Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fasten Your Seat Belts

The upcoming federal election could be one of the most significant in Canadian history. That may seem like a risible claim, because neither Mr.Harper nor Mr. Dion are charismatic personalities. But, with the introduction of the Liberals' Greenshift platform, the next election will not only be about the environment, which the American scientist James Hansen says has reached a "tipping point." It will also be about the Canadian tax system -- and that has far reaching implications for public policy in this country.

The plan still needs work. As Carol Goar reported this week in The Toronto Star, if Dion's plan is adopted, it is not clear who will win and who will lose. "Putting a price on pollution would hurt some regions more than others," she wrote. "The impact would be particularly severe in the industrial heartland, which is already reeling from high energy prices and a sputtering economy; and the western oil sands, which spew huge amounts of greenhouses gases into the atmosphere." On the other hand, Goar pointed out that Dion's policy shift would "transfer wealth from the rich to the poor; from the oil patch to the rest of the country; from the coffers of big business to the pockets of low income Canadians." It would be the equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which shifted wealth down the economic ladder, instead of concentrating it at the top of the economic mountain.

Roosevelt faced bitter and howling opposition -- from those who accused him of being a traitor to his class -- and Dion should expect the same reaction. It started even before the program was announced. Last week, Mr. Harper -- the leader of a party which (according to columnist James Travers) is "an unsettling mix of defensiveness and aggression"-- called Dion's plan "crazy" and "insane" -- a policy which would "screw everybody."

So the debate has begun. Well, the potential debate has begun. The truth is that debate is not the Harper government's strong suit. Bob Rae has observed that, rather than rebutting proposals with facts, this government counters with accusations which are the equivalent of "you're fat and you're bald."

Roosevelt came to power in a moment of crisis, armed with superb communication skills. And country squire though he was, as the American journalist Bill Moyers wrote, people like his father -- who only had a grade six education -- always felt that they had a friend in the White House. What the "the quality" never understood was that there were a lot more people and a lot more votes in the elder Moyers' social circle.

Stephane Dion has not displayed strong communication skills. And it would be a mistake to underestimate the power and sophistication of the Conservative propaganda machine. But if Dion can convince Canadians of what Martin Luther King (and Barak Obama) have called "the fierce urgency of now" -- and the necessity of a Canadian New Deal -- voters may, indeed, buy his Greenshift.

Most elections are pedestrian affairs, about replacing a tired government with a new one -- or floating in a self satisfied stupor. But, occasionally, nations undergo profound changes. We used to make our living selling furs. Then we sold wheat and the resources under our feet. After World War II, we converted our defense plants into factories to meet consumer demand. Like it or not, the world changes. The next election could change our part of the world as we know it. However it turns out, it's bound to be a wild ride.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Reflections on Fatherhood

Last Sunday was Father's Day. Barak Obama used the occasion to speak on the subject of absent fathers -- a subject about which he knows something. Citing American statistics, he said, "Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; they're nine times more likely to drop out of schools, twenty times more likely to end up in prison."

As someone who taught high school for thirty-two years -- admittedly north of the American border -- I can verify anecdotally what Obama said statistically. I cannot count the number of times I have wished that a student had a stable, responsible father in the house. That father need not be the child's biological father; but his absence leaves a void that's hard to fill.

Sometimes that void is filled -- as seems to have happened in Obama's case -- by extended family. That happened in the case of my own father. He was the last of six children. His father died when he was two. His eldest brother quit school early and went to work during the Depression to help support the family. My uncle lacked a good formal education; but he possessed a native intelligence which my father relied on often. When my father returned from World War II and had the opportunity to go to university, it was my uncle who told him that there was a future for engineers. His advice put food on our table for nearly thirty-five years.

My dad must have picked up other tips from my uncle because, even though he never knew his father, Dad has done a masterful job with five children, eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren. I talked to him this weekend -- as I do every weekend; and I still seek his advice. He's almost ninety now. And, like Mark Twain, I am amazed at just how smart he has become over the years. It's more than being smart. It has everything to do with wisdom.

Unlike my father I have had -- and still have -- a template to work from. When I have been flummoxed about how to raise our three sons, I have sought his counsel. And perhaps that is why they have inherited his sense of humour. Our boys gave me a card this Father's Day which my wife particularly enjoyed. "On Father's Day," it read, "wear this button to show your position of authority in the family!" The button proclaims, "I am the boss!" However, when you open the card, it reads, "But don't forget to give it back to Mom tomorrow."

Which leads to the conclusion, I suppose, that the trick to being a good father is marrying the right woman. I know my Dad would say that, as do I. And, for all those kids who grow up without fathers -- and there seem to be more of them every year -- everyone of us should resolve to be what my uncle was to my father -- a wise and stable source of counsel in an unstable world.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Something's Rotten in the State of . . .

There is a distinct fragrance surrounding "Canada's New Government" -- and it's not the sweet smell of success. Perhaps it's simply because the government is no longer new. But the Party of Peace, Order and Righteousness is beginning to look sleazy. Even worse, it's beginning to look incompetent.

Perhaps that explains the new set of attack ads which the Tories launched this week against Stephane Dion. They come as no surprise. After all, the Conservatives rented a large bunker eighteen months ago to produce this kind of stuff. And, with no election in sight, there was a need for the operation to justify its existence.

