff to see if you can fly.  Adopting an older child, a little person with his own name and with a personality already shaped and molded by total strangers is kind of like the Sanka of fatherhood:  instant and occasionally might not taste that great.  You do have to grieve the loss of a lot of those firsts, including the loss of the not-unsubtle desire to pass on one’s genes and traits, the loss of ever seeing what that indelible combination of you and your spouse would have looked like.  During initial weekend visits as the new family adjusts to each other before final placement, it feels at times like you’re just babysitting someone else’s problem, resulting in massive feelings of guilt when you feel relieved after he’s picked up on Sunday evening.  And you have to try and “deprogram” a bit of the stuff that you likely would not have encouraged had you been raising him from birth and replace it with hobbies and habits that you know will help him grow (i.e. perhaps we can cut back a little on the 10 hours of video games per Saturday and replace it with at least one hour of reading – no, doesn’t have to be Hemingway or Dostoevsky just yet – and put away the Nerf gun before we accidentally shoot the cat?)  But at the same time, there are still lots of firsts to look forward to.  First birthday and Christmas together, first date, first time driving the car. First overnight away from us.  Figuring out how to have “The Talk.”  Graduation day.  Heading off to college.  Watching him grow from this shy, awkward kid into the amazing, confident man you know he has the potential to be, terrified all the while that you’re just making things worse.  I suppose there is a term for all of that:  being a parent.

I didn’t have my father to guide me through my teenage years, so I have no point of reference on which to base how I’m going to do it with my son.  My father was long gone before I could talk to him about my huge crush on the beautiful blonde in the other Grade 6 class, or the boundless depth of my everlasting 13-year-old love for the 18-year-old brunette who used to drive me to band practice, and my utter cowardice in being able to verbalize those feelings to their subjects.  I want my son to be able to seize the moment and not be caught up in his feelings.  I want him to be able to avoid some of the mistakes I made, and yet instinctively I know he has to be free to make them and learn from his failure.  Put simply, I want to be the example I never had, and as I sit here typing this I’m increasingly doubtful of my ability to do it.  I’ve had a lot of friends and colleagues tell me how touched they are about our adoption of our son, and how lucky our son is to have us.  Yet I still feel like a bumbling idiot who’s doing everything wrong.  Chapin’s final words haunt me in my sleep.  I can’t figure out my own life most days.  Do I really want him to grow up to be just like me?

Perhaps the best advice is to draw from the Buddha (or Winnie the Pooh) and to just be.  To let the good times roll with the bad and to take each day as it comes without ruminating endlessly on the shape of the overall to the point that it distracts from the little moments that truly matter.  Without letting the perfect become the enemy of the necessary.  For better or worse, I’m this kid’s father now.  He is part of the legacy that I will leave behind long after everyone’s forgotten about little ‘ole me – a legacy that includes my father as well.  I may not be passing on my genes, but I can pass on my values, my beliefs, the things I consider important to cherish in our ever-so-brief walk across this world.  The same stuff I got from my dad in the times we were able to share.

Maybe one day my son will sit down and write a blog post (or whatever the new equivalent is by the time he’s ready for it) about what he thinks about becoming a father himself, and maybe he’ll praise or damn the example set by his old man.  Maybe he’ll understand some of what I’m feeling right now.  Maybe he’ll finally understand why I don’t want him signing up for that online game that requires a valid credit card number.  Maybe the stern looks and the lectures and the occasionally too-obvious frustration on my face will finally make sense.  Maybe he’ll think it was silly that I worried so much.  Sure hope so.  Harry Chapin tells us that the lives of a father and son are cyclical, repeating themselves in familiar patterns as each succeeding generation emulates the precedent it was shown.  What better advice is there, then, than to work even harder to be a better me?  I told my son last night that if he looks after himself he has a chance to see the dawn of the 22nd Century.  (Wonder if there will be phasers?)  The greatest gift I can give him is to do my best to ensure that he will watch sunrise on January 1, 2101 with a big smile on his face, secure in the knowledge that it was, indeed, all worth it in the end.  That’s what this strange concept of “fatherhood” has come to mean to me, even after just a few weeks.  In the meantime, I know when I’ll be coming home, son, and we’ll get together then.  You know we’ll have a good time then.

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.

“I Misspoke” and non-apology apologies

Rep. Todd Akin, Republican candidate for Senate (Missouri). Not pictured: Todd Akin’s brain.

