After the election: of kittens and cabinets

The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holders lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.
― Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays


I found this “Kittens against Stephen Harper” posted on a fence in uptown Saint John and I just had to have it. I hope the poster can forgive me for absconding with it but it made me laugh so spontaneously (it still raises a chuckle) I couldn’t let it go. For me, whether deliberately or not, it captured the frustration I felt throughout our now-concluded federal campaign. As a number of my recent blogs have argued, that campaign showed signs of Canada drifting toward an American-style polarization of right and left that scared me. As a Canadian, rightly or wrongly, I have long treasured what I, and many others, see as our long history of moderation and tolerance. I’m hoping that the extremes we saw over the last few months are an aberration and that we are now “back to our old selves”, you might say.

Kittens against Stephen Harper? For all of the apparent exaggeration, it really did start to feel that way, at least among a number of the people I know. I can’t recall a time when so many were so animated in their “hatred” (is that too strong a word?) of a public figure in this country. It seemed as though the election was repeatedly drawn in the starkest of terms, very much an “us vs them” or, dare I say it, “good vs evil”. Some will say I am, myself, exaggerating the extremity of opinion but I don’t think I’m that far off. Mind you, much of what I’m using as the basis of my view is social media but the more mainstream media and personal conversations I had seemed to support my contention overall.

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And the thing is, I’m happy to acknowledge that many things that Harper’s government did were objectionable to me personally. I was no fan of Omnibus Bills, extremes of message control, half-hearted action on climate change, paranoia on many fronts, mandatory sentencing, etc. That being said, I also hold that such actions were undertaken out of a view that they were in the interests of the country and its citizens. But, as I’ve had occasion to say to a few people lately, we live in an age where outrage is fashionable. As the words from Bertrand Russell above suggest, one of the easiest alternatives to a meaningful argument is strong feeling. Personally, I would have much preferred to hear more of the argument and less of the outrage. As for any final verdict on Harper’s contribution to the country, I’ll leave that to time and historians.

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As I said earlier, though, I’m hoping that Canada, in the meantime, can return to its senses. And the actions of our new Prime Minister, so far, seem designed to restore all kinds of faith for all kinds of people. The optimism is near universal although, predictably, some have found things to complain about, most notably the composition of the new cabinet. The naysayers point to gender balance as inappropriate and a false requirement imposed at the expense of merit. My knee-jerk reaction to that one is to go “Really?!?” with a look of dismay plastered on my face but, in line with my own argument, an explanation is the better way.

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A Cabinet Minister in Canadian legislatures – federal, provincial or territorial – certainly has a job to do in a specified arena of interest but to imagine that the background of an individual can somehow be the sole measure of qualification for the position suggests a misunderstanding, in my view, of both the role and the nature of the job itself. Justin Trudeau has done an admirable job of lining up ministers with portfolios that match elements of their professional and educational backgrounds – and that is certainly one thing to think about when making such choices – but the media has made me laugh with their comments on one appointee, comments that supposedly highlight this minister’s appropriateness for the portfolio. The minister in question? Marc Garneau, incoming Minister of Transport. He is, according to Peter Mansbridge and others, eminently qualified because, after all, as a former astronaut he’s been to space. You get it: he’s traveled a lot, so he’ll make a great Minister of Transport. Right?

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To be clear, I’m not criticizing the choice. I am, however, pointing to the absurdity of imagining that one’s experience as an astronaut prepares you for such a role. Does anyone really think this compares to Harjit Singh Sajjan and his background in the military being chosen for Minister of Defense? Now THAT pick really does seem to line up.

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In terms of the bigger picture, though, the composition of Cabinet has always been based on more than any apparent qualification based on background. Language, region, ethnicity, affiliation – any number of things can serve as legitimate considerations if you view cabinet composition as an effort to reflect the country it purports to represent. When you have 184 MPs to choose from, qualification, to my mind, is a given. Nothing I have read suggests to me that anyone in Cabinet lacks capability. That Justin Trudeau decided to proclaim through his choice that women deserve an equal representation at the table is a move I applaud. Does that mean such composition should be writ in stone? I would argue no. The message has been sent and we can move forward from here. The symbol can spread the message, even if the reality (true equality across the spectrum for women) will take time to come to pass.

And so Canada moves on and revels in the fresh blush of a new government and the end of any number of policies and attitudes that were found objectionable. Many who might have said they weren’t are once again happily and proudly Canadian. I hope we can hold on to that and never lose sight of the fact that each of us – if we find ourselves citizens or residents of this country – truly won the lottery just by virtue of being here. For now, the kittens are content but, make no mistake, they’ll be watching.

