Tag Archives: Stephen Harper

In Defense of “Elite”

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There’s a new cabal of supervillains in town, haven’t you heard, and you won’t find them clad in garish Technicolor-hued costumes and cackling about plans for ruling the galaxy, but you might spot them at black-tie parties sipping champagne between lips perpetually curled into a superior smirk, shaking their heads at the calamity that has temporarily befallen their carefully-laid Machiavellian schemes for crafting a horrific utopia of universal health care.

That’s right:  it’s those dastardly elite.

The buzzword for the evil well-heeled liberal left is at the forefront of the discussion that lingers in the wake of the egregious phenomenon that is Donald Trump, with his election described as a rebuke to the ruling elite, and with others just a hair north of the border clamoring to pick up his poisoned torch, as if he were the vanguard of a burgeoning movement that seeks as its endgame the imprisonment of all lovers of Puccini and Dostoyevsky.

The word “elite,” which in its dictionary definition means the best of something, is in the political arena an archetype of snobbery and disdain, a pejorative concocting images of a haughty Illuminati-like cabal whose greatest crime is that they just don’t get what it’s like to be a real, average, hard-workin’ sort of folk.  This is despite the fact that those who hurl it with the most frequency and venom are themselves usually silk-suited, impeccably pedigreed, long-serving elected officials or heavily pancaked cable news talking heads who haven’t had to suffer the indignity of a working-class job since the paper route their corporate partner lawyer father made them get back in the 70’s – you know, elites.

Ironically, absolutely nowhere else is elite a term greeted with contempt; rather, it represents, as the word is meant to, the highest, most desirable caliber of person.  We read books, go to movies and listen to music made by elite artists, we want our kids to be educated by elite teachers, we want our health monitored by elite doctors, we want our houses and cars maintained by elite trades.  Businesses both big and small boast about how they only want elite people working for them, and that in approaching them as a customer you will receive only elite treatment.  When you go out to eat you want to be waited on by elite staff (even the poor kid at Mickey D’s had better be bright and cheerful and fast lest you raise hell with their manager), when you go on vacation you want elite white glove service from start to finish.

And of course, we only want elite athletes playing for our favorite professional sports teams.  I’ve been following the MLB off-season wheelings and dealings, and the Blue Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion remains unsigned after turning down an $80-million, four-year deal from Toronto – a deal which, if you do the math, would result in him making about $150K for every single game he plays – and you see fans who would take four years to earn what he’ll get in one day begging the ownership to please cough up even more to get his name on the dotted line.  No one is saying to please give up on Edwin and sign a busload of mediocrities in his stead; no one wants to watch that team boot the ball about the field.

Simply put, in every other aspect of our lives we not only desire the elite, we expect it; and yet, when it comes to politics, we’re suddenly terrified of them, picturing them as cloud-dwelling aristocrats trickling a steady stream of urine down onto the contemptible masses in lieu of rain.  But apply the same formula to a restaurant and ask yourself the question:  am I going to turn down this perfect medium rare sirloin grilled by the elite, Parisian-schooled chef in favor of an inedible hockey puck burnt by a bumbling hack because he’s the kind of guy who really gets me?

Not for a second.

Fear of the elite as the government is an artificial construction manipulated to win votes by politicians who are themselves of the same class they claim outwardly to despise.  George W. Bush, who ran as an outsider and the politician voters claimed they were most likely to want “to have a beer with” (in my mind the single stupidest qualifier for a candidate for office ever devised – I don’t want to have a beer with you, I want you to be working on growing the economy, fixing poverty, restoring the environment and keeping us out of wars), was the Yale-educated son of a long line of privilege.  Rob Ford was a working-class hero despite having inherited his family’s million-dollar label business.  Donald Trump, it was oft lamented by Clinton campaign personnel, literally shat in gold-plated toilets aboard his private jet and somehow convinced the out-of-work laborers in the Rust Belt states that he was one of them.  The hatred for the political elite – framed as single-handedly responsible for every ill that has befallen every human being ever, and they may have taken the Lindbergh Baby as well – is so strong that a disturbing number of voters are quite happy to overlook the glaring hypocrisy of anyone who steps up to affirm that anger in digestible, repeatable soundbites.