By now, everyone with even a passing interest in the U.S. election has heard of Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remark that “legitimate rape,” whatever on earth that is, doesn’t cause pregnancy.  Compounding the sheer idiocy of this comment was Akin’s follow-up non-apology apology, in which he claimed he misspoke and pivoted as hard as he could without acquiring whiplash to bashing President Obama on his handling of the economy.  It’s been observed that Akin likely isn’t sorry at all that he said what he did, that his original remarks come from a place of deeply-held convictions fuelled by religion and God knows – pun intended – what else.  Saying “I misspoke” is poll-tested politicalspeak for “I know what I said will probably lose votes but I don’t want to outright disavow it because that will lose the votes of my base and I really don’t want to be portrayed as a flip-flopper or give my opponent something they can use against me in a TV ad and… SQUIRREL!”  Akin’s hoping to ride out the news cycle and trusting that the rubes who would vote for Vlad the Impaler so long as he was running on a Republican “values” platform will still put him and his 15th Century views on women in the Senate chamber come November.  That’s what “I misspoke” really is, no matter who uses it:  a Get Out of Jail (or at least a Get Your Foot Out of Your Mouth) Free card.  It’s a stopgap half-truth designed to soothe the angry, reassure the faithful and ultimately prove what a spineless weasel the candidate is – a small person without courage, without integrity, and without any business occupying elected office.

Real men own their mistakes.  If Todd Akin says he’s going to take out the garbage and forgets, what does he say to his wife?  “In reviewing my remarks to you at the dinner table earlier this evening, it’s clear that I misspoke in our discussion and it does not reflect my deep empathy for the millions of trash bags left rotting at the curb every year as the truck drives away.  This is clearly a result of President Obama’s failed waste collection policies and an example of why we need new leadership in Washington.”  Wonder how that doesn’t end with him sleeping on the couch for a month?  If this hypothetical situation goes down, what really happens is that Akin begs on his knees for forgiveness, buys Mrs. Akin flowers and a spa day and never forgets to take out the garbage again.  Why don’t we demand the same level of accountability for those we entrust with the public purse?  Why are they allowed to say “I misspoke” and get off scot-free – or worse, get into office where they can screw our lives with impunity before retiring on a glorious pension after utterly hosing the millions who voted for them in the first place?

 When you think about it, the “I Misspoke” is genius.  It has the effect of feigning contrition where there is absolutely none – where the costs of doing so are deemed by a focus group to be politically suicidal.  It sounds amazingly remorseful, yet isn’t in the slightest.  From what I’ve observed, there are essentially three components to the “I Misspoke,” and none of them involve acknowledging responsibility:

  1. Point out that there may have been some confusion about the intent of the remarks.  Even if the remarks were abhorrent, it’s always about the confusion.  Shorter version:  It’s your fault you’re upset by what I said.
  2. Claim I’m really a nice guy because I love flowers and rainbows and kittens and I feel really bad for people who have to go through hard times (the subtext being, elect me and I’ll vote to cut funding for every single one of you, you freeloading bastards).
  3. Pivot to something completely unrelated as long as it’s a poll-tested, campaign-approved message.  “Yes, I probably should not have expressed my admiration for the German economy of the 1940’s but man, did you get a load of Ryan Lochte’s abs?  And what’s the deal with Nyan Cat?”

Notice too that the word “sorry” seldom, if ever, appears in the context of the “I Misspoke.”  That’s only used by people who feel genuinely distraught about the weight of what they’ve done, and intend by whatever means necessary to rectify it.  If Todd Akin is elected to the Senate, he will not experience any road-to-Damascus conversion and suddenly become a champion of abortion rights and women’s issues.  He’ll vote according to what was on display in that original interview, saying “aye” to every mandatory ultrasound-requiring, Planned Parenthood-defunding, women’s health care-eliminating bill that comes his way.  If Akin is upset at all it’s that he’s put his Senate bid in jeopardy – he does not give one-tenth of a rat’s ass about women, which is why his non-apology apology rings so false.  As Rihanna might opine, “don’t tell me you’re sorry ‘cause you’re not, when you’re only sorry you got caught.” 

