Monday, August 24, 2009

Cheap Shot Artists

On August 20th, in Macleans, Peter C. Newman profiled Daniel Veniez, a man he described as "an activist who has laboured in several vineyards -- but without ever finding his long term Camelot." As a young Liberal, Veniez worked for John Turner; but he became disillusioned when Turner traded his fiscal conservatism for what Veniez perceived as left wing nationalism. He then supported Brian Mulroney and the Meech Lake Accord. But he left, disillusioned again, after the Charlottetown debacle.

He then quit politics to become the president of a pulp and paper company. But when Stephen Harper came on the scene, he entered the game again and was appointed by the Conservatives to run Ridley Terminals, in Prince Rupert, for the princely sum of $12,500 a year. But when he insisted that all customers pay the same rate, the multinationals -- who enjoyed preferential rates -- complained to the Harper government. Veniez was fired.

Veniez again discovered that his faith had been misplaced. "The Conservative Party and its leader are permanently angry." he says. "That's an ingrained part of who they are and what they represent. On a visceral level, they remain a protest party and have turned themselves into a protest government. They manage by negatives and are genetically incapable of inspiring hope or thinking big. They attack, assassinate character, tell lies, lower the bar on public discourse, and engage in tactical and divisive wedge politics and government. The tone, strategy and culture for this government are established by Harper, a cheap shot artist and cynic of the highest order."

Some might conclude that Veniez is a fair weather friend. Others might suggest that it has taken him an inordinate amount of time to cotton on to the fact that all politicians have feet of clay. But, watching what congressman Barney Frank has labelled the "vile contemptible nonsense" that is being served up by loud and angry American conservatives, still others might conclude that the fault is within the DNA of modern conservatism.

As Frank Rich noted in Sunday's New York Times, what is behind the "permanent anger" of modern conservatism is "panic in some precincts about a new era of cultural and demographic change." Our era is a lot like the 1960's, when the American sociologist Daniel Bell sought to explain the appeal of conservative groups like the John Birch Society. "What the right as a whole fears," Bell wrote, "is the erosion of its own social position, the collapse of its power, the incomprehensibility of a world -- now overwhelmingly technical and complex -- that has changed so drastically within a lifetime."

The root of conservative anger is fear; and fear is the enemy of clear thinking. Thus, with a few exceptions, the best these people can manage is a series of cheap shots -- like the attack ads and the pooping puffins the Harper government is famous for. Unfortunately, at this point, both the Liberals and the New Democrats have little new to offer. Until they recognize, like Franklin Roosevelt, that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance," things will not change. And Mr Veniez will remain disillusioned.

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