As Canada’s federal opposition Conservative Party prepares to select its new leader, the 14 pretenders to Stephen Harper’s iron throne are likewise bleating about sticking it to the elites a la Trump, despite the fact that all save one are veteran former federal cabinet ministers and most have degrees from prestigious educational institutions and long track records in the upper echelons of the corporate sphere predating their service in government.  You simply do not get to mount a campaign for the leadership of a national political party as a commonplace rube, and trying to pretend that you have suddenly become the standard bearer for people who haven’t the first clue what the letters in all the degrees after your last name stand for, people who you’d never condescend to speak to for a half-second if your public image didn’t require it, is the highest of farce – however, as Trump proved, sadly, it doesn’t mean you won’t still win.

As a word, elite needs to be reclaimed from those who are redefining it into a handy slur directed at the opposite side of the aisle.  Elite means the smartest and the best, something everyone should aspire to, and even if admitting it publicly is somehow seen as immodest, no one is sitting around thinking “I really hope to be the most numbingly bland, average, unremarkable, mediocre, inadequate and woefully subpar ____________ as it is possible in this life to be.”  No, we won’t all get to be President or Prime Minister or otherwise world-renowned, but we can still do the best we can with the life we have, which, surprise of surprises, requires a great deal of hard work, always lauded or used as the first line of defense by the thin-skinned in Internet comment section arguments:  “I’m not one of those elites, I’ve worked hard for everything I have!” – congratulations, that makes you elite, and there aren’t enough Make America Great Again stickers to plaster on your rear bumper to change it.

And while many might rue the notion of being governed by the elite – in the manner as it is defined by pundits – like the business looking for that ideal hire, when we vote we truly do want the best person for the job.  Even the 62 million people who voted for Donald Trump did not really think he was going to suck at being President.  So can we please, for the love of the English language, put the misuse of elite to bed and stop acting like being really good at something is a failing and that ignorance in the ways of governing is in any way a desirable virtue?  Because you can’t be sanctimonious about proudly electing idiots and then complain with any legitimacy when everything goes to pot, which it will.  Everyone who is trying to win your vote by making an enemy of elites knows this.  They simply don’t care, and they are faking that they understand your struggles in order to achieve an office that will allow them to screw you with impunity, to the benefit of their wallets, not yours.  Elite is being informed and thoughtful enough to be able to recognize these purveyors of snake oil for what they are.  Given the alternative, which would you choose?

Canadians Stand With You

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In March of 2003, shortly after then prime minister Jean Chretien stood up in the House of Commons and told the world that Canada would not be participating in George W. Bush’s flight of folly that was to be the Iraq War, two members of the opposition, Stephen Harper (the future prime minister) and Stockwell Day wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal under this same title criticizing the government’s stance and suggesting that most Canadians were in fact in favour of Bush’s chest-beating military escapades.  I’m not sure who Messrs. Harper and Day were speaking for, because to this day I’ve never met a single fellow Canadian who would cop to admitting such a thing.  Rather, coast-to-coast we were proud that our PM showed the gravitas to stand up against what would ultimately prove to be an act of lunacy in which thousands of lives were lost and the perpetrators remain free to deliver $20,000 an hour guest lectures at universities the world over.

As the sobering and saddening event of November 8, 2016 settles and a serial liar, philanderer and proudly racist fool prepares to assume the office of President of the United States, this time Canadians do stand with you, our American friends, neighbours and cousins.  We stand with you in your trepidation at what a profoundly unqualified narcissist with little interest in the nuance of governance beyond what benefits his personal brand, prone to fly off the handle at the sight of a nasty tweet, will do with absolute authority over America’s nuclear arsenal and a zombie army of neo-Nazis goosestepping cheerfully wherever dark place he chooses to lead.  Though some might try to preach a tempered optimism, hopeful that the nobility of the office might silence the instincts for demagoguery, this really doesn’t seem like a glass half-full situation.  For the 64 million (and counting) souls who voted for Hillary Clinton, it’s more like the glass was sucked dry, smashed and then stolen from the tuberculosis-ridden orphans to whom it belonged.  It is deeply troubling when the most progressive imaginable outcome is that the hairdo is swiftly impeached and the balance of his presidency is entrusted to his homophobic VP – the empty shell of a man who represents Grover Norquist’s wet dream of an obedient puppet who will sign whatever government-shredding legislation is placed in front of him.  The American press is already trying its damnedest to normalize this bizarre sequence of events, falling back into its traditional deference to power and the fallacious and harmful “both sides” approach – counting, perhaps, on everyone to go to sleep again and be mollified by the off-camera antics of celebrities as America’s experiment in democracy approaches its most critical test:  whether it can survive the machinations of a sociopathic moron.