Because voters treat political parties like baseball teams, supporting their side to the bitter end regardless of faults (Jan Brewer winning re-election as Arizona’s governor after spacing out during the gubernatorial debate is a prime recent example), Akin stands little chance of seeing any serious long-term blowback on this issue – despite calls for him to stand aside as the Republican nominee for the Missouri Senate seat, calls which as of this writing he is brushing off.  If I were Todd Akin’s campaign manager right now, I’d tell him to stay the course, that Missouri trends right and so long as he stays on message for the rest of the campaign (read:  Obama bad!  Taxes bad!) he’ll probably win anyway, thanks largely to Karl Rove and Super PAC money.  But I wouldn’t be his campaign manager, because I’d never support such a backwards-thinking, poorly-educated head-in-the-sand empty shirt for an office of such stature.  See, the problem with the “I Misspoke” isn’t that people use it.  It’s that we have lowered the bar so far that people can “misspeak” and carry on regardless.  So long as we fail to hold our elected officials accountable when they reveal their true character as Todd Akin has, and like Akin, refuse to accept responsibility for their dumbassery, we will continue to be outraged instead of inspired, and dragged down by the worst of us instead of lifted by the best.

And I do not misspeak when I say that.

Following the money, missing the point

 

It really is just a pile of dead trees.

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

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

Enough is enough.

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

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

Mary Sue Romney and the illusion of leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here is my modest suggestion.

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

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

Matters of no importance

Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor.

“Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.” – Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), Superman

During the month of March I made a consistent effort to blog every single day, and for the most part, managed to stick to that schedule.  (Sundays were a little scattershot depending on the preceding Saturday night’s extracurricular activities.)  Both the news and the mundane quirks of my life offered ample fodder for linguistic rumination – and there could always be additional pontificating about The West Wing if either of the former were found wanting on any given day.  Lately I’ve gotten a bit lazy, and it isn’t for a lack of inspiration, but rather that I find myself less satisfied with writing things that have no deeper meaning.

Perhaps it’s a natural evolution as time and experience add up.  Maybe it’s the pressure of starting to build an audience – there is certainly a form of liberation to one’s self-expression when few are listening that diminishes as expectations begin to rise (don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for each and every one of you out there reading me!)  When one occasionally scratches at the edges of greatness, or, more to the point, writes a post that really touches someone else, the demands of living up to that standard increase exponentially.  It isn’t a matter of seeking constant validation – it’s more that when you see what you can do with that space, you find yourself less comfortable wasting it on posts about space vampire zombies.

Lest this be dismissed as the lament of another struggling writer feeling sorry for himself, let me first say that I too find literary navel-gazing to be tiresome.  I still recall watching a panel discussion of scribes about fifteen years ago and finding myself repulsed by a pretentious cigarillo-smoking douche who droned on about how he’d hadn’t been able to write a play in ten years.  It isn’t by any means that I think I can’t write, or that I’m finding the muse elusive.  I just don’t want to write crap.  I don’t want to write it, and I don’t want to ask anyone out there in Internets-land to read it.  I want what I write to be meaningful and thought-provoking.  To be consequential.  I’d rather let a day or several go by without a solitary word than publish hackery for the sake of having something to post.  So yes, when you’ve written in tribute to President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage and its greater historical and emotional context, what do you do for an encore that even comes close to a subject of such importance?  Reviewing The Avengers or talking about the sixth season of a TV show that’s been off the air for nearly seven years doesn’t quite cut it.  That, I suppose, is the danger in “very special episode” syndrome – you run the risk of making the rest of your work look like substance-less piffle.

Yet you can’t shy away from tackling the big questions if you feel you have something to say about them.  To do otherwise is to not be truthful to who you are and what you believe.  And that brings up an interesting point.

Writing is therapeutic for many people; a chance to process our confused feelings about a world that fails to make sense most of the time and strip away the layers of contradiction to find the truth at the core, and at the same time, peel the layers of self to unveil the essence of our soul.  It’s rather like sculpting – the masterpiece is there underneath, you just have to chisel away the unneeded bits of the stone.  Devoting a post or two to cotton candy instead of meat and potatoes can still be a worthwhile exercise, inasmuch as there can be a sculpture waiting inside every size and shape of rock.  Some stones may shatter into pebbles when you begin to carve them, and some may turn out to be nothing more than misshapen lumps, but the potential of art always remains, the supply of stones is endless, and each stone contains a grain of truth.  So maybe those posts about breakfast and reality television interspersed with the grand philosophical musings are all necessary stops along this journey, and we shouldn’t fret so much about whether or not a less-imposing topic is worthy of our discussion here.  You’re arguably more likely to stumble across something unexpected and wonderful when you start from an otherwise innocuous premise.  For me, the potential of that discovery is worth saddling up more often than not, because regardless of what you think the destination is, you don’t really know where you’ll end up until you actually start moving.