What was surprising was the new venue -- the screens on gas pumps -- to catch the eyes of Southern Ontarians as they filled up their gas tanks. That new wrinkle speaks to the sophistication of the Conservative propaganda machine. This government may not be very good at governing; but it does know how to get out its message -- a message which is clearly meant to distract public attention from an accumulating series of failures.

The now-you-see-it-now you don't federal surplus, the Cadman Affair, the election funding investigation, the NAFTA leak during the Democratic presidential primary, the resignation of Maxime Bernier -- and the ever widening circle of government contacts which Julie Couillard cultivated -- have begun to take their toll.

In his book The Greatest Story Ever Sold, Frank Rich -- who writes a weekly column for The New York Times -- documents how the Bush administration sold the lie that Iraq was allied with Al Queda and about to use nuclear weapons against the United States. Every time someone from Washington's inner circle -- former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil, former terrorism czar Richard Clarke, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson -- cast doubt on the story, the White House did not attack the message. Instead, they attacked the messenger. Rich's analysis has recently been confirmed by former press secretary Scott McClellan.

The Harper government is operating from the same playbook. There is no election. In fact, Dion has not yet revealed the policy which is the target of the ads. But the ads themselves appear to be a further development of the message which Finance Minister Jim Flaherty brought to the Economic Club of Toronto three weeks ago: the Liberals are wide-eyed radicals who will once again plunge the country into deficit -- a strange message from a party which inherited several years of Liberal surpluses and managed to blow through them in two short years.

The playbook is not a new document. Its author was Joseph Goebels, who started from the premise that the truth of a message had nothing to do with whether or not the public bought it. Even the biggest of lies would sell -- if they were repeated often enough. Tyrannies and democracies have been operating on that principle ever since. Add to that tight control of government information, and you have what Toronto Star columnist Jim Travers calls a prime minister who is "building stone-wall defences around his own exposed flanks."

The Tory propaganda operation is impressive. But, eventually, the narrative falls apart. As Rich makes clear, that happened for the Bush administration in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Despite Bush's claim that "Brownie" was "doin' a heckuva job," the public -- says Rich -- remembered the old line from the Marx Brothers, "Who are you going to believe -- me or your own eyes?"

Despite the new ad campaign, recent poll numbers suggest that the public is beginning to believe its own eyes.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

So Much for the Conventional Wisdom

Barak Obama is the Democratic nominee for president. His rise has been remarkable -- so remarkable that, in truth, I never expected to see what I saw last night. But the greatest gifts are the ones which seem impossible.

Almost forty years ago, I headed to the School of Education at the University of North Carolina. Early one Saturday morning, I was sitting at my desk (luckily, I had awakened early to study) when a key turned in my lock and in walked a black man -- mop in hand -- to clean my room. We were both surprised. I didn't expect janitorial service on Saturday; and he didn't expect a student in his room, since most students left their dorms to go home for the weekend. Because home for me was in Montreal, I spent my Saturday mornings -- before the library opened -- in my room.

It was on those Saturdays that I got to know Douglas McNeil. On that first Saturday, he called me "Mr. Gray" -- even though he was old enough to be my grandfather. And, what bothered me more, he couldn't look me in the eye. It had only been five years since the signs "Colored" and "White" had been removed from water fountains, restrooms and restaurants in the South. What I soon discovered was that the signs were still inside peoples' heads -- as they had been for generations.

Three months later -- as part of my training -- I began teaching at a high school in Greensboro. It had been fifteen years since the Supreme Court had ruled that school segregation was illegal. But the school I taught in had 2,200 students -- forty-eight of whom were black. Another high school, on the other side of town, had 1,600 students -- and there wasn't a white face among them. Still, when we needed a halfback for our football team, a transfer was easily arranged; and there was one less black face among the 1,600.

In fairness, efforts were being made to change things. The Greensboro schools were on the cusp of implementing a busing plan to achieve better racial balance; but opposition to the plan was building and becoming increasingly vocal. There was also an attempt to shift staff between schools -- at least for the purpose of professional development. I remember one lunch hour, when one of our teachers returned from the school on the other side of town, claiming that he had spent the morning "learning how to be a nigger."

There are times, even now, when I wonder if anything has changed. Watching newscasts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I had my doubts. And a month ago, on another BBC newscast, the correspondent interviewed a man from Georgia who was sporting a T-Shirt, the front of which displayed an image of a monkey eating a banana. He laughed and said, "I think his ears look just like Obama's." I keep hoping that people like him and my former faculty colleague are extinct. But, like some prehistoric fish from the ocean depths, they keep finding their way to the surface.

Be that as it may, what happened last night was not just historical. It gave one cause for optimism. Barack Obama has shattered the conventional wisdom -- and, whatever happens, the world will not be the same again.

Not that the rest will be easy. Some, like Gwynne Dyer, have concluded that "It is now a near certainty that Obama will be the next U.S. president." Maybe. But the really hard part is about to begin. As historical as last night was, history is not on Obama's side. And I fear that the architects of schlock are gearing up for a nasty and brutal campaign.

Time will tell the story of the upcoming presidential election. But this morning there is hope -- and I rejoice. And, somewhere, I know that Douglas McNeil is rejoicing, too.