As Canadians, we watched the election of Barack Obama in 2008 with tremendous joy, thankful that the progressive values we had long held sacred (and boasted about in our non-confrontational Canadian sort of way) had a real chance to take heart and root in the most powerful country on the planet.  That we would finally begin to see some global leadership in worldwide crises like environmental degradation, poverty and war, and that the laissez-faire types running our government at the time would have no choice but to follow where President Obama would lead.  It is perhaps the most liberal of failings to assume that everyone should share our values because we know them to be right; we are equally prone to underestimating how forceful the backlash from the right can be when those things that they consider sacred – whatever our opinions of them – are threatened.  And so it was that after the prolonged drama that was the passage of the Affordable Care Act – a frustrating exercise in incrementalism for a president who wanted a transformational wave – the 2010 midterm elections saw the Republicans take back the House and bring a decisive end to the President’s legislative agenda, to be replaced by fruitless repeal votes and endless (and equally fruitless) investigations.  Progress, sadly, would have to wait.  It remains on a shelf, and now seems fated to be relegated to a back corner of that warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark as every long-slumbering, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal neo-con rises from the morass to assume a place of leadership in the new administration, determined to take the country back to the bad old days of the 1850’s.

When we elected Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister in 2015, we felt as though it was the continuation of a trend that Obama had begun, perhaps the commencement of a new era of this new breed of statesperson:  charismatic, far-thinking, caring.  The sight of the two of them palling around like old schoolmates at the subsequent state dinner was an episode of The West Wing come to life, and one that seemed destined to continue under safely inevitable President-to-be Hillary Clinton.  Like you, we never thought that in a million years would enough swing-state Americans pull the lever for the loudmouthed candidate whose entire campaign seemed a calculated publicity stunt designed to boost bookings at his hotels and golf courses.  He seemed to like the idea of winning, but not necessarily the work of doing the job after that.  We thought that if trends and polls pointed to a win, he would swiftly drop out, spin it as a victory, and go back to leering at his daughter and stiffing contractors.

When he actually won, Canadians gave ourselves a shake because we had seen this before, and we should have known it could happen, and we shouldn’t have been soothing our panic with promising poll numbers.  Because in 2010 the City of Toronto, thought of as one of the most liberal and diverse metropolises in the world, elected as its Mayor a man who had been similarly dismissed in the beginning as a bumbling, boorish oaf with virtually no chance of winning.  In Toronto’s election, the narrative of the entire campaign was Rob Ford:  love him or hate him, he was all you were talking about.  Ford’s message was uncomplicated and aimed directly at anyone who’d ever been upset with their local government about anything – recognizing that voter anger and the desire for change, no matter what that change might be, is perhaps the most powerful force into which any candidate for anything can tap.  The other candidates might have had some decent and progressive ideas, but they failed to articulate exactly what they stood for other than being against Ford and the dire prognostications of what Ford might do in the mayor’s office.  And it wasn’t enough.  Ford won a handsome victory and despite the rollercoaster of his term looked like he was headed for a second before the illness that ultimately claimed his life forced him to drop out of the race in 2014.

In the flashback West Wing episode “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen,” longshot primary candidate Jed Bartlet chafes at a staffer’s suggestion that he refrain from mentioning his front-running opponent John Hoynes’ name in speeches as it gives him free publicity.  Bartlet argues that not mentioning Hoynes’ name just makes him look like he can’t remember Hoynes’ name.  But in 2016, every Clinton election ad that filtered north of the border did indeed seem to be about her opponent; every terrible thing he had done and the piss poor example he would set as a president and role model.  (I shared a few myself on Twitter.)  Utterly lost in the messaging was what she would do, how she would make things better, that one singular idea that can light a fire in a soul and spread ravenously to others, the idea from which world-changing movements are born.  Instead, with the ratings-hungry media eager to cash in on trainwreck spectacle, the election became Rob Ford redux, and what little time was afforded Hillary Clinton was devoted to the tiresome saga of her emails.  The book The Secret posits the question of why sometimes, in elections, a widely loathed candidate still manages to win, arguing that it is because all thought, energy and attention is focused on him.  Whatever the truth behind the veneer, on the surface he was the dazzling wealthy celebrity with the glamorous supermodel wife and the incomparably lavish lifestyle, the embodiment of “American exceptionalism,” the archetype many Americans feel it’s their divine destiny and right to one day become; the Big Lie of the “haves and soon-to-haves,” and day after day, night after night, he was the full story.

