“The collective wisdom . . .”

Miranda: Oh, brave new world, that has such people in’t.
The Tempest 5.1.188-9

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Portions of Miranda’s line from The Tempest have been used in many ways through the years, most notably – and ironically – as the title of Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World. References to Huxley’s work can’t help appearing whenever a political change comes which seems to usher in an era of great promise. As I read the reactions to last week’s election victory by Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party, I couldn’t help smiling. I had been bothered by the course of this election for quite some time and I was glad it was over, a widely-held sentiment, I’m fairly certain, from sea to shining sea.

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I don’t think anyone needs me to wax poetical about the power of optimism and hope, but the contrasting campaigns of the election serve to illustrate how it can work when the time is right. Please note that last part: when the time is right. We would be practicing a form of revisionist history if we failed to acknowledge that, in other circumstances, negative campaigns can be very effective. Just ask Stephane Dion or Michael Ignatieff if you doubt that. The number of campaigns south of the border scuttled by attacks far more vicious than anything we would think of mounting in the Great White North are legion.

As we heard from innumerable pundits over the last few years (if you were listening), the evidence is inescapable: attack ads work. At the same time, this conclusion, as with so many others, lacks nuance. Some make the point that negativity can backfire but it tends to be more as an afterthought than a rebuttal of the central tenet that tarring the opposition with any available brush works. As I listened to ongoing coverage of the election results, many expressed surprise, especially with the majority result. To understand, though, I don’t think you need to look beyond the central player in it all: us.

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I’m never sure how well my little part of the country reflects the larger collective so I always avoided making any sweeping claims about how things were going to go as the election approached. At the same time, I was struck by the depth and ferocity of the opposition to Stephen Harper and his Conservative government just about everywhere I went. Never before had I seen anything like the “Stop Harper” campaign that manifested itself in signs, hashtags, strategic voting and a whole lot of ways about which I probably know nothing at all. While it could have something to do with the circles I travel in, the feeling was palpable, it seemed, just about everywhere other than amongst the true stalwarts among Conservative supporters. As I’ve said in previous blogs, this polarization concerns me.

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My hope, now, is that this particular election proves to be an anomaly; that Canadians will, by and large, return to the moderation that was celebrated in the media on the days following the election. The bitter rhetoric and enmity of the campaign was replaced by articles complimenting the rapid concession from Mr. Harper and his congratulating Mr. Trudeau while affirming that the electorate was always “right”. In turn, the two leaders appearing together and cordial while laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier reminded us that we were Canadians, after all.

For me, though, that’s where caution comes in. The Liberal victory has an inevitable character in retrospect. Alone among the three major party leaders, Justin Trudeau hitched his wagon pretty much exclusively to the mantra of hope and change and, quite simply, people were ready for that, longing for it, in fact. People, by and large, want to feel good about themselves and their choices. For the moment, I’m with them. Most people I know seem cheerier this week and that can’t be bad.

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But, as I said, we’re the constant through all of this and we will come to be dissatisfied in time with whatever and whoever ends up doing things that we don’t necessarily like. The grumbling will start and eventually a day will come when the current government will be swept away to a chorus of voices shouting about the need for change. If I’ve learned one thing, “change” is the one constant in every election at any level. And yes, it’s a good thing.

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At the same time, I hope we can hang on to the images and the editorials that were so much kinder to the departing prime minister and his government than anything seemed to be during the campaign. I’m not absolving Harper from blame for much of it, either. History will tell that tale as time goes on. I remain, however, fearful of Canada becoming too much like the United States where your opponents become the enemy within rather than just someone whose opinions differ in certain ways.

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Canada is a special place to me. Maybe I’m just another Canadian buying the propaganda but I really do think we are better than most at getting along and allowing for differences. The extremity of some of the rhetoric on both sides in this now-concluded election has concerned me. I hope it was of the moment and that my Canada is the gracious one I saw over the past week. As a Canadian, that’s the best I can hope for. Even Canadians, after all, are only human.

The future is in our hands

And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope.

Macbeth 5.8.19-22

Finally, it’s over. I’m not sure how much longer any of us here in Canada could have endured election rhetoric. We’re not like our southern neighbours. Nothing in my experience could prepare me for the 2 and more year marathons now commonplace in America. In so many ways, we are so lucky here. I hope we consider that particular good fortune if we feel like complaining at length over just how interminable the finally concluded Canadian version felt.