Can’t we all just get along?

The political machine triumphs because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority.
-Will Durant

Believe it or not, politics is not my favourite subject to write about. I much prefer education, having spent almost half of my life teaching and many additional years as a student myself. In fact, I’m back to school even now (more on that in another blog maybe). But politics dominates my thinking these days, without question. Part of that can be ascribed to my personal involvement as a city councilor and then, MLA, but I have always been interested.

Comments that have struck me recently as we approach our impending election day concern the particular horror represented by the “Harper government”. As is common in Canada, the government and its leader tend to become inseparable if they prove to have any longevity at all. In Stephen Harper’s case, though, that commingling of identity seems virtually absolute.

In my most recent blog, I reflected on what I see as Canada’s drifting toward the polarization so many decry in the U.S. and the demonization of Harper (please suggest another word if that one seems inaccurate) is just one facet of that. The three major parties go to great lengths to find the “defining moment”, the “one bad thing” that can be used to characterize an opponent. Harper’s latest gaffe is the “old-stock Canadian” comment. Trudeau has been pilloried for his remarks about the “budget balancing itself” and Mulcair’s stumbles over balanced budgets and tax hikes, while lacking that defining phrase, are a constant theme for the other parties’ leaders.

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Some years ago (15 to be exact), when I was writing a regular column for the Telegraph-Journal (Saint John’s local paper), I reflected on the cynicism that I felt was taking hold in the U.S. surrounding elections. Time, of course, has only made the matter worse for our neighbour. Here is an excerpt:

There have been columns and analyses and polls and forums and I don’t know what, almost beyond numbering, all trying to get to the heart of what Gore and Bush, respectively, stand for. Little wonder: in the potentially ruinous maelstrom of competing lobby groups, special interests and political correctness neither the Vice-President nor the Governor can really dare to have a great deal to say about much of anything lest they offend anyone.

The part that I find most amazing in all of this is that the commentators and other pundits seem to think that this is not only inevitable but is, in fact, simply the “way it is.” Especially when referring to the recently concluded series of presidential debates, analysts nod sagely and remark on how well or poorly candidates have avoided, on this latest occasion, the “one mistake,” the wrong word or glance or position on an issue that might alienate the voting public.

Has it really come to this? Can the one mistake be so thoroughly devastating to a candidate’s chances? More importantly, what does this brand of analysis say about American’s expectations of their politicians? Commentators seem more interested in whether or not the particular candidate’s mask has been kept in place than they are in any substantial contribution to public debate made (or not made) in the course of the evening. Americans see validated repeatedly the notion that character is constructed. The challenge is to try and see the man behind the mask in order to determine if he even remotely resembles the persona that has been created for him.

I chose to revisit this old column of mine in order to illustrate, hopefully, in another way, our slide toward extremism. Contrary to what some might think, I am not here trying to support any particular party or view. As a Canadian, I am concerned that we are, to my mind, drifting closer and closer to the American reality where opposing political views can barely exist in the same room. While we may not be there quite yet, my recent experience suggests we are not that far away.

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To put it another way, I encourage one and all to vote for the candidate or party you find most appealing. But, as you do so, please realize that you are voting for a construct. As the incumbent, Stephen Harper garners the most attention for the things he says that confirm either his flaws or his strengths (depending on your view of the man and his party). As the challengers, both Mulcair and Trudeau have far less baggage to account for but they are as much constructed by handlers as Harper.

As things stand now, the outcome on Oct. 19 seems most likely to be a three-way tie. Should that be the case, what will that teach us about those who would lead our country? Will anyone be willing to compromise? Is minority government possible when parties spend their time demonizing and vilifying opponents? Another reflection from 15 years ago: “Elections allow politicians the opportunity to convince us that beneath their desire to maintain power there is a legitimate dedication to public service.” Because of my personal experience, I know that those who pursue political office commonly do so with the intention of doing good. A minority situation just might offer the voters of Canada a chance to be reminded of that. It might even remind the politicians themselves.

Drifting toward the black and white: polarization in Canadian politics

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth
– Marcus Aurelius

Some years ago I was dating a woman from the States and, while George Bush was president (his first term), we visited some of her relatives in Minnesota. I’ve always been interested in politics, even before I became involved personally, so I was happy to engage when our conversation took a bit of a political turn. I’m not sure how it came up but the contention one of the relatives raised that has stuck with me is this: all Canadians (or anyone from anywhere for that matter) want to be Americans. According to this gentleman’s view, the rest of the world is consumed with envy. Given the chance, anyone would abandon the land of his/her birth in favour of a place in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

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Absurd you say? Certainly I thought that but it didn’t take me long to realize that I would be wasting my time if I tried to develop any kind of argument to the contrary. For this guy, the world’s desire to be American was a matter of faith. If I didn’t think his observation applied to me, I was simply deluding myself. Somewhere deep inside, there was an inner American seeking the light.