I really don’t mean to Monday morning quarterback; it certainly doesn’t ease the pain of what happened on November 8th.  I offer it only as a caveat for what comes next, because others will look to copy the model of Rob Ford and the walking comb-over in years to come – and we need a solid strategy to defeat them.  Already here in Canada we have a candidate for the leadership of our Conservative Party praising the U.S. election results and saying that we need some of that bad mojo to spread up here – to which I and I think a majority of Canadians respond with a unified gag reflex.  But we don’t dare write this person off or pretend that such views can’t possibly take a toehold and mutate into something larger and much uglier.  When people are desperate, they will latch on to whomever is selling the easiest solution in the loudest voice, and it’s dangerous to dismiss such people as suckers.  As progressives and liberals we need to do better at selling our ideas instead of just defining ourselves in opposition to the heinous garbage the other guys are rolling out.  We need to go into those reddest of red states (and bluest of blue provinces – the red/blue thing is flipped up here) and start the conversation with the most unfriendly of audiences and not stop it until we’ve won hearts and minds.  The cheaper, easier alternative, shoring up the base and waiting for demographic evolution to take care of business, is an errand for fools.

There’s no sense in applying the comforting coat of sugar, my American friends:  you have some hard times ahead.  The monsters you thought you’d driven under the bed over the last eight years are slithering back out to sink their greedy teeth into you, and this time they won’t be the slightest bit subtle about it.  But the good news is that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, and your “small group” outnumbers this gang of robber baron cretins by about 320 million.  The world remembers when your collective effort allowed humanity to walk on the moon; surely you can do it again, after all, there’s even more of you now.  President Obama himself said that progress rarely moves in a straight line.  So don’t let your country slip back into the Dark Ages without a fight.  Don’t let the media normalize this caricature of a man who is about to become your president.  Speak out.  Organize boycotts.  Take to the streets and to the barricades.  Don’t be lulled into complacency by reality shows and celebrity catfights for one precious second.  Raise your voices, sing your songs and spread your words far and wide every chance you get, and you will win the real battle to make America great again.

And know that on this side of the border, Canadians stand with you.

Triumph of a Heavyweight

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

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

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

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

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

But it sure is nice to be proven right.

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister.  And thank you.

Varying degrees of greatness

The City of Calgary, wallowing in its greatness.

At the Stampede last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper got up in front of his adopted hometown crowd and proclaimed Calgary the greatest city in Canada.  This being the political climate where no off-the-cuff comment goes un-deconstructed en masse (and Harper being the veteran politician who says nothing that hasn’t been poll-tested), cries of favouritism erupted from his opposition.  In my best mood on my best day I’m hard-pressed to say anything positive about the guy, but this is one instance in which critics just make themselves look silly by raising a public ruckus.  The man is standing in front of a crowd in Calgary – he’s hardly going to tell them that “well, you guys are pretty awesome but Whitehorse totally rocks my socks.”  Does anyone believe that when Bono drops the name of the city U2 is playing in he’s doing it out of a genuine conviction that his time spent in this metropolis has been the most rewarding of his life, or do they recognize that it’s merely an applause line?  I’ve been to Calgary once, for a weekend, and what I saw of it seemed very nice, as did its people, but I’m not sure that it would qualify for this ambiguous concept of greatness anymore than any other Canadian city, town or backwater burg it’s been my fortune to pass through.  The problem isn’t a lacking on Calgary’s part, it’s more a general unease about how to qualify something as great.