I can’t worry about gay marriage; I’m too focused on my own

There is a first-season episode of The West Wing in which a pollster played by John de Lancie advises President Bartlet that he can sew up re-election by supporting a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, as the numbers indicate that a vast majority of Americans are in favour of such an amendment.  Faced with the prospect of a gut-wrenching policy flip-flop to the dark side, the news is dispiriting to Bartlet’s staff, until another number-cruncher (Marlee Matlin) gives them her figures on how little the issue is of importance to the average voter, and that the total number of people whose vote would actually be swayed on flag-burning alone is insignificant.

This exchange was at the forefront of my mind as I read about President Obama’s announcement of his support for same-sex marriage yesterday.  The people who are so tyrannically obsessed with this issue that their vote hinges on it (the Santorums of the world) were never going to support the president anyway, even if he announced he was cutting taxes on the rich to 0%, declaring Planned Parenthood enemy combatants and appointing Pat Robertson Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  In strictly political terms, the president has lost nothing, energized the liberal base that first elected him, and forced his presumptive opponent into defending bigotry.

All in simply doing the right thing.

I can’t pretend to understand the fervour that drives certain elements of the conservative religious population to spend so much time, energy and money in attacking the LGBT community; I haven’t been to a regular church service since I was nine, and even then it wasn’t exactly one of these old-time fire-and-brimstone parishes either.  Like the lily-livered liberal latte-sipping literati atheist that I am, I believe in treating others as I would like to be treated, and that the consensual relationships of two adults, straight or gay, are none of my damn business.  Frankly, even if I were of the abhorrent mindset to want to dictate to other human beings how they should be permitted to love each other, I don’t know where I’d find a spare moment.  I’m busy working on my own relationship.  I’d say my plain old man-woman marriage is generally a happy one, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t constant effort.  I simply don’t have the time to worry about anyone else’s.

When we think about the complexity of love, its many twists and turns and ups and downs, and its perpetual evolution and change as two people try for decades on end to figure out how to share their lives with each other, it is a difficult enough road without having elements of society, even family, castigating you at every turn – looking askance at the two of you as you walk down the street holding hands, or whispering sarcasm out of earshot as you share a kiss in a tender moment in the park on a sunny afternoon, or smirking smugly after you’ve had a fight.  Love is a journey to be explored, a discovery awaiting each of us as we wind our way through life, and each of us deserves the chance to find and experience the love that we long for.  Who we love forms our identity, and asking our LGBT brothers and sisters to turn away from their natural feelings is like asking them to disconnect part of their soul – condemning them to a slow death of the spirit.  No one deserves that, and I cannot believe it’s what any truly loving god or goddess would desire for their creation.  Nor does the evidence indicate that a broad societal acceptance of same-sex marriage will bring forth any of the apocalyptic visions foretold by the dubious media soothsayers who adore citing nonsensical “slippery slope” arguments such as the forthcoming rise of man-dog, woman-horse, boy-tractor and girl-Cayman Islands holding corporation marriage.

A friend posted on her Facebook status yesterday that she was disappointed in the dearth of common courtesy these days, in the almost complete absence of “please” and “thank you” in our daily interactions.  Whether it’s the economy, sunspots, Mayan prophecies or too much Fox News, the world of 2012 seems stalked, like Winnie the Pooh, by a persistent little thundercloud.  Gloom and a general unpleasantness are humanity’s dominant tone.  I can’t help but wonder if we are obsessing too much over other people’s lives and failing to attend to our own, to the root causes of why we are so unhappy, why our own relationships are struggling.  A man who spews homophobic invective is clearly not smiles and sunshine deep inside, and rather than blaming the same-sex marriage boogeyman for his woes, he needs to take a good, long look at what is lacking in his own soul, at why, instead of trying to make a positive contribution to the world, he simply be hatin’.  What is so wrong with his own marriage, his own life, that he turns that loathing outwards instead of confronting it.  For hatred will not heal self-neglect.

We only make our marriages better by never taking them for granted, and by ensuring that our marriage, and ours alone, is our singular passion.  Our LGBT friends should be able to enjoy the same challenge, the rewards and even the pitfalls that may come with it.  That, I think, is how one preserves the sacred institution of marriage – by making our own an example of the best that it can be, not fretting fruitlessly over whether other people can or can’t get married to the person they love.  It would seem, based on his announcement, that President Obama feels the same way.