This encounter was just one highlight of a time where I came to realize in a profound way how difficult it was becoming to have a political discussion in the U.S. Considering that this couldn’t have been any more than 13 or 14 years ago, it’s hard for me to believe that the radical polarization of politics in the U.S. is so young. And yet, as I say, this was just part of my developing understanding at the time that politics was not something that you wanted to bring up unless you were sure of the company you were keeping.

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Flip forward to 2015. A general dismay is expressed over the early success of Donald Trump’s candidacy in the Republican presidential primary campaign. The pundits roll out any number of explanations for his popularity and, in general, dismiss his long-term prospects. While they may be right, I can’t help thinking he would appeal to my then-girlfriend’s relative. Trump’s xenophobic brand of American triumphalism is rooted in the idea that everyone is jealous of America and, since not everyone can BE American, those wannabes will spend their time, spitefully, trying to undermine the country.

To a rational person, Trump’s viewpoint seems absurd (I hope!) but, at the same time, I can’t help thinking it is a logical outcome for the divisive and extreme polarization that has become the hallmark of so much of politics in the United States. I’ve mentioned in this blog before that one of my guilty pleasures when I’m traveling in the States is listening to talk radio of the Rush Limbaugh variety. I am endlessly fascinated by how bizarrely extreme the rhetoric of the Limbaugh crowd really is. They all despise Barack Obama but it is the way in which they despise him that intrigues me. It isn’t simply that his policies are bad or his leadership ineffective; he is “destroying” America, “tearing up” the constitution, etc. Trump’s and other’s buying into the birther nonsense regarding Obama’s origins was just one especially laughable (disturbingly so) manifestation of trends that have been building for some time. As Canadians, (correct me if I’m wrong), we tend to look askance at the politics of our southern neighbor and are thankful that we aren’t like that.

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And that is the point of my musings today. How different are we? On Saturday I visited the Fredericton market and did my best to avoid the “Anyone but Harper” table where proponents are trying to mobilize an anti-Harper vote to ensure that vote splitting doesn’t allow a Conservative candidate to ride the middle to victory. On Sunday, I ran into a friend of mine campaigning for the NDP who gave me a hug while saying something about hugging a Conservative (I pointed out I am NOT a Conservative but a Progressive Conservative, a distinction that is quite readily dismissed by friends of mine who are in the anti-Harper camp). I know for a fact that conversations I might have with any number of friends come to a screeching halt as soon as I indicate that I am not ready to participate in the wholesale condemnation of Harper and the federal Conservative Party that has come to be taken as a given by those who are supporting “anyone but”.

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When I started writing this blog (if you were wondering where I’ve been, I took the summer off), I tried to make clear that my motivation was to defeat the oversimplification that I believe is endemic in politics, education and virtually every facet of common public discourse. As Canadians, we like to believe that we are distinctly different from Americans in any number of ways. Sadly, when it comes to politics, we are drifting more and more toward the American model.

And let’s be clear: the federal Conservative party has had a large role to play in creating that “us vs them” approach, an approach that demands the demonization of opponents at the expense of reasoned policy debate. At the same time, those who would otherwise oppose such oversimplification are drawn into the fray. People who are generally thoughtful and open to nuanced consideration line up to sign the “anyone but Harper” petition or pledge, as though that represents a reasonable (and reasoned) choice. Demonization through ads, pronouncements, social media and any other means becomes the order of the day for ALL parties, whether constituted political parties or specific groups pursuing an agenda.

It makes me sad. As a Canadian, I have long felt that we have managed to avoid many of the worst excesses of our southern neighbours. I contend that even as those who support the “anyone but Harper” movement claim that they are acting in the best interests of Canadian democracy, they are, in fact, ensuring that we will continue our slide into the starkly oversimplified polarization that we so readily condemn when we look at the U.S.A. And that, more than anything, would be a dreadful stain on the very democracy we all claim that we hope to protect.

The Choices We Make

___________ is rich in radicalism, and anyone who says that our society has drifted into fatalism and apathy should get out more.
– Geoff Mulgan

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As we approach the onset of federal electioneering (“approach?!?” you might ask, in light of the onslaught of advertising we’ve been seeing for the last few months, if not longer), I’ve found myself explaining my views of certain realities related to politics to a friend of mine. To my mind, she is an excellent representative of a large portion of the electorate: smart, informed in a general way (reads the local paper, watches the news, and picks up information from other sources), and likely to vote for any one of the three major parties. In short, she belongs to that demographic coveted by all parties, the undecided voter.