“Great” is a word we’ve tossed around so often that it’s become meaningless.  “What a great movie.”  “She’s such a great girl.”  “These are the greatest cookies I’ve ever tasted.”  Yet despite its overuse, the concept of greatness is one that we value greatly.  I remember reading a book in Philosophy 101 called God, the Devil and the Perfect Pizza.  I may get the details wrong – I wasn’t quite the seasoned thinker I am now (snicker) when I first ploughed through it and was distracted by the gorgeous blonde in the very short black miniskirt seated two rows ahead of me.  But the concept was basically a more plain-spoken rehash of the ontological argument that one could prove the existence of God through logic, if one accepted the premise that God was the greatest conceivable being, and that existence being a necessary component of greatness (the idea that a God who did not exist would not, in fact, be the greatest conceivable being), God must therefore exist.  Where the book has fun with this is twisting the argument around to prove by a similar method, the existence of the Devil (hypothesized as the worst conceivable being) and the greatest conceivable pizza.  I don’t think I ever quite grokked the logical twists that validated this line of thinking – I suppose if you’re religious and looking to disprove an atheist it could come in handy.  But the idea of the greatest conceivable anything stuck with me.  “Greatness,” like beauty, is so totally subjective – one man will vomit up in disgust the meal the gourmand thinks is the greatest thing he’s ever eaten – that who I picture as the greatest conceivable being will differ completely from yours, and the next guy’s, and the next guy’s after him.  (Mine might look like that blonde.  I swear, her toned legs in that black mini were a wonder to behold.)

We see this daily in the critical sphere:  endless top ten lists recounting beloved movies, music, literature, artwork, key lime pies.  Quality can be agreed on universally to a point – certainly few can put forth defensible arguments that Plan 9 from Outer Space is a better movie than 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But beyond that point lies the uncanny valley where opinion takes over and cements the final determination, as individual as the person offering it.  It’s also why people usually react badly to self-proclaimed greatness, like when folks who haven’t ventured over their county line announce that America is the greatest country in the world.  Opinions about one’s own greatness are the least valued, especially when one cannot walk the walk, as it were.  Muhammad Ali’s boasts are the stuff of sports legend, but he could back it up in the ring.  How though, do you determine the relative greatness of a more abstract concept like a city, especially if you’re predisposed to bias because you live there (or represent it in the House of Commons)?  Do you base it on hard statistics, like crime, transportation, wealth, homelessness and pollution, or on the equally abstract idea of character?  How do you say with certainty that one city’s character is better than another’s?  The people are nicer, there are more interesting restaurants, the tourist attractions are less cheesy, you can always find a place to park?  Woody Allen once observed that the primary cultural advantage of Los Angeles was the ability to turn right on a red.  It seems that any judgment on the relative greatness of anything is fated to be equally pithy, given that ultimately, the criteria used to make this determination are so esoteric as to defy classification.

Or, in English, there is no such thing as “the greatest.”  There are things that are great and things that are even greater than those first great things.  But “greatest” is forever elusive.  And that is probably great in itself, because it will force us to continue to aim for it.  Declaring oneself the greatest is admitting that not only can you go no further, you don’t even want to try.  You’re entirely satisfied.  You’re done.  And lack of ambition, of aspiration, of the dream of progress, is not a quality associated with greatness in any way.

Besides, everyone knows that the greatest city in Canada is <404 error file not found>

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.

Justin Trudeau vs. the Concern Trolls

UrbanDictionary.com defines a “concern troll” as “someone who is on one side of the discussion, but pretends to be a supporter of the other side with ‘concerns.’  The idea behind this is that your opponents will take your arguments more seriously if they think you’re an ally.”

There is no better description of the dozens of op-ed writers (and thousands of anonymous commenters) cautioning Liberals against rallying behind Justin Trudeau as their next leader.  The opinions are widely disseminated, but all come back to the same litany of talking points:  it’s not his time, he’s too young, his last name is poison in parts of the country, he hasn’t run a successful business, he hasn’t accomplished anything noteworthy.  If any of these tropes sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same weak sauce flung at up-and-coming Senator Barack Obama in 2008, indicating clearly that none of what the concern trolls are falling over themselves in weepy anguish to preach to the poor, poor Liberals will make any damn bit of difference in Trudeau’s ability to lead his party to victory in a national election.  Instead, these pleas sound like attempts to nudge the Grits towards picking an unexciting candidate who will make Stephen Harper look like George Clooney – so Canadian readers can suffer another few years’ worth of pedantic “Is the Liberal Party Dead?” articles.

