Tag Archives: Speak Your Mind

Remember that snarky douchebag who made the world a better place? Me neither.

Image credit: Peace Love & Photography.

Last fall I wrote for The Toronto Star during the Ontario provincial election.  Their Speak Your Mind program invited two bloggers from each riding to act as “local reporters” focusing on the issues that mattered most to their individual communities.  In addition, each registered blogger was invited to participate in a members-only forum where we could bounce ideas off each other and chat about how it was going.  For the most part it was a positive, encouraging group, except for one angry young prat, let’s call him “Frank,” who had nothing but bile for anyone who didn’t agree with his political views.  The only article Frank ever posted during the course of the campaign contained libellous accusations against members of the government, alleging criminal activity without a shred of proof.  Less than 24 hours after it was posted, the article was deleted and Frank was given the boot from the community (not that his contributions were missed very much).  By coincidence I happened to see this same guy’s name pop up in my Twitter feed recently and it seems he’s still at it.  He looks to be about 20 and for whatever reason has a pathological hate-on for everything and everyone to the left of Mussolini.  I talked the other day about the dichotomy between how we are in person and how we choose to act online, but I suspect Frank isn’t any different when you meet him on the street, and it would probably be difficult to restrain yourself from delivering him a Pete Campbell-esque punch in the face.

Less extreme perhaps, but cut from the same cloth are a majority of op-ed writers in today’s news climate.  You know the ones, you can probably name a few off the top of your head – they have a regular feature in your favourite weekly where they snipe, cajole, mock and otherwise belittle everything that doesn’t fit their deeply jaded worldview, then in the same paragraph congratulate themselves for their singular, incisive, insightful wit, as if they are the wise shaman gazing down from the mountain of enlightenment at the foolish mortals below.  It’s schadenfreude taken to its most extreme, the perpetual cries of the never-weres choking on their sour grapes, nourishing a weakened ego on the scraps of the achievements of others.  Political columnists are some of the worst offenders in this regard.  As those of you who read me regularly are aware, I have no love for conservatives, particularly those in elected office, but I can acknowledge that at least those people had the balls to get out there and run, to put their names up for consideration and accept the responsibility of serving their communities, regardless of how competent they may or may not be to execute that duty.  Everyone knows it’s much easier to be the overeager parent on the sidelines screaming at the ref because Junior was called offside.  Monday morning quarterbacking has no consequences.  It also has no lasting impact on anyone or anything.  Think about those same sarcastic op-ed writers and try to recall the last time they penned something that really resonated with you, that you can’t stop thinking about and which continues to inspire you.  I’ll wait.

::crickets::

Figured as much.

We can be honest – it’s difficult to be an idealist in a cynical age, when we watch democracy being trampled on the news each night.  There’s also a tendency among a large percentage of the aforementioned media wisenheimers to dismiss optimism as tragically naïve.  But if idealism were easy, it wouldn’t be idealism, just like principles are only principles if you stand by them when they’re inconvenient.  But to sit back smugly and join in the chorus of misanthropy is the coward’s way out.  It also ensures beyond doubt that things won’t get better.  The main reason public debate languishes in an all-time abyss is because we’re choosing to approach it from the gutter, figuring that it’s better to be a smartass commenter than a genuine contributor.  So we can wallow in our sheer, unfathomable awesomeness as we watch the world burn.  What unbelievable, face-punch-worthy arrogance.  I don’t know about you, but I have no time for that sort of thing.  Life is just too goddamn short.

Some friends of my sister’s are engaged in a charity venture for Africa and asked if I could help promote them.  Happy to, said I.  These are two people who see what is happening in the world and instead of sipping bellinis and wearily moaning about their ennui have decided to get involved – and not just by absent-mindedly cutting a cheque or tweeting about it.  The reaction to their work proves, again, that there is a hunger out there for light and hope, and every downbeat op-ed wasting trees and gigawatts is missing the point (and a potentially huge audience to boot).  More to that same point, I’m unable to find an example of where ceaselessly carping about how things suck and will never get better has succeeded in actually making those things better.  The same goes for how we choose to approach life.  What do we look back on at the end if we spend our limited time on this earth the way “Frank” and I’m ashamed to say some of my fellow HuffPosters do – have we made the most of our lives?  Have we touched anyone else’s?