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It’s easy to understand her dilemma. As campaigns develop in the run-up to an actual election, the sales jobs that each of the parties mount are unified in their simplicity. If you are the Conservatives, most of your time is taken with drilling the somewhat clever play on “Justin” Trudeau’s name – “Just Not Ready” – into the national consciousness. To all those who complain that largely negative advertising is objectionable and does not work, I would agree with the former but generally object to the latter claim. Even if you find it distasteful, there is a reason why parties return repeatedly to a negative approach: it has been shown to work. Plant doubt in the minds of voters and that doubt can grow. When, like my friend, you don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about politics and elections, the things that stand out in memory become very important. It is often said that we shouldn’t be overly influenced by first impressions. That might be a fine ideal but, in practice, I’m not sure how true it is. If you can get your message, however simple, planted in people’s brains, it has potential to grow. With so many distractions available in modern life, making anything particularly memorable in an area where people seem generally indifferent has to be considered a victory of sorts.

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For the Liberals, things are ostensibly a little easier. I can’t say how things are anywhere else in the country, but here in Saint John, New Brunswick, that “stuck in memory” phenomena has taken hold for many people. What has stuck in people’s memory is the name Stephen Harper and there seems to be very little nuance in the way in which many view that name and what he is thought to represent. I can’t think of another politician whose name awakens such visceral loathing. I realize that is a harsh assessment but I’ve encountered it on many occasions, usually in the company of such words as “dictator”, “control freak”, “bastard” – you get the picture. In a country so long dominated by two major parties, you might think the Liberals would be able to make it a cakewalk. The “we’re not him/them” rule is one that we should all be familiar with. Popular wisdom in this country says that governments aren’t so much elected as unelected. Capitalize on Stephen Harper’s unpopularity among many and the road to victory for Canada’s once “natural governing party” would seem to be assured. Or that’s how it used to be.

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But then came the last federal election and the decimation of the Liberals accompanied by the rise of the NDP to Official Opposition status. I was among the many who would have thought of the NDP surge as a flash in the pan, an anomaly in the historical power swap of Liberal and Conservative governments. But then Rachel Notley cruised to victory in Alberta and, all of a sudden, all bets were off. This has meant that the NDP has had to think long and hard about how they might sell themselves to a hesitant electorate. Speaking from the East Coast, the historical general reluctance has been largely the result of, in my opinion, fear that the NDP would be too radical, that an NDP government would upend the generally centrist record of previous governments in favour of a socialist approach that would be inimical to business, largely answerable to unions and without constraint in all matters of fiscal accountability. So it is that NDP ads to date have focused on a friendly, ordinary guy, very much “one of us” you might say. Thomas Mulcair, if people know of him at all, has, to date, been little more than a name. As the NDP suddenly finds itself in the lead in most polls, getting to “know” Tom Mulcair becomes extraordinarily important to all concerned. Whoever manages to win the “first impression” contest – and it has to be a first impression that can withstand the inevitable counters from opponents – will have gone a long way toward winning the day. Since the Conservatives and Liberals seem largely content to rail at each other (with some exceptions beginning to appear), early indications would be that the NDP might win that particular battle.

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In a very real sense, little of what the next few months bring by way of campaigning will help my friend make up her mind. My take on the entire thing is determined by my faith in our system, in her, and in all like her. Repeatedly we hear complaints about any number of elements deemed wrong or imperfect in Canada’s model. While acknowledging that it could be improved, I will continue to defend its effectiveness. Ours is a country that knows a peace and security increasingly rare in the world, it can seem. Whatever the result in the fall, I choose to believe we will continue to develop peacefully, securely and without fear of military coups, insurrections or other systemic upheavals. And THAT, more than anything, is what I’m always voting for. We may not be perfect, but we’re pretty damn good.

While traveling with Rush and friends

“Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another’s point of view, but instead were more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead were being offered parallel but separate universes.”
― Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You

While travelling by myself in the United States last week, I managed to kill a few hours on the road by tuning into a favourite distraction of mine whenever I’m enduring the monotony of traffic on the interstate: talk radio. For anyone who is a fan of CBC, please do not confuse Canada’s public broadcaster with what I’m referencing. Specifically, I had two days of Rush Limbaugh supplemented with one morning where I got to listen to a guy subbing on the Glen Beck “program”, not “show”, the latter term, I’m guessing, having been judged too frivolous for something as weighty as a Glen Beck product.