Canadian politicians have never been particularly renowned for their charisma.  Ours is a history of electing the safe and the bland, of choosing managers over leaders.  Ironically, the turning point in virtually every Canadian election has come when we’ve seen a flash of personality, a quotable moment that provokes headlines and water cooler discussion.  Brian Mulroney telling John Turner “You had an option, sir.”  Jean Chretien’s speech about his facial paralysis following a cruel attack ad from the other side.  Jack Layton shredding Michael Ignatieff’s election hopes with “If Canadians don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion.”  Those are the President Bartlet moments we hunger for and latch onto because they are so rare.  We may claim we want only the seasoned, sensible accountant to watch the public purse, but we need that firebrand to stir our emotions, to get us thinking, and to spur a true and fair debate on who we are as Canadians and what kind of country we want to create for ourselves.   To engage us in the fate of our nation once again.  It’s quite possible we’d experience a collective freak-out were someone like that to emerge on the scene again; our stolid nature simply wouldn’t know how to handle it.

But that would be a good thing.

Justin Trudeau’s reluctance to take on the challenge of restoring the bruised and battered Liberal Party suggests that much unlike the copious evidence pouring out of Stephen Harper’s every extremity, he has not spent his entire life dreaming of power.  Trudeau could have parachuted into a safe seat during the Chretien heyday and squatted on the backbenches, quietly building an organization of loyalists and working towards an eventual leadership coup.  Would this have been considered the more appropriate path to the top by the pundits?  Perhaps, but instead, Trudeau chose to run in a Bloc Quebecois riding in an election where the Liberals had already been mired in opposition an uncomfortable two years under Stephane Dion, who despite good intentions could not connect with a lackadaisical public force-fed with the Conservative “not a leader” meme by a compliant media.  Against odds, Trudeau took the fight to the enemy and won it.  He did not coast in on fame and memories of Liberal glories past, nor did he simply promise to cut taxes and be a puppet for his party.  He won Papineau by going door to door advancing the ideals that government can be a place for good work when the best people are in charge of it.  One does not need to be an exceptional person to keep a corporate balance sheet in the black; the ability to inspire people with deeds, images and words, is a much rarer gift.  In Justin Trudeau, one can see these glimmers of the stuff of leadership.  Where the concern trolls get the idea that this translates to a lack of life accomplishment is a bit bewildering.

In his four years as an MP, Trudeau has been an advocate for youth, the environment and a vigorous democracy, and has done so while raising a young family.  He’s shown passion and an unwillingness to moderate his tone when it comes to speaking about what he believes; advancing the notion that principles are more important than electoral totals.  And famously, earlier this year, he stood his ground against a hulk of a Conservative Senator and trounced him in a boxing match the Sun News crowd were salivating over the prospect of watching him lose.  In the ring, Trudeau gives everything he’s got.  The nobility of the fight, what it truly means to the people watching, and not the aggrandizement of the ego of the man, is what matters to him.  Do you want to follow the leader because he’s leading for your benefit, or for his own?  Contrast this against the guy apparently so insecure he has to use your tax dollars to rename the government after himself.

The important thing to keep in mind as well when concern trolls spout off about a dearth of executive experience on Trudeau’s shoulders is that Harper’s attitude to the contrary, the Prime Minister is not the President – and even the President delegates.  Even as a rump of its former self the Liberal bench is deep with former cabinet ministers and seasoned professionals who would be well equipped to counsel a potential future Prime Minister Trudeau on any policies where he felt his own expertise wanting – to say nothing of who else might choose to stand for election with Trudeau leading the party.  And you get the sense that Trudeau would not be afraid to ask, either; that he understands the virtue of surrounding himself with smart people and letting them shine.  Again, one must look at this in comparison to Harper’s approach of farming out cabinet posts to party hacks and running everything out of the PMO.  This strategy leads inevitably to taxpayers footing the bill for $16 orange juice.

We’ve had enough managers, we’ve had enough boring old guys droning on about their eighteen-point-plans to reduce the deficit and ensure economic growth to 2050.  What will get Canadians excited, what the Liberals need, and what terrifies the concern trolls, is someone who can appeal to our better angels on a visceral level.  Someone who can get the cynical back to the polls and who can mobilize the divided yet potent, growing energies on the progressive side into a force that overwhelms the cash-heavy Conservative smear machine.  For all his skill as a parliamentarian, I don’t see that quality in the dour Thomas Mulcair, and Bob Rae obviously wasn’t sure he was that man either.  I’ll admit that we don’t know for certain if Justin Trudeau has that in him.  But the volume of ink being expended against his candidacy in the guise of ensuring the long-term future of the Liberals suggests a lot of people on the other side of the spectrum are panicked that he does and are trying, ever so gently, to urge him to stay out of the race, lest a dragon they cannot slay rear its big red head.

That Trudeau is not responding immediately to the media storm about his candidacy (or lack thereof) is encouraging.  He’s considering his options, consulting his family, and hopefully letting the background noise of the concern trolls wash over him.  If he lets any of their feigned worries become the deciding factor, then he wasn’t the guy to begin with.  But if he decides to step up, I suspect he’ll end up doing to the naysayers – metaphorically, at least – what he did to Senator Patrick Brazeau.

Ontario Election 2011: What Kind of Day Has it Been?

This is my final post for the Toronto Star’s Speak Your Mind, as published on their website this morning and reprinted here by their kind permission.  Please ignore the shameless self-promotion in the final paragraph as it was meant for non-regular readers of this blog.

In the City of Burlington, the more things stay the same, the more they stay the same.

In a result that surprised only the politically naïve, Conservative Jane McKenna maintained the PC’s 70-year hold on the riding by a few thousand votes over her closest opponent, Liberal Karmel Sakran.  The NDP’s Peggy Russell was a distant third, although she improved the NDP’s vote totals from 2007.  None of the other party candidates made a dent.  In the end, the status quo reigns.

A couple of lessons to take from this result – primarily, that the Blue Machine in Burlington remains formidable in its city-wide presence and get-out-the-vote efforts, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  Despite the troubled and controversial candidate nomination process Team Blue underwent in the pre-writ, this riding boasts a solid bloc of Conservative voters who will remain loyal no matter whose name is on the ballot.  It is noteworthy to mention that what distinguishes Burlington from next-door neighbour Oakville, where Liberal Kevin Flynn was re-elected to his third term, is that most unlike Oakville, Burlington boasts a fairly large rural community.  Province-wide, the Tories cleaned up in the rural ridings.  Many rural voters are upset with Liberal policies like the Greenbelt, a swath of which dominates Burlington’s north, and a general feeling, justified or not, that their concerns are passed over in favour of the urban areas.  Those voters tend to be get-government-out-of-the-way conservatives and they always make it to the polls in large numbers.

And yet, the combined total of Liberal and NDP votes exceeded McKenna’s numbers by a considerable margin, suggesting conservatives are outnumbered in Burlington by a majority of generally progressive voters who could finally tip the balance if a single progressive candidate could rally their support.  Burlington’s council leans progressive and its mayor once ran federally for the Green Party, so it’s a misconception to assume that the city’s political leanings are as far to the right as say, somewhere in Alberta.  Despite the apparent Conservative lock, the riding remains poachable.

One of the things that the federal Conservatives are regularly pilloried for is to have their nominees or failed candidates acting as “shadow MP’s” in their ridings, establishing a community presence and visibility with an eye to the next electoral cycle.  More often than not, it pays off – witness their gains in the GTA on May 2nd – and there is no reason why the Liberals or NDP couldn’t do that in Burlington either.  Find a face and get out there at local events and rallies starting tomorrow – not to undermine the MPP, but to humanize an alternative, and to try and suck some oxygen out of the traditional charges levelled too often without response against Liberals and New Democrats.

That’s tomorrow’s challenge, anyway.  Right now we offer congratulations to Jane McKenna as she takes her seat in the Legislature and hope that Dalton McGuinty’s foray as the leader of a minority government is more productive than Stephen Harper’s – that McGuinty’s focus will be on governing, not playing political games and seizing every opportunity to make the opposition look bad.  McGuinty can solidify himself as a true statesman by making this minority work and proving that Ontario was smart in trusting him with a third mandate, that the unpopular choices he made were the right ones.  Who knows – if he is successful in shepherding Ontario back to economic prosperity, there might be another job opening up in 2013 he’d become the odds-on favourite for – one that is currently held by another Premier of Ontario.

I’d like to thank the Toronto Star and Speak Your Mind for the wonderful opportunity to share my thoughts about my hometown and this election with you.  I’ll be continuing to blog at www.grahamscrackers.wordpress.com if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read here and would like to see more.  Or you can follow me on Twitter at @thegrahammilne.  In closing I’d just like to remind everyone that our democracy is one of the most precious possessions we have, one that is envied the world over and is yet the most fragile of gifts.  We have been entrusted with this flame and we are morally bound to keep it bright.  Because the road back to the worst of dictatorship and despotism begins when good people choose to stay home and close their eyes.

Keep them open.