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And now that Stephen Harper is set to fade into memory, reality will begin to come home to roost. I’ve been scanning the media this morning and, as expected, the message of expectations vs. reality is already playing a prominent role. My bringing it up isn’t original in any way. It’s important to note, though, especially for the sake of those who came out in a big way (or so it seemed to me and others) for the first time, namely, young people in general but many of them first-time voters.

I served as a novice Deputy Returning Officer yesterday and, I have to say, I truly enjoyed it. Some of the highlights were the few new Canadians who were so apparently pleased to be casting a vote. Their pleasure was obvious but so too, quite often, was that of the young people who came as a result of the concerted get-out-the-vote campaign that seemed to me driven largely by the unifying disdain for the now-departing Prime Minister.

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And depart he has, in a fashion quite unexpected by just about everybody. I can’t recall any credible predictions of a majority government for anyone and certainly nothing of the commanding scope given the Liberals under Justin Trudeau. If I’m one of those young people who helped to swell the turnout some 7% above what it was in the last election, I have to be impressed. I’m feeling today that the always seemingly tired notion that your vote really can make a difference has more truth to it than I ever imagined.

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As a returning officer, I saw that satisfaction a lot last night. I made a point of congratulating people, especially those who seemed new to the ballot box, when they dropped their ballot through the slot. I was inspired watching it happen. Such a simple process and yet, at the same time, such a profound exercise of social consensus and civilized action. Expecting perfection of any system invites disappointment so I never fall victim to that. As I’ve probably expressed before, I always used to think that Churchill’s caution about democracy being the worst form of government ever devised by man, except for all the others, was just witty.
I’ve changed my mind on that one. Not unexpectedly, it’s just as imperfect as we are.

But it really is the best we’ve got and I happen to think Canada is, in general, one of the best practitioners of it. As the quote from Macbeth suggests, though, I fear what expectations unfulfilled might do to the new optimism and sense of empowerment that I detect in the aftermath of Trudeau’s resounding win.

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Over my last few blogs, I’ve focused in different ways on my fear of Canada’s drift toward polarization of the American variety, where those who oppose you are vilified as the destroyers of worlds, or at least of the economy, democracy, etc. I’m all for reasoned objection; I just wish it could be reasoned.

Justin Trudeau, to my mind, is to be commended for avoiding, for the most part, the tactic employed with increasing ferocity as the campaign proceeded by the Conservatives and somewhat by the NDP as well. The message, essentially, was that a win by the opponent would be catastrophic in some way. While such a message might tend to play well with the hard-core supporters, the average person, to my mind, is skeptical. You might even say, most people are just too “Canadian” to buy into the catastrophe scenario.

At the same time, those opposing Harper painted him in irredeemable colours that left no room for any allowances being made. It became an all-or-nothing proposition. I hope, with him gone, that that fades and we return to a more balanced assessment of the political choices we face as a country.

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The first challenge for the new government will be to hold the interest and commitment of those who “voted for change”. If things slip into the usual morass of qualifications and “buts” and other factors that tend to lead to disillusionment among those who had high expectations, I fear whatever gains we might have made, especially in terms of engagement among the young, could be short lived.

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But for today, I’m inspired by my experience as a Deputy Returning Officer. I watched a steady stream of people come forward and cast a ballot believing that what they were doing was significant, important even, and, as I’ve always believed, they were right. The trick now, from my perspective, involves keeping that belief alive. Our future (always has, always will) depends on it.

A poem of Thanksgiving

As anyone who knows me would tell you, Alden Nowlan is a favourite poet of mine. I have always been amazed at his ability to mine from the simplest of situations – sometimes from bizarre ones, too – the deepest of truths.

It’s Thanksgiving Day in Canada today so I’m busy with all things to do with that. Rather than my usual, lengthy missives on something I hope is relevant, I’m going with Alden and this one observation on love, something that is the core of virtually everything we choose to celebrate collectively. Make of it what you will and Happy Thanksgiving!

The Masks of Love

I come in from a walk
With you
And they ask me
If it is raining.

I didn’t notice
But I’ll have to give them
The right answer
Or they’ll think I’m crazy.

Seeing through the glass darkly

All political movements are like this — we are in the right, everyone else is in the wrong. The people on our own side who disagree with us are heretics, and they start becoming enemies. With it comes an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority. There’s oversimplification in everything, and a terror of flexibility.
– Doris Lessing

As I sit down to write today, news is breaking of a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal being reached. I haven’t heard any of the details yet but, as a general rule, I’m glad to hear that Canada manages to be part of such things. For all that we are, geographically, the second largest country in the world, being dwarfed as we are in all kinds of ways by the inherent power of our southern neighbour, I tend to think it is essential that we align ourselves with those who would create a huge trading block incorporating nations which account for 40% of the world’s GDP.