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If you’ve detected a measure of derision in my tone regarding these two luminaries of American media, good for you. Listening to these guys and others of their ilk is a perilous journey from frustration to dismay to occasional laughter and any number of other responses. The two programs and their respective hosts share certain oft-repeated themes: President Obama is responsible for – through such things as Obamacare, efforts to conclude a trans-Pacific trade deal and the like, his handling of ISIS and foreign policy in general – all that is wrong with America; the “American Left” doesn’t care about America or the constitution; questions regarding the conduct of police throughout America are an affront to law enforcement and entirely misplaced. You get the picture.

Just about everyone talks about their guilty pleasures; well, this is one of mine. I find these guys fascinating. Rush was the one, in particular, that I managed to listen to for the better part of six hours over two days and, as I said, my responses can’t help being all over the place. A friend of mine, when I told her what I had been up to, commented that I must have been swearing and exclaiming all the way down the I-95 and she was spot-on.
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Someone might rightly ask at this point: why do you bother? As I said, though, “fascinating” is the best adjective for how I regard the experience. At times, the extremity of opinion seems to me to be so far from any intelligent regard for the facts that I can’t help exclaiming “are you serious?!?” For example, in Rush Limbaugh’s world view, as far as I can figure out, racism is not a factor in any dealings the police have with African-Americans. Such purported racism does not, in fact, exist and that is all there is to it. Also, in case you were wondering, no good idea can conceivably emerge from a Democrat. Rush, therefore, admits he is mystified that some Republicans have come out in support of President Obama’s approach to trade. In Rushworld, such support is prima facie evidence of derangement, something akin to making a deal with the devil, as far as I can tell.

For all that I find it funny in a certain way, I can’t help reminding myself that this guy and others like him represent a certain mainstream element of public opinion in the United States, however crazy and extreme such opinion might seem to me. And, when I listen to such programs, every once in a while, something is said that has a kernel of truth or good sense, even if the truth or sense has been distorted by the bizarre way in which the Rush Limbaughs and Glen Becks choose to talk about such things. When I consider the polarization that so many have remarked upon as being a defining feature of the political culture of the USA, I am thankful that we haven’t gone so far here in Canada.
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At the same time, I am worried by the trends I see at home. More and more, there is a tendency in public discourse to paint things in the stark and simplistic terms that have triumphed in that bizarre radio world I was listening to last week. Stephen Harper is a dictator and the federal Conservative Party is engaged in an ongoing assault upon the very core of our democratic principles; Justin Trudeau is nothing but the pretty public face of a party that is fundamentally morally bankrupt and without ideas; Tom Mulcair (if you’ve even heard of him) and the NDP are in the pockets of large unions and will sacrifice everything in pursuit of a socialist agenda. Conversely, the Conservatives (and Harper) are the only party that can be trusted to manage the economy, protect families and keep us safe; the Liberals are the only ones who can reassert cherished Canadian values, heal our violated criminal code and restore Canada’s standing in the world; the NDP alone can ensure justice and fair treatment for the middle class, protect the environment, and bring about the change the electorate constantly seeks (apparently).
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Happily, Canadians, by and large, don’t seem as easily drawn to the rank partisanship that has become so frequently displayed in the United States. At the same time, as we approach a federal election in the fall, I am concerned about the increasing trend toward such divisiveness. Columnists, advertising, and news reports more frequently portray our choices in stark, oppositional terms. Trying to understand why we are so drawn to this model had a great deal to do with my starting this blog in the first place.

Rush Limbaugh’s view of the world has the virtue of simplicity. In his bizarre take on just about everything it all comes down to “us vs. them”. The basic service he offers involves defining who “they” are so that we might position ourselves very clearly on the “us” side. When our world, however you might define it for yourself, changes as rapidly as it does these days, it’s nice to have some kind of anchor that reassures us all is right with that world. However, while the simplistic characterizations of people and of events so frequent in the USA can be comforting, they are fundamentally destructive. They breed a deep and abiding cynicism that is, itself, evidence of gross oversimplification and a failure to consider issues in depth.

Canada may not be there yet but I fear we are on the road to that place. I hope the campaign to come federally proves me wrong. I hope Canadians realize that the choices before us are variations on a theme rather than between virtue and vice. The parties have to take some responsibility for ensuring that such is the case but I believe we all have a responsibility in this regard. Each of us, like it or not, is a testament to the truth that we only and always get the government we deserve. At least in a democracy we do, and we are lucky enough to live in one.