Listen for those same crickets.

I’m reminded of that famous Jean Sibelius quote that “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”  To me, it comes down to this – if everyone goes around crapping on everything all the time, are we that surprised at what our world is covered in?

Ontario Election 2011: Waiting for Bartlet

As published on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star this morning and reprinted by their kind permission as always.

If you’re a political junkie, watching The West Wing spoils you.

Listening to imaginary politicians like Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet lacerate their opponents with the inspired, honey-tongued erudition that is the trademark of writer Aaron Sorkin creates an expectation that real life should function the same way.  That our leaders should be able to articulate their arguments so clearly and incisively, that contrarians can do nothing but wither at the mere sound of the words.

Tuning into an Ontario election debate disabuses one of that notion.

I wasn’t able to attend the Burlington debate this week.  The organizers apparently did not count on much, if any public attendance, given their decision to schedule it during the Tuesday morning commute.  One of the highlights, it seems, was Conservative candidate Jane McKenna warning that Ontario’s economy risks going the way of Greece should the Liberals be re-elected.  The cradle of Western civilization, the birthplace of democracy and souvlaki, held up as the paradigm of governmental failure – by candidates seeking government office through democratic election.  One could write several college English papers on the levels of irony at work here.  What is less ironic is that McKenna probably didn’t come up with that insightful analogy on her own; it was likely scripted, shaped and poll-tested at Hudak Headquarters before being rolled out for Burlington’s ears on Tuesday morning.

A few thousand years before Greece’s economy collapsed, its scholars were shaping the fabric of democracy itself through their dialogues and discussions.  Our best literature is that which raises new ideas and examines them from all sides; thesis challenged with antithesis to generate a new conclusion.  We haven’t seen that in a political debate in ages.  Nowadays, debates are more like joint press conferences where each candidate recites his or her pre-approved script by rote and hopes not to stumble over the words they didn’t write themselves.  The one debate I was able to attend a few weeks ago, for a different riding, featured five candidates who barely acknowledged each other’s presence, let alone interacted or challenged each other to defend their ideas.  No minds were opened that evening, no fence-sitters swayed or opponents converted.  Deliver talking point, lather, rinse, repeat, snooze.

Indeed, the bar has been set so low that all a candidate need do is not knock over their podium to be judged as having given a solid performance.  It was amazing to witness the struggle with which columnists and bloggers attempted to ascribe victory to any of the contenders in Tuesday night’s leader’s debate.  Tim Hudak saying to Dalton McGuinty that “no one believes you anymore” was apparently a signature moment.  Andrea Horwath’s tale about her son being sent away from an ER with a bone fracture was another “winner.”  And the Premier garnered more ink for his animated hand gestures than for anything he actually said.

Seasoned political reporters disdain the idea of the “knockout punch,” like Brian Mulroney’s “You had an option, sir,” or Jack Layton’s “If Canadians don’t show up to work, they don’t get a promotion.”  They think it’s less important than staying on message, sticking to your platform, getting the facts out.  They’re probably right.  But the unabashed theatricality of moments like that is what makes voters not just choose a candidate, but fall in love with them.  It’s one thing to have a great platform and a solid message.  But we want to see someone alive on that stage, a true character – not a marionette who has to calculate all the potential political blowback of each word before he speaks it.

Today there is too much fear of fallout to risk letting the human being shine through – too much central control of the campaign, lest news cycles be lost to apologies, denials and explanations for rogue nominees going off-message.  The very process that selects candidates tends to weed out the most colorful, and only the blandest and safest survive the slings and arrows to make it to that podium.  Those that do rely on the same tactics – the tales of struggling souls encountered along the campaign trail whose concerns oddly happen to dovetail with the key planks of the party’s platform, the countless mentions of family, the interruptions, the use of “taxes” as a profanity.  You know what they’re going to say before they say it.  What I felt was Tim Hudak’s most clever line of the night, about rearranging his daughter’s alphabet magnets randomly to form the initials of every unnecessary Ontario government agency, was a little less fresh given that PC candidate Ted Chudleigh used the same line in the Halton debate a few weeks prior.  Or that Republicans were laying the exact same charge against the New Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940’s.

Debates are a cornerstone of the democratic process.  That we only have one leader’s debate in an election cycle is preposterous.  We need more.  And just once it would be great if the debaters threw away the script.  If we junked those stilted “questions from average Canadians” and let the politicians have at it in a real sparring match of intellectual prowess, one that allowed us to distinguish clearly between which ideology we feel is best to guide us into the next decade.  To make our choice not for just the best policies, but for the best person; not a manager, but a visionary.

That’s how The West Wing got Jed Bartlet.  That’s how you pick a leader.

Ontario Election 2011: The dance of the angry grandpa

As published this morning on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star website and reprinted by their kind permission.

There’s an old saying that a week is a lifetime in politics.  Seven days in a campaign can change everything.

At the start of this campaign a week ago, fortune was smiling on Tim Hudak and the Conservatives.  Rob Ford was in charge in Toronto; Stephen Harper had his majority in Ottawa.  Bad press, an unpopular tax and general voter ennui were threatening to end Dalton McGuinty’s tenure as Premier of Ontario and propel the recession-weary province into the willing arms of a receptive Team Blue.  All Hudak had to do was keep his head down, carry out a tight campaign and stroll into his accolades.

But then a week went by.

To be fair, there have been cracks in the Hudak machine for some time now.  The extreme right flank of his party, emboldened by the blue tide washing over the GTA in recent elections, have begun airing, quite boldly, some of their less palatable points of view.  Old standard-bearers like longtime MPP Norm Sterling have been brushed aside for being not conservative enough.  It’s been too much for the Red Tory faction of the provincial party, with former leaders Ernie Eves and John Tory slamming the shenanigans publicly and loudly.  This week, Hudak himself walked into a big brick wall by denouncing the Liberals’ plan to offer tax credits for businesses who hire skilled new Canadians as a scheme to give jobs to “foreign workers.”  Wouldn’t you know it, little old Burlington got our name into the game when PC candidate Jane McKenna uttered this gem while trying to articulate her opposition as well:  “When did we become for immigrants?”

That sound you heard was a lot of jaws crashing to the floor.

I’ll give McKenna the benefit of the doubt here and assume that this was just a case of an inexperienced campaigner going up on her talking points.  She has since issued an apology, emphasizing that her statement did not reflect the official position of her party.  But it’s certainly not the kind of momentum Hudak needs at this point.

Campaigns are won and lost based on narratives.  After the first week, the narrative for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives is coalescing into that of the angry grandpa yelling at the kids to get off his lawn.  Which is great if you want to sew up the angry grandpa vote, and there are certainly a lot of those – but not enough to win government, particularly if you end up unwittingly motivating the “gentle grandma” vote to come out in droves instead.  Additionally, the Tories’ campaign plan to emphasize Dalton McGuinty’s record on taxes – usually a winning issue for any conservative campaign – has hit a bump in the shape of Randy Hillier’s outstanding debt to the Canada Revenue Agency.  While this will probably endear Hillier further to his supporters, it doesn’t help sway moderate voters who do pay their taxes on time and don’t enjoy the idea of a tax dodger winding up as Minister of Finance.

For McGuinty’s part, he must certainly be happy with the Harris-Decima poll published mid-week that had the Liberals at 41% support and comfortably in the lead over the Tories for the first time in many months.  While it was only one poll, and should be viewed critically given the small sample of only 650 voters, it was good for a few days of positive coverage.  McGuinty’s visit to Burlington this past Thursday afternoon to support Karmel Sakran, so early in the campaign, suggests that he believes this riding is poachable.  After this past week, it does feel like the momentum is back on the Liberal side.

But let’s talk again in seven days and see where we’re at then.  Because a week can be a lifetime in… well, you know the drill.

Ontario Election 2011: In service of our better angels

This post appeared on the Speak Your Mind site of the Toronto Star (http://speakyourmind.thestar.com) yesterday.  Reprinted here by their kind permission since, technically, they own it.

Democracy is a pain.

Let’s begin by being honest with ourselves. To our detriment, Canadians look forward to elections with the same enthusiasm as they do a visit to the proctologist. They’d rather listen to Snooki whine about The Situation than suffer through another campaign commercial. And the people of Ontario are headed to the ballot box for the third time in less than a year.

But as any decent proctologist would insist, regular checkups are good for you. That pain is a minor inconvenience in exchange for a healthy government.

As the writ drops, we look to the next several weeks with both hope and cynicism – hope that the campaign will be a shot of democratic adrenaline, with compelling candidates, engaged voters and a substantive debate leading to a bold vision of the magnificent places this province can go with the best people leading it; and cynical expectation that events will devolve into the usual baseless accusations, sound bites repeated mindlessly and a pox on all houses as we shrug, pick the least of the worst and slouch back to our lives.

Burlington is not on anyone’s list of ridings to watch this election. Provincially, it’s been Conservative blue since before many of its eligible voters were born. Yet there are a few hints that it may turn out to be a true battleground this time – a chance to see real democratic engagement, rather than a slow, dispirited march towards an inevitable outcome.

Incumbent Tory MPP Joyce Savoline isn’t running again. For the first time in decades, the three main party candidates vying for the Burlington seat are all newcomers. The Liberals, who have not held this seat since the 1940’s, have nominated lawyer Karmel Sakran to carry their banner. Oddly, the nomination contest for the Conservatives unfolded like a season of Survivor, with one candidate after another dropping out of the race for what could have been, given Burlington voting habits, essentially a guaranteed job as MPP. Local entrepreneur Jane McKenna, the last woman standing, has the advantage of the PC brand but is coming off a fifth-place finish in the 2010 municipal election for the Ward 1 Council seat. NDP candidate Peggy Russell, a former school board trustee, will be looking to harness some Jack Layton magic after her own unsuccessful attempt to capture the Ward 5 Council seat last year.

The last three elections have seen the Conservative candidate come out on top by less than 2,000 votes. Savoline’s 41% of the vote in 2007 was the worst showing by a Tory in Burlington in years, but she still managed to eke out a win – and that was at a time when Premier Dalton McGuinty was far more popular than he is now. McKenna’s poor results in 2010 suggest that her campaigning skills might need some polishing, but there’s a huge difference between running on your own and running as a major-party candidate. Unless Tim Hudak’s campaign implodes it would be fair to say the race is hers to lose. McKenna’s greatest advantage is that sleepy Burlington doesn’t like change, and that its voters seem programmed to back Team Blue. Having said that, Sakran has an impressive CV, and with an inexperienced opponent and barring significant vote-splitting with the NDP, he has the best chance for a Liberal upset in decades.

But ultimately, that is just inside baseball. What will make the difference in this riding and in this election, is leadership – and not of the chest-thumping chickenhawk variety. True leadership is the gravitas of statesmen that comes only with experience, curiosity, humility, and the capacity to embrace and learn from one’s failings. It is the confidence in the nobility and decency of the people, and the genuine desire to do the very best for them. To appeal to their better angels; to unite them in a real society that celebrates our achievements and leaves no one behind. That’s what the people of Ontario should want. No matter who we support, that’s what we should all be voting for.

So let us take our medicine and embrace that cumbersome pain known as democracy. The reward – shaping our future – will far outweigh the cost.

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!