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What I should find surprising (the fact that I don’t has everything to do with what I believe I understand about election campaigns) is that anyone, even the NDP, would be willing to adopt the protectionist stance that says “no” to anything that, even potentially, affects any element of Canadian industry (the two big ones, in this case, being supply managed dairy and the auto industry) at the risk of being excluded from what would be the largest trade agreement in the history of the world!.

I’m sympathetic to those who might be affected negatively by any deal but to simply walk away from the table because of that is, to my mind, the worst of ideology triumphing over common sense. At the same time, I choose to believe that the positions being taken by the three leaders reflect the ground they have staked out as election day approaches. Stephen Harper presents himself as the protector of a robust Canadian economy that is the result of his decade of responsible economic management (so the line goes). Tom Mulcair insists that any TPP deal is entirely inappropriate, having been conducted in secret to the detriment of Canadians in the middle of an election. Hence, the government has no mandate to conclude a deal of any kind. Justin Trudeau takes the middle road, unwilling to condemn the deal without seeing the details but assuring all concerned that he wouldn’t let anyone ride roughshod over the country.

I’ve arrived at a place, personally, where the sheer length of this campaign has finally exhausted me. I don’t know how much more outrage or exaggeration I can take. In my last few blogs, I have circled around the topic of polarization in Canadian politics and this blog, hopefully, will be my last word on the subject for a while. For those who continue to believe that polarization isn’t an increasingly prevalent issue in this election, ask yourself how many careful, rational discussions you’ve had with anyone going into these last two weeks.

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This was brought to me over the weekend when I was talking to someone close to me who has always admitted to having little interest in politics – the details, at least – while, at the same time, wanting to vote and to do so with some confidence that she is doing more than just voting a certain way because a bunch of people tell her she should. I tried to explain to her that it’s tough. She told me how she had been in a room with a bunch of people whose opinions she respects and yet, when she broached the idea that she wasn’t sure how she would vote, no one tried to convince her of anything with careful explanations or reasons. Instead, scorn was heaped upon any choice that wasn’t the preferred of those in the room.

And the thing is, it’s tough to find any source that aims at balance since the media we rely on these days isn’t well-suited to that. That point was brought home to me listening to CBC in the car yesterday. I no longer even remember what the topic was but the speaker claimed that “90% of Canadians . . .” were opposed to something. And that was that. The interviewer didn’t even question the figure in passing. It was simply let slide. No reference to the source, the study, anything to corroborate such a claim. Radio and television are immediate and transitory in ways that written arguments are not and, as a result, they can rarely offer in depth analysis in the moment.

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Perhaps the best exception to that rule that I’ve encountered is CBC Newsworld’s “Power and Politics” hosted by Rosemary Barton. If you are looking for media that provides balance and real discussion, I would recommend this. Just be willing to sit for two hours a night. Barton challenges every empty phrase, platitude and gobbledygook non-answer that comes her way and it’s fun to watch, if you are looking for balance. Conservative, Liberal, NDP and any other pundits are equally skewered and/or challenged.

Experience (and ratings, no doubt) tell me that not many people are willing to take the time, five nights a week, to delve into the particulars of any party’s position on issues. As I mentioned earlier, in reference to the TPP, the parties’ positions are, in large measure, a product of the campaign environment. In our current, media-reliant world, the sound-bite rules.

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So, as election day nears, the rhetoric remains strident and absolute. I suspect, over the last couple of weeks, the volume might increase but little else will change. Depending on who is broadcasting, Harper will be characterized as dictator/destroyer of the nation or sound manager; Trudeau will be the inexperienced, wannabe, name dropper or the defender of the middle class and Canadian values; Mulcair, the angry radical outlier too like Harper (if you’re a Liberal supporter) or Trudeau (if you’re a Conservative supporter) or the face of a new politics, a new age even where Canada’s place in the world can be restored.

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As I’ve been arguing since I started this blog, oversimplification may be appealing but it serves no one well in the long run. It’s too late for this election. But then, maybe “too late” is just par for the course. Perhaps the only difference is that the media’s pervasive lens reveals that penchant for stark oversimplification that has always been there. But even then, you’ll only see it if you’